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Monday, November 27, 2017

Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a story, and I've found that perhaps some of the worst feedback to give and receive is that of unbelievability. There is a kind of stinging and feeling of foolishness that comes with the criticism. I've had it, and I've given it--multiple times each. Most often, this criticism is given to new writers.

Now when I say believeablitiy, I'm not saying your stories can't have any dragons or magic or advanced technology. Stranger Things Season 2 recently came out, and I've heard people complaining that KFC wasn't actually called KFC in 1984, or that no one had side parts until later years. Isn't it funny that we have no problems "believing" that there is a parallel world where monsters live and that a young girl can have psychokinetic abilities, but people can't believe that a character has a side part? What a funny life we live in our entertainment.

If you've been told that something in your story is unbelievable, there could be a few different reasons as to why. It might simply be that what you put in the story couldn't actually happen in the real world--if you are dealing with a real world setting. Or it could be because the mechanics of fiction is different than our reality. Here are the different reasons and routes unbelievable content manifests itself in fiction.

The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I recently read an article about a woman who got pregnant a second time, when she was already pregnant. It's weird right? That's not how nature works. However, this woman had a rare condition that allowed this to happen. Now, you can say this is a true story, because it is. But if you try to put this into your story, without proper explanation, or when you already have a lot of other unusual things happening in your story, it will probably ring false. Critics will say, "But what are the chances of that?"

This is because fiction works off rules of probability, not what actually happened. The less probable something is, the more likely your audience will be skeptical. It's even worse if you stack up multiple improbabilities into one piece. This is one of the reasons you may hear about the "one impossibility rule," which is the idea that audiences can only believe in one impossibility per book. Of course, there are ways to break this rule, and it is broken in many works, but generally speaking: one impossibility. And this works off the suspension of disbelief that audiences come to a story with, which is a topic all its own.

There are a few tricks to getting around the probability issue. One is validating the audience's skepticism, but it has to be done with care and not overused. Otherwise, it will still ring false.

But almost always,

Probability > Reality

Tension is More than Conflict and Spectacle

Another avenue unbelievability takes to get in, is through conflict and spectacle. This usually happens when the writer is trying hard to make the story "really good" by making it intense, skyscraping stakes, and putting in massive hooks. The story may start fine, but suddenly, conflicts are going crazy, and the writer is throwing in intense scenarios that don't actually fit the story or aren't portrayed with real-life consequences.

For example, you might feel that your romance story is getting a bit boring for the audience, so you throw in a serial killer. The protagonist knows about the serial killer, but has no problem walking home alone after midnight, or she encounters the serial killer, but decides (for no legitimate reason) not to contact the police, because that's not the direction, you, the writer, want to take the story. Or maybe your character gets accused of murdering someone (because crazy conflict is good, right?), but that's not actually what you want the story to be about, so you don't flesh that part out, and eventually get back to the main storyline.

These sorts of things happen because the writer thinks the crazier the conflict, the better. They might be afraid their story is too boring, and so they are trying to liven it up for the audience. What they don't realize is that tension is what keeps the reader reading, far more than conflict.

Tension doesn't necessarily need outlandish conflict. It doesn't need a spectacle to be interesting. Tension can happen in a conversation between a father and daughter. It can be present when a protagonist is deciding who to invite to a concert when she only has four tickets and six friends. Tension can be there in a job interview, where the characters are trying to appear cool and collected and professional, but inside are not.

Tension > Conflict

You don't need to throw in crazy conflicts to make your story interesting. You just need to learn how to take advantage of tension.

Now, if you want to throw in crazy conflicts, fine, but the consequences, facets, and ramifications of such things must be spoken to, to be realistic. Some things you just cannot turn a blind eye to. And don't forget to incorporate the probability aspect.

You can read more about tension vs. conflict here.

 Writing What You Don't Know

Sometimes something is unbelievable just because the writer didn't do their research. For example, if you were writing about the Mormon church at a part in your story, and you told me that Mormons worship Joseph Smith and have a golden Bible, as a Mormon, I'm going to giggle.

Look, the research part of writing is perhaps my least favorite part of writing (others say it's their favorite), so I understand that it can be annoying, especially when you just want to write the story. But sometimes you've got to do the research. And honestly, research has never been easier to do than it is to do today. You can find much of what you need online or in books. If you can't find that, you can find knowledgeable people to talk to or ask. Try not to feel stupid about asking questions. Most people you will talk to will probably want to tell you more than you want to know. And of course, make sure you are choosing reliable sources to get your information.

