Spatial Reasoning- How A Deficient Writer Copes


I struggle to visualize characters interacting inside of a space.  There, I said it!

My spatial reasoning is poor.  Given a description of a set of objects, and a change to apply to one or more of those objects, I usually can’t tell you the end result off the top of my head.  I must draw or act things out to arrive at the answer.

In my college programming courses, I filled notebooks with sketches of arrays and registers, and how they changed with each method call.  I drew every bit shift, concatenation, and sort. I was a mutant in this regard- Paper? In a Computer Science classroom?– but I maintained an A average.  No regrets.

quicksortImagine this, repeated upon hundreds of pages.

As a writer, poor spatial reasoning bites me in the ass any time the action becomes more complicated than a few characters standing around, talking with each other.  In fact, many of my scenes start out that way in the first draft, because dialogue is what comes to me easiest.  Unfortunately, a whole book of people standing around talking is boring.  After their words are down, I go back and flavor them with action…

…action I can’t picture inside my own head.  Every heavy action scene makes me cringe, because I just know I’ll confuse people about how large the room is; or I’ll have Character A swipe at Character B, whom he has no business reaching with a normal human arm span…

*deep breath*

Sketching out the action is super-helpful here.  Stick figures are fine- or, heck, break out some RPG miniatures, tokens, and graph paper.

dnd_mapThis helps you understand why you can’t have 17 ogres blocking The Doomcave’s exit.

That’ll win you the general placement.  For more refined maneuvers, like wielding a weapon or grappling, act them out in a mirror or on a good friend.  Seriously.  You’d think you could totally grip a knife a certain way and make a certain cut, until you try it yourself and realize the human wrist isn’t so generous.

Now, if you’re dealing with alien or fantasy characters, you have more leeway- and less you can act out in the real world.  Drawings are more important for these situations.

Also, remember: the characters aren’t acting in vacuum, but in a space with its own “character.”  Hence, they should also be interacting with that space too.  If a character falls to the ground, what might they fall on?  Is there anything nearby they might think to use as a crutch, disguise, explosive, etc.?  Keep descriptions of the environment close at hand- you’ll immerse the reader in the scene, and create more interesting action.

Once you see it, time to write it!  What helps me- as much as I hate doing it- is explaining every detail as excruciatingly as possible.  Oftentimes I think I’ve described a complex maneuver sufficiently, only for my beta-readers to unite in one great cry of “Wha??”  Throw in as much as you can bring yourself to describe, then cut back later (if needed).  Several drafts are normal for action-heavy scenes!

Do you have issues with visualization?  Leave me a comment and let me know how you cope!

Bob Ross on Editing: “Don’t Fiddle It To Death”

I love watching The Joy of Painting at the end of a long day.  Bob Ross is relaxing, entertaining, and has much wisdom to offer artists of all stripes.  Near completion of a painting, one of his favorite bits of advice is, “Now, don’t fiddle this to death.”  You risk ruining your happy little trees by endlessly tweaking and fussing over them.

The same thing applies when we writers put on our editing caps.  We second-guess word choice and sentence structure.  We worry whether we’re doing something the best way it could be done.  Taken too far, these reasonable concerns become paralyzing self-doubt. Endless edits and re-edits are a hamster wheel many writers are too afraid to step out of.  As a result, we never see their work.

This is especially true of editing novel-length works.  There’s no such thing as one quick pass and I’m done!– not unless you’re deluding yourself.  You must cut scenes, draft new scenes, then smooth out all the resulting rough edges and continuity errors.  So at minimum, you need one pass to cement the scenes in the order they’ll occur, then a second pass to pretty them up and make everything make sense.  (This doesn’t count editorial or beta-reader passes.  Incorporating recommended edits may constitute yet another pass.)

Inevitably, you’ll find things to change on your “final” pass.  Sanity-check that pass- oops!  More changes.  If you’re not careful, you can easily end up in that hamster wheel.  After this pass, I’ll be done.  No wait, one more… until the words on the page disgust you, and you can’t remember how to spell “the.”  You run the risk of eviscerating perfectly good scenes, simply because you’re sick of looking at them.

Perfect is the enemy of good.  At some point you have to put down the sandpaper, throw the red pen away, tie on a bow and hope for the best.

How do you know when enough’s enough?  The answer’s different for everyone, but in my experience, designating cutoff points keeps me from over-obsessing over any one passage.  On the first editing pass for my novel, I’ve imposed a one-week deadline per chapter (this was when I was working a full-time day job; the time limit may change as I transition to full-time writing).  However good I can make it in one week, that’s good enough.  I know I’ll be back on another pass, and the imposed separation will help me return to the chapter with fresh eyes.

Of course, shit happens.  Maybe I had to break one chapter into two and add a whole bunch of new material, or my wonderful beta-reader-slash-spouse isn’t available to provide feedback for a few days.  I don’t sweat it, because sometimes, the opposite happens and swings me back ahead of schedule.  Early in editing, for instance, I crunched my first five chapters into three.  Instant two-week buffer!

To track editing progress, I abandon the word-count spreadsheet, since my daily word count’s often negative at this stage.  OneNote is now a free download for Mac (yay!!), so I use it instead, creating a new page for each week.

onenoteNothing fancy, but I adore OneNote for to-do tracking.

