Creative Exercises #2 – Get Clear

§ May 9th, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

creativeexFor many writers, noise inhibits creativity. How do you reduce this potential distraction and focus on your writing? In just the same way you can ignore background sounds when you’re caught up in a good book or movie: You devote yourself to the story. To have the same keen attention, you must block out annoying racket and sharpen your concentration.

William Faulkner ignored the constant ear-splitting roar of a dynamo as he wrote “Sanctuary” during his midnight to 4 a.m. shift in a Power plant’s boiler room. Dr. Albert Schweitzer penned numerous articles and books amid the clamor of his jungle surroundings.

You can use a steady noise to cover up other abrasive ones. An air conditioner or fan drowns out practicing musicians, dogs barking or carpenters hammering next door. Many writers find that it’s easier to concentrate on their work with an inoffensive background sound.

Music helps, too. Certain types of music written by Baroque composers (Bach, Vivaldi and others) are particularly relaxing. The stringed instruments and the tempo of 55-60 beats a minute produce a conducive setting for writing.

Sounds aren’t the only noise a writer must deal with. Interruptions come in all shapes and sizes, but focusing on your work can help you deal with any distraction.

Trying a new approach to solving some of your old writing problems can boost your creativity and productivity. Your writing will become as Henry Miller said, “like life itself, a voyage of discovery.”

Sleep, Perchance to Write

To produce dreams that enhance your creativity, you must first conjure a mental picture of your writing goal and then create a statement affirming that the goal has been achieved. Then follow these steps:

* Get comfortable. Noise should be at a minimum. Close your eyes. Inhale through your nose. Take the air down to the diaphragm. Count to three. Exhale through the mouth. Do this three times.

* Imagine yourself within a pleasing scene. For me, it’s lying on a lounge chair near a pond on a warm fall day. The water reflects the colors of the surrounding tree leaves. All of nature is in harmony.

* Push your heels down on your chair or bed. Feel the tension; now relax them. Do the same thing with your hips, back, shoulders, neck, head, arms and hands. Push down against whatever surface they’re touching, then relax. Tighten and relax the muscles while taking three deep breaths. Repeat silently ten times: “I am becoming more and more relaxed.” (The main objective is to relax your mind and body so that the subconscious will accept your affirming statement.)

* If procrastination is the problem, picture yourself doing something you enjoy — gardening, reading, whatever. Immerse yourself in the activity and feel the pleasure that you derive from it. Next, see yourself going to your desk with the same enthusiasm for your writing. For other writing goals, picture yourself accomplishing them.

* Silently repeat this statement ten times: “Because writing is important to me, I approach it with the same interest I have in (name activity). Other things will be done after I finish my writing.” For other writing goals, repeat a statement that affirms that your goal is achieved. Keep the statement positive and in the present tense. If you do the exercise during the day, finish by saying, “When I open my eyes, I’ll feel great.” Otherwise, allow yourself to drop off to sleep.

One Character to Go, Please

To achieve specific goals for your writing, you must “program” your mind to work on the problem as you sleep. You may, for instance, want to develop a character for a story.

* Before going to sleep, review everything you’ve written about the character. Then do the first three steps above. When your mind and body are relaxed, the critical (conscious) mind becomes nonjudgmental and the inner (subconscious) mind will accept what you say.

* Picture your goal as achieved. See your character in detail as you’ve described him. Finally, say several times silently: “I see my character as a fully-developed person in my dream.”

* When you wake up, keep your eyes closed and try to re-create the dream. Then write down everything you can remember. Do this before you get out of bed; otherwise, you’ll forget the dream.

It’s best to do your dream planning when you’re not under a lot of stress and when you can wake up without an alarm clock (they can make you forget your dreams). It might take several nights or longer, but keep a positive feeling that you will have your desired dream.

You can use this method to help reach any writing goal. The point is to relax your critical, conscious mind and allow your subconscious to offer suggestions.

