Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out
by Alicia Rasley

You can decide what to love. You can spark the fire.
Enthusiasm doesn’t always arrive fully blown. Sometimes you have to take a little spark and turn it into a flame.
For example, Sam was hauling the Christmas tree off to the mulch pile in the city park when he heard a bird warbling. Its insistent song- weeuh weeuh weeuh—really stood out in the snowy winter day, when most of what Sam could hear was traffic and the cracking of iced-up tree branches above him. He stopped in the middle of the park, forgetting his errand, forgetting the little dead tree in his hands, and wondered, “What sort of bird hangs out all winter in the city?”

He’d never been interested in birds before, and to tell the truth, he wasn’t all that interested now. He was just momentarily intrigued, and made a mental note of it, and – he’s a software guy, so he’s always thinking of things like this—wondered if anyone had ever designed a phone app to record and identify bird songs. (Duh, of course.) But when he’d tossed the tree on the pile and got his phone set to record, the bird was gone, or at least, the song had changed to a long intricate trill of different notes. It was as if the shower-singer had given way to the opera singer.

When he got home, he sat down at the computer and (natch) googled to identify the birds. What he found really intrigued him. He hadn’t heard two birds, each singing their songs, but one bird singing two songs. He started reading about the northern mockingbird, which somehow can imitate other birds’ songs and repeat them back note-perfect.

Now Sam wasn’t any kind of actor or con-man (he was in software development), but he’d always had a secret envy for people who could do impressions of famous voices. So he started reading more about the mockingbird, and the next morning, same time, he went back to the park. This time it wasn’t on a Christmas-shutdown errand, but just to pursue this momentary interest. When he caught sight of the chubby gray-and-white bird, he had his phone handy and was able to snap a picture.

He’d never been into birding, and he’d always thought of it as a pursuit for less-macho people. But he was at loose ends since the divorce and the kids leaving home, and work wasn’t challenging anymore. And he’d been at his company so long, he was up to five weeks vacation a year.  So after a few weeks of going to the park and trying to find the mockingbird and its fellows, he thought he might as well take a few days’ birding trip to somewhere warm.

By the time he got back, well, he wasn’t precisely obsessed with birding. But he realized he’d had fun on the trip. The other birders were interesting people, rather like software developers in their temperament (focused and thoughtful) if not their conversation. There were even a couple women he thought could become friends. He decided to emulate the mockingbird a bit and “act as if”—act as if birding was interesting. And what do you know— just sticking with it, and fanning that tiny flame, Sam found himself a new hobby. He never got as passionate about birds as some of his new friends, but he enjoyed being outdoors, and enjoyed the quiet during the hikes and the lively conversation afterwards. Most of all, he liked his new community. A year later, he marvels at how the accident of hearing that little bird in the park led to – well, not a life-change, but a life-opening.

You might remember that great time in your childhood, when you skipped from one fleeting interest to another, and your poor parents shelled out for a drumkit and then a skateboard and then all those watercolors and…. You had all the time in the world to sample potential obsessions, and if you were lucky, one stuck, and you ended up in the city symphony or at least playing Auld Lang Sine on the piano late at night on New Year’s Eve.

But you know what? We don’t have time to skip around anymore. We don’t have time to sample. And we know whatever we do isn’t likely to end up as the route to a PhD or fame and fortune. There’s no purpose to new hobbies in the last-chance decade—except to have fun and meet people and maybe do a little good and join or start a community.

Trouble is, without the energy and openness of youth, and with all the usual distractions of everyday, it’s hard to get excited about anything new. It might not be worth all the fuss.
Well, make it worth it. You have more discipline and focus than you did when you were young. You can actually make yourself more interested, now that you know how to move beyond the mere activity into creating a whole situation: That is, you won’t just DO this, you can research it and converse about it and join a group and take trips. You have resources now to make this minor interest into a major part of your life. (And you know if it starts to bore, you can quit it without regret, as it’s only your own money that bought that drumkit or invested in that birding app!)

