My son’s less-than-serious response to my writing “crisis.”
My son’s less-than-serious response to my writing “crisis.”
Creativity is a mystery. One day your ideas flow and eight thousand words pour out onto paper in an hour or two. Another time a complete short story arrives at three in the morning, as fast as you can write it down. A few days later, the brakes come on and it is a struggle to write more than a sentence or two. How do you deal with this boom and bust?
Some writers have come up with coping mechanisms or ways to describe the process that help the words keep coming
For example, Elizabeth Gilbert shares how poet Ruth Stone “captures” a poem.
…she [Ruth] would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming…cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.
The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.
Gilbert tells the story during this wonderful TED talk about the fickleness of the creativity.
Gilbert suggests it helps to develop coping mechanisms like talking to the elusive creative genius in the corner of the room. Whatever works to get rid of the angst.
Describing the process in concrete ways can help, too. Take Shannon Hale’s quote:
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
Nice sentiment. Unfortunately, my current work in progress feels more like I accidentally shoveled in kitty litter instead of sand.
Some writers resort to rituals, like always using the same pen, drinking coffee from the same mug, or sitting in a certain chair. Shortlist reveals authors who stand up or lie down to write. They report Maya Angelou checks into a hotel where everything has been taken off the walls of the room. If I could produce work like hers, I would certainly give that a try.
Listening to certain repetitive sounds or music can improve focus and boost productivity. Stimulating your senses can get your creative juices flowing, too. YouTube has a number of videos that run from two to three hours with relaxing background sounds. I’m listening to swamp sounds right now. Blizzard winds are nice, too.
Play stimulates creativity in children, why not adults? Try making friends with your inner child. Toss a ball. Play a game. Dress up as your favorite character. Finger paint. Make some actual sand castles. Whatever sounds like fun at the moment.
Although at times negative critiques can freeze up the writing process, look for one of those positive, imaginative people who energize you and bounce some of your questions off them. They just might help you over the hurdles.
Taking a walk can get the blood flowing to your brain if you’ve been sedentary.
On the other hand, don’t forget that the type of thinking that writing requires takes energy. Take a nap to recharge those batteries. Connecting with your subconscious isn’t a bad thing, either.
According to an article about thinking in Scientific American, Claude Messier of the University of Ottawa writes:
“The brain has a hard time staying focused on just one thing for too long. It’s possible that sustained concentration creates some changes in the brain that promote avoidance of that state. It could be like a timer that says, ‘Okay you’re done now.’ Maybe the brain just doesn’t like to work so hard for so long.”
So, there you go. Give yourself permission for some R and R, and perhaps that fickle organ will produce something worthwhile. If not, you can always go change the cat litter.
Have you ever struggled with creativity? How did you jump start it again?
Today we have a review/analysis of The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan from a writer’s perspective.
This post contains spoilers.
The Mill River Recluse: A Novel* by Darcie Chan
(*Amazon Affiliate link)
Summary: Mary McAllister is a widow who lives in a white marble mansion on a hill outside of the town of Mill River, Vermont. Past circumstances have left her with severe social anxiety — among other issues — and she has been a recluse for many years. Father Michael O’Brien is her only friend and confidante. As the story progresses, we learn why Mary is trapped in her own house, and what other secrets are being kept in this seemingly quiet community.
If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to visit Karen’s review of this book first. She makes some good points.
The story behind the book is just as heartwarming as the book itself.
The Mill River Recluse is Darcie Chan’s debut novel. She explains her experiences writing and publishing it in “A Letter for the Author” in the back matter. Many authors will be able to relate to her trials, if not her successes.
After finishing the manuscript for her first novel by writing evenings after work for two and a half years, she found an agent who tried to sell it to traditional publishers. As with many, many first novels, no one was interested and so she put it away in a drawer. (Writers call these first novels “trunk” novels – the ones that sit in a trunk somewhere.)
After several years, Darcie Chan decided to publish her novel as an e-book. She expected only to sell a few hundred copies to her friends, but she set up her social media platform and waited. In a short period of time a major website that promotes e-books reviewed it and her sales took off. Before long she hit the New York Times Bestseller list. Eventually, Ballatine Books published it in paper form. The rest is history.
Not only did The Mill River Recluse break the rules of publishing, but it also breaks many of the so-called rules for writing.
First of all, it doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. For example, as Karen pointed out, it has been identified as a psychological thriller, but it really lacks the hard-driving pace and level of conflict of a thriller. It has the softer pace of a mystery, although it doesn’t fit all the requirements of a traditional mystery, either. It has some romantic elements, but they aren’t extensive enough to qualify it as a romance or even romantic suspense. It’s not clear where it fits.
