Blow Off Some Steam With Side-Writing

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For most of the time I was drafting Blood’s Force, I was solely focused on that project. All of my brainstorming and creative energy were attuned to where that story was going next, and how it was going to get there.

An impressive feat of focus and discipline, but after a while, all that squinting in one direction strained my creative vision. It took me a while to realize the value of increased sanity breaks away from writing – usually for reading, drawing, and video games. (Oh, and fireflies.)

But then I gradually sneaked writing into my off-time as well – writing that had nothing to do with my main project. My husband and I play a story-building game together, similar to a forum RPG. We keep shared files on Google Docs. He’ll write out his character’s actions, I’ll append my character’s actions, then it’s his turn again. There’s no obligation at all. It’s just fun.

It’s amazing how fast that writing pours out of my head. On my “serious” projects, 1000 new words is a really good day. With my playtime writing, I can churn out 1000 words in the space of an hour or two. I don’t have to think about it, it just happens. The voice that’s normally third-guessing each word goes on vacation. I get a lot of opportunity to flex my creativity muscles, working with a different set of characters, constraints, and problems to solve.

It seems like energy wasted. All that effort for prose that only two people will ever see? But seriously, it’s a really good break from my main project, especially when I’m stuck on something there and need time away from it. The shift to a different genre and set of characters lets my brain go places it wouldn’t normally go if it had to remain in the “main” thought-space. That divergent thinking really helps refresh me upon returning to the main project.

The other benefit to side projects is that they often help me get going on days when I feel like I can’t get anything done. I have the aforementioned story-writing with my husband; I also have this very blog, and articles for The Daily WTF. If I’m feeling too brain-dead to launch straight into my main project, I’ll take 30-60 minutes to draft a blog post or article. One crappy sentence becomes two, then three… who cares, right? It’s drafting. By the time I’m done, I feel a sense of accomplishment, and greater confidence that I’ll achieve something constructive on my main project.

It seems silly to ask someone experiencing writer’s block, “Have you tried writing?” But seriously, taking a break to work on something else might be a great way to power through it.


Travel Logs: The Handy Reference You May Be Overlooking

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When I go on vacation, I have a rule of spending as little time on the computer as possible. This was especially true when I had a regular full-time job, but I don’t see things changing as a freelancer.  I paid good money to put myself in a different place for a while, to experience that place – so I might as well experience it. There will be ample email- and social media-fooling-around time when I get home.

I make two tiny exceptions. One: communication from my pet-sitters (I have two cats, and I’m never doing OK unless I know they’re doing OK). Two: at the end of each day, I spend 5-10 minutes chronicling the day’s events: where we went, what was good and bad, how it all looked and felt, what I learned about this new place and the people there.

I find this a really valuable practice for several reasons:

  • In case I decide to base a story, scene, or character off this information later. I can draw upon and leverage my authentic experiences. Living it yourself is seriously the best method of research possible!
  • It’s good writing practice when I’m away from my usual projects. I think it’s helpful to step away and write things that aren’t your main project from time to time. It helps you blow off steam, and lets your brain go in directions it won’t normally because it’s stuck in some particular genre, with a particular set of characters and circumstances.
  • To encourage myself to do and see more. I’m an introvert who needs regular kicks to the butt to get out and do things. I want to have lots to write down later!
  • If I decide to revisit this place someday, it’s a reference guide of lessons learned. Restaurants to revisit, for instance – or the valuable knowledge that you need at least 2 hours to get through US customs!
  • To relive an awesome trip as often as I like. The trips I’ve logged this way, I remember much better than the ones I didn’t. This makes it easy to recall sights/sounds/smells/quotes/etc. that might’ve slipped through the cracks otherwise. A few words in, and suddenly I’m re-enjoying that mocha in the museum cafe.

My journaling is really nothing special – just a rich text file – but I put as much of my own personality and humor into the descriptions as I can, and soon the thing has a life of its own. It’s not something I intend to share, but it easily could be a blog post or essay if I spruced it up.

If you haven’t logged your own travel this way, give it a shot and see what happens!


“Start As Close To The End As Possible”

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Scattered across the Internet, you’ll find a set of “fiction” or “short story” rules (depending on the source) attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers. My own judgment is that they’re more useful for short fiction than long, because they’re mostly geared toward getting to the point and not wasting the reader’s time. Of course that’s important in any fiction, but for a short story, it’s crucial.

