Browsing Tag:

writing tips

Creating Fear: How to Build Suspense

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

A cry of frustration, perhaps despair, rang through the hall. Tension gripped him. “Well,” he thought, “I’m not alone.” He considered whether to investigate, then the cry became a squeal and little else was heard. Tick-tock.

He looked again at the page. It seemed an impenetrable vacancy. Tock.

A word came to mind and his shoulders sagged. It wasn’t the stress of an unfathomable burden, but, rather, a bit of clarity through the fog. The word was no mystery and it held enormous consequences. Tick.

He learned some time ago to trust these moments of intuition. Still, another part of his mind pleaded the clock’s case. Tock.

A deep breath allowed him to quiet the voice and focus on the previous insight. “Manufactured” was the word. What did it mean? He glanced at the page again and found it populated with intent.

 

The Work

The intent, of course, was a bit of suspense. That’s part of my job and the “fear” created above was something akin to writer’s block, though mercifully short lived. There are many different directions the story can go. Part of the inspiration was the thought of an investigator or adventurer reaching his or her goal and finding nothing.

The writing is an end, at least in many cases. It is the last part of a process of inspiration, research, preparation, and visualization. I sometimes have the privilege of being in the room with many aspiring authors and the final part is always the writing. It’s the intimidating blank page that creates a weight, certainly a fear in some. There are many great story ideas out there, but even with the vast number of self-published e-books, a good number of the stories are never written.

In longer forms of writing it’s often a fifth or sixth draft that is (at long last) released. The most revision an author mentioned to me was nine drafts. Even with so much revision there are always new ideas, mistakes, and extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, and even unnecessary chapters. Everything is a work in progress, particularly our thoughts and convictions.

The first effort of any writing is just to get the ideas down. First drafts do not pass muster. By the time you reach a final draft there should be few unaltered words, and this includes editing as you write. Don’t worry too much about the quality of your first draft. It’s the ideas that matter.

 

Fabrications

The lesson learned, not long ago, was this: every fear is manufactured. I didn’t write books in my 20’s, and managed just two at the end of my 30’s. Three years into my 40’s I’m working on my Molly and the Magic Suitcase Logotwelfth and thirteenth for two different series, and researching number fourteen. I manufacture fear in the mystery series, only able to do it because of diminishing my own fear.

But all that is a little touchy-feely, though I did consider making it the focus of this post. Instead, let’s look briefly at the first section and break down a method of creating fear for narrative purposes.

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

First, the reader is placed in a fairly mundane position: looking at a page of paper, then told that this simple act was the result of great effort, reinforced through the description “hours of…” The effort, however, is insignificant: a sense of loss is presented, using little, nothing, and void to reinforce the feeling.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

The second paragraph reinforces the sense of loss and creates new tension in the guise of a deadline.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

“Uneasiness” and “exasperation” reinforce the character’s emotional state. The real question is whether it is shared by the reader. The first paragraph briefly described efforts that could be just about anything, including college courses. Here, the hard work is re-emphasized and, hopefully, the reader draws on his or her own experience to empathize with the character. Finally, I get a little gimmicky with the imagined ticking of a clock. It’s meant to build more tension.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

It’s a short paragraph, but five complete sentences. The quick chops here push the pace. I’m not a fan of long descriptive sentences, particularly those that start with dependent clauses. I taught English in a private school for some years and that was precisely the method other teachers espoused for ‘artful’ writing.

It usually sounds to me like the author wants to impress himself/herself and doesn’t consider the reader at all. That said, if you write for critical approval, those are the type of sentences needed. An example: “Stopping to examine the hall, a tremulous feeling began as a buzz in the back of her uneasy brain as she felt the ancient weight of the ages in the dank and dusty walls.” It’s a short example, but plenty wordy. Critics love it. So, include plenty of this crud, add angst, stir and there is your recipe for good reviews. Likable characters aren’t needed, just the angst and wordiness. You may not even have to pay for your Kirkus Review.

The paragraph describes my office. There is a map, some travel photos, and plenty of clutter as well. The observation of seemingly significant information that is of no help adds to the frustration/tension. That’s the intent.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

“Nothing” and “barren” continue to build the sense of loss or helplessness. The rush of time continues to be highlighted with the “tick-tock” gimmick. I reduce the number of ticks and tocks as the story continues to give a sense of time running out.

That’s probably enough to get the picture. There are few more things to mention, including the emotions described. I purposefully avoided the word ‘fear,’ and utilized as many synonyms of ‘empty’ as possible: nothing, void, emptiness, blank, little, barren, vacancy.