Creativity Exercises Part 1: The Basics

§ May 2nd, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

crativityRobert Frost defined creativity as “looking at something old in a new way.” Often our own creative batteries need recharging in order to develop new solutions to old writing problems: finding time and ideas, getting started, and dealing with distractions. The following tips will get your creative gears in motion.

Finding the Write Time

Life circumstances can limit both your writing time and your creativity. How often have you said, “I’d get so much writing done if I just had an extra hour in my day”?

To find that extra hour — or even just 15 minutes — to nurture your creativity, try examining how you’re spending the time you have. On a sheet of paper, list all your waking hours. For each hour record your activities — and be specific. For a week, make a note of everything — taking a walk, reading, preparing dinner and commuting to work.

At the end of the week, look back on the daily logs and circle each day’s leisure time. Then go through the daily logs again and draw a fine under those leisure times when you’re absolutely free of distractions and interruptions — these are potential writing times. You’ll probably notice that you’ve made time for watching television, talking on the phone, going out to dinner. If you can do it for those activities, then it’s not unrealistic to find and devote 15-60 minutes a day to writing.

Look first at the hours from about 7 to 11 p.m. Is there a television program you watch faithfully each week? The news? A sitcom? Do you watch a show before or after that one? Could that time be used for writing?

Next, look for uninterrupted chunks of time throughout your day. Do you take a bus or train to work? If your round-trip travel time is 45 minutes, can you use 30 of those minutes as writing time?

Dan, a student in one of my classes, used his commute to think through and write a story. Every day on the bus, Dan focused on his story and concentrated on his character. He didn’t waste 10 or 15 minutes trying to out what to write about; he simply took notes on the thoughts he had about his story.

After a few months, the plot line began falling into place. Dan’s character became more and more believable. In fact, most of the story was written using those 20-minute sessions on the bus.

Marjorie Holmes is the author of numerous books and articles, as well as the mother of four children. How did she manage to do both? “There were thousands of times when I thought I would go mad, mad, mad, with interruptions and frustrations,” Holmes said. “Yet no matter what, I managed to turn out a little something almost every day. Even a scrap of an idea or an observation.”

Curiouser and Curiouser

Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect,” said Samuel Johnson. Writers who lack it — or stifle it — are at a disadvantage.

One powerful idea generator that activates curiosity is the daily newspaper. It pulls you into a whirlwind of emotions and events. Crime, death, advice and laughter are discussed, documented and delivered to your doorstep. Reading the paper can be a routine exercise or a treasure hunt for ideas.

Become a creative reader. Tackle those pages with a pen in your hand and this question in your mind: How can I use this in my writing.? Jot notes in the margin. Put check marks next to articles to clip for future use.

As you read about the teenager who unexpectedly inherited $3 million from an eccentric neighbor he’d befriended, your active mind should ask questions: How will this change his life? How would the average person spend that much money? What would I do with it? You can explore the answers to these questions and others in your own articles, stories and poems.

Advice columns such as Dear Abby suggest a host of potential topics. Many even provide a story fine. What could you develop from these questions: How do I deal with a child who is on drugs? A jealous spouse? A workaholic husband?

Interviews on TV talk shows range from the informative to the bizarre and can stimulate your creativity. A show that reunites high school sweethearts after 30 years might prompt you to consider whether you’d marry your high school sweetheart today.

Of course, your daily newspaper and favorite talk shows are only two places to apply this technique. Once you develop your curiosity, you’ll question everything around you and imagine all the possibilities.

Sleep on it

A stimulated imagination works nonstop. Even when you’re not awake, you’re thinking and creating and dreaming. Ideas for stories and ways to develop them can be revealed in dreams. Plots can be acted out by your characters on your mind’s movie screen. Why not tap into this source?

Even people who say they don’t dream really do; they just don’t remember. We spend 20% of our sleeping hours dreaming. Adults may dream for up to 90 minutes during an eight-hour period. This can be a very creative and productive time, especially if other duties limit your writing time.

