Tag Archives: outside the box

Do modern writing tools enable us to edit too much?

quill pen and ink on colonial American desk

CC image Williamsburg Quill courtesy of Steve Kennedy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We have a lot of tools that make our writing lives easier than they ever were before. Instead of relying on writing by hand, we may use computers and voice recorders and digital shortcuts. Instead of worrying about the precious value, high price, and accessibility of paper, we can publish and produce enormous volumes of writing without printing a word. We can archive, edit, and remix text to our heart’s content, at the touch of a finger.

Is this a good thing, though?

Earlier this year, I finished a historical novel about the sister-in-law of Friedrich Schiller, the famous German poet, playwright, and philosopher. He was a Titan in his day and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of German literature. His sister-in-law, Caroline von Wolzogen, was a published writer as well and a recognized literary talent in her time, although she is not as well-known today. The novel is told from her perspective: writing as a woman during a time when that was unusual (the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries), and what it was like to be overshadowed by an acclaimed literary genius in her own family.

Schiller died relatively young, and he had a prodigious output—nearly a dozen plays, several volumes of history, novels, and numerous philosophical papers. There were no typewriters in his day, no voice-recognition dictation machines, much less computers or even ballpoint pens to make the task of writing easier. He wrote out all of his work by hand. Wolzogen saw his original manuscripts and marveled at how few changes he made to his writing—he was sure of his work whenever he used the pen.

This made me think about the way we edit today, the number of versions we can put any of our manuscripts, essays, poems or articles through, and whether that option is to our benefit or not. Revision the way we can do it now would have been a tedious undertaking for Schiller, under the best of circumstances. The work from concept to publication would take even longer than usual; with a work of any greater length, this might have meant not publishing it at all. Certainly, Schiller would have had trouble sustaining his output if he’d had to revise his plays (by hand) the way we can use the computer to revise today.

The Passive Voice blog hosted an excerpt about this very topic. In the comments, I found one of the most useful and informative approaches to editing that I’ve recently seen. One of the visitors quoted another writer on the ease with which she got work finished, and then also published, depending on the number of revisions inflicted on the draft.

Two revisions were her maximum number, she determined after going over her own experiences. Works that she kept on revising tended to never get done, or they got over-done, or they never made it to the publisher.

I know we like to look at the computer, the typewriter, in fact any tool to aid in the speeding up of the writing process (in terms of words per minute or words per day) as an asset. I do wonder though if we’re allowing the ease of change to run away with our writerly judgement. Schiller and Wolzogen used their brains to work at their writing without always occupying their fingers with writing. The actual writing was a serious investment in time, muscle cramp of the fingers, and expensive items like paper and ink. Can you imagine having to revise everything by hand? What about a clean draft?

We on the other hand can write any old drivel, and it’s not a big deal, because it’s only pixels. We can also change any old drivel at any point, which is also easy, because it’s only pixels… even if we print the pages out, our cost overhead is less than with the paper in Schiller’s day. Revising is easier, though perhaps more brainless. Do we get the better product out of it?

Make writing exercises work for you

or: Life after the exercise (pre-residency Week 2)

This post continues with Week 2 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I started at Week 1, and am counting up. You can find Week 3 here.

child playing around on piano keys

Practice meets play. CC image “piano practice” by woodleywonderworks on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing exercises are billed as a way to break through writer’s block, and a way to greater creativity if we are stuck in a rut or a theme. Be loose! writing exercises always tell us. Let it flow!

I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to all those writing exercises once we are done with them. I imagine them as a sort of Dr. Seuss creature, fluffy and green, being left at the side of the road and abandoned after the cuteness has worn off. So sad.

I’m not alone with this question. A blog post I recently read on Writer’s Digest makes the same point. Most of these exercises end up on dusty little fragments of paper or perhaps digital files that get lost in our computer’s file structure. They accumulate in corners until we forget about them, and if we happen to discover them eons hence, we often throw them out like trash. Is this really the wretched fate that awaits every writing exercise? Are they always only our creative trash?