The cry of despair, incidentally, was my son who (once again) wasn’t napping. He vocalized the frustration I wanted to create and seemed to settle down. He still didn’t nap. You know how it is. If Shield of Horatius Coverit were a longer story, this part would be edited out. It’s not important, but included here to throw the reader a bit. The “oasis” is a reference to photos of the Valley of Fire (Nevada) around my desk. There is a double meaning because the character wants a lifeline and can’t find it.

One additional and relevant note is this: there are no exclamation marks. Let your word choice create emphasis and urgency. Do I always follow this rule? My books are for a younger audience so word choice is sometimes limited. That said, the mystery The Shield of Horatius purposely stretches the young audience’s vocabulary while providing context to show the meaning of the word. In other words, the young reader won’t have to use a dictionary if they’re engaged.

 

How-To

There is no singular method to create fear or suspense, but, step by step, here is a summary of what was done here:

  1. Established a familiar character.
  2. Established a recognizable situation.
  3. Created an unresolved necessity (an unknown).
  4. Enhanced the difficulty of obtaining the need.
  5. Increased the emotional tension of the character (and reader).
    1. Evocative language
    2. Deadline

Resolution isn’t always needed, or even desired. The story that comes to mind is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” where her Step Three was to distort the recognizable situation into horror. She spends much of the story on Steps One and Two and it increases the emotional impact of the distortion. Steps Three, Four, and Five arrive suddenly before the abrupt ending.

Similarly, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” inverts a familiar situation, but the menace is straightforward and there is resolution (without graphic description). Both of these stories are terrific–in both senses of the word–October reads.

This was my take on a selected topic for another site. I hope you had fun. My wife wants me to make the story the basis for a new book, so I guess that turned out okay.

Happy October reading, and thanks for taking the time!

Pen and Suitcase: Travel as a Writer

The books we publish center around culture. In order to experience the culture, our characters travel. This blog mainly shares my thoughts on writing and about our completed (or nearly complete) projects. It makes sense to share a little about travel, particularly because of the slow realization that it plays a big role in my writing and an even bigger role in my life.

A Writing Experience

We’ll stick to traveling as a writer. Since we published Molly Goes to Rome, our family has been on two vacations. It was during one of these (in Florida) that I finished the first draft of The Shield of Horatius, the chapter book mystery that also takes place in Rome. It was a working vacation for me, but also for Amy and my parents as they all watched the kids when I went off somewhere to write. The beach was just yards away.

My first working vacation, though I didn't know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.
My first working vacation, though I didn’t know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.

Writing on vacation was not completely voluntary. I was and usually am of the mind that there can be work or there can be vacation, but mixing the two is tough. Both Amy and my parents were a little mystified why I wasn’t writing, but it’s tough to look after two small children in an unfamiliar place. My mind was wholly occupied with it because I didn’t want the responsibility to fall completely on Amy’s shoulders. We were on vacation!

They asked why I wasn’t writing and it was frustrating. “If you want me to write, I have to go somewhere. I can’t be on vacation and work, my mind has to focus on one of those things, it can’t be both.” The laptop and I arrived at a coffee shop about an hour later.

It was good work. Maybe it was the warmer weather or the setting, it’s hard to say, but the work went well and there were no creative blocks. In some way I was still on vacation and my mind was a bit more relaxed. The writing sessions were much longer than the typical efforts at home. That is probably why the last part of the book came together so quick and easy. I missed out on some fun with my family, but they were all supportive and the writing felt less solitary.

A Writer’s (Not Writing) Vacation

Travel is an opportunity to get to know new places and experience new things. The experiential aspect of travel has always been the main attraction. This includes eating local food, seeing unique and unfamiliar places, and trying activities you don’t have access to at home.

One of my previous jobs provided the opportunity to travel to California. Over a two-year period the company sent me four times in support of our products. Each time I took a couple extra days and did my best to take advantage: I drove the Pacific Coast Highway, mountain biked in Marin County, and stayed on in San Diego for a couple of days with old friends. Of all the experiences, the one most remembered is an early evening on an outdoor restaurant patio in Ocean Beach.

This was a moment the “California vibe” was all too plain and obvious. It was the moment that allowed me to understand why people are so attracted to the place and the lifestyle. It is something you can read about in an academic sense, but the experience is something fuller or more complete.

This is why we interview people for our books. Some things about a place are difficult to know without being there, or, more particularly, being from there. No amount of research can give a sense of how mangoes taste in Thailand, but to hear someone describe a tantalizing dessert and see and hear the experience played out through their body language and words…it’s the next best thing to being there. Some of the words our “host” characters use are direct quotes from our interviewees because you can’t duplicate their experience.

These are the little things that shape personalities and local cultures. A writer who travels is smart to seek these experiences. They help a character become three-dimensional and lend an air of authenticity to your settings.

Off the Path

The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.
The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.

This goes back a way, I think, and the benefits cannot be overstated. At age sixteen I was not into taking risks, yet I remember two moments that shaped future travel experiences. I was in Rome with a tour group from high school. We were in the city for three days and had some free time.

