blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Artist, fireman, traveller; 2017 in books

books_congerdesign
congerdesign via pixabay

In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.

It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.

I recorded the books I read

I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.

In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.

Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.

But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.

Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.

I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.

Give it a try

Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story, writing process

Haven

a 100 word drabble on ‘the comfort of strangers’

cottage-seaside_Free-Photos
Free-Photos via pixabay (edited)

A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.

A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.

The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.

“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”

My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.

Commentary

This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.

We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.

Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.

We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

boat-aground_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.

What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.

At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.

Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.

  • Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?

    • try this Go for a walk.
    • Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
    • Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
    • Stretch your hands and back regularly.
  • Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?

    • try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
    • Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
    • Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
    • Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
  • Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?

  • You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
    • try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
    • Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
    • Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.

Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.

Just don’t stop completely.

You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Teaching is a learning experience

dahlia orange_Oldiefan
Oldiefan via pixabay

We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.

Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.

Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton  

This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.

Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.

Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.

Four stages to reaching the expert level

  1. You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
  2.        You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
  3.        You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
  4.        Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.

Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.

You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.

Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.

A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.

As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.

We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.

Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.

And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.

I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”

blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.

Constructive vs. destructive

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.

If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.

Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.

Put up your guard

Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.

Defence not attack

Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.

Probing for weaknesses

A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person.  You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.

Engage in rational discussion

You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.

  • Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
  • Consider the alternatives presented.
  • If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
  • You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.

Round two

Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.

Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”

Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.

The student becomes the teacher

Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.

Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.

Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.

blog, writing process

Time for new beginnings

Break it to make it

easter eggs colour Alexas_Fotos
Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

It’s the season of Easter. Eggs and bunnies are everywhere. Whatever you might think about the origins of Easter, whether pagan or religious, it’s hard to escape. The motif of eggs is woven into the English language. Life is itself a curate’s egg, both good and bad in parts.

We avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, and so diversify risk. We argue in circles about the chicken and the egg. We walk on eggshells through tricky situations, and break eggs to make omelettes. This last saying is the most interesting, because it tells us that sometimes, breaking comes before making.

Easter eggs look so beautifully perfect that it’s tempting to keep them intact. But we know that treasures are hidden inside the colourful exterior, so we’re happy to smash them. (Of course, getting to eat the whole thing doesn’t hurt either.) People, lives, and relationships can have a shiny surface gloss, and yet when they’re broken, something even better may emerge.

It need not be one huge blow, it could be a tiny chipping away that eventually changes everything. Like the chick emerging from its shell one peck at a time, small actions add up over time to something larger.

This is also the month of Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own daily writing goal. After I failed NaNo two years in a row, I decided I absolutely could not write every day. It all felt too much for me. But I want to become more of a writer, so I decided on a smaller challenge, inspired by Shaunta Grimes and her concept of teeny, tiny goals.

My goal? Write 150 words every day.

Stupidly small and hardly worth the effort, right? Well, so far I have kept to it, even after a gruelling 13 hour day at work. It’s so very small, that I often exceed it. Then I get to award myself a pat on the back for over-performing! On the worst days, it’s still doable and there is small but measurable progress.

I track my journey, nothing too involved because I don’t have the energy. Just a Very Easy Tracking Plan™ (as discussed here ). All that’s required is minimal motivation and the idea that I could break out of my shell.  I hope to build on a series of daily successes that will help me advance as a writer.

It’s the season of new beginnings.

What tiny, daily goal will you set, so you can escape a self-imposed jail of fixed expectations?

daffodils white double
Double white narcissus

blog, writing process

Everything is material

Using bad stuff to make good stuff

egg-broken_stevepb.jpg
stevepb via pixabay

 

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

Into every life some rain must fall. Whether  actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.

The energy of anger and grief

These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.

For a writer, all emotions are fuel.

To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.

empathy      I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same
sympathy    This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it

Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.

Write what you know?

We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.

I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.

For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
Robert Frost

Resources for character personality traits

One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’

More information is available here and here .

Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.

If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)

Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.

Suffering can become art

sky-clouds-rays_Skitterphoto
Skitterphoto via pixabay

We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.

Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.