Category Archives: Craft
Life has been pretty crazy lately. There have been some family things going on that require me to be away from my writing desk more often than I’d like. I promised my agent pages on a new project next week, so I’ve been a little stressed about getting it all done. Then I remembered that there is more than one way to get a story written.
I read a couple of posts and a book by authors who swear by dictation as a method for drafting a novel. They pretty much all recommended Dragon for dictation, but a quick search told me the program is $300. I have text-to-speech (TTS) on my Mac (just open any document or program and fit the “function” key twice), and I can’t imagine the Dragon software is 300X better. I did, however, download the free Dragon app for my phone for dictating on the fly.
Here’s what I’ve been doing. While I’m out running errands or if an idea comes to me while I’m folding laundry, I pick up the phone, speak into the app and then email it to myself. Now, the resulting document is a mess. First, the app doesn’t register punctation, so it’s really a string of words without any formatting. But the beauty of this is that once I’m back at my computer, I take those raw words, add the punctuation, and flesh out the scene. In essence, the dictation draft, messy as it may be, allows me to not face a blank page.
We’ve all been there, right? We get a fresh cup of coffee, turn off the internet, pull up our word processing program of choice, and then stare at the blinking cursor of death. It’s hypnotic, that cursor. It taunts and dares us to try to be brilliant. It’s daunting, y’all.
But if you can come to a page that already has some raw material on it, it somehow feels more manageable. “I don’t have to create anything from scratch, I just have to fix these words.”
A few benefits of this method include:
You talk faster than you write, so you can get a lot of words down quickly.
Speaking your story might make it easier to access your authentic voice.
Because your goal is just to get ideas and words down, it’s easier to ignore the internal editor.
Dictation might not be for everyone. It takes some getting used to to speak your story instead of type it. If it just doesn’t work for you, there’s another option. I have a new obsession for fountain pens. I have cheap ones and expensive ones (the cheap ones are actually my preference), and they make writing by hand a pleasure. In the same spirit of just getting things down, I like to sit down and write a quick scene on paper. Often it’s just a page or two of dialogue. There’s something freeing about putting it on paper. “I’m just jotting down some notes,” I say. “There’s nothing here that can’t be changed.”
Once I have a couple of pages, I either type the scene into Scrivener or I’ll speak it using the TTS function on my Mac. Again, the goal here is just to get something on the page that I can go back and flesh out. The bonus is that it’s easier for me to carry a pen and a notebook in my purse than to lug around my laptop. The benefits of this method are pretty similar to the dictation method, but you don’t have to worry about messing with technology you’ve never used before or the pesky problem of dictation programs inaccuracies.
My point here is that sometimes we have to get creative and work smarter. There is no writing police force who will arrest you if you speak your story instead of type it. You don’t have to sit in front of a computer for the work to count. Progress is more important that perfection, especially in the drafting phase.
If you’re feeling stuck, try to speak your story. Or pull out your favorite pen and jot down your scene. You’ve not nothing to lose but your resistance.
Today’s Craft Thursday entry is from my Jaye’s Office Hours vlog. James asked me how to avoid writing cliched stories, and this is my answer. Did you know I have lots of craft posts over on my Youtube channel? Subscribe today so you never miss a video!
One of the interesting things you realize when you hang out with creative people is that most creatives are not one-dimensionally creative. For example, many of the writers and musicians and painters I know also love to cook. A painter I know loves to sew and a musician friend is also into photography.
I mention this on Craft Thursday because it’s important for us all to remember that being creative is not a means to an end. Creativity is a way of life.
It’s important to remember this because there will be times when you feel burned out from writing. Sometimes this burn out is simply resistance. Other times, it’s your subconscious telling you it needs some time to replenish itself. Ironically, one of the best ways to refill your creative well is to be creative–just in a different way.
I was complaining to my husband the other day that every time I sit down to write, I hit a wall. I have about five books waiting to be written, but when I try to put words to paper I freeze up. Mr. Jaye reminded me that I’ve just come out of a pretty intense period of change. He suggested I take a break for a little bit, and give myself permission to do things for fun.
The truth is that at this point in my career, anything I write carries a lot of weight behind it. The weight of expectations, the weight of income, the weight of defining myself in my industry, etc. So I decided that instead of just retreating into Candy Crush or making myself crazy by investing too much energy in the election drama, I needed to be creative in a different way.
That’s when I remembered how much I used to love to paint. It’s been probably fifteen years since I’ve taken a painting class or done a project for fun, but that’s okay. I’m not doing this to prove myself to anyone. I’m doing it to inspire myself to be creative. So out came my old portfolio and my old black tacklebox filled with tubes of paint, brushes, sketching pencils, and those marvelous gummy erasers. Something sort of magical happened when the scent of the supplies hit me. I got excited.