Perhaps it was the age, but I recall the confidence gained from using the city bus system. It’s silly, but this was a long way from home and a long way from any sort of comfort zone.

The second formative moment was setting out on my own to explore. The Colosseum was visible from our hotel so there was an excellent landmark to find my way back. I found an out-of-the-way restaurant, essentially in a back alley, and ate a meal hearing no English. The first time this happens to you it is frightening and, only later, empowering. It was a great opportunity to observe modern day Romans, but I wasn’t any sort of a writer then and had no inkling such a thing was possible. Still, it was an adventure and since then it has always been a goal to find places only locals frequent.

One such place I’m aware of, but haven’t seen (yet!), is a bar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This bar has a particular clientele, as related to me by someone who had been there many times: cowboys and soldiers. The latter were part of an Air Force facility that flew drones. The drones didn’t circle the surrounding desert, but another one halfway around the world. The cowboys were cowboys, tipping a few back after a hot day handling cattle. Many of them, I was told, were armed, pistols in holsters at their side. Ah, the story possibilities…

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada Chris Oler authorStories to Discover

There is much more in the Nevada desert just outside of Las Vegas. Excepting family vacations when I was young, Las Vegas has been my most frequent vacation destination. My wife and I have been there three times together and her total visits outnumber mine six to five. On three of those occasions, including my honeymoon, I visited the Valley of Fire.

Many movies have been filmed there. You can see why in the accompanying photo of Amy in nearby Red Rock Canyon. The vistas are incredible, vast, and in a mid-westerner’s mind, somewhat like being on another planet. It can and has inspired stories, nevermind the factual sagas that once took place, or perhaps still do.

To say such stories are embedded in the rocks is not metaphor. In the Valley of Fire there are petroglyphs and one

Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The two photos were taken from the same spot.

set records the story of a young boy. The boy was eager to prove his manhood and set out to hunt on his own, but it was too soon. In danger, the boy was rescued by his father and a lesson learned. How much literature has been created showing the dangers of pride? Or folk tales demonstrating the virtue of patience? One such story is written in the rocks of the Nevada desert and it is a place to inspire any writer.

No Right Way

There is no right or wrong way to travel. The point of this piece is just to say when you do, be open to your new surroundings. There is always something to learn. Stories are everywhere and as many know, one doesn’t have to travel to find them, but it sure is fun.

Five Reasons (Six if you’re a writer) to Like Cursive Writing

Some things once given as necessary are now seen as expendable. Cursive writing is an example. Let me caution you before reading: maybe you don’t use cursive. This post is in no way meant to criticize that. If you are an adult, you’ve made an informed decision because you likely were required to learn it.

I advocate for its inclusion in education curricula for the reasons listed below. When I’ve had a conversation on the topic with someone that opposes it, the only argument I hear is “it’s obsolete.” This post should convince you otherwise. If not, there are some interesting bits here about cognitive development. Bottom line: give your kids the choice you had.

Fine Motor Skills

The intricate movements necessary to differentiate some letters lead to better dexterity for the hand. Researcher William Klemm talks about hand-eye coordination and elaborates, “in handwriting the movements are continuously variable, which is much more mentally demanding (than single-stroke block letters).”

There is a creativity associated with the movement as well. With “continuously variable” letter combinations, our brains constantly formulate new movements, new paths for our hand. Later, we add personal fluorishes to the movement. As adults, we don’t think of it anymore and our movements are practiced and quick. For children, it’s an important part of developing.

A Higher Level of Thought

Studies connect the use of cursive with a higher level of thought. The same parts of the brain we access during reading are used when we write by hand. Typing on a keyboard doesn’t do this. Single-stroke block letters do it only in a lesser way. The implications for the development of a child’s brain are considerable. In effect, their brains receive a diminished diet of stimulation compared to the education we had.

Just in case you forgot!
Just in case you forgot!

Test-Taking Skill

Cursive writing is also a test-taking skill that allows a proficient student to write more in less time. I taught eighth and ninth grade English for four years and required cursive writing on all exams and in-class assignments. This was not without controversy. There was some parental resistance. My students all went on to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, where final exams (in just about every subject) require considerable amounts of writing. This is one reason I, and the department-at-large, felt strongly that block print should be discouraged.

Students with developed handwriting convey more ideas in less time. Cursive writing aids not only the physical act of recording the thoughts, but the mental ability to organize those thoughts.

Better Learning

Everyone learns in a slightly different manner. Many of us benefit from visual learning. Charts, graphs, photos and videos help us understand. We all benefit from this to a greater or lesser degree.