Have you read the book? What genre(s) do you think describe(s) it?
Another so-called writing rule Darcie Chan breaks is that the characters, particularly the main character, should grow and change throughout the book (called a character arc.) Mary’s major change, which occurs right before she dies, is she lets her daughter Daisy into her life. It isn’t clear, however, this was truly a change. She might have taken in Daisy at any point if she had recognized her earlier.
The fact Mary doesn’t grow substantially is probably due to how Darcie Chan tells the story. The beginning of the book starts with Mary’s death and the rest of Mary’s life is revealed through a series of flashbacks interwoven with scenes from the present. The flashback plot structure can make it difficult to develop a traditional character arc.
On the other hand, Father O’Brien does change at the end, when he donates all his pilfered silver spoons to a charity.
Many genre novels exhibit some form of rising conflict and then resolution/denouement. Again, Chan doesn’t follow the norms. The end is not the resolution of a big conflict, but rather nicely wrapped up gathering of loose ends. The biggest conflict that directly involves the protagonist — between Mary and her husband — occurs at the middle of the book. The second most dramatic conflict centers on minor characters, and has no impact on the protagonist.
A few other things stuck out for me about the characters, as well. First, Darcie Chan introduced most of her characters within the first few pages of the book, yet it was all done smoothly and naturally. I can tell you from experience, that is not an easy thing to carry off.
Secondly, Claudia (the teacher) is strongly developed for a secondary character. Her struggles to lose weight and keep it off felt realistic, immediate, and relatable. For example, who couldn’t relate to her hunger and anticipation for a few carrot sticks after class? She was also at the center of the second dramatic climax and that secondary plotline threatened to overtake Mary’s primary one. Given she had such a big role, I wonder if she will appear in a future book?
What did you think of Claudia as a character?
Darcie Chan’s debut novel The Mill River Recluse took a less-traveled path to becoming a bestseller. Much of her story breaks with writing tradition, as well. Just goes to show that authors don’t have to follow the pack to pen a bestseller.
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.
The next book is number 94 on the list, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson (Third in a series, originally published in 2007) -Discussion begins January 30, 2017.
Let’s take a look at The Last Child by John Hart from a writer’s perspective. (The discussion began here).
Note: Post contains spoilers.
The Last Child* by John Hart
Summary: Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister disappeared a year ago when she was seen being dragged into a van. Now everyone seems to think she’s dead. Thirteen-year-old Johnny can’t give up on her, though, so he decides to start a search of his own. Will he be able to figure out what happened to her without becoming a victim himself?
John Hart has made some incredibly interesting choices regarding characters in The Last Child. His protagonist is a thirteen-year-old boy named Johnny Merrimon, even though a teenage protagonist is unusual for a novel intended for adults. The antagonist is a rich bully named Ken Holloway who is abusing Johnny’s mother. She would probably be best described as an impact character. Johnny’s sidekick is a boy his age, Jack Cross.
This book is an excellent example of how to write a contagonist. If you are not familiar with the term, a contagonist is a character who is on the protagonist’s side, but often gets in the way or meddles preventing the protagonist from easily reaching his or her goal. Reading the blurb on the back, you might assume Detective Clyde Hunt will mentor Johnny during his search for his missing sister. That is not the case. Instead his well-intentioned interference leads Johnny to go underground and to take bigger risks.
What did you think of the teenage protagonist? Would an older protagonist have worked as well?
The author’s strength in this novel is his descriptions. I love how the dialogue flows with, between, and around the action.
At twenty-five minutes after six, Hunt’s phone rang. It was his son. Hunt recognized the number and flinched. With all that was going on he’d not thought of the boy. Not even once. “Hello, Allen.”
“You didn’t come home”
Hunt moved back onto the porch. He looked at the flat, gray sky, pictured his son’s face. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“You coming home for breakfast?”
Hunt’s guilt intensified. The kid was trying to make things right between them. “I can’t.
Doesn’t that flow beautifully?
The Last Child is set in the Sandhills region of southeastern North Carolina. The setting plays a big part in this book, and the descriptions are rich and active.
The trail bent to the high ground and Levi used his free hand to pull on roots and saplings to get him up the slick clay. He dug in the edges of his shoes for traction. When he reached the high, flat stretch, he stopped to catch his breath; and when he started again, the river lights winked out behind the willows and the ash, the sweet gums and the long-fingered pines.