Authors, scientists and artists throughout history have looked to dreams for ideas and insights. Dante, Goethe, Milton, Blake and Tolstoy were influenced by their dreams. J. B. Priestly dreamed his three essays “The Berkshire Beast,” “The Strange Outfitter” and “The Dream” in detail.

Researchers agree that whatever thoughts you have right before sleep greatly influence the content of your dreams. After thinking for several nights about a poem that could convey her feelings about depression, Anne, a beginning writer, had a dream: “I was alone in a large Victorian house. A foot of snow had fallen during the day — the wind drifted it against the door. As I looked out the window, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and depression. The blizzard became the metaphor for depression in my poem.”

With practice, you can deliberately induce dreams of artistic creations or dreams that solve problems. “Your dreams can become your own source of inspiration,” says Dr. Patricia Garfield, author and dream researcher. (See the sidebar on page 31 for advice on how to influence your dreams.)

Warming Up Your Writing Muscles

Perhaps your creative roadblock isn’t in getting an idea, but in how to get it on paper.

These five exercises will help you break the ice at the start of a writing session. I recommend you spend a minimum of 15 minutes warning up for every hour you intend to write.

* Pick a word that defines your mood at the time you’re writing (such as sad) happy, romantic). Write several paragraphs about how you feel and why. This exercise can act as a catharsis to clear away emotional blocks that inhibit your creativity.

* Read a favorite poem or quotation and write your reaction to it. A literary shot in the arm or an insightful comment can stimulate an idea. It can cause you to recall an experience, a person or an emotion you could write about.

* If you’re planning to write a story during your regular writing session, use journalism’s five Ws to help you figure out what to say: Who is the story about? What is the plot? Where does it take place? When does the action happen? Why are you writing it? Write a rough outline based the five Ws.

* As you look at your high school year-book picture (or one taken when you were a teenager), ask yourself these questions: How have your priorities changed since then? What career did you want to pursue in high school? Did you do it? What three important life lessons have you learned since you graduated?

* Open your journal. Keeping a journal or diary or writing letters may be especially helpful if you have trouble developing an idea. A journal serves many purposes. It can be a trusted friend to confide in or a sounding board for solving problems.

“Creative people in many fields have traditionally kept journals because the form encourages the creative process,” wrote Tristine Rainer in her book The New Diary. “The journal provides a place to deposit the first flash of creative imagination or experience.”

Cecilia, a former student, writes articles about teenagers and their problems. Before beginning a piece, she writes letters to her niece and nephew who are in high school. Cecilia never mails these letters, but they help her picture her readers and their needs. They let her express her ideas in a way that would interest teens.

“No writing is a waste of time,” author Brenda Ueland assures us. “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has stretched your understanding.”

Writing For Business Takes Guts

§ April 25th, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

writingIn 2014 Americans spent more than $2 billion on business-related books.

You can get a share of that business.

The market is so hot that writing a business-related book has become one of the best ways to break into print. Many topics can be explored by authors who wouldn’t consider themselves “business” experts. Editors actively seek manuscripts covering job and technical skills training, starting and running a business, market trends, sales training and coaching, performance improvement, business letter writing, financial and investment advice, time management, company case studies, leadership styles, new management philosophies, career guidance, and much more — including computer operation manuals, guides for women and minorities and biographies of famous business personalities.

The Root of All Success

Most business books are related in a fundamental way to career enhancement Readers buy these books for the information they need to win a promotion, master a specific job-related skill, outsmart the competition, learn performance secrets, master a management technique, stand out among fellow employees, learn what the other outfit did wrong, become magically equipped to start and run an enterprise, and so forth.

I turn these raw goals into specific books by reading and talking with business leaders. I routinely read The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, The Harvard Business Review and many other publications, including local newspapers. I interview senior-level business executives, middle managers, supervisors and company line employees. I attend conventions and seminars. And I listen. The questions asked by attendees at these sessions reveal current management concerns. For a business writer, the questions are as illuminating as the experts’ answers.

