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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Getting Unstuck: pure craft

Some days, the creativity just isn't there even though you're a creative person. Exhaustion, stress, and illness are creativity robbers, and odds are you've either encountered them or will encounter them at some point in the future.

Note that this isn't writers block. What I'm talking about is putting your bucket down into the creativity well and hearing it rattle its way back up with a hollow thunking sound, as opposed to going out to the well and finding it boarded over. Writers block means you know the creativity is there and you just can't get to it. Stress, exhaustion, and illness are creativity thieves.

I've mentioned before that after my daughter's death, I couldn't write fiction for two years. Even after that, it took another four years to write a short story about anencephaly and another six months before a story touched the emotions of infant loss.

But during that time, I was still creating. I wrote non-fiction. I journaled. And the next time I had to deal with a hard grief, I learned to knit. I started by crocheting scarves (a friend gave me a ridiculously simple pattern) and I moved on to knitting different scarves, then knitting hats. I knit baby blankets. Everything I knit got donated, and I just buried myself in yarn and hooks and needles, stitch in and stitch out, knit, purl, yarnover, k2tog, bind off, cast on the next one.

Why could I knit up miles of yarn when I couldn't write a word?

Ivy Reisner in her KnitSpirit podcast says that to some extent knitting (and by that same metric, crocheting) is "pure craft." If you've got a skein of yarn and a crochet hook, you can mechanically create stitch after stitch without having to think about what you're doing. With writing, you're drawing from the well of your own creativity, and that takes energy. When stress, illness or exhaustion have already laid claim to every bit of energy you possess and put a lein on your next several months' worth, it's just not there for the stories.

Before anyone howls at me, absolutely knitting, crocheting, tatting, nalbinding and cross-stitch can be super-creative. But you can dial it back to just the physical motions, whereas you can't turn novel-writing into just typing as if you're taking dictation.

That's why I recommend a writer have some kind of creative outlet that can to some extent exist as pure craft. Cooking, for example, gives you the satisfaction of creation without draining your emotional resources. (Plus, then you get to eat, which may be an issue for someone in grief.) Even coloring in a coloring book can give you that boost of having produced something as an active participant, rather than just crushing candy or settling deeper and deeper into your couch reading endless Facebook posts.

 If you find you're stuck because of issues in the rest of your life, be gentle on yourself. Don't keep sending that bucket into the well and getting more discouraged when it comes up with dust in the bottom. Instead find a way to nurture your creative side without draining it further.

Take it slow, and when the stress ebbs, you'll find your writing urge returns. Plus, you may have several pairs of cozy socks and a few new recipes, and that's always good.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Rule of Three

Certain motifs and patterns appear consistently in storytelling, whether it be fairy tales or literary fiction. The repetition of "threes" is particularly useful in writing humorous scenes and dialogue. Consider the following first draft:

"Kim scowled as she filled out the patient intake form, distracted by the screams of a diaper-clad toddler who managed to void his bladder while assaulting the receptionist."

Applying the rule of three, compare it to this version:

"Kim tried to ignore the screams of a diaper-clad toddler, who flung a sippy cup at the receptionist, screeched in delight at hitting his target, and celebrated the occasion by urinating in a potted fern."

(The above event may or may not describe a recent visit to a walk-in clinic.)

Now consider the use of threes in dialogue. Here is version one:

"Your repeated insults of my home town are off-putting," Bobby said.

"Listen, the other day I bought a hot dog off a guy in a landfill," Jess replied.

Cute, but add in a third line to add some extra zest to the debate:

"It is a salvage yard, not a landfill," Bobby replied, "And they are all beef kosher."

Experts say the human brain is hard-wired to perceive storytelling a specific manner, hence the centuries-old adherence to a three act structure with specific plot points. Three indicates a completeness, whether narrative or dialogue. So if you are conveying that your friend has a slightly creepy crush on your mom, see how it flows if you tighten the description to just three sentences:

"Most of the interaction between Steve and my mom happens in the kitchen. Mom flits around in her gym spandex, microwaving Hot Pockets while Steve pretends he actually wants a snack.  I avoid the scene by stashing twinkies under my bed for an after school pick-me-up."