Writing exercises as a tool

I’ve been thinking about writing exercises recently because ironically, since I’ve started working on my project for the writer’s residency, I’ve done very little writing. I am knee-deep in research. My writing takes the form of notes; I haven’t tinkered with the draft manuscript once I started pulling sources. Noticing this, I wondered if writing exercises might be useful.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice, like playing the piano. The more you practice, the more you can play (see more about this in my post on writing warmups). I don’t want to be all rusty and cold when I do start writing again on this manuscript. Plus, short creative writing exercises can be great fun (the billing ain’t all hype). Last week I tried one with nouns and verbs. My favorite sentence from that exercise is: “The toadstool listens to the conversations of the ants as they pass by.”

Yay! Fun! (You can’t steal it though; it’s mine.)

However, while practicing is great, eventually, I want to play Beethoven and Chopin. Or, in this case, I want a finished manuscript, dammit.

Use the tool for a specific purpose

Can writing exercises be more than fluffy green creatures we abandon for the Next Big Thing? More specifically, can I use writing exercises to bootstrap my way forward on the draft of my novel, instead of throwing them in the dustbin?

For the next month, I’m going to test these questions out on my own writing. My premise is that yes, I can use the material that comes out of writing exercises for my bigger, specific project… IF I structure the exercises correctly, and I do a small amount of pre-exercising. I don’t want to plan what I’m going to write — that would go against every tenet of free-form exercises to begin with — I want to be intentional about how I write.

The Writer’s Digest article suggests a number of questions to guide the development of writing exercises. Because my creative life is circling the residency right now, I am going in a slightly different direction.

The plan

I’m going to set up a 2-week alternating schedule. In the first week of the pair, I’m going to commit to doing a writing exercise (preferably short), one day a week, Monday through Friday. In doing the exercise, I am going to keep my project, the characters, the setting, and the main point of tension, in mind. I’ll allow myself to not have to write about these aspects EVERY single exercise, though I do want to be thinking about them.

In the second week, I’ll revisit the exercises I wrote in week one, with a view to taking one of the following two steps:

  1. incorporating the writing exercise into a scene or narrative I’ve already written or sketched out;
  2. re-writing a scene or narrative, using part of the writing exercise as the backbone or central point.

This will give me two sets of writing exercise development to work with in March.

Rules of engagement: writing exercises should be kept brief (~500 words), as should the scenes I am writing or re-writing (<1000 words). Time spent on the exercises in both weeks should not exceed half an hour each day. The point is I want to use quick bursts of writing to keep me in touch with both my writing muscles and my story development, while I am involved in background research. I want to avoid sinking into a self-critical/editorial morass.

I’ll report back here after the month is up with my thoughts on the practice — has my premise proven to be correct? Can writing exercises “recycled,” as it were, instead of falling onto the creative landfill?

If anyone wants to test out this way of playing with writing exercises, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to modify the outline so that the work suits your goals, and report back here if you feel like doing so. Here’s to keeping our craft fresh, our writing out of landfills, and our stories in the forefront of our minds.

This movie coming soon to a bookstore near you!

considering book trailers

black and white of a group of children covering their eyes

Gasp! it’s a movie! about a book! CC image “children of horror” courtesy of wolfgangfoto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Did you know you could make movie-like trailers for books?

I didn’t.

I’m not talking about a trailer for a movie that was based on a book. I mean a trailer that was shot exclusively to promote a book. As part of that book’s publicity.

This may not be as new for the world as it is for me. I only discovered book trailers this week. The first one was utter serendipity — a link in an article I was reading. I was intrigued by the concept of making a film to advertise literature. Since then, I see links to book trailers everywhere (it’s like little red cars; see the post I wrote about Attentional Bias for more info on that).

I think this is an awesome idea.

Admittedly, I can see the trailer concept working better for some genres and types of stories than others. The link that opened the world of book trailers for me was for a kind of thriller. That type of story structure lends itself to excitement. A very interior storyline might not — for what it’s worth, that’s what I think tripped up the movie version of The Hunger Games. That book was a page-turner for me; I stayed up at night because I had find out what happened next. So much of it — and much of what appealed to me — lay in the protagonist’s reaction to the world around her: her thoughts; her ideas. The movie, in comparison, was bland. You and I could make a lot of arguments about how and why that was… one of them, for me, is that the movie failed to cash in on the first-person, interior landscape of the book, lingering instead on the easy, outside paraphernalia.