I went to the art store and bought a kit to paint a cheesy painting of a water mill next to a river. It’s going to take me a long time because I’m an incredibly bad sketcher and the painting is pretty detailed. That’s all right. It’s fun to lose myself for an hour or two sketching tiny leaves and a water mill. That’s call flow, my friends. Flow is where the magic happens.
The other great thing about this project is that its visual and tactile. Writing is such a cerebral practice. You’re in your head so much that sometimes it’s hard to find your way back out. With my painting, it’s nice to get my hands dirty and see the picture coming together as I work.
Anyway, my point is that f you’re finding yourself stuck, don’t beat up your muse (or yourself). Try switching gears a little. You don’t have to be good at your other creative pursuits. That’s not the point. Being creative is about indulging your curiosity and your sense of play. You don’t have to do “serious” art either. Try some subversive cross-stitch or try a new recipe for dinner or create a vision board using pictures you cut out of a magazine. Some people might call these projects silly, but those people do not understand how critical play is to the creative mind. So ignore the haters and go try something new. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself itching to write again too. And the best part? Being creative is way more fun than beating yourself up for not always being a word machine.
Writing should be fun sometimes, remember? That’s why you started doing it, right? Creative play helps you get back to that beginner’s enthusiastic mind.
Question: What other forms of creativity do you do besides writing?
Are you a creator or a consumer?
It’s a question I think about a lot these days. So much of our energy seems to be focused on consuming, chewing each other up and digesting whatever is offered without thought or principle.
I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m angry. I know this is because I have spent too much time lately consuming the garbage I’m seeing here and elsewhere online and in the news. As the old saying goes, “garage in, garbage out.”
I don’t want to be angry or bitter. I don’t want to believe that this world is unsalvageable or that people are not basically good. I don’t want to lose hope.
Yet, I know the source of hope always lies in creation. Luckily, my life centers on being creative and sharing those creations with others. I know magic exists in this world and in people because I have seen it over and over through stories and paintings, architecture and songs. I have seen strangers be kind. I have seen miracles in the mundane. I have seen humility in the magnificent.
Even if you’re not “a creative” you can still foster a positive creator mentality in your own life.
Creator Mentality means that you:
do instead of complain
make instead of destroy
build instead of tear down
share instead of hoard
foster curiosity instead of suspicion
compliment instead of insult
think instead of obey
build up instead of tear down
join communities instead of factions
are open and present instead of closed and anxious
Imagination, progress, change–these are the vehicles of creation. The fuels of this miraculous engine are curiosity, delight, and enthusiasm.
It’s a choice you have to make every day. Some days it’s harder than others. We’re not perfect, but we have potential.
Today, I choose creation. I hope you will, too.
It’s pretty common in my workshops for me to suggest writers make lists of words for their stories. It’s a technique I learned from Alexander Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists. In the book, she recommends that authors make lists of thematic words relating to their story and characters that can be woven through the narrative to add more emotional resonance and create image systems. It’s a great technique that I use for my own novels.
Recently, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’ve been sipping from this font of writerly knowledge a bit at a time, giving myself time to digest each essay. Bradbury has long been a favorite writer of mine, and I’m not sure why it took me so long to find this book, but I sort of feel like it came into my life at the perfect time. Aren’t books magic that way?
Anyway, one of Bradbury’s techniques reminded me of the word lists I mentioned above. According to Bradbury, for years, he kept running lists of words. When he needed to sit down to write a short story, he’d look at that list, choose a word and start writing. The idea that we each have our own unique image system that can be used to find story ideas sort of blew my mind.
Lately, I’ve been in a weird space. I finished a novel a couple of months ago that took me two years to write. I want to write, but the idea of diving headlong into another huge project so soon feels daunting. The well needs some time to refill. However, I have a book on submission and lots of time of my hands now that I’ve finished most of my grad school coursework. Idle time is dangerous for an imagination. But then Bradbury and his word list offered me the perfect solution. Why not just write my own list and use it to write some shorts of my own? Not because I’m supposed to be writing, but because I want to be writing.
An interesting thing happens when you start to make these lists. Following Bradbury’s example, I formatted my list with “the” in front of each noun, e.g. “The Moon,” “The Tomb,” “The Hallway.” It’s a fun exercise to sit down and see how one image leads to others and before you know it, you have this neat list of all the images that your subconscious loves or fears. So far, my list is four pages long. That’s material for a LOT of stories.