Let's say you and Steve have a confrontation about his disturbing fondness for your mom:

"Man,  Debbie says you never have anything nice to say," Steve said.

"Stop coming over all the time," I shouted, "She's forty years old for god's sake! It's creepy"

"Debbie says forty is the new thirty."

Give it a whirl. Who is to argue with the likes of Aristotle that the magic number is three?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Funny Side of Writing: Writers and Self-Torture

There’s a certain amount of humor to be found in this wicked world of form rejections and endless edits and dreams that perpetually dance just beyond our reach.

Sometimes, we don’t see the humor in something until some time has passed. Probably because it's a sick kind of humor that really shouldn't be funny at all. When I think back over the years, this story from 2010 always stood out to me as one of those stories.

I'm glad to share this look back at one of the many times my writing career has been akin to torture. Enjoy my pain and hope it makes you smile.


It's a cruel beast, one that strikes through the heart of even the most stalwart person. Writers must be gluttons for punishment because our profession, by nature, is fraught with rejection.

I've been asking for it myself for over a year now, as I've queried agents and submitted my non-novel stuff around to everyone who'll read it. I've heard "no" more times than I can count.

And it never gets easier, not even when the no's are accompanied by apologies and compliments and offers to try again with something new. Even the form rejects hurt, making us think--what, I'm not good enough to reject personally? And how about the ones that say this is good but it doesn't fit my list/this issue/our publication? It's still a no. And it bugs us.

All these no's make it hideously easy for writers to doubt themselves. I used to wonder sometimes why I hadn't developed a complex. I wonder today if, in fact, I have.

Like most working writers (I hope so, at least) I have an email compulsion. I need to check and re-check and re-check often, hoping for a return on a query or a submission. I even developed a sort of separation anxiety since my day job is a twelve-hour shift without Internet. It had become so difficult to endure the day job-email blackout that I got a data plan on my phone. (And then I got a new phone because it was too hard to read mail on my Crackberry. Go figure.)

On my way out of work, I downloaded my mail to find new messages. Yay! I had that tiny thrill of happy-happy that momentarily satisfies my email compulsion.

Even better when I saw two emails from a journal I'd submitted to back in October. Of course, doubt strangled my excitement and the first thing I thought was, Oh great. Rejections.

And sure enough, the first one was a form rejection. Boo. Why bother checking the other right now? I thought. After all, it wasn't like the other had a subject that read BUT THIS ONE WE LOVED!

Being a sadist, however, I decided to read it and get it over with, so at the first stop light, I hit retrieve. By the time the light changed, I'd noticed it was still downloading.

Fantastic, I thought. So much for painlessly ripping off that Band-Aid. The connection was murderously slow. Figures. This rejection was really going to make me work for it. I canceled the download and started over before I headed over the mountain.

Fifteen minutes later, I saw it was still only half downloaded. What the hell? Curiosity consumed me.

I pulled over and checked the file size of the first rejection. Eight MB. Ok. I checked the other one. Thirty-two hundred. Ooooo-kay. Which could mean…maybe not a rejection after all.

Here's where the whole I-think-I-have-a-complex comes in. I instantly began to doubt it could be good news. But I didn't have just any old doubt. Oh, no. This was Writer's Doubt to the nth degree.

Over the course of the next ten minutes, I went through a series of stages of doubt that ranged from maybe it's a form rejection and a copy of their newsletter to maybe it's a rejection and a copy of their submission guidelines with a warning to follow them next time.

By the time I got home, I'd reached the confidence-crippling final stage of it's got to be a list of reasons why they're rejecting it accompanied by a wav. file of all the editors chanting YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!