I use this informal research to spot business trends that might become subjects for a book.

Get to the Point

Once you develop a topic for your book, your task is to make it easy and painless for your readers to learn. To do that, you must keep your writing uncomplicated. Your readers are ambitious, bottom-line oriented business executives with limited time and less patience. No matter how complex the issue, write with clarity and simplicity. Get to the heart of the matter quickly.

Be direct, says Tom Power, senior editor for the Business & Professional Division of Prentice Hall. “Don’t make the mistake of writing all around the subject without getting down to the nitty-gritty details. Be specific, particularly when writing the `how-to’ business book.”

Your organization of the book is important. Except for a few editors at the publishing house and a few members of your immediate family, not many people are going to read your book from cover to cover. Business-people will pluck from the work the material they consider important and ignore the rest.

To accommodate them, you must make the information easy to find. Readers don’t want to memorize information, they just want to refer to it as required.

The most popular business books organize their subjects in ways that attract readers. They use step-by-step programs, practical guidelines, proven techniques, organized systems, pinpointed suggestions, working tools and real-life examples. These structures help writers “get down to the nitty-pitty details,” as Power suggests. They help the reader get from business point A to business point B.

I also include a very detailed table of contents in my books. For The Sales Manager’s Portable Answer Book, the table of contents is 15 pages long. Preparing them in such detail benefits me as well as the readers. I’m forced to think through, step-by-step, all the material I intend to cover. When I finish, the contents pages become my outline for writing the book. I’m also confident that I have enough to say on the selected topic to justify a book-length project.

Confidence in your topic is crucial to writing a successful business book. If there’s a place to pontificate, it’s in this genre. Readers look for wisdom, authority, certainty, surefire formulas, absolute truths and arcane knowledge. Make your points positively with little equivocation. The fewer ifs, ands and on-the-other-hands, the better. Reach conclusions. Be positive, but be practical.

What editors look for in any business book project is value to readers. Your book must provide advice, information, training or a system of doing things that readers can adapt or apply to their own situations.

It all comes back to the basic theme behind most business books: career enhancement. Your readers want to reap a substantial reward for the money they’ll invest in buying your book and the time they spend reading it.

Do that well, and you’ll be reaping some substantial rewards for yourself.

Inside the Manuscript

There are certain conventions editors like to see included in business book manuscripts.

Checklists and other lists deliver information in concise “bullets.” They satisfy the business readers’ demand for information in concentrated form. Lists also cultivate reader curiosity. Offer “50 ways to close a sale,” or “25 management mistakes that lead to disaster,” and readers will buy the book to learn these secrets.

Charts present information in a visual way. They make it easier for readers to understand relationships and draw comparisons. Similarly, illustrations, graphs, sample forms and tables are wonderful when providing quantitative data. Such graphics help sell a project to an editor and help sell the book to readers.

Quotes from authorities establish credibility, obviously, but also direction. I often use a quotation at the beginning of a chapter that reflects the theme of the pages that follow. My quotes aren’t always from business personalities. Politicians, military leaders, philosophers and sports coaches offer many observations that fit business situations.

Anecdotes are popular in business books for two reasons. First, they use actual events to illuminate theory. If you’re writing about a revolutionary distribution idea, your manuscript should include stories from the companies that use the scheme. Business readers want to know that proposed systems actually work in real life. Anecdotes also illustrate the reasons for failure. The horror story of what went wrong at one company can help another avoid the same errors.

Anecdotes also keep the text from becoming dull. Business books aren’t suspense thrillers or romances, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining. Randy Voorhees, sales manager for the literary agency and book packager Mountain Lion Productions, says, “There can’t be too many anecdotes. The more relevant stories, the better.”