Also? It’s fascinating to see what’s coming up. Images appear like words in the those Magic Eight Balls. They sort of emerge from the depths of my brain before sinking down below again. Paying attention to what’s coming up has been enlightening and has helped me really get a handle on my own personal image system. Meaning, the themes and images I go back to over and over again in my stories–the symbols that make up a large part of my writer voice. The ideas that fascinate and scare me enough to keep returning to them over and over in my work.
I feel sort of silly that it didn’t occur to me to apply the word lists I used for my novel to other things, but that’s sort of how this writing thing goes. The tools you think you’ve mastered have a way of evolving into new uses. I’m excited to see what sort of short stories come out of this, and even ore excited to see how my list of images grows and changes over the years as I become fascinated by or afraid of new things. As I fall in love with new ideas and characters and places.
So I guess today’s craft advice is twofold:
1. Always be open to using old tools in new ways.
2. If you pay attention, the mentors you need will appear right when you need them.
I just spent half an hour watching videos about creativity. They’re fun, right? They make us feel better–like we’re improving ourselves even as we sit on our rear ends and passively absorb their wisdom.
Maybe that’s why you come here to read my Craft Thursday posts or watch my Youtube videos. You want to improve yourself. You’re committing to your craft by seeking out tools and resources and inspiration.
That’s all well and good. It’s great, in fact. But only if you get to the moment where you turn off your web browser, open a blank page, and put words on it. Even better if you do this every or most days.
The truth is that if you’re not careful you will inspire yourself into inertia. You will convince yourself that you will write eventually once you’ve learned all there is to know about writing. Once you’ve improved yourself enough you will finally be ready.
Well, my friends, the truth is that the true path of improvement and inspiration is the path of doing. It is the path of trying. It is making a practice out of your art. Isn’t it nice to think of writing that way–as a practice? There is no blog post I could write, there is no Youtube video, there is no craft book that will finally tip you over into being ready. You become ready by working when you’re not ready. By practicing.
So today, I want you to promise yourself that you will spend half an hour putting the pen to page. It doesn’t matter if you write a short story, a poem, or a snippet of dialogue. Write something. Practice the craft. Inspire yourself, improve yourself, and inform yourself by doing the damned thing.
When I’m teaching writing classes, I tend to mention the same craft books over and over. So for today’s Craft Thursday, I thought I’d share the titles with you and why I like them. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every good craft and writing life book I’ve read. It’s just a list of the ones I name-check most.
1. Fiction First Aid Raymond Obstfeld: Great overview of common problems that plague a lot of manuscripts. Good to read prior to revision to help diagnose problems. I don’t think I read this straight through, but I’ve referred to it again and again over the years.
2. Writing & Personality by John K DiTiberio & George Jensen: This book used Meyers-Briggs personality to help explain how each type approaches large writing projects. I can not overstate how much this book did to help me find my process. I reread the section on my time at least twice a year–or whenever I try to convince myself that I’d have an easier time if I plotted (hint: I wouldn’t). Note: I’ve had trouble finding new copies of this book, but you might get lucky and run into at a used book store.
3. Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver: I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Mary Oliver’s poetry, but now that I have, I’m totally in love. This book is Oliver’s primer on writing and reading metrical verse. You might have learned some of the information about meter in high school, but if you’re like me, the only one you could reliably name was “iambic pentameter.” I suggest this book because understanding the rhythm of language will help your prose crackle with emotion and texture. If you don’t read this book, you should at a minimum start trying to read more poetry and music lyrics. Trust me, it will help you become a better writer.
4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This is not a craft book–it’s a writing life survival manual. I probably have as many books about how to survive being a writer as I do how to become a better one. This is a great, easy-to-read book that is worth rereading at least once a year.
5. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Truby’s background is in screenwriting, but the way he constructs his stories is very similar to my own process. By that I mean, he advocates an organic approach. Instead of plotting, the prework here is focused on character creation and world building. The book is filled with writing exercises and great advice. It can be a bit dense, but it’s definitely worth a read.
6. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card: Character creation is one of my strengths, but I read this because I was writing a book with multiple POV characters and wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything. He introduces both topics in a clear way that’s great for newer writers. However, for my money, the best thing in this book is Card’s MICE Quotient. I won’t tell you what it is, but it sort of blew my mind.
What are your favorite craft books?
This week, I wanted to let you know that I’ve started a new thing called “Jaye’s Office Hours.” Since I can’t get everywhere to teach writing classes or speak about my books, I decided to use vlogging to get some of my lessons out there. Jaye’s Office Hours won’t just be about craft. I’ll also answer questions about my stories and do virtual readings, etc.
Here’s my most recent vlog, where I discuss the three types of research I use to write my books.
Be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss any of the videos. Also, if you have a topic you’d like for me to tackle or a question about my writing or how to write, let me know in comments!