It took a while to get up the nerve to turn on my laptop and actually read the message. My heart was in my throat and my anxiety was so palpable the dog hid under the table and whined.

Stupid doubt. My poem "Blackened Madonna" had been accepted by Ghostlight Magazine and the email contained the contract. Whew. Talk about dodging a bullet.

I chuckled and sank bonelessly onto the couch, promising myself that, next time, I won't doubt myself to the point of neurosis. But eh, who am I kidding? I may write fiction but I can't kid myself into believing that fantasy.
Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lighter Side of Writing: Irony is not the Same Thing as Fate

I’m filling in for Adriana Mather, who apparently thinks starring in a film being screened at the Cannes Film Festival is an adequate justification for skipping out on her QueryTracker Blog duties. [Here’s the trailer btw] That, or readying her debut novel, How to Hang a Witch, for publication by Knopf/Random House. Or getting to work on her second novel, now that her proposal has been accepted by said Big Four publisher. If pressed for lame excuses, I’m sure she has more.
Well, I’ve got news for you Adriana – you are NOT the only person with pressing and impressive matters to attend to. Sure, I’d love to star in movies and fly to the South of France – but Cannes happens to conflict with BOTH Family Fun Night AND the fifth grade sleepover graduation party. Plus, it’s not like my sourdough starter can feed itself. Some of us just have our priorities straight. Cannes and publishing deals are nice, but I have unlimited fresh eggs.
Am I a tad sarcastic and bitter? Naw. Sarcastic as hell but, as Adriana surely pieced together from the two dozen emails we’ve exchanged in the past week (some of which contain the electronic equivalent of me squealing like a twelve-year-old girl at a boy band concert) I’m not particularly bitter. I am so proud of Adriana that I’m basically using (abusing) the post I agreed to cover for her to brag about her. That and use her to demonstrate sarcasm, which I know she won’t mind because she’s such a sweetheart.
Although it’s FAR subtler in my fiction than the above example, sarcasm is a mainstay of my writing. There are not a lot of humorous devices that allow a narrator (particularly an omniscient narrator) to maintain the authoritative persona of Narrator, with a capital “N.” Sarcasm and irony, however, lean on that persona, using the god-like knowledge of the omni narrator as a straight line, with the contrasting description or commentary landing the punch line. I have little choice but to use these devices. That’s what they were made for.
Writing satire, it’s impossible for me to function without at least some sarcasm (which is a source of humor) and a lot of irony (which may or may not be humorous, but turns otherwise innocuous story elements into satire). By way of very quick and very dirty (and therefore not completely accurate) definitions:
Sarcasm is saying one thing and meaning the opposite,
Irony is expecting one thing and getting the opposite.
The difference between what is or is expected and the intent is deciphered by you.
Neither device is inherently funny. The “kiss of death” in Mafia lore and, notably, Puzo’s The Godfather is the ultimate sarcasm, and irony is as often tragic as humorous – just ask Oedipus. But, while they aren’t inherently humorous, each starts out with one of the two elements of humor present: incongruity. The real meaning is not on the page, it’s in the reader’s own thinking.
In my first post on this topic, I discussed the basic neurobiological response that is “humor;” what the brainiacs call “the juxtaposition of mental sets.” “Funny” comes from incongruity. The gap between the normal or expected and the actual outcome is where the punch line for every joke ever told lands. While not every unexpected plot twist is funny, and tragedy relies on irony as heavily as comedy does, both devices still start with everything you need to make a joke out of.
What you do from there is up to you.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Finding the Humor: Jokes in the Midst of Tragedy

One of the worst things to believe about writing tragedies is that every scene must be tragic. Filling a serious book with heavy scenes and bleak dialogue will not get you very far. You want to be taken seriously as a writer of Important Things, and so you take yourself and your story seriously, too.

This can be a huge detriment to the quality of your story. When you're working with heavy themes, the most important thing to remember is that to your characters, there is no overarching theme. There are the present circumstances and what they're doing about them, nothing else.