Finding pertinent anecdotes requires observation and curiosity. Whenever I see a company doing something different from others in the same field, I ask its employees why they’re doing it, when they started and what their experience has been. I also look for corporate hubris. Arrogance and pride are usually the forerunners of disaster. I don’t use all the stories I collect, but the collection process is a learning experience itself.

A catchy title “is incredibly important,” offers Voorhees. “A title with a gimmick, like Harvey Mackay’s Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, grabs the attention of book buyers.”

Mackay’s title promises readers they will receive insider knowledge enabling them to survive in a tough, eat-or-be-eaten business world. Also implied is the idea that readers can become business sharks themselves.

The One Minute Manager, a bestseller by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, holds out the lure of instant wisdom. Not only will this book offer important information, the title suggests, it will be dispensed in easy-to-swallow capsules. This is attractive to harried business executives whose most valuable commodity is time.

Gimmicks that produce blockbuster sales aren’t limited to eye-catching titles. Rapid changes in business structures have created an audience for radical ideas. Creative authors have applied the “philosophies” of Attila the Hun, Sun Tzu, Jesus Christ, Sitting Bull, Machiavelli and even Winnie-the-pooh to modern business.

Diction Is A Real Thing: Consider It

§ April 15th, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

dictioniartA basic piece of advice for writers, given so often that perhaps you’re sick of hearing it, is: “Everything in a story — dialogue, action, thoughts, mannerisms, descriptions — should both advance plot and reveal character.” It’s good advice. The problem, however, is that it tens you what to do, but it doesn’t tell you how.

Since “everything in a story” is dauntingly broad, let’s narrow it to this: How does dialogue reveal character?

The obvious answer is through content. The person who says “Look at that adorable baby” is a much different character from the person who says “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”

The content of your character’s dialogue is the main way you let us know who he is inside.

However, it’s not the only way. You have other tools at your disposal for making dialogue convey characterization. They am diction, sentence construction and grammar.

What Words to Choose

Diction means word choice, and it reflects your character’s education, precision, imagination and background — no matter what the content of the speech. Consider the following two passages. Both are dialogue, in which a character comments on another character’s housekeeping:

“Course she ain’t much of a hand to housekeep: slut’s wool all over the place. When yer mind is that fixated on things above, the dirt’s bound to settle below.”

“I know I can leave all household arrangements to you, Mr. de Winter said so, and you must just run things as they always have been run, I shan’t want to make any changes.”

Can you see how much the diction tells us about each of these people? Mr. Spencer and his language are uneducated (“ain’t), colorful (“slut’s wool”) and analytic (he gives a reason why his neighbor’s housekeeping is so bad). His word choice also reflects his country background through his use of regional idioms (“much of a hand to housekeep”). In contrast, the young second bride of Maxim de Winter uses entirely different diction. Her words are formal (“all household arrangements”), bland (no colorful word choices) and general (no details like “slut’s wool”). Her diction reflects an educated English background (“shan’t”). This is appropriate, because the young woman is formal, bland, educated, British and very uncertain of herself.

A subdivision of diction is language specific to a given group: slang, dialect and jargon. The rule here is to tread lightly. Often just a single word of slang, dialect or jargon is all you need. Look, for instance, at these five replies to the simple question “How was the movie?”

“It sucked.”

“Y’all really want to know?”

“Bloody awful.”

“My word, it was violent.”

“Domestic poison, foreign major-grosser.”

Each reply uses diction to tell us not only about the movie, but about the speaker. These speakers are, respectively, a youth, Southern, British, genteel and in the film business. Or else they wish they were those things.

What is your character like? Do her words — not only the sense of her speech, but the individual word choices — reflect her personality and background? If not, can you alter a word or a prase here and there so they do?

The Complexity of Sentences

This one is tricky, because much depends on context. For instance, each of the following uses short, curt sentences:

“Make three copies of that, please.

Send one each to Jane Denby and

Chad Lawrence. Put the third in my

personal file.”

“I never knowed my daddy. He left

early. I was 9. He left my dog. it was

named Curly.”