The other facet of this problem is inexperience, and in some ways, I feel that inexperience is its own topic.

Maybe you want to write about what it's like being a Chinese woman in the West, but you are a Caucasian teenage boy in a small town in the South. Maybe you want to write about an astronaut on Mars, but the furthest you got into your science career was high school chemistry and biology. Maybe you want to write a story about how a Christian helped convert an atheist--but you've never spent sincere time speaking with atheists about their genuine perspective and end up writing a two-dimensional caricature that turns a blind eye to the intricacies and complexities of the argument, "Is there a God?"

Really, inexperience can crop up in any number of things.

All of us are inexperienced in some way.

Does that mean you should only write about what you have lived? Of course not. That's ridiculous. You think everyone who has written a female character has been a female? Do you think only straight actors portray straight character? We're writers--we are imagining things we haven't lived all the time. It's likely we'll all write something wrong from our inexperience at some point.

In some situations, you can go out and gain the experience you need. If you've never been to the beach, maybe you can go to the beach. But if you've never been a Chinese woman, then maybe you need to speak and spend some time with one. And don't do anything stupid that compromises your moral standards just to gain firsthand experience.

Even if we don't have personal experience of something, we can sometimes draw from past experiences that may be similar or relate to said experience, and go from there. In some cases, for very specific set-ups or information, we can bluff it as writers, but it takes practice to make such bluffs believable. If you have access to someone who may have experience with whatever you are writing, you can ask them to read over your passage.

Convenient Human Behavior

One area in particular that audiences don't have a lot of patience for when it come to unbelievability, is human behavior. We will read about aliens and superheroes and not blink an eye, but when a character doesn't act human (or within the realms of whatever species he is, if you are writing speculative fiction), we won't believe it. In some beginners' stories, it may manifest itself in characters not having logical or probable reactions to certain things.

For example, if your protagonist's child dies unexpectedly, and then the next scene shows us the protagonist still moving forward preparing a holiday party with no sign of grief or distress, the audience is going to be skeptical (unless your protagonist is villainous and was the one who killed the child). This sort of problem usually relates to the tension/conflict problem. The writer throws something big into the story to make it more interesting, but then doesn't want to actually include the ramification of such a thing, so out of convenience, they continue the story without showing the character grieving. It's convenient human (or "inhuman") behavior.

Other times this happens because the writer simply doesn't know how to write a character who is in that particular emotional state. In my example, the writer may not know how to write a parent grieving for a child, and so, they don't. They continue on with the rest of the story. In that way, this problem can relate to the research and inexperience section too.

In some cases, it's not so much about a character not acting logically human as it is a character acting out of character--out of the boundaries the writer has already set. If your protagonist is a huge pacifist that believes in the sanctity of all human life and then goes and shoots an innocent bystander, without explanation or development, the audience isn't going to buy that. Maybe it was convenient for the plot, but it doesn't fit the character.

In general, problems in this area stem from the above three sections. However, unbelievability in human behavior can be so damning and so common, that I've put it as its own section.

Now go forth and write believable fiction!

Monday, November 20, 2017

How to Write When You Don't Have Time

I might be losing my mind a little bit, but I swear someone asked me how to write when they don't have time, but now I can't locate the question in my inboxes or messages, but I thought I'd address it just in case someone actually did ask me this question.

First off, let me start by saying, I may not be the best person to answer this. I'm not married, don't have kids, and I work in the writing industry. So if anyone reading this has their own expertise to add to this post, please leave a comment for others.

Before getting too far into this topic, I want to acknowledge that some people may be dealing with a lot of life challenges at the moment, with serious health problems, being a caretaker for a loved one, serious financial problems, and unforeseen life crises, and may be legitimately unable to work on their writing because they ran out of today's time yesterday and their physical and mental stamina ran out before they got out of bed this morning. If you find yourself in such a category, don't fret. Life happens. It won't be this crazy forever.

But for the average person who has at least half a grip on their crazy busy life but can't quite squeeze writing into said life, here are some ideas that might help.

1. Get more out of your schedule by living with more intention.

Some of us human beings struggle to live intentionally. We pull out our phones to check on something, and before we know it, we've lost an hour to the social media black hole. Or we sat down to take a break and suddenly Netflix is asking us if we are still watching Stranger Things.

I know what some of you are thinking: Isn't this post supposed to be about people who are too busy to write? Not about people who are just sitting around?