Some tips to fan a flicker into a flame:

  1. Consider what, overall, you ought to do, that you’re already thinking you should get going on.
“I really need to get out from behind the computer.”
“I need to get more fit.”
“I need some new friends.”
“I should get more involved with the community again now that the kids are gone.”
“I’ve been so self-absorbed since the break-up.”
“I’m bored. I need to do something fun.”
“I have to exercise my brain more.”
“If I’m going to take that trip to Italy, maybe I should learn some Italian.”
If you can link this existing need to a new hobby, you’ll feel more motivated. Birding will get you outdoors and away from the computer. Volunteering at the city music festival will get you involved with the community. Hiking in the woods will help you get more fit.

  1. Think beyond broad categories of activities you used to enjoy, like “nature” and “socializing” and “music.” Try to pinpoint what you really liked about that, like, “I didn’t care much about all those nature walks, but I sure liked camping in a tent,” or “I thought I was going to be a movie star, but that never worked out. Looking back, what I really liked about acting was the cast parties after first night,” or “I wasn’t much good at the flute, but I still remember how my teacher would accompany us on the piano. I kind of liked the piano, but my parents could only afford a flute.” Once you get into what was the really fun part (camping, cast parties), you can more effectively design a new hobby to create that experience without all the more boring stuff.
  1. Look for existing interest groups where you can join at low cost and low commitment. “Meetup” groups are great for this. You can just show up at the assigned place and play a few games of Scrabble or go to a film or take a hike in the woods with the group. No one will bug you to buy a year’s subscription or run for group president. You can just do the activity in the company of other people who enjoy it.
  1. Stick with it for awhile. Of course, if you have a rotten experience—you break your ankle hiking, or the Scrabble players are all PhD linguists who scoff at your words—you might try another group or a related but less intense activity. But if the experience is okay or better, try it again on the next possible occasion. This doesn’t have to end up as a lifelong, life-changing obsession. You just want to have some fun. So don’t require a huge conflagration of passion the first experience. Just remember, a flicker can become a flame if you don’t douse it too quickly.
  1. When you find some hobby you like, ritualize it. To make it a hobby, it has to be more than a habit. Alas, one of the lessons we learn as we get older is—a good habit is easy to break. These days, there are just too many distractions, too many other things to do. If it’s not the TV in every room, it’s the web on your computer and phone that can give you momentary if empty entertainment. Nothing becomes really meaningful, however, unless you repeat it—make a date of it, make an occasion. “Thursday night is film noir Meetup night!” “Every March, I’m going to London!”
  1. Make it more. Enhance the experience. Make it your own. Add something to it. If you meet up every Thursday at a friend’s home to watch the film noir, start bringing popcorn (or, if you’re also trying to get fit, some crunchy veggies and hummus). Make it more fun—a different type of popcorn every week, or a new kind of punch.
Make it more. If you’re in a book group, maybe do a half hour of research beforehand and give a mini-report on the author or the early (and misinformed) reviews of the book. Before the Italian lesson, go out to an Italian restaurant, or experiment with making a new kind of pasta. If you’ve started birding, buy a bird book or borrow a new pair of binoculars.
And let’s face it. Nothing makes an occasion more memorable than taking a couple photos and posting them on Facebook or Instagram. You’ll have the pleasure of other people commenting, “Oh, I always wanted to do that!” And in a year, Facebook will repost the photo so you can remember it.

  1. If this turns out to be more than just fun—if you find yourself getting passionate—ride that wave! Expand your experience. If you’ve been teaching yourself guitar chords by watching Youtube videos, maybe now you might spend a little money and employ some impoverished music student or old grunge bandmember to tutor you. If you’ve been volunteering at your old school, consider joining a committee or even running for school board.
Remember your limitations, however. You don’t want to overload your life and start fretting about what used to be fun. For example, I wanted to help more with kids in my sons’ old school, but when I talked to a tutoring organization, I realized that while I was still working and traveling so much, I really couldn’t commit to weekly sessions. So I put that desire aside for later, for when I’m retired. I’ve done enough of the tutoring to know I really want to do it, and I can keep that flame alive until I can really make it more of a passion.