Because this is a genre thriller, we might not expect the themes to be as well developed as we might find in literary fiction. Once again, John Hart surprises us. Interwoven is a very strong theme of faith. When his sister first went missing, Johnny prayed for three things. When those things didn’t seem to be realized, he explored alternatives, even at the risk of alienating his friends and family.
Johnny looked at his friend, and knew, without a doubt, that Jack could never understand Johnny’s desperate need to believe in something more powerful than his own two hands.
As said previously, the authors voice is like the salad dressing on the salad because it adds flavor. John Hart’s voice is rich and savory. It is distinctive, yet at the same time easy to read. In fact, it reminds me of rolling hills, lilting up and gliding down. Or gentle waves, spilling over and coursing on and on.
From a writer’s perspective, John Hart uses tools from the writer’s toolbox in some innovative ways. He offers many things to study and emulate.
I want to read more books by John Hart.
What about you? What are your thoughts?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.
The next book is number 95. The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan (2011) – Discussion begins January 16, 2017
This week author Lee Child chatted via Facebook about writing and his newest Jack Reacher novel, Night School, published this month.
Night School travels back in time in the series. It is 1996 and protagonist Jack Reacher is still in the army. An undercover asset overhears a snippet of conversation: “The American wants a hundred million dollars.” Along with an FBI agent and a CIA Analyst, Reacher is assigned to find out what is going on.
During the interview, Child revealed some absolute gems about writing and the life of a writer. For example, he said he doesn’t outline, but starts with a general feel. His definition of a feel is hot, cold, rocky, or soft. He explains that if the feel is cold, then the novel might be set on the coast of Maine. If it is hot, he might choose the south of Texas. From there he simply writes whatever comes out.
While he was speaking, he made it clear that he continuously thinks of the reader. For example, he writes one book a year because he thinks that is how long it takes for a reader to finish the last one and build up an anticipation for the next. Longer than that and readers might lose interest. More often, and readers might become over saturated.
Even though Lee has little control over the movies that are made from the books in the Jack Reacher series, he graciously answered questions about those as well.
Want to find out more? Check out the archived interview.
Talking about his main character, Child confessed that Jack Reacher wants to settle into a committed relationship with a woman, but he is attracted to smart women. Too smart, in fact, to consider him as a lifelong partner. Awww…
He also admitted he envisioned Jack Reacher to look like rugby player Lawrence Dallagio.
Overall, it was an informative interview and I look forward to reading the book.
Are you a Lee Child fan? Have you picked up Night School yet?
Today I’m going to review Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a writer’s perspective,
Note: This post contains spoilers.
Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.
When you’re reading a book as a writer rather than as a reader you tend to focus on the craft. For example, you may notice how the author handles dialogue, how he handles the scenes, or how he develops characters. This perspective can be like studying how magicians do their tricks, so be prepared for a glimpse at what goes on behind the curtain.
In the book we are using for our reading challenge, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers discuss theme, plot, style, and character. To add more depth, for my analysis I chose to apply the categories from the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling from Writer’s Digest instead.
(Note: If you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary I’m using below, the Helping Writers Become Authors website has a clear, concise summary of the character archetypes.)
On the surface the characters seem to follow the standard archetypes. The protagonist (main character) is U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a likeable, but flawed man. He is filled with angst over the death of his wife Dolores, whom he loved deeply. Dolores could be best defined as the impact character, although ironically the woman the marshals are looking for, Rachel Solando, also fills that role. His new partner, U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule, is the affable sidekick. The antagonist is played by Dr. Joseph Cawley, who is in charge of the facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. At the end of the book, however, the characters get thrown into a blender and it becomes less clear who is serving which role. For example, is Chuck Teddy’s sidekick or Dr. Cawley’s sidekick?
One way for a writer to establish character is through dialogue. Dennis Lehane is a master of dialogue. He excels at making each character sound unique. (Note: at times he uses some pretty raw profanity to achieve this. Do you think this helped or hindered character development?)
Some ways to make dialogue authentic — more like real speech — include using contractions, sentence fragments, vocalized pauses (like “um”), and mixing up the length of the lines. Lehane does it all, plus he’s such a pro that he flies through dialogue without using a single “he said.”
(Teddy:) “You guys do that a lot?”
(Cawley:) “What’s that, Marshal?
“Sit around over drinks, and, um, probe people?”
“Occupational hazard, I guess. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. How many?”
“Oh, stop overanalyzing it.”
Because the title of the novel is a place, it’s reasonable to expect the setting to be important. In fact, the first paragraph of the prologue sets the stage. It is all about the island.
I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.
Lehane’s descriptions of the setting are visceral.