The same is true for writing. It’s called kinesthetic learning and most of the time we associate it with learning physical skills. This is often referred to as “learning by doing.” In my case, and I’m sure others, it also means that the act of writing helps commit information to memory. Because I take the time to write something, my brain seizes on it as important. Anytime I write out directions to go somewhere, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the slip of paper is in my pocket, it’s already memorized.

Better Listening

This also affects note-taking in class. When I taught speech we went over mistakes people make when they listen. One of these was “listening too hard.” It means we sometimes make the mistake of giving equal weight to everything that is said, rather than pick out significant points or facts.

This is precisely the tendency for someone taking notes on a computer. Meanwhile, the person who writes his or her notes can still make this mistake (as I did), but has a lot of motivation to develop new and better listening habits. Sharpening the skill allows the student to pick out relevant information and the kinesthetic aspect of writing helps the student commit the information to memory.

Research for the Writer

The age of mobile phones and the vast tools we have access to via the web tend to downplay the need for written notes. Instead of recording information, we return to it at will by bookmarking its location. This plays out in a greater context than writing: there is an increased tendency for people to no longer remember an answer to a question, rather, they remember where to find the answer to the question.

Written notes for a writer, however, are a necessary thing. Writers very often must research various topics to plausibly use them in a story. What is easier, to bookmark something and continually return to it for reference? Or writing it down, thereby committing it to memory, and having access to it whether or not you happen to be in front of a computer? It is no contest, and the writing flows much more easily when you have knowledge of the topic, rather than rely on access to that knowledge.

Writing: More Important Than Ever

The Information Age brought us e-mail and social media. What does one do to realize the potential of these forms…oh, yes! One writes! Along with these things, we’ve seen the magnification of communications blunders. Nevermind talent, a merely competent writer is in demand! Today, he or she is a “content provider.” Does cursive writing make me a better content provider? It does, for all the reasons listed above.

Plus, I think a page of written notes looks cool. Thanks for reading!

Creativity (Part IV) Spark

The original question that inspired these creativity posts asked what books I recommended for the creative process. My answer is any book. There is no particular book I know on the process that is particularly helpful because my reading in this area is nonexistent. Still, any experience is of help. Sometimes we just need to hear the same thing said in a different way.

Here are are my tips for finding that extra bit of creativity when needed. I consulted no other articles putting this together, but have read on this topic in the past and these suggestions likely echo others. What makes sense for one often makes sense for others.

Spark Tip #1: Read

This past week I read a somewhat dated action/suspense thriller. It mainly concerned terrorism. This book gave me the idea for a new chapter in my current project, a middle-grade mystery. More

Most of our character creations to date!
Most of our character creations to date!

specifically, the chapter concerns a key figure in the story and his experiences. There is a direct relationship between the information and unraveling the mystery. None of it involves terrorism. In fact, it’s mainly about carpentry.

How did the book inspire this? I’m not entirely certain. No similar chapter appears in the book. Nonetheless, the text engaged in a way where the thought processes used were similar to what was needed to create the idea. Logically, that is the best answer I can give.

Reading stimulates our brains, and fiction in particular should spark the creative center. If it doesn’t, the author isn’t doing a good job. We constantly concoct visuals to go with the text. This is the reverse of how I write: my brain creates a visual and text is written that puts the same visual in the head of a reader. That’s the idea anyway.

Different tools stimulate our brains in different ways. As an example, each night before studying in college I did the New York Times crossword. It took a couple of months to actually finish a full crossword, but complete or not the clues stimulated the analytical parts of my brain and made the reading much easier. Our classes were largely discussion based (small school), so breaking down large amounts of text into easy-to-explain summaries was the task at hand. It was a sort of game and the crossword gave the right mental nudge to do it.

Spark Tip #2: Write!

“Wait, but that’s exactly what I’m having trouble with!” Think of it as a lateral maneuver. Your mind won’t go where you want it to, so take it somewhere else and find another path to what you want. Write about something fun, or something you know. There is a scene in Finding Forrester, where Sean Connery plays a famous author, that rings true. He sits down to write while his protege sits across from him waiting for inspiration. “Start with something familiar,” Connery says and gives him an old essay. The younger man copies the first sentence and then he’s off on his own writing journey.

Everyone writes a bit different and our experiences are unique. Maybe you love to compose poetry, but the project in front of you isn’t a poem. It doesn’t matter because, again, you access the right part of your mind. Once you wake up those brain cells, put them to work on what you really want to write.

The results of my experience with this are mixed. I have a hard time writing about my hobbies and tend to lose focus on the intended message. Our experience with our interests is immersive; there is a lot of information stored in our heads! We have so much detail in our memories is not always easy to put aside that clutter and effectively communicate our experience. So it is sometimes a frustrating exercise to write about things we love.

That said, the effort expended is not a waste. Part of the creativity we want to access is simply forming sentences and varying their structure. That is a worthwhile way to spend time.