My point is, whether or not you actually spend hours unexpectedly watching Netflix, there are probably parts of your day you are living without intention, which usually means time is slipping through your fingers.

Not everyone wants to live every hour intentionally. Many cultures and lifestyles around the world don't; they just go with the flow and do whatever, like the beach lifestyle.

What I am saying is that if you are a busy person who doesn't have time to write, and you want to have time to write, this might be what you want to look at. Do you have behaviors and parts of the day where you are unintentionally losing time? Do you have the tendency to procrastinate things you don't want to do, for example?

Intentional living doesn't mean you never get breaks. It means that when you take a break, you take breaks you intended to take. It doesn't mean that you never have free time. It means that when you have free time, it's something you intended. Intentional living means making every hour count, and getting rid of moments where time doesn't. It means when you are doing something, you are doing something, not kind of doing it. If I'm cleaning my room, but sort of just leisurely cleaning it, I'm probably losing time. But if I decide to draw upon more intention, and clean my room more intentionally, I'll make an effort to do it in a more efficient manner and get done quicker.

So look at your lifestyle and see if you can free up more time by living more intentionally. And notice that I didn't say you had to live at max capacity intention. I said more intention.

2. Don't work harder. Work smarter.

There is a business show I love to watch called The Profit. In it, successful business man Marcus Lemonis goes into failing businesses and helps build them back up. One of the things Marcus says is that it's better to work smarter than it is to work harder.

And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Here is a simple example. Let's say I'm working really hard at doing the dishes. I'm working as hard as I can, but my methods are random. I hand-wash and put the dishes away one by one. I'm putting a lot of time and effort into getting this kitchen clean. But you know what's better than working harder at that method? Working smarter.

Instead of hand-washing everything, I put them in the dishwasher. Instead of putting items away one by one as I wash them, I put them into piles and take the whole stack of plates to the cupboard at once.

Working smarter is about looking for ways to work more efficiently. It's about finding ways to get more done in the time you have, and finding easier but still effective methods.

Pretty much everyone is doing something that could be done more efficiently. When you work smarter you can free up more time. Or, when you write smarter, you can get more done in the amount of time you have.

3. Stop using mental energy focusing on the fact you don't have enough time.

My dad is a really busy person. One thing he said to me several months ago has stuck in my mind. He said, it's amazing how much more you can get done when you stop thinking about how you can't get it done.

This is probably going to sound weird, but the way we think is also a usage of time--our mental time. The mental time we spend thinking about how we feel sorry for ourselves is mental time we could be putting to use in a different way. You might could even say we can try to think with more intention or to think smarter. Instead of thinking about how I don't have time to do something, I could be spending the "mental time" and "mental stamina," thinking about how I can do that thing more efficiently.

Feeling sorry for ourselves about not having time often leads to sluggish demeanors and attitudes, and only makes it that much more difficult to be productive. It's like we've dropped a boulder in our own path that we now have to push out of the way before we can continue.

The older I get, the more I realize, how we think about things is everything.

Unfortunately, though, when you make statements like that, you get a whole bunch of people going out and trying to micro-manage all their thoughts and feelings, and they actually end up just suppressing said thoughts and feelings.

It's not about suppressing--it's not about telling yourself you aren't allowed to think or feel that way, that breeds resentment toward self and unrealistic expectations. Instead, if you have a problem with the way you think, you acknowledge it and move on. Or, depending on how serious it is, you acknowledge it, work through it, and then move on. It takes time--maybe months or years--but eventually it won't be a tendency to think that way anymore. I am a strong believer that in most circumstances, we can eventually change how we think.

Anyway, my point is, stop using your "mental time" on thoughts that aren't helpful to you. You don't need them anymore. It's not helpful to focus on how little time you have. What is helpful is focusing on how to best manage the time or task you have been given. What is helpful is spending your mental stamina on how you'll build your better life, realistically.

4. Stop procrastinating and implement the 20-minute rule.

Learn to start doing something you don't want to do, when you should do it. Don't watch an episode first. Don't play Candy Crush first. Sit down and start working. Remember, it's okay if you really, really, really don't want to do something. You are allowed to feel that way. But what matters is that you do it despite it.

My brother and I have a method for when we don't feel like working on something. It's what I think of as the 20-minute rule. Now, I don't know psychologically why this works, but it works for both of us almost every single time. And I've seen it work for many others.