The theme of a novel is the part that applies to the real world or what the novel means. You can describe the theme as the questions asked or lessons learned.
In Shutter Island, one of the chief themes is mental health. How fragile is the human psyche? Parallel to that theme is how love/marriage can be a minefield.
Another strong theme in the novel is that water is a dangerous force of nature. In one scene early in the book, young Teddy gets motion sickness when he’s out in his father’s boat, but all isn’t as it seems.
“…Teddy unable to tell his father that it wasn’t motion that had turned his stomach.
It was all that water. Stretched out around them until it was all that was left of the world. How Teddy believed that it could swallow the sky. “
Soon afterwards his father dies at sea. Water turns up again and again at crisis points in the story.
The Bestseller Code examines novels using topics rather than themes, probably because it is easier to define using a computer model. What is the difference between a theme and topic? A topic might be “dogs,” whereas the theme of a novel might be “dogs are loyal friends.”
The authors found that a writer who devotes up to a third of his or her book to only one or two topics is the most successful. It does make sense that too many topics might confuse and misdirect a reader. Lehane did a good job because he stuck to a few intense topics developed as themes.
Structure is the order of storytelling. In this case, the prologue starts in 1993. The first chapter bounces back to 1954 and the main story progresses more or less chronologically through a period of a few days, with short flashbacks to Teddy’s relationship with his wife Dolores.
In a famous essay by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times, he states a writer should avoid having prologues because they are annoying. In Shutter Island, the prologue is critical to understanding what comes after, but it’s so different in tone from the rest of the book that readers might be tempted to skip it.
Did you read the prologue? What is your opinion of prologues?
Whether or not you enjoyed the book as a reader, from a writer’s perspective Dennis Lehane did an excellent job crafting Shutter Island. A beginning writer could learn a lot from critically studying his work.
Currently we are hosting a challenge to read through the list of 100 best of the bestsellers recommended in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Shutter Island is number 100 on the list, and we started discussing it on November 7, 2016. Please feel free to join the conversation.
Yesterday afternoon I led our local writing group. The members of the group, called Writer’s Studio, free write for about twelve minutes in response to a writing prompt. When we’re finished, those who choose to read what they wrote. Once everyone has shared, we write again. I thought I’d share the writing prompts I used.
We celebrated both Halloween and Dia de los Muertes this week. Either write about a memory associated with the holiday of your choice, or concoct a scary story. Be sure to include dialogue.
If you are stumped, try writing about Halloween from the point of view of a costume, or — here’s a “sweet” idea — from the point of view of a piece of candy.
After putting out some random objects on a table (a small teddy bear, rocks, paintbrush, glove, toy cars, etc.), I talked about how an author used real objects to get a story idea.
In a webcast few years ago, Kate DiCamillo discussed writing her award-winning children’s book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.
She revealed two of the main elements in the book came from real objects, each of which had deep emotional impacts on her.
The squirrel in the book was based on a real squirrel who had showed up on Kate’s front porch. She said it was sick, so she called a neighbor for advice about what to do. The neighbor suggested a method for dispatching it (which I will not repeat here.) Fortunately, the squirrel left the porch on its own. Sympathy for the squirrel’s plight made her remember the event.
The second item was a vacuum cleaner that Kate saw whenever she entered her garage. The vacuum cleaner had been her mother’s and her mother had recently passed away. Again, it was an object that elicited strong emotions.
Stories are always best with some underlying conflict. In the book, the two real life objects came together as a vacuum cleaner sucked up a squirrel, leading to some unexpected consequences. Be sure to incorporate conflict into your story.
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and Meredith McKinney (Translator, Introduction) inspired our final writing exercise.
Sei Shonogan was a Japanese writer/poet who lived around the year 1000. People still read a collection of her writings called The Pillow Book.
In the book, many of Shonogan’s poems take the form of lists.
Things that Pass by Rapidly
A boat with its sail up.
Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.
~ Sei Shonogan
My own examples:
Things my cat George likes:
Rubbing faces when he gets up in the morning
A dropped Cheerio
The top of the cat-scratching post
Chasing ping-pong balls down the stairs
Things I like:
My cat George
Things that I smell on my morning walk:
Dryer sheets from someone’s laundry
Breakfast cooking on Sunday mornings
Things I hear on my morning walk:
Cars and trucks on the main street
The sound of my two feet on pavement
Write a list-inspired poem.
Let us know if you use any of these writing prompts.
Related: See our previous post about writing prompts
We are launching an exciting new challenge. Let’s read through the list of 100 bestsellers picked by the computer model described in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers (Review in a previous post).