Spark Tip #3: Edit

You might also backtrack a bit if you’re in the middle of a project. Do some light editing or re-read the previous chapter. In other words, re-connect with the ideas that advanced the story or make

If you haven't done this, authors, make the opportunity happen. It is too much fun to miss.
If you haven’t done this I hope you get the opportunity. It is too much fun to miss.

new connections. It’s a good idea even if the storyline you want to write isn’t directly related (possible, but unlikely).

This is an effective technique. First, it puts me more at ease with the book draft because it cleans up a few things. Second, it re-establishes the pace of the narrative. The mental energy that goes along with being part of that pace opens up the story. Once again, we’re immersed in the feel of the book. If you pair this with the fourth tip, it should give you somewhere to go.

Spark Tip #4: Consult Yourself

You made an outline, right? Okay, go back and take a look. Remember the arc you envisioned when all this started. It sounds a little odd, I mean, you might have the outline pinned to the wall and think you constantly access it. But we can and do lose focus. My chapter book mystery The Shield of Horatius is set, mainly, in modern Rome and the characters visit some amazing sites. There is a mighty temptation to drone on about the surroundings.

We put together likable characters that interact in interesting ways and…maybe…we overdo it. We fall in love with the dialogue and forget to serve the story even while we think we’re serving the art. The art, however, isn’t writing, it is storytelling. Witty banter between characters only does so much for the book. Consult your outline. Get back on track with the story.

 

Mind maps and other idea-generating practices also might be useful. I use and recommend these for essays, but never had a need for them when it comes to writing narrative fiction. No matter what anyone suggests, when you make the effort you likely will find something that suits you. As I said, our writing and our experiences all differ. It stands to reason there is no true model to produce a creative spark in every single one of us.

Good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

From End to Beginning (Creativity Part III)

Let’s take a moment. I know this doesn’t need to be said, but here it is: everyone’s approach to creativity is different. That said, I talked to a friend today who also writes and consults in marketing about his approach to the process. It was basically the same as mine.

Finish at the Start

The end dictates everything that happens. Because this is true, you have to start with the end. Story arc is something I always cover when we speak at elementary schools. It’s an easy thing with the illustrated series because the stories start and end at Molly and Michael’s house. There are many other elements we present, but the story itself ends where it begins, with knowledge gained.

It is, naturally, different with a longer story and the example genre here is a mystery. There is a sought outcome that may or many not involve location, but has everything to do with knowledge. The knowledge may be a location, or who did it–basically, the resolution of the main conflict. Items must be found, secrets uncovered, clues understood, trials faced, shortcomings overcome, and villains defeated. Some of it happens along the way. The story’s goal must be clear, both to writer and, eventually, reader. Everything in your story arc must serve the story resolution.

At our most recent school talk.
At our most recent school talk.

You have to know the end before you begin. If you do not, there is nothing to direct where the story goes. Obscure the end, make it uncertain to the reader, but be certain for the purpose of writing.

Wide Open Choices

The Shield of Horatius is a story about a lost artifact. That was the resolution I sought. So…where do I start?

It’s much easier to see the process in hindsight. I introduced the story of the artifact, its user, its protector, and then its finders (while also revealing the reason for their journey). It is a four-and-a-half page introduction that spans 2,500 years. It’s not a dry introduction, the first two segments take place in the heat of battle. Actually, I didn’t write the first segment, it is quoted from the Roman historian Livy. The second segment is historical fabrication on my part, though it takes place during events that are part of the historical record. The third part (re)introduces two of the main characters.

There was an end, now there is a beginning.

Creative?

How do we go from Point A to Point B? There must be points along the way. We move, within the story, in increments that inform, shock, frighten, endear, or produce any other effect we want to have on the reader. The goal is twofold: move toward the end and keep the reader interested.

It is at this point that you stop looking at the whole process as “creative.” Why? Because you’re filling gaps, doing things that make sense, creating the necessary events to lead to a plausible and exciting conclusion. You’re creative at every turn–varying sentence structure, using vivid language, revealing character–but it doesn’t seem so. For the writer, it’s a straight line from beginning to end, though the story may (and should) include twists and turns.

That is why creative process, in this context, is difficult to describe. There is no ritual I can give someone to think creatively. When you have the end and know where to start, the rest reveals itself. It doesn’t have the feel of creation, it is just storytelling. The thing is, and this is difficult to remember, the story only exists inside of you. No one else knows even if it is something that in your mind seems so clear.

And it is clear, or will be when things are going well. Things line up, twists pop to mind, the story pours out of you…when things go well.

When things don’t go well, there are a few things that help and we’ll discuss those next time.