  1. Most important, stick with it long enough to know if it will be meaningful in your life. Many of us have gotten so competent at our jobs, we might get impatient at being beginners again. But if we can get past the awkwardness of being around much younger but more knowledgeable film fans, and if we can persist with the Italian lessons even if we can tell our accent is horrendous, then we will get past that uncomfortable newbie experience and be ready for more easy enjoyment. We really do know how to learn and grow efficiently and effectively, and we’ll probably get better at this pretty fast, if we just… you know… stick with it.

  1. But… but really, if it’s not right, if it’s getting less not more fun, try something else. We don’t have endless time to devote ourselves to a pursuit that agonizes us rather than interests us. We know we have a limited store of patience, so why waste it on a group of people who make us anxious and unhappy? If after a few months, it’s still no fun, let it go and try something else. It might help to analyze what you liked and didn’t like (“I liked going on the ski trips, but I didn’t like whole competitive vibe of the group, like you were a loser if you didn’t want to risk your life”) so that you can find a better experience without the negatives.

  1. Most of all, open yourself to enjoyment. Put away that hard-earned cynicism (“Everyone can tell we’re amateurs”) and skepticism (“Kids like this will never learn”). Give into the experience. Don’t be self-conscious about your age or the sound of your laugh. Don’t obsess about others’ possible perception of you (“Everyone thinks I’m stupid that I never learned to read music”).  You’re grown now. You know that “everyone” isn’t thinking about you, and even if they are, and they’re not thinking positively, their thoughts aren’t worth your time.
You might even have to force it a little, to “act as if.” You don’t want to do that for long—if the “as if” doesn’t become real in a few weeks, this probably isn’t right for you. But sometimes, yeah, you have to fake it till you make it.  
Remind yourself—this is just for fun. You’ve been working all your life. You deserve some fun. Audition the experience.
 It doesn’t have to be life-changing as long as it’s life-opening… but you won’t get either if you don’t try it out for awhile.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Here's an article based on an exercise I led in Active vs. Passive Writing course


Inhabiting the Prose

author prose tipsby Patricia Bradley, @PTBradley1
Do writers ever stop learning the craft of writing? I don’t think so. Or maybe I’m just a professional student. But at any rate, this month I took a class from Outreach International RWA (oirwa.com) with Alicia Rasley on Active VS Passive Writing. It’s been a fascinating class, and as always she gives her students little nuggets beyond the scope of the lessons.
On the very day I was stuck in a scene, Alicia talked about inhabiting the prose, and how to make your prose sound like your character rather than just flat, unemotional words. She gave us a free-writing exercise to do, and the exercise (adapted from Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice) helped me to connect the emotion of the character and scene to the physical action I wanted that character to perform.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When You Have Too Many Words....

I was just asked for a few tips on cutting big bunches of words. You know, you were aiming for a nice 75K novel, only this ended up at 95K words.  And from your perspective, it works! But it's too long for the line or the editor or the type of story, right? So how can you trim words without deleting meaning? 

It's hard. It can be done. I had to cut 35K from one of my books once, and it was hard, but I don't think afterwards the reader could tell what was missing. (Okay, okay. Theresa did most of the cutting. I did most of the whining and whimpering.)

While the plan here is not to go back, it can really help to think that nothing you're doing is permanent, that if you realize you cut something important, you can restore it. So be sure to 
 save the original version first, then save the version-to-be-cut under another filename. Just in case you want to UNcut later!
But here are some tips if you want to cut 20K words:

1) The first option is to cut a whole scene. That's a broadsword rather than a scalpel approach, but let's say you wrote this book in a white heat during Nanowrimo. There are probably scenes you wrote or started to write which ended up as unimportant or irrelevant, or you later did a better version and both versions are still in there. 