When you don't want to work on something, you sit down and work on it anyway, telling yourself you only need to do it for 20 minutes. Now, you need to actually do the work intentionally--actually put in effort, not just sit there--and I don't know why, but almost always, by 20 minutes in, you realize it's not that bad. It's like my dad always says, "Nothing is as bad as you think it's going to be." After 20 minutes, it's easier to work longer, and I just keep working anyway.

You can try this with anything you don't want to do, in order to get it done quicker so you can free up writing time. But you can also do this with writing, when you finally have freed up a few minutes to write and don't feel like writing. Just give yourself 20 minutes. I bet 9/10 times you'll want to keep writing after the 20 minutes.

5. Use the percolation approach to writing.

There are discovery writers, people who like to just sit down and start writing and "discover" the story as they go; and there are outliners, people who like to outline the story before they start writing. But there is also another writing approach that's very common that we don't talk about much, which is the percolation approach.

Percolation is when you get ideas for a story, and you let them sit in your mind for a while until you are ready to write them. If you don't have a lot of time to write, or time to set aside to consistently write, the percolation method is a good one for you. You probably have ideas of what kind of stories you want to write. Let them sit in your mind. Let your subconscious take a stab at them. Think about them when falling asleep at night, or in the morning before you get out of bed.

When you feel ready to write the scene and have a few minutes, you're all ready to go.

I think most writers use a little bit of all three methods. The tricky part about percolation is you might hit an area that doesn't eventually come together on its own, so you do need to sit down and work it out. But, heck, you can even use the percolation method scene-by-scene. When one scene is ready to write, you write it. Then you let more ideas percolate, and then you write that scene. You don't have to write chronologically either. Write the scenes you want, and before you know it, you might have half the book in your head done.

6. Take advantage of mental writing

There are some tasks in life that don't require much brainpower, like folding laundry or pulling weeds or waiting in line to pick up your prescriptions. If you are trying to squeeze more writing into your life, these are places where you can spend "mental time" thinking about what story you want to write. Go ahead and daydream a little. Think about that scene you really want to get started on. Ponder how to solve that plot problem. Figure out that character. Let your mind wander on the subject in helpful ways. Or, if you have a specific writing element in mind focus on what you'll do about it. Jot ideas down in your phone--if you are like the rest of America, it's always near you.

7. Play to when and how you write best

If you haven't been writing long, you might not know how or when you do your best writing. But over time, writers figure out what works for them. Most writers I've talked to do their best work in the morning or at night. I've heard that this is partly because those are the times when the creative side of the brain is awake--after dreaming, or just before dreaming. I've heard that the creative side of the brain goes to "sleep" in the afternoon. Even if you are short on time, see if you can free up some time at the part of the day you write best. Can you wake up a half hour or more earlier? Can you stay up a little later? When you play to your best writing time, you are more productive during that time.

Do you write better with music? Or without? Do you like to be sitting? Or reclining? Do you like to eat one Oreo before you start? These are little things, but figuring out what you like and seeing if you can play to it consistently, will help signal to your brain that it's time to switch to writing mode, meaning less time trying to reach that mode and better use of your writing minutes. The more consistent you can be in your "pre-writing rituals" the more likely they are to be effective.

8. Use downtime activities to benefit your writing.

There is a scripture that I like: "See that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize."

In your efforts to fit writing into your life, don't forever sacrifice the downtime needed to rest and re-energize. There may be periods where you have next to no downtime in life, but you can't last forever like that. Ideally, you give yourself downtime every day, if only for 20 minutes.

But not all downtime is created equally. You can utilize that time by doing activities that energize you faster. I recently read a post about a writer who watched television on her downtime, but realized it didn't actually make her feel rested or re-energized, and instead, running did. That's her personal experience. Maybe television does make you feel rested. Whatever the case, evaluate what activities actually do lead to you having more energy, and what activities don't.

During downtime, you can watch or read fiction, which will help you with your writing. You can do something that requires your imagination. Or go for a walk and allow your mind to meditate on writerly things.


If you can find a balanced schedule that works consistently for you, maintain that stable schedule as long as you can.

Every time you have to try to switch to a new normal, you lose time and energy. Find the most effective schedule you can realistically maintain and keep it for as long as you can manage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Light the Dark: What Inspires You?

A few weeks ago, something really cool happened! Penguin Books sent me one of their latest writing books, Light the Dark. In it, 46 of the most acclaimed authors in the industry answer the question, "What inspires you?" by beginning with a passage from literature that had a profound impact on them. I'd like to participate in the concept by answering that question myself and asking you to participate in the same way. You don't have to post your answer online if you don't want to, but how cool would it be to flood the online world with this?

