Tuesday, November 23, 2010

8 Tips for Writing in the Flow

What is the flow? The flow is the special state when you let go of brain chatter, worries, and yourself so you can simply write. Your mind becomes an instrument that plays.

1) Don’t Think – Don’t Edit: Writing in the flow requires that words stream out of your ‘No thought’ mind. Our inner voice, AKA executive function, AKA ‘Should I write another line about the poodle?’ will stop the flow dead in its tracks. Stopping to think about a word, or a whole paragraph gets you out of the flow and into the slow. Save all of your editing for when you have finished your writing session or better still when you have finished your manuscript. Another roadblock to creative flow writing is distraction, such as day dreaming, pondering, and worry. Let it go.

2) Passion - Get Angry: One of the most important aspects of writing in the flow is having a steady stream of ideas at the ready to pour out of you. High emotional content stores energy and links memories. Anger is one of the best emotions for ramping up brain energy that wants to burst out. Think of a social injustice or a personal injustice until you feel your ire peak and then let it rip. Anger at a situation in your novel or even a character can also serve to charge your brain with a flood of ideas. Additionally, any emotion that gets you to feel passionate will get you writing from the gut. In a passionate state you will be typing as fast as you can as the ideas race into your mind.

3) Calm: The Alternative to emotional writing is getting calm, word Tai Chi. The idea here is that without stress and worries to clog your creative juices you will be able to flow. The key is keeping anxiety and other brain blockers at bay. You want to let go and flow. Do it in words.

4) Music: Having music playing while your writing has at least three ways to help get and keep you in the flow: First, music itself flows and the background sonorous environment helps carry you along with musical flow. Second, music is a great way to block out noise distractions. I play it loud enough to block out even the phone. Third, music helps reduce stress and tension, which are the arch enemies to flow writing.

5) Spell Checker: Most people write in MS Word, which has the feature to check spelling and grammar while you type. Helpful? Not for the flow. Turn the feature off. You do not need red or green underlining constantly saying ‘Wrong!’ while you write. It almost forces you to edit as you go, which is a no-no.

6) Space and Time: Crucial to being able to flow write is feeling secure about your writing time and space. The best way to do this is have a designated computer that will be free of other uses during your designated time. Having a nice writing environment (Music, Plants, Pictures, Windows, etc…) is all conducive to flowing. Knowing you have a block of time set aside takes pressure off, especially if it takes you a while to get in the flow.

7) Read in the Flow: What is flow reading? Just like flow writing you do not use your executive function for judgment. You just read. No daydreaming, no criticism, no pondering. Save that for the end of the chapter. Why? You want your brain to build a store house of literary building blocks. Subconsciously you are remembering humorous constructions, modes of suspense, dramatic tension, etc…You do not want to copy the work but learn from it to help you flow. When a thought does pop in your mind about the book or anything else that is fine, make a note if need be, but then jump back into the flow reading.

8) Write, Write, Write: The one obvious mandate is writing and writing a lot. Nanowrimo is an excellent exercise for writing in the flow. Write often and consistently. If you find yourself out of the flow by thinking, worrying etc…just dive back in until you forget who you are. Being in the flow and writing without the ego or self will result in your best work. So flow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Emotional Importance, POV and Impact Description

In today’s world of immediate gratification reader’s no longer have the patience for pages upon pages of description. An optimized way to describe settings, people, and situations with impact is presented here. The basic idea is that descriptive detail should be allocated based on the emotional importance it has from a character’s POV. An emotional salience (importance) map is a better way to represent our perceived world. The map can be thought of as a modern art representation of the scene at hand. That is, if a fresh bouquet of red roses is sitting on a table, the bouquet in the map might be the equivalent of 5 feet high and everything else in the room dwarfed. How does this apply to description? The proportion of the salient features, i.e. the roses, relates to the amount of detail you expend on the item in the scene’s description. The key is that this depends on each character’s unique POV and their emotional state.

Take the generic description of a room - two large windows, a grandfather clock, a side table, a sofa and some paintings on the walls. In the room is a young woman pacing, looking out the windows, frowning at her reflection, and checking the grandfather clock every thirty seconds. Using her ‘importance’ POV and the amount of needed descriptive detail is greatly skewed towards the windows and the clock and the image of time and emotions including anticipation, love, anxiety, fear... The sofa, side table and paintings have shrunk or disappeared from her POV and likewise might even be omitted from the description of the room. Now reggae music and incense could heighten the mood. Actual description must have specific details. Here I want to focus on the framework of emotion based proportions of those details. Note; not all description must be emotion driven, some might serve the plot such as the woman making a mental note that Uncle Maynard’s harpoon gun needs dusting.

Ten minutes later a man is shown into the same room by the woman and she dashes off to fetch some drinks. The man immediately closes the blinds thus eliminating the windows from his importance map, and then takes a good look at one of the paintings to use as a conversation piece, but what dominates his importance map is the sofa. With emotions of anticipation, lust, perhaps love he checks it for comfort, size, arranges the pillows.