Still, I think that if you’ve got a good storyline, no matter what the genre, you could create a book trailer for your book. What a way to capture audience — our social media sharers these days are absolutely video-obsessed!

Seriously…

I mean, really.

In fact, creating a video could be a great benchmark for figuring out if you do have a story, and how interesting that story is. In a way, a trailer is kind of like an abstract of the book, or a pitch letter. You have to be able to capture the essence of the story and the interest of the audience in a short amount of time — hook them, leave them wanting more.

I don’t want to say the book trailer replaces the book, however. Film and literature are different media, and need to be imagined differently. Which I frankly regard as another advantage of the book trailer concept — cross-media play is a tried-and-true recipe for breaking into the creative zone. Our brains are forced to be dynamic, considering artistic problems from different angles. I wrote a little about this, too.

If you’re creating a book trailer as a test for the story’s viability, there’s no reason your film efforts ever need to see the light of day, though. Like my drawings, the video can be just for you…

…but if you do make a book trailer that you want the world to see, let me know. And long live the story!

== == ==

What do you think of the book trailer idea? Blessing or curse?

Declaration of Dependence

why it's sometimes a good thing, and what we can learn from being dependent

(Remember to send me your Mad Quotations! So far, song lyrics are well represented. What else have you got up your sleeves?)

American Statue of Liberty from the back

CC image “Statue of Liberty” courtesy of rakkhi on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve begun to think a lot about Dependence recently.

This is a change of pace. Generally speaking, I haven’t thought much about Dependence as a positive trait. I hadn’t considered it a virtue. It mostly surfaced as a counterpoint to a theme I’ve thought a lot about throughout my life thus far, namely Independence.

I’m not just talking about big geopolitical ideas of Repression versus Freedom for groups and in the political arena. I mean personal self-reliance, a sense of individual freedom, the concept that the individual is capable, and therefore responsible, for arranging the circumstances of their life. But before we get into the thorny issue of responsibility, a comment on the idea pair dependence/autonomy. You can take this pair any of a number of ways: physical dependence, which happens when we cannot care for ourselves physically in some way because we are ill or incapacitated, temporarily or for our lives; financial dependence, in which we rely on someone else to supply the money necessary for us to procure the things we need to survive, like food and shelter; emotional dependence; and so forth. So while there are variable permutations of dependence/independence, the root identifying characteristics are the same across all cases.

Generally, I’ve seen dependence as a negative, a burden. Worse yet, I’ve interpreted my own episodes of dependence as pushy neediness and a sign of personal weakness. I didn’t learn this from my immediate family; somehow I taught myself the Stiff Upper Lip principle. I am the oldest child in my family, and (on one side) the oldest of all my cousins, so I got to be a trailblazer by default. I was rewarded with lots of praise whenever I did something well. Perversely, instead of increasing my confidence, throughout my formative years I developed a sustained fear of failure.

An independent personality

Not every aspect of my life was fraught with such deep psychological angst, but if I was unable to do something or figure something out for myself, I got annoyed (with myself). I had something to learn, and pronto.

I don’t like asking people to do things for me. I don’t like owing people.

I can usually figure out how things need to get done. If I don’t know the answer right away, I probably know where I should go to find it. If you give me a task, I’ll take care of it  — and do it well — whether I have to stop at the beginning and sort out a few basic principles or not.

So where does this leave us with our current discussion of Dependence as a virtue?

I’ve gone through a lot of life transitions in the past year and a half. When I embarked on my adventure two thousand miles away across the country, I thought I’d be trailblazing. However, as with any good enterprise, there have been a number of substantial immediate challenges. To my chagrin, I’ve had to accept help, and, more often, ask for it.

I’ve found that Dependence is a great teacher. I’m having to learn — repeatedly, it seems — that it’s OK not to be perfect, and that no one is, overnight, anyway. Also, with each overlapping obstacle, I am learning that there are only certain aspects of my life that I have direct control over or even significant input into. Despite my being fabulous, transition is hard, and it takes time. It takes other people. So I am bumping into my own hubris. I’m learning that the ideal of the Rugged Individualist can be really selfish.

“Collaborator” is a reflexive term: it takes at least two.