 

Un-Creative Process

We started a discussion on creativity and reality intervened. A good reality: we released a new book. Even better for this post, I had the opportunity to discuss creative processes with my wife, Amy Houston Oler. She is a designer and illustrator, which you may know.

Creating a Concept

A moment of dual inspiration led to Molly and the Magic Suitcase. As we packed for a trip to Florida, our daughter crawled into my suitcase. She made a scooting motion as if she expected the suitcase to take her somewhere. I said, “Look! It’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” and snapped a photo. Amy immediately seized on my offhand remark as a concept for children’s stories.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, you have to be open to creation. Amy wanted to illustrate a children’s book since age ten. I gave it some thought years ago when a friend and I tried to develop a concept called “Dickie Matrix.” You may hear about that some day. Otherwise, I hadn’t thought about it, and wasn’t thinking about it in that moment.

Being open to creation means you recognize moments like this for what they are or what they can be. You must recognize opportunity when it presents itself. That is easier said than done. We all have experiences where, in hindsight, we missed the signal. Sometimes it is obvious, but not often. Other times, it hits you subconsciously. Three or four times in my life, I had dreams that were fully scripted movies or plays. I didn’t write anything down. The dreams were interesting to me, but I didn’t recognize the opportunity to create.

This map appears in The Shield of Horatius. These are key locations for the story.
This map appears in The Shield of Horatius. These are key locations for the story.

Inspiration, more often, is subtle. You sit in a coffee shop and idly wonder about a group of three people discussing something at a nearby table. You see a road that disappears over a hill and consider what is on the other side. A headline conjures images in your head that may or may not have anything to do with the story. You read a passage in a story that stirs curiosity because its information is incomplete.

“Secret negotiations in Norway”

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed a “Declaration of Principles” that was to govern negotiations between Israel and the (then) Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was an unlikely breakthrough. I was in college at the time, studying political science. Several news stories referred to “secret negotiations in Norway,” but nothing elaborated on it. It stirred my curiosity. So much so that I researched and wrote a 20 page paper on what happened.

It was simple: there was a question that needed an answer. There was a story to tell. It was a story something inside of me had to tell.

A Legend of Rome

I grew up reading mysteries (and comic books). After we finished the first two books in the Molly and the Magic Suitcase series, it was time to try something new. We wanted to reach older readers, but use some of the same elements: introducing language, food, and different aspects of culture. It was a simple concept to flesh out. I aged the characters and led them back to a destination they previously visited. I had the setting, the characters, and the idea it would be a mystery.

The setting, of course, was Rome. There is history on every corner, and, quite literally, in every wall. For example, today there is a restaurant on the Aventine Hill, just west of the Circus Maximus. Part of its walls are the ruins of an old Roman temple. I wanted to incorporate things like this, wanted to tie the history of the city into the mystery. It wasn’t a creative decision for me, it just made sense. When you have a concept, creativity often feels like common sense.

The next step was a simple Google search: “legends of Rome.” This led me to Publius Horatius Cocles, the famed defender of a bridge. It was a modern day mystery so I made the story a lost artifact. The survival of any shield from that era (508 BC) is much less than likely, but I had the concept, and at least two questions that needed answering: where is the artifact now and how did it survive to present day?

This was the story I had to tell. A hundred more questions arose and were answered. How did the kids’ friend connect with the concept? Why do Molly and Michael get involved? How did the shield survive the first sacking of Rome in 390 BC? What about the subsequent sackings? What were the antagonist’s motivations? I knew the right questions were asked because I had fun doing the historical research to come up with believable answers.

Review

The key is recognition of creative opportunities. Many writers and songwriters keep a journal close at all times. They expect inspiration at any time. My approach to The Shield of Horatius was much more structured because some of the parameters were already set. The second mystery is a work currently in progress, and I sometimes wonder if the concept wasn’t somewhat forced. Still, I’ve written close to half the book and my editor eagerly awaits more (not because of a deadline). Perhaps I need to take my own advice and recognize the opportunity.

This is just the first step. By no means does it represent the total creativity needed for the book. Each sentence requires it, but, first, you need a story to tell!

 

Molly Goes to Shanghai!

Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.
Cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. This is Yuyuan Garden.

It’s a bit turned around, but this time out the Kindle edition of Molly and the Magic Suitcase: Molly Goes to Shanghai is available!

This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
This is the skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

We’re thrilled with this one. It took a lot of research and we had our main contributor proofread it. It’s fun and there is much to learn.

The print edition will likely be available tomorrow, but we won’t make a formal announcement until Monday. We reach more people that way. Here are a few images.

Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!
Molly wonders what awaits in Shanghai, China!

Be Creative

“Be creative.” This likely conjures different thoughts and meanings depending on your interests or work. There are different creative aspects to what I do now and that is what this post discusses. It is the creativity associated with writing a book series, as well as marketing work. First, however, let’s consider what “creative” means.