A whole scene might well be 5,000 words. That's a pretty good cut! And cutting it might make for a stronger, tighter plot. Then again, you might accidentally cut out something essential like a clue, or an important step on your character's journey, or the satisfying "reunion" scene the reader has been waiting for. 

To do this, however, you have to look at scenes not as groups of words but as part of the action of the plot. So try this: Outline the book as you have it. Yep, a scene outline. List -- in order they occur, every chapter, and every scene or scenelet or passage (complete or not) within each chapter. 

Then you can evaluate if there are scenes that can be deleted without causing plot/emotion problems.  

2. Look also for adjacent scenes that can be combined.  That will let you delete some of the set up and transition between scenes. Be watching for "single-purpose" scenes, especially several in a row-- a scene where he argues with his brother, and then a scene were he discovers a clue to the mystery, and then a scene where he travels to where the robbery took place. You could combine those into one scene where he argues with his brother, leaves and discovers the clue, and ends with him deciding to go to the robbery site. Really, once you start looking at what happens from scene to scene, you might find several which can be combined.

3.  If you can't cut a whole scene, look for passages (especially at the beginning) which are mostly set-up. That's where I found the most opportunities to trim, at the start of scenes, where I might have spent a couple pages describing the setting and establishing what the characters are doing there. 
Here are some other "cutting" options:
4) Look for mini-scenes (I call them "scenelets"-- 1-2 page bridges usually from one important event to the next) that don't much matter. Often these involve a main character interacting with a minor character or a "walk-ons" like a waiter who will never be seen again in the book. An example might be a cab ride to the convention hotel. There might be good character interplay with the cabdriver and give a good sense of the main character's mood, but if you want to cut, that's an example of a good 'non-essential' scenelet. Usually these aren't full scenes but intros to more important scene passages. You can always argue how this bit is important or clever or enlightening, but you know, you have to trim something, and a scene without an event to change the plot is usually trimmable.
5) Try the Jane Austen tactic-- in dialogue, if there's no conflict, do narrative summary. (They reminisced for a few minutes, then she remembered, and said insultingly, " ". :) There are going to be parts of scenes the reader needs that might have no conflict (like a moment of grace where two characters share a cigarette), but those are best kept fairly short and fairly rare. 

6) Look for those passages where there's nothing-dialogue-- often when there's some movement from one setting to another. ("Let's go into the den and watch TV/What do you want to watch?/ I thought this season of The Voice was starting. Did you record that?/No, the last one was so annoying, I didn't bother. But we can probably get it on-demand." :) No, I never actually wrote that passage, but that's the sort of "transition conversation" that's usually easy to cut away.
7) Also look for long passages of introspection where a character is thinking. Sometimes these are important, and the way they think is important to show, but the deeper we get into the story, the less long introspection is needed. (The reader knows more about the character by the middle of the book, and probably just needs a hint of what they're thinking, or only introspection when something unexpected is felt and needs explanation.)
8) Try my ruthless technique: Decide on a page goal, like "cut 50 words out of this page". This takes awhile, but it's usually easy to find at least 20 words to cut. Or "cut one sentence or sentence part out of each paragraph". Or "trim two sentences and combine them into one shorter sentence". This is actually my favorite thing. :)
9) Even more ruthless: If you know there are words you over-use (for me, it's "then" and "just"), do a "find" for them and for each one, decide whether it's needed. Delete if not. A friend of mine cut two pages out just by getting rid of justs. :)
Because all this is so "voice-centric," it's probably best to do it yourself first and see how much you can cut. That way you'll still have control of the scenes and the interactions between characters and how that's presented. 
Then again, an outsider might be able to be more objective, as Theresa was with my over-long book.

I can tell you from experience, trimming is hard to get started, and painful, but after awhile, it's easier to see where something can be discarded, or  how scenes or sentences can be combined.

Broadsword/scalpel experiences you can share?