Happy editing- and don’t fiddle it to death!

What tricks do you use to avoid overkill when editing?  Drop me a line and let me know!

The Last Dreadful Sunday

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For most of my life- a few years excepted- Sundays have been plagued with a gnawing sense of dread.

Monday’s coming.  Back to school or work.  Assignments I don’t want to do, meetings to slog through, people I don’t want to deal with.

No matter how sunny the weather or what fun activities are planned for the day, I never fully relax with Monday sitting right there, ready to swallow me up in another week.  I feel it sharpest in those hours before bed on Sunday night, sometimes bad enough to cry.  It’s almost worse than actually waking up Monday morning and dragging myself down the path toward more unwanted assignments, more stress, and whatever else.

While I’m a naturally anxious person, I do think the fear of Monday is worst when I’m filling my days with things that are bad for me at that particular stage in my life.

I’ve resigned from my full-time office job, giving 3 weeks’ notice.  This was not a rash decision.  In fact, it took 2 years longer than necessary to realize I was doing what I thought I should, not what I really should. Not that I have a perfect picture of where I’ll go from here, but knowing what I don’t want- and turning away, no matter what outside pressures conspire to keep me rooted- is a start.

This is my last full week at the office.  I’m giving myself a year to forge a new path with writing as my focus, knowing I can always fall back to the old one if things don’t work out.

I hope they do.  I hope yesterday was the last Sunday of dread.

Have you ever made a leap like this?  What advice can you give?  Let me know in the comments- I could use the encouragement!

4 Tricks To Enhance Your Brainstorming

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A writer logs a huge portion of his or her life at desk, computer, and notebook.  Everyone dreams about stories, but only by spending months grinding through sentence after sentence, thinking and rethinking, obsessing, anguishing, tearing down and throwing up, does a story or a book actually come into existence.

We’re all too aware of those who dream, but never put in the effort.  We’re all too aware of the games procrastination plays with us.  When we have to spend time away, doing all the other things that maintain a healthy existence, it’s hard not to feel guilty about “squandered” writing time.

Fret not!  It’s when you’ve left your desk that some of your best ideas strike.

Think about it.  Most of us have a certain time of day, place, or activity when ideas come to us that help us move the plot forward or see things in a new light.  There are two times that are golden for me: right before bed, and riding the bus to work early in the morning.  At both times, I’m sleepy and I’ve let my guard down.  My brain wanders down paths and makes connections it can’t make while I’m wide awake.

For others, it might be a walk outside, a shower, meditation, or washing dishes.  The ideas happen there, then you spend the rest of the day eager to get back to writing so you can act on them.

This process seems outside one’s control, but there are things you can do to encourage and enhance your daydreaming, giving yourself the best chance to create fun new ideas.

1. Make time to wander.

How many people shove their noses into laptops or smartphones the second they don’t have anything to do?  Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have things to play and read- especially on long trips- but a lot of people no longer permit themselves to just sit and think.  Try it, even for a short time- staring out the window on the bus, waiting for a meal at a restaurant, taking a walk through the park- heck, even the Peter Gibbons’ stare-at-my-desk a la Office Space.

officespace_thebobs“But it looks like I’m working.”

You don’t get great story ideas playing Sudoku or Angry Birds- unless you’re drafting an epic mash-up in which the avian kingdom declares war upon the numbers 1 through 9 (inclusive).

2. Relax.

This absolutely does not work if you’re stressed, or putting pressure on yourself to come up with something five minutes ago.  This is very much a “let go, and it’ll happen” exercise.  It’s like finding a romantic partner, at least in my experience.  Desperation is the enemy.  It’s usually only after one says “Screw it, whatever happens happens” that someone special comes along.

3. Prime your thinking.

If you’re trying to brainstorm for a particular story, you won’t start  with a blank slate.  Set your mind on a path.  For instance, before falling asleep, I mentally replay the scene(s) I’ve just drafted.  Improvements on lines and actions often come to me then, as well as thoughts for where to go next.

I’ll also ruminate on unanswered questions about plot, background, and characterization.  “How did [character] meet his best friend?” for instance.  Not necessarily stuff that has to go into the story, but stuff that helps me better understand the characters and setting.

Let your mind wander off-topic if it wants.  If you fall asleep before anything comes to you, it’s OK-  as long as you don’t sleep past your bus stop.

4. Capture those brilliant thoughts!

Holy crap, the most perfect line of dialogue ever- and no pen, computer, or smartphone for miles!

Has this ever happened to you?  I’ve been known to repeat lines over and over in my head from the time of inception to the time I reached something to write it down with- 30 minutes or more.  Not fun.

Keep something close by to capture your thoughts.  I have a notebook on my nightstand for my just-before-sleep thoughts.  Other people use note-taking apps like Evernote, Simplenote, OneNote… there’s a ton of them these days.  They even make notepads you can use in the shower!

Even if it’s “dumb” or not an idea you can’t use right now, write it down anyway.  Someday, when the well has run dry, you can refer back to your idea repository and see if anything helps you.


Where do your best ideas strike?  How do you foster them?  Drop me a line and let me know!