“That’s Jemison. Candy’s lawyer. A

real son of a bitch.”

These sentences are all similar in length and simple in construction (no dependent clauses, no compounds, no participial phrases, and only the first uses simple prepositional phrases). Yet each gives much different impressions of the speakers, due to content and diction. In the first, the curtness comes across as commanding. In the second, as simple-mindedness or extreme youth. In the third, as gruff taciturnity. Such flexibility makes it difficult to issue absolute rules coordinating sentence structure with characterization.

However, here are some helpful guidelines:

* Long, complex sentences give an impression of education and intelligence. Here, again, is the second Mrs. de Winter:

“Whenever you spoke to me or

looked at me, walked with me in the

garden, sat down to dinner, I felt you

were saying to yourself, `This I did

with Rebecca, and this, and this.'”

The dependent clause, lengthiness and parallel structure (“spoke,” “looked,” “walked,” “sat,” each followed by a prepositional phrase) tell us that this person is intelligent. Stupid people simply don’t talk like this. They can’t. (Note, however that the reverse is not necessarily true. Short sentences don’t mean a character is dim-witted. There can be other reasons for curtness, as we saw in the three examples above.)

* Very long, very complex sentences may make a character seem pretentious. This is especially true if the diction is also formal. Jean Brodie, the queen of pretentiousness (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark) expresses her sense of job security in this overblown way:

As for impropriety, it could never be

imputed to me except by some gross

distortion on the part of a traitor.

She sounds like the pompous snob she is.

* Speeches that pair a heavy-duty subject with a lightweight one make a character seem ridiculous. It’s a great way to create a comic effect. Jean Brodie, who’s not only pretentious but ludicrous, demonstrates this sort of sentence construction as she describes her summer vacation:

In London my friends … took me to

visit A.A. Milne. in the hall was hung

a reproduction of Botticelli’s

Primavera which means The Birth of

Spring. I wore my silk dress with the

large red poppies which is just right

for my coloring. Mussolini is one of

the greatest men in the world, far

more so than Ramsay MacDonald,

and his fascisti….

What a mismatched jumble! Like the character.

* Sentences that run on and on indicate an emotional person, either always emotional or in the grip of temporarily upsetting circumstances. Teenage John Maples, in John Updike’s story “Separating,” uses short sentences fused into one long incoherent sob:

“It’s not just the separation, it’s the

whole crummy year, I hate that

school, you can’t make any friends,

the history teacher’s a scud.”

To create a sense of emotion out of control, try long sentences that are constructed of short ones separated by commas.

Grammar Guides

This one’s easy. A character who uses correct grammar will be perceived as brighter than one who doesn’t.

In a way, this is very unfair. In real life many intelligent people deliberately speak ungrammatically. Sometimes they want to hide their intelligence; sometimes they want to fit in with neighbors or family, sometimes they were raised to think that correct speech is stuck-up. If that’s the case with your character, you must make sure we know it. You might, for instance, have another character say something like, “Dan talks like a dockworker but don’t let that fool you — he’s as shrewd about business as they come.” Or, you might indicate intelligence with a physical detail: “Candy’s silly words tripped all over themselves, but her shrewd blue eyes never left Sean’s face. He could see the calculation there, steady and cold as precision machinery.” Or, you might structure an early scene so that we’re shown the contrast between bad grammar and intelligent action. In fact, these techniques can actually aid characterization by adding very human texture and contradictions to a character that might otherwise seem one-dimensional.

In one sense, of course, how characters talk is never a function of their personalities alone, but also of a writer’s overall style. No character in a Henry James novel, no matter what his station in life, will talk like a character in a Joseph Wambaugh novel. But within the limits of your own style, your characters should not all sound alike. If they do, you miss opportunities to deepen their characterization through their dialogue. Pay attention to each person’s diction, sentence construction and grammar. It will make your dialogue far more revealing, interesting and readable.

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