Musings on the Craft of Writing

Archive for November, 2013

►The Magic of the Mind, Part 1: SDN

In 1890 William James (philosopher/psychologist) posited that our thoughts and experiences shape our brains.  Of course, we didn’t even have the equipment to verify that on a cadaver’s brain, let alone on a living one.  But we finally do, and this research on our brains has yielded extraordinary findings.

~ Jill B Taylor ~

~ Jill B Taylor ~

Neuroscientists have dubbed this ‘Neuroplasticity’ (and the subsequent “Self-Directed Neuroplasticity” or “SDN”).  The quickie version on SDN: Humans can volitionally rewire their brains to help change thought/behavior patterns, even decades-long such patterns (bad habits, OCD, addiction, crippling depression), and even the most profound of changes as in the extraordinary stroke-recovery case of Jill B Taylor.


►Just… Don’t Do It! (Yet) [Planning v. Pantsing]

So much of the advice we all see about novel-writing is, “Just get your ass in the chair and start writing it!”


OK, I’m being flippant.  What I mean is, “No.  Don’t.”

There are two polar opposite camps regarding the novel-writing process: Planners and Pantsers (the former is obvious, the latter comes from the notion of “writing by the seat of your pants”).  But no one is truly at either extreme of those ends.  All die-hard Planners still discover and change elements of their tale as they write, and all Pantsers are planning some of the story (in their heads, even if they refuse to write down those plans).

~~ And, now what? ~~

~~ And, now what? ~~

I try to stay as far in the Planning camp as possible, for I am convinced that we save ourselves not just hours, but months (and years?) of frustration and pain by spending the time charting our story before we sit down to type our manuscripts.  What contractor do you know who just “starts building” a house without planning out every minute detail?  Why would we, (more…)

►Ambiance for reading/writing

Have you ever watched pre-edited footage of a movie scene? The characters are moving about, the scenery pans, etc., but something feels “off.”  All of the belief that we suspend is chucked right out of the window.  We’re aware that this is just a staged scene in a movie.  Why?  There are small changes between these shot scenes and what we see in Post, the primary one being the audio (we can hear their lines, but the audio sync hasn’t been applied) and, far more powerfully, there is no music being played.

For whatever host of reasons, it seems universally true that thematic music is a major contributor to the movie experience.  I’m convinced that this also applies to novels. (more…)

►Self-publishing, or “Revolutions do smell bad”

Over the past couple of years the talk of the “Self-publishing revolution” has spread into all corners of the Interwebs.  Writers are Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuplecelebrating that we are now no longer at the mercy of literary agents or publishing houses (who sometimes seem to make their publishing choices by shaking a Magic 8 Ball).  We also know that nepotism, cronyism and all kinds of other unfair –isms are pushing people up into the “legitimately” published sphere.  The traditional publishing houses used to be indispensable, unless you happened to have a spare $100K lying around to publish and market your book.  Even in the Internet’s early days, the “Vanity publishers” realized that they could buy book-pressers and print for desperate authors.  And now the internet is so powerful that the traditional marketing they used is stuck in the back seat (if not the trunk).  The monopoly is broken.

But here comes the other side…  (more…)

►Mind Termites

I’m an IT professional for a University… and daily am tempted to become a Luddite.  Why?  The mountain of evidence showing us that the 21st century has created a world filled with addiction to our devices.  That unrelenting use is continuing to damage our attention spans and general ability to calmly ponder complex issues. [I’ll here stop myself from writing an academic piece since hundreds have already done that work for us.  You can Google as well as I can, but I will give you just a few (in case you’re feeling lazy). ]: NPR, NYer, NYT, NW.

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Aside from what is a crime against our minds (and ‘souls’ if I’m feeling bold [and antiquated]), I think it’s especially damaging for the work of creative endeavors.  As I am charting a 7-novel series, I require many hours of uninterrupted musing.  Daydreaming is not just nice, it’s essential.  The power of our brains at work when in a steady, relaxed state is vital to the outpouring of a deep story.  (Again, Google away, but here.)

Our addiction to being perpetually connected to the internet/playing with our gadgets robs us of this deep flow, which means that what artists produce lacks the depth and richness they may otherwise have had.  The useful tools that are our many computing devices have the clear and likely danger of becoming mental termites.


►Time (again)

As it relates to my last post, I wanted to share this video.  I find it powerful in its understatedness.



As I preached about in my first post, the artist’s life requires discipline in order to produce quality work.  This means that our time must be dedicated to our craft–a task which seems exceedingly difficult in the 21st century.  The first obstacle is for us to discover exactly where all of our time goes.  This generation, worse than any other, is inundated with distraction. Time

So I created this spreadsheet for myself in order to track what was happening with all of my time, and I am sharing this with you.

Download this and open it (it requires Excel, and should work on the OSX Excel as well).  It will offer for you to sign up for Box.  You can ignore it and just choose Download at the top.


►”A Little to the Left?” (On Choosing Test-Readers)

Conscious of it or not, when we walk into a home we are in a state of mind which determines how we will react to everything inside of it.  When I come into my own home, I’m only affected by anything out of the norm (the more abnormal, the greater my reaction would be).  It’s “home”—I’m not there to critique the chairs, tables, pictures or lighting.  I’m there to relax, work, eat, whatever.  When you go visit friends (more…)

►Character-Crafting & the Enneagram

The dead horse has rotted to its splintered bones, and still people are beating it: “You need realistic, interesting, nuanced and believable characters that are compelling.”  Thanks.  Also in the news, the world is not flat.  OK, so while it is tiresome to hear, it remains true:  Flat/2-dimensional characters sink novels.  What should we do to prevent it?  Only read a dozen good books on the subject and ponder it as we write each book for the rest of our lives.  Helpful?  Right.

I’ve always been interested in personality inventories.   Some are crap, of course, filled with trite tautologies.  For several years I had held the Meyers-Briggs as the top of the list, and I still respect it.

But the one tool I want to recommend for your character-crafting work shed:  The Enneagram.  It is, in my opinion, the best personality (more…)

►Muses and Monsters

Novel writing is complicated, but not nearly so complicated as novel writers.  Creativity is a strange animal, and it leads authors in strange directions.  Recently I discovered Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which is primarily about overcoming resistance and truly chasing the artist’s life.  It’s filled with many excellent insights, and I recommend it.  However, he does spend some time discussing his sincere belief in the ancient Muses and Daimons  and their influence over his own writing.  (In case you don’t know, this is tantamount to saying that you really do believe in Zeus, and that Apollo is really guiding you on a journey.)


And then last week I came across a Ted Talk where Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) makes similar claims of the guiding force of supernatural agents. Weird?  Well, yeah, but really this is no different than people believing that the “Holy Ghost guides them” in their projects, as some Christian artists assert.