Thus, we have the very same ‘linear’ room viewed by two people and the ‘non-linear’ POV of each is completely different. In a very real sense they are in different worlds. It is the importance map for each character’s POV that a writer’s descriptive effort (details, imagery, metaphors etc.) must focus. Remember, our own personal salience maps are instantiations of the world and are non-linear. The non-linearity comes from our emotion system, which is vital to our survival and well being. Quite often in life and fiction conflict arises from improperly derived salience.

Now the woman returns to the room and her importance map focuses on the closed blinds and the man comfortably lying back on the couch. Although you write from a single point of view you must imagine each character’s POV. Here the man is focusing on the couch and the drinks. With two different ‘importance’ POVs you have conflict. Will the woman open the blinds furthering the conflict or kick off her shoes? That is up to you and your own salience map.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

5 Properties of Memory Writers Need to Know

It’s all memory. Memories are the raw materials that a reader uses to instantiate a novel in their mind. Here I give 5 examples of how understanding memory, its capacity, form and function is key to writing effective fiction.
1) The way we organize our writing should take advantage of the ways memories are organized in the reader’s brain; whatever comes last is remembered best (What have you done for me lately?), followed by whatever came first (First impressions), and finally everything in between (It better be interesting). This applies to sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters and the novel as a whole. There are exceptions of course (e.g., Shower scene in ‘Psycho’), but remember the order last, first, middle and you will be doing okay.
2) The brain has evolved to organize information based on similarity. Avoid straining your reader needlessly, so do not give two characters names that start with the same letter, sound or even rhyme (E.g., Tom and Tim or Tim and Jim).
3) Reader’s memory is far from perfect, but at the same time writers loathe to repeat information. A balance must be struck; if a character returns after a long absence a small reminder of their role in the story is probably in order and appreciated. Similarly, for the reader to build a strong visual image of the main characters it is necessary to describe them more than once. On the other side we can give our characters faulty memory systems and have them omit vital information or confabulate non-existent events (Fill in details that did not occur, but are usually the way the character would like them to be. Call it subconscious lying).
4) Information in the working memory of the brain has strong competition for limiting space. For example, a human mind can only keep about 7 different things ‘on line’ in working memory at a time. I am not talking about prepositions, but stuff like a baseball, banyan trees, pomegranates, Hawaii, Chardonnay, a Schnauzer, and Stacy. Who is Stacy? I do not know, and that mystery adds to my memory load. Anyway, seven things per conceptual unit is probably enough before moving on to the next.
5) Memories are linked. This is the idea behind free association; how are our memories organized? A writer can go on for paragraphs to describe a setting, but this ultimately just removes the reader’s ability to fill in (imagine). If we think of words or phrases as fishing lines then such a description might only bring back one fish per line, but a poet must bring back a whole school at a time. How? Imagery links multiple memories and emotional images bring up memories with great salience and valence. Thus, to return to a main point from my last post, ‘show’ do not ‘tell,’ especially with emotionally charged images, and the reader will bring your words alive in full.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

5 Aspects of Emotions Writers Need to Know

Emotions are key to expression, conscious states, decision making, creativity, and the core of our being. The ability to ‘move’ our readers, to connect, to entertain, etc. requires writers to master the expression and transferal of emotional states. The following aspects of emotions are laid out for that purpose.
1) Brain state or Mood: Without going into the depths of electrochemical details lets stick with the effects of mood. We all know what moods are, but there is an important aspect to mood that writers need to know: Moods are resistant to change. Someone in a bad mood will not react strongly to good news while they are likely to overreact to bad news and vice versa. Having a character suddenly jump from mood to mood will make them seem improbable or appear to have a ‘mood’ disorder.
2) Feeling: Emotions: happy, sad, angry, etc. are all states of consciousness that a reader can actually physically experience, but it takes effort. The key is that if it is your intention to have a ‘happy’ reader you must do more than write the word ‘happy.’ Instead, you have to create a set of humorous, amusing, joyous, etc. events and atmosphere that makes your protagonist believably act happy and your empathizing reader experience happiness. Certainly you can make your reader happy without empathy, but it sure helps.
3) Body language: Emotions have associated forms of physical display. We laugh and smile when we are happy. Likewise we frown and cry when we are sad, I don’t, but some do. The key to body language is that it is a much more effective way to ‘show’ an emotional state than to ‘tell,’ e.g., ‘Tears streaked...’ vs. ‘She was sad.’
4) Emotional behavior: Another way to ‘show’ an emotional state, and make it visceral is to have your characters do emotional things. For example have them throw a chair, slam a door, make a rash decision, give a high five, hide under the covers… Again ‘showing’ gets the reader into the action, and feeling the emotion.
5) Emotional Dialog: How people say what they say. Again, ‘show’ the emotion by what is said, and not by what is ‘told.’ “How am I? Ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles Daddyo.” Vs. “I’m okay.” The ways we write dialog should give our character’s voice richness, depth, and ‘identifiable’ feelings that get readers to gladly suspend disbelief and feel the love.