The Creative

The word is sometimes used as a noun. This is true in marketing and advertising firms. A creative is someone who works either in design (whether graphic or web design) or produces content. Ten years ago, the latter would simply be known as a copywriter. Today, however, video production is more integrated into blogs and websites, so the definition must expand to include the person who develops these visuals, as well as the person that writes the script.

My work entails some of these things, but it didn’t always. Before I was a “creative,” when the term was mentioned, the thought that came to mind was of someone who created something out of nothing. Sometimes it was true. Now things are different. We don’t create ad campaigns based on creativity, at least not if we’re smart about our approach. Any sort of campaign should be an extension of a company’s personality or culture. This has been the advisable direction of content creation for at least five years, and some companies make good use of it.

Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.
Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.

There was another image of a creative person, in the agency context. It was someone who wasn’t particularly professional or organized. One might say rebellious, but indulged may be a better description. Indulged, that is, if they did a good job of being creative. And again, from the outside, that appeared to be some sort of magic.

Creative Work

There are creative people in all walks of life and work. Some solve internal problems in a new way, others see possibilities in new markets (or new possibilities in old markets), and a good number figure out the next big thing in terms of products or machine tooling, etc.. Teachers are creative on a daily basis, tailoring lesson plans for students with different learning styles or challenges. A retail salesperson is creative in how he or she interacts with people, because no two customers are exactly the same. A book author is creative in finding a new story to tell.

This is the work I can discuss. Some of my experiences apply to the other areas, but this is a writer’s blog.

Someone asked recently what books I recommended for the creative process. I have no recommendations. Well…that’s not true. Any book can inspire creativity.

“NO,” you shout, “that isn’t what I came to learn. How do you get creative?” In other words, what steps can I follow to be more creative with writing, or have an easy flow of ideas?

Be Creative

It starts with capability. What resources can you call on? How much experience do you have writing? How many hours have you put into it? How much have you read? Have you read different types of books? How familiar are you with writing styles? Literary devices? How varied is your vocabulary?

All of these things give you choices; choices in narrative, in sentence structure, and much more. Writing fiction is more than telling a story. It needs to be told in a way that is effective for the audience you want to reach. That is my perspective. A writer can be as artistic as they want, but in the end if you fail to communicate the story to an audience, then all you accomplished is expression. When no one receives your message or is able to form another interpretation, then what good is a story? That is why having choices in how you write is necessary. Writing creativity starts with capability.

That is the beginning. Give some thought to your own capabilities and how you might improve them. I can identify particular experiences that improved mine: writing hundreds of letters and several speeches when I worked in politics,  learning Greek and Latin roots while teaching them to 8th and 9th graders, and instructing the same students in literary analysis. Some people say you need to live before you can write something of consequence. If it is experience you need, it is experience with writing. It comes both through hours of reading and composing.

This is pretty general, but it’s already run long. We’ll discuss the creative process in the next post and it will be here soon. Thanks for reading!

 

The Shield of Horatius and Outlines

The previous posts had two sections, but this is all about a single topic: outlines. I mention my middle-grade mystery here because this post shares my original outline. This provides some insight into the writing process. Well, that’s my goal.Shield of Horatius Cover

How important is an outline? It is crucial. Crucial, that is, if you want to write well and stay on track. Why? Writing is the communication of ideas through printed (whether on a screen or on paper) words. Even a book is an idea. The Shield of Horatius started with this thought: What if an artifact of a legendary Roman hero survived to today?

Several questions and ideas sprung from there: how could it happen? How do we navigate Roman history to make it plausible? How could it be found after millennia? Why was it lost? How long has it been lost?

See a need for organization? No question, but many of these questions were answered as I wrote, not before the writing started.

Before the writing started, I made the most simple outline possible. Basically, I created the Table of Contents (TOC). Below are both my original TOC and the final version that appears in the books.

Shield of Horatius Outlines

It was that simple. I referred to the eleven items as the book developed. Other writers create much more intricate outlines. Do what makes you feel most comfortable. My preference is leaving things loose so there is plenty of room for change. Clearly there was change here, two chapters are crossed out.

The first was “A Shadow in the Hall.” It was my original intent to have Chapters Four, Five, and Six occur in the same location. At some point I realized it would slow the story down, the pacing would be far too slow. So Chapter Four remained where it was, and Chapter Five happens in a location a few blocks away. The characters move as the story moves.

The second editorial change was deletion of “The Golden House.” This is a reference to the huge residence Nero built called the Domus Aurea, Latin for “House of Gold.” I wanted the characters to visit, but there were two problems. First, the house was lost for a long, long time. When Nero was killed, the people hated him so much they buried the house and drained the artificial lake next to it. The site of the lake, by the way, is where the Colosseum stands today. Nero’s death came just four years after the house was built.