I happen to be plunking at a couple of short stories at the moment as I await feedback on the latest draft of Blood’s Force. Of Vonnegut’s 8 rules, number 5 helped me out a lot this week:

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

I intend for one of the short stories to be a prequel of Blood’s Force– but for the past few years, I’ve been in long-fiction mode. So as I outlined this thing, I made plenty of room in the front for a slow buildup, establishing world and character. I still had no good idea of a starting place or line, but figured that’d work itself as I drafted.

And then I sat down to draft… and I didn’t want to. I was dreading it.

Uh-oh, that was my spider-sense tingling! That meant something was wrong with my approach. But what? What could I change to make myself more interested in this thing?

It took a day or two of thought. Maybe if I have a really creative opening? OK, but what? I’m stuck there now. Hang on, is there any scene in this outline I do want to write? Otherwise, I should just scrap the darn thing and start over.

It turned out, yes, there was this scene near the middle that intrigued me.

Then, right before bed one night, it hit me: START THERE. Like Kurt said. Ditch the slow build and start one scene shy of the climax. Weave in establishing details as the action happens. Give a taste of the world, don’t try to explain it. That’s what the books are for.

This approach struck me as more intriguing, and more challenging. I’ll be trying it out and seeing what happens!

Just a quick example of my thought process when I get stuck. I hope it might help someone else. :)


My Uncle’s Painting

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Mom was in the midst of a major clear-out of the attic, amassing unwanted items for an upcoming neighborhood yard sale. When she gets it in mind to clean house, nothing is sacred. (Those sentimental heart-strings that spontaneously form around objects I haven’t looked upon in years? I must have gotten those from somewhere else.) Relics of our shared past piled up in her bedroom for the ultimate judgment: stay, or go.

My sister and I had first dibs. Mom walked me through the inventory: a half-strung acoustic guitar, crumpled homework assignments, faded needlepoint, piles of sheet music. I managed to turn all of this down- and then Mom pointed out a framed watercolor of a Boston street.

“Do you want this?” she asked. “Your Uncle Manoo painted it.”

My great uncle Manoocher, to be precise. He was my mom’s uncle, one of my grandmother’s three younger brothers, and had died a few years ago. I only met him once that I can remember, when I was six or seven years old. Considering there’s a large swath of my Persian family I’ve never met, that’s not bad.

During his visit, Uncle Manoo stayed at our house. I remember his bone-crunching hug and kisses- Persians are very affectionate- and the cigarette on his breath, probably the first time in my life I’d been exposed to it that closely. Mom scrambled to find something he could use as an ashtray. As far as I know, he’s the only person she ever allowed to smoke inside her house. Before his visit, I’d been told Uncle Manoo was an architect. For a brief period of time, I had wanted to be an architect too. I drew lots of pictures of houses from the front, using rulers to get the doors, windows, chimneys, and bricks- yes, I drew each individual brick- just right.

Later on, I’d found out Uncle Manoo had also known several languages, written poetry, and produced a few paintings- like the watercolor in my mom’s possession. She was fine with selling it if I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t imagine allowing such an artifact to leave the family. I took the painting home with me, and placed it in my office.

A few weeks later, my mom called excitedly to tell me about a book that had been published in Iran: a book about my great uncle.

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As it turns out, Uncle Manoo is considered the father of modern Iranian architecture. He designed several modern buildings, taught at a collegiate level, and translated important architectural books written in other countries into Farsi. He treated his students like they were his own children, so much so that a group of them collaborated to produce a book about his life, work, and mentorship.

The book is only available in Iran. My last surviving great uncle was able to procure two copies, and sent one to my mom. I was able to flip through it the next time I visited her. It’s impressively huge, nearly two feet tall and several inches thick. My Farsi is poor to middling, but I could spot the innumerable mentions of my uncle’s name on the front cover and amid the pages. Given the lack of understanding, I focused more on the pictures: Uncle Manoo’s letters, poems, designs, and paintings, as well as photographs with family members and students.

One of the pictures, in particular, continues to amaze us. It’s a scanned photograph of the very painting I rescued from the neighborhood yard sale.

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