While you can all probably guess that I would point to Harry Potter for mine, and while that did have a big impact on shaping my relationship with literature and my career, I'm sure you are all tired of me talking about Harry Potter. So I've picked something different:

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I encountered this poem in my creative writing poetry class in college. It comes across as more of a lighthearted, joyful poem. And while I don't know that it was necessarily a life-changing piece, I felt an immediate bond with it, because it captures exactly how I've often felt with storytelling. The idea being that, it's something I love so much, that I wish I could ingest it--live off it. Reading or watching a story isn't enough for me. I need to chew on it, swallow it, digest it, have it give nourishment to my brain, my heart, the marrow in my bones. And on difficult or monotonous days, the promise of a good story waiting for me once I've finished my responsibilities, has sometimes helped sustain me.

It's really the first stanza that speaks to me most:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. Reading, watching, and writing--especially writing--stories has given me a happiness like none else. On a good writing day, I could sing. The sky could fall down on me, and I'd still be happy. There is no happiness like mine. All I want to do is eat stories.

I like that the librarian doesn't understand. And she must be a lover of books or literature. But there is nothing as delicious as consuming literature--to the point that it is dogeared and bent and marked up--and none of the pristine things that a volume should look like an a library shelf. The dogs are great too. Not only are dogs known to eat things up, but they are known to love life and everything in it. (I'm sure we've all seen how happy dogs are when they get something delicious to eat.) That's how I feel when I have a good story. I love life and everything in it.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I am a new man. Literature changes people. And the impacts are joyful. Even as a young child, after a good story, I wanted to run outside and romp with joy. I wish I could eat literature.

These experiences and feelings have undoubtedly shaped me. So many of my life choices have been decided based on my relationship with literature and storytelling. Writing down a scene just right--it's like there is no better feeling in the world! I would give anything to be a master storyteller. And I'm willing to put up with a lot in order to make the journey--more than I ever would have, if I'd never tasted the full sweetness of literature.

And this is partly what Light the Dark is all about. In the preface, editor Joe Fassler discusses how literature can literally change us--"I read something, and wasn't the same afterward." And what I like about the book is that although every writer starts by talking about a passage or a life-changing line of literature, from there, they wander into topics about ethics, adversity, identity, or the craft of writing, and explore life experiences, wise revelations, significant career choices, and their relationship with their own literature. I could go on with mine, but I'd rather you take a look at what the masters have to say.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

A stunning masterclass on the creative process, the craft of writing, and the art of finding inspiration from Stephen King, Junot Díaz, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, and more of the most acclaimed writers at work today

What inspires you? That's the simple, but profound question posed to forty-six renowned authors in LIGHT THE DARK. Each writer begins with a favorite passage from a novel, a song, a poem—something that gets them started and keeps them going with the creative work they love. From there, incredible lessons and stories of life-changing encounters with art emerge, like how sneaking books into his job as a night security guard helped Khaled Hosseini learn that nothing he creates will ever be truly finished. Or how a college reading assignment taught Junot Díaz that great art can be a healing conversation, and an unexpected poet led Elizabeth Gilbert to embrace an unyielding optimism, even in the face of darkness. LIGHT THE DARK collects the best of The Atlantic's much-acclaimed "By Heart" series edited by Joe Fassler and adds brand new pieces, each one paired with a striking illustration. Here is a guide to creative living and writing in the vein of Daily Rituals, Bird by Bird, Draft No. 4, and Big Magic for anyone who wants to learn how great writers find inspiration—and to find some of your own.

CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Elizabeth Gilbert, Junot Díaz, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Angela Flournoy, Jonathan Franzen, Yiyun Li, Leslie Jamison, Claire Messud,  Edwidge Danticat, David Mitchell, Khaled Hosseini, Ayana Mathis, Kathryn Harrison, Azar Nafisi,  Hanya Yanagihara, Jane Smiley, Nell Zink, Emma Donoghue, Jeff Tweedy, Eileen Myles, Maggie Shipstead, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III, Billy Collins, Lev Grossman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Charles Simic, Jim Shepard,  T.C. Boyle, Tom Perrotta, Viet Thanh Nguyen, William Gibson, Mark Haddon, Ethan Canin, Jesse Ball, Jim Crace, and Walter Mosley.

You can learn more about Light the Dark or pick it up here.