Most of all, I’ve had to learn that accepting help can sometimes be a great gift to the giver. Whether it’s time, resources, or an actual physical gift, it’s a blessing to be giving. So I’m learning to accept with grace. Do I still want to be self-reliant? Well, I still would like to know how to fix my car. And I still don’t want to be a secretary. But if I have to learn how to receive now, in order that I can give like crazy later, I’d say that’s a fair trade.

Depend upon it.
====

What about you? Have you discovered any virtues in Dependence?

Will you play Social Media Mad Libs® with me?

graphic of notebook mad libs page

CC image courtesy of Aaron & Alli on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I have a confession to make.

When I first started on Twitter, I kind of overdid it with the retweeting. I searched for output on writing and inspirational quotes, and fell into a perfect vortex of quotables (how’s this for a QWERTY slip: on my first pass at the foregoing sentence, I typed “vortext” — a vortex of text, yar!).

I have another confession: as a child, I was a Mad Libs junkie. Yes, that Mad Libs. The game of ignorant word substitution, where one person knows the story and the other one supplies words to fill in the blanks. My friend T and I would play for hours, laughing ever more insanely as time went by. We quoted each other our literary outputs for weeks afterwards.

Now I have a mad plan to bring these two dormant fascinations together. But I want help. Will you be my enablers?

Quotations are cool, but they have their limits

As I said, I love quotes.

I’m talking about all kinds of quoted language: brainy quotes from magazine articles, insightful quotes from speeches, inspirational quotes from Zen books and Hallmark cards, cool language displayed in literature or by the literati, snarky quotes from pop culture, TV and movies, quotes about writing, quotes about seizing the moment, quotes about puns and wordplay, quotes about the metaphoric uses of coffee.

Written quotes. Spoken quotes. Scripted quotes and improvised quotes, quotes set to music and quotes a capella.

Before I knew it, most of my time on Twitter was spent obsessively chasing down, favoriting, and retweeting quotes of every description. I feasted on quotes the way other people feast on candy or chocolate or coffee or beer.

Somehow, I got a hold of myself. I pulled myself out of the narcotic haze of brilliant language written by other people, and I asked myself the hard question. Was anyone interested in listening to me quote?

Hm.

Why was I retweeting the posts of other users which were themselves quotations by some third or fourth party — What was even remotely useful about this behavior?

We laugh better together

Mad Libs is not a game for the solitary. Its genius lies in the knowing collaboration between two people where one has information and the other knows their words will be twisted out of all proportion.

I had a stack of Mad Libs books. T and I re-used them so often, the pages where we filled in the words were divided into columns. Eventually we had to add looseleaf pages with additional columns. Sometimes we were innocuous: chair, clean, surprisingly, jumped. Often we went for the ridiculous, because we knew where this was all heading: toadstools, mutated, unbearably, exploded.

After the list was complete, we read the story results aloud to each other. The ensuing literature was without exception hilarious. (Really.)

Send me your quotes!

What I would like to propose is libbing on a grand scale, using the internet, and plugging into the great human propensity to hurl quotes at each other.

I am going to compose an entire story made up of unrelated quotations. And you’re going to help me. Our roles look like this:

You: send me quotations
Me: rearrange and string together.
Post it here.

What better use of quotations, digital media, and native human wackiness?

Here’s how you submit your quotes:

  • Post your quotes here, in the comments
  • Email [link] them using the contact form
  • Tweet to me @aocwrites using #DigitalMadLibs

Quotation submission cutoff will be the end of July, 2013.

Quotation guidelines:

  1. Quotes will be up to 20 words in length. No longer.
  2. No porn!
  3. No drugs!
  4. No gratuitous foul language! I’ll accept the occasional *$#@! when used for emphasis, and I reserve the right to determine what “occasional” and “emphasis” is.
  5. Topics and sources may include but are not limited to: famous sayings by famous people, inspirational, literary, business, movies, TV, sports, travel, stand-up, food, zombies, and music. Still don’t have any ideas? I’m sorry.
  6. Be as earnest or as silly as you like. The more we have of both category, the better.
  7. Include the source, if you have it. Just because I’m a nerd, and I’d like to have that information.

Maybe some of you will want to make your own Mad Libs stories? I’d love to see those!

Let the quote-libbing begin!