After sorting through 20,000 novels from the last few decades, Archer and Jockers used their computer model to pick 100 books that are the best of the potential bestsellers. The list contains novels from a mix of genres. Many you will recognize, some you may not. Currently you can see book numbers 100 through 90 at the 100 Book List link in the navigation bar.
Check with the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog for our reading list and links to all the discussions.
We’re starting with number 100 on the list, which is Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Pick up a copy and read it over the next two weeks. If you have a blog and want to do so, post your thoughts. On November 7 we’ll publish a post to start the conversation and to gather links (now published). No blog? No worries. We’ll have plenty of ways for you to join in. Also, during the week your host Karen will discuss the featured title from the reader’s perspective and host Roberta will take on the writer’s perspective.
Don’t worry if you’re doing NaNoWriMo or can’t get to the book in two weeks. Pour a cup of your favorite beverage and stop by any time.
Join us every other Monday for a new book from The Bestseller Code 100.
A few weeks ago Jodie Archer signed her new book written with Matthew L. Jockers, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore. It was a rainy day and I went on a whim, but it turned out to be worthwhile, perhaps even life changing. A book signing that was life changing? It’s that kind of book.
What makes a novel a bestseller? Can you predict which books will become bestsellers? To answer those questions, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers used computer models to examine the digital manuscripts of 20,000 novels written over the last few decades. First they “trained” the model using 28,000 features to figure out how a bestseller is different from a non-bestselling novel. Using a reduced set of features (the 2,799 that seemed to have best predictive value), they tested whether they could establish if a novel would become a hit. Averaging over the three different methods they used, they were able to predict whether a given manuscript would become a blockbuster with 80% accuracy.
Right up front, this book is not a how-to for writing bestselling novels. Some of what the authors found, however, can be translated into useful writing tips. The factors they identified in bestsellers are not top secret, but reflect writing techniques used by experienced and well-trained authors.
For example, they found bestselling novels rarely contain the word “very,” whereas “very” can show up frequently in non-bestsellers. The difference is because experienced authors know to avoid the word. To follow their example, you can find numerous tutorials online about more active and concrete substitutes, such as 45 Ways to Avoid Using the Word ‘Very.’
The book also offers insights into titles, themes, characters, and plotting. For plots, the authors graphed the emotional turns or “beats,” forming curves. Using E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey as a case in point, they show how the places where the beats occur in the novel are important factors in determining whether the novel will be a bestseller or not.
Not clear what we mean by emotional curves? Kurt Vonnegut explains more about it in this video:
The bottom line is if you want to improve your chances of writing a bestselling novel, this book will reinforce what you already may have learned with supportive data.
At this time the authors are not using their model to predict bestsellers as a service. To find out more and sign up for a mailing list, see their website.
The Bestseller Code also has much to offer to novel readers. In the final chapter, Archer and Jockers have created a list of 100 books their computer model picked as best reads. How did the computer do? On Monday October 24, 2016 we are
going to launched a challenge to read through the list and share our thoughts. For now you can see some of the books on the 100 Book List in the navigation bar. We hope you will join us.
The Bestseller Code offers an understanding of how computers can mathematically predict bestselling novels. At her book signing, Jodie Archer encapsulated how this may change our future when she compared how a book can be considered a work of art versus how publishers treat books as products. Perhaps computers will be able to pick the most likely products to become bestsellers, but humans are still needed to appreciate a novel’s value as art.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (September 20, 2016)
Fall is so energizing. Maybe that’s why we are launching not one, but two writing/reading projects around here. We’ll be announcing the big one next week. We hope you will join us for both.
First up, is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. Basically, the goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. You can read more about it here. Are you going to sign up? The NaNoWriMo theme for 2016 is “Blast Off.” Let’s do it!
Everyone has different reasons to take part in NaNoWriMo. Mine has been to try to improve my writing skills. Believe it or not, it is actually working. This year I have been preparing by taking an October Prep Challenge, too. It has been helping not only to develop an extensive background for the novel, but also to develop the habitat of focusing on writing every day.
Premise: J.R. operates in the shadows, doing jobs for clandestine government agencies they want kept off the record. After he rescues a young woman with a violent past, he and his team find themselves battling a hidden adversary bent on destroying them. J.R. must figure out who is orchestrating the attacks before he loses his life, or far worse, his enemy uncovers J.R.’s secrets.
Frankly, there’s much more to it than that, but I’m keeping some of the juicier details under wraps for the time being.
Are you doing NaNoWriMo in November? What is your project going to be?