A second problem was an actual visit to the Domus Aurea is difficult because the site isn’t stable. Restoration work is underway and part of the site reopened at the end of last year, but it was closed when I wrote the book. Both of these factors meant the house was not a plausible location.

Reality sometimes interferes with creative choices.

Chapter Eleven is still there on the pre-writing side, but, unfortunately, the Pantheon is only discussed in the book, not visited. The reason for the visit was problematic because the Pantheon is today a functioning Catholic church. So I used the location secondhand and with pretty good results, but not until Chapter Thirteen of the actual book.

I encourage you to do a simple outline, even if you usually make detailed preparations for writing. When you write, it should be fluid. If things go well, the story flows. That is not to say it cannot be done another way, it just makes any new decision much more difficult. For example, if you come up with a brilliant change to a character or scene in the beginning or middle of your book, then everything else must shift to accommodate the change. How willing will you be to make the change? Leave it open and trust your writing instincts.

Do it your way, but make sure you do it. Even the most basic outline gives you a path. When we travel, we don’t note all the streets we drive past. Instead, we mark the turns. We do that because the turns are significant. If we know the map well enough, we might even think of an alternate route, and might be forced to do so if we come upon a closed road. Flexibility is important to reaching the end of the journey.

Thank you for taking a few moments! Please share your thoughts on outlines.

Current Work and Writing Traps

Molly Goes to Shanghai

We have a prospective cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. In the next couple of days I’ll have the first draft of the story.

Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.
Possible cover for Molly Goes to Shanghai. It depicts Yuyuan Garden.

It’s an interesting process. It takes good research to get to this point because we already have the outline for the story. Writing the draft isn’t about structure, but about finding the voice of the characters, particularly the friend Molly and Michael meet in Shanghai. Her name, by the way, will likely be Li, named after one of our contributors.

We compiled a good amount of research, as I said, to get this far. Even with that, I know much more is ahead. It is not enough to know the locations we show in the book. A local makes references to other places, uses local nicknames, and his or her speech is sometimes influenced by a local dialect. In the case of Shanghai, “dialect” doesn’t cover it. Shanghainese, the local language, is unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

This brings up one of the questions we face: do we use Shanghainese in the story or Mandarin when we introduce bits of language? This is where our interviews are important. What we learned is that Shanghainese is mostly used by older residents and used in an exclusive way, meaning it is used to exclude others. Younger people in Shanghai speak some Shanghainese, at least enough to converse with their elders, but mainly use Mandarin in work and school situations.

Our decision was easy. The story will introduce bits of Mandarin Chinese and this is another area where more research is required.

Luckily, I love research.

The Personal in the Formal

A formal essay should contain no personal references to author or the reader. This is mainly for our younger readers, though it’s a tendency some carry for some time. This is the sixth rule in my Five Six Rules of Writing on the About page.

The rules aren’t anything new, but nothing was referenced when the list was created. For serious writers, similar suggestions or warnings are given in The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and (originally) E. B. White. The list also borrows inspiration from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” where he elaborates on the dangerous principles behind Big Brother’s “newspeak” from the book 1984. The essay is more than 60 years old and more important today than ever.

When school writing assignments get longer and longer, five-paragraph essays and more, there still isn’t much distinction between formal and informal writing. That’s absolutely fine. As a teacher, I wanted to see the quality of ideas more than the quality of writing, but I also wanted to see progression on the writing side.

Many English teachers do not approach their craft from the writing perspective. They concern the students more with analytical tools for understanding literature. If one has to judge, I would probably agree that is the more fun side of teaching English. I enjoyed it, but gave my students a heap of writing instruction, including diagramming sentences. I’ll explain the importance of some of these things in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about formal writing.

An essay is an effort to persuade the reader to agree with you. Let’s first understand that. Because you want to be persuasive, it is important to leave yourself out. The main reason for this I mention in an example with the rule:

“I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion” diminish your points. I think the Governess was insane (Turn of the Screw reference). Be assertive. The Governess was insane.

Well, the author, Henry James, did not write the story with the belief the Governess was insane, though it really doesn’t matter for this example. Besides, the essay is about your ideas. Even so, unless you’re quoting something, the pronouns “I” and “me” should never appear. Don’t remind the reader (teacher) that this is the work of an 8th or 12th grader, or college sophomore, strengthen your viewpoint by making your voice as formal as you can.

“But,” you say, “you don’t write with formal language here!” Yes, you are right. I want to connect in a different way here, and I don’t want to bore the heck out of you. Here I constantly reach out to “you” and talk about me. If this were formal writing, I would do neither.

That is because the star of the essay must be ideas, not writing. Writing at its best isn’t even noticed. The ideas (or the story) take over the reader’s thoughts. That is when a real connection is made.