Unfinished Stories

Unfinished Stories

I was determined to write a detective story during my summer holidays. I had a pretty amazing idea, I had the characters sketched, and the plot outlined. The morning after I arrived to the hotel, I sat by the pool, switched my laptop on, and wrote for a few hours. The following days I went on writing —less time each day— until I came to a halt. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, all I had was an unfinished story.

As author Roz Morris says,

Most writers who give up are trying to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or trying to do too much.

That’s me sometimes. And I believe that’s you, as well. So I went and asked my fellow writers why do they leave some stories unfinished. These are their answers (and mine, too):

  1. “I don’t have enough time to write”: I have a day job, a demanding family, or a busy social life. Finding a couple of hours to write each day is very difficult.
  2. “I lost my confidence during the process”: The cool idea I had doesn’t feel cool anymore; my characters are dull, or get trapped in a plot twist… Do I have what it takes to write this story?
  3. “I’ll never be as good as…”.Put here your favourite storywriter of all times. I’m stuck, so I decide to read some Sue Grafton / Stephen King / James Patterson to get inspired…and I just get “discouraged by comparison”.
  4. “I start writing, then I have to stop for any reason, then I go back to my story, and I don’t know how to continue it anymore”.

So, what can we do to finish our stories? The answer is very simple: Plan before you sit down to write.

When you plan your story:

  1. You know what you have to do next, and it’s easier to find time to write that part down.
  2. You get to know your story inside out: your characters don’t get stuck, your plot runs smoothly, and you can stop writing knowing what you’ll have to do when you come back.
  3. Your story looks solid enough, so you won’t feel like a failure because you’re not as successful as James Patterson is.

Take it from me: Finish your stories. The only bad ones are the ones you’ll never write.

PS: More on planning soon. In case you need some tips to nail your stories down.

Pretend and bring your characters to life

Pretend and bring your characters to life

It doesn’t matter if you write novels, short stories or children literature, bringing your characters to life is always difficult. You have to give them a definite personality, but not too much of it, or you’ll end up with a single-character manuscript. They have to be realistic, because your readers will want to recognize them and, maybe, to identify themselves with them.

Writers are always trying to avoid those one-dimensional characters who are defined by a few traits, and never change or do anything interesting. Do you remember Miss Annie, Ignatius J. Reilly’s neighbour? In A Confederacy of Dunces, she just sits behind her shutters, complaining about the noise that comes from the Reilly’s. That’s a flat, one-dimensioned character in all its splendour.