The point is this: sometimes you need humor where humor doesn't seem to belong. You need it in stories about fighting other children to the death on national television. You need it in stories about cancer. And most likely, you need it in your own story, too.

Most people, and therefore most characters, have a go-to type of humor, be it so-unfunny-they're-funny (a la Ross Geller), sarcastic, hyperbolic, or a number of other things. Tragedy, especially tragedy that hasn't happened yet, doesn't change that.

If you have a character who seeks refuge through humor, it doesn't matter whether he's about to lose his eyesight to cancer and the girlfriend he loves just broke up with him and all his other friends are terminal, too. He's going to continue to seek refuge through humor.

Even if your story ends in a way that makes Romeo and Juliet seem happy, just because your book is sad, doesn't mean it has to read like it's sad. Your characters don't know the fate that awaits them. Give them some hope. Let them make inopportune jokes and feel terrible about it afterwards. Let them have a moment of refuge in the midst of their lives falling apart when they have semi-normal banter with a stranger on a bus.

Trust me, your readers will want a break from the heart-wrenching, anyway. There's nothing like the cognitive dissonance of wiping sad tears from your eyes while laughing at something funny that someone just said. You feel terrible for laughing when the situation is so bleak, and yet you can't help it; it's funny. That sort of cognitive dissonance permeates real life, and it will bring that realism into the world of your story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Funny Side of Writing: Insert Your Topic Here

Okay, the title is not actually “Insert Your Topic Here.” It’s something along the lines of “How Humor Applies to Two of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing.” For the handful of people on the QueryTracker Blog Team, though, this month’s assigned title is “The Funny Side of Writing: Insert Your Topic Here,” so a handful of people got the joke before I explained it. It’s a bit of an inside joke – an extreme example of the fact that all humor is inside humor.  

Ooh, that’s much better. Forget that bit about “How Humor Applies…” The real title of this post is now The Funny Side of Writing: All Humor is Inside Humor. Plus some stuff about Kurt Vonnegut.

Humor presents an extreme example of Vonnegut’s advice: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” There is no such thing as a joke that: (a) will not offend anyone; (b) every reader will get; (c) can be explained to those who don’t get it in a sufficiently humorous way those who “got it” won’t be bored; and (d) having traversed the minefield that is (a) through (c) on this list, anyone thinks is funny.

Humor is such an effective tool because, done right, it creates a bond between the writer and reader that makes the reader feel special. She “gets” the joke, which means she is in on the little secret the joke presents. This can happen one of three ways:

  • ·         The very direct way that hopefully made the title of this article amusing to five people – The existence of an actual inside joke, like a subtle literary reference few of your readers may pick up on, making those who do feel Überspecial.
  • ·       Letting the rest of the riffraff in on the joke – The explanation provided in the first paragraph of this post, which is, generally, the worst option. That said, some writers (Douglas Adams = God) explain things in such a clever way the reader feels special having received the explanation and joining the “in crowd.”
  • ·         Building the humor from the inside out, first giving the reader the inside information, then making the joke it’s based on – The second paragraph of this post, which is a different version of the same joke about the title. I’m still messing around with the title, sharing the process of replacing the ridiculous one with something more descriptive, but by bringing the reader (that’s you, btw) along, I (that’s me, btw) create the insides of the inside joke: My title sucks because I cut and pasted the stupid thing. Here I am, two paragraphs in, still groping for a title.

Of all Vonnegut’s rules, or any rules of writing I’ve ever seen anywhere, though, the one I think is most important to keep in mind with respect to humor is the Fourth: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. If I ever form some kind of humor writing cult, THAT will be the password, and the initiation will involve writing that on your private bits in goat blood or something else sufficiently weird that it would be impossible to forget.

Now that I look at it, that is a rather long sentence. Yeah, it would definitely need to be “something else sufficiently weird.”

And I live on a farm. It’s not goat blood I’m worried about running out of.