Self-Satisfaction—the Death of Creativity

I was just reading Murder with Puffins by Donna Andrews and there’s an artist character in it that has got me thinking. The artist is a thoroughly disagreeable person who naturally ends up dead, but it was the comments about his work that has me thinking. He was an artist that showed a lot of promise in his youth and made a big splash on the art scene, but then his style never changed. The level of his work remained the same for 40 years. How is it possible to paint, or for that matter, write, and not get better—to remain at the same level? In the very act of doing you would naturally learn better control, make discoveries, try new things, wouldn’t you? It says a lot about his character that he thought he was brilliant as he was and didn’t have to strive to get better. He thought he was perfect and never saw the flaws in his work. Fortunately I don’t think most creatives look at their work that way. I know I always see the flaws first. Later I may be able to appreciate how I handled something but at first glance it’s what I didn’t do well that hits me in the face. It’s more prevalent with my art rather than my writing. I have an immediate reaction to an image and it’s pretty evident to me what I struggled with and didn’t come out the way I intended. And while I know most people don’t see what I see, those flaws affect my own appreciation and spark thoughts of “I’m not good enough.”...

Compelling Description—beyond the cliché

When I write my first draft I’m usually focused on getting the story down. Description, which is my least favorite part of story writing, is simple, fast, and dirty. A lot of clichés slip in because I don’t want to take the time to craft a perfect sentence. It would slow or stop the flow of words to edit a sentence or paragraph and that’s not my goal. I want to get the first draft down so that I can see the story as a whole. Then I go back and clean up the mess, remove the turds, polish the sentences, and strengthen the story. My favorite part of writing is dialogue. I love the interplay between characters. When I write a new scene I always put in all the dialogue first, then I go back and add some action. Last I’ll sketch in some quick description, usually just enough to set the scene. It’s only when I’m in the editing phase that I will take the time to flesh out the description. I don’t know why it’s so torturous for me to write description. It’s like eating lima beans. It’s tasteless and a chore and even though I know it’s good for me, I have to hold my nose while I do it. I know that sounds really odd. Description should be rich. It should bring a scene and characters alive. It should be full of sound and smell and color and texture. The only reason I’ve been able to figure out why it’s so hard for me is that as an artist I’m a visual person. I see...

Discovering New Authors

It’s always a pleasure to find a new author whose work you enjoy, but how do you find them in the first place? Word of mouth is probably the most reliable. Family and friends who share similar tastes are often a good source. I appreciate a friend lending me a dog-eared copy of a favorite book. I take their enthusiasm with me and dive between the covers hoping to be transported to a new world. The majority of the time I’m right there with them and I’m happy to recommend the book to other friends. Occasionally, I’m disappointed. The book doesn’t live up to my expectations, however, I think that is more often than not because the book was overly praised by a friend. It made me expect perfection, and lets face it, no book is perfect. I’m guilty of overpraising a book myself. I’ve been singing the wonders of one of my favorite books, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Lani Taylor, for the past year. But a friend recently told me she thought it was just okay. Mea culpa. It’s a wonderful book, but I’m afraid I enjoyed it so much I probably made it sound like the second coming. It’s like falling in love. At first you can’t get enough and you have to tell everyone about it until they are sick of listening to you. I’m looking forward to reading Lani Taylor’s next book Days of Blood and Starlight, the sequel which is due out in November. I promise to be more reserved in my recommendations for it if it’s as good as I hope it...

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Synopsis

No matter how I try to prepare a manuscript ahead of time for submission, once I start sending out queries I never seem to have the right type of synopsis to go with it. If I prepare a one page synopsis, everyone I want to query asks for a long one. If I prepare a long synopsis, then everyone wants a one page version. It’s the Murphy Rule of synopses. And since it’s the thing I hate to write, even more than query letters, I seem to be doomed to write them over and over again. So what have I learned over this non-ending stream of summary writing? What makes a good synopsis? A good synopsis has enough details of the plot to make the story interesting without bogging it down in confusion. It should start with the hero’s ordinary world, which is then changed by the inciting event—the event that kick-starts the story.  After that comes the first change of direction. Everything up to that point seems to be headed in one direction, then something happens and sends the story off into a new direction. The next part is the middle leading up to the second change of direction where the stakes are upped. This leads directly to the climax followed by the wrapup where you say how the events in the story have changed your character’s life—the summation of his/her character arc. Your synopsis should include the character’s motivation for what they do, and any transitional information you need to link the different parts together. It should be written with the tone/voice of the story so that you convey...

Character Mutiny

It happens to a lot of writers. A secondary character starts taking over scenes. Soon he’s getting more page time than your main character. You keep telling yourself to dial him back, but that imp on your shoulder says, “But he’s so much fun to write dialogue for.” At that point you need to stop and ask yourself—Why is this character taking over the story? What’s wrong with my main character that I find it so much more fun to write the secondary character? You need to do some story analysis to figure it out. Start by asking yourself “Does this story problem match the secondary character better than the main character? If so, I would seriously consider switching main characters. If your secondary character is better suited to go through the emotional arc the story problem and plot would put him through, then switch characters. It’s fatal if the story feels like it has been imposed on the main character. Your character won’t be authentic in dealing with a problem that doesn’t affect his character or isn’t something that would put him through an emotional wringer because of his personality. Don’t feel like you are abandoning the character for a better one, even though you are. You’re just saving this character for another story, one better suited to him. Or her. If you don’t want to change characters, then ask yourself, “Do I prefer the secondary character because my main character is boring?” If that’s the case, then your main character may be too perfect. Give him some flaws and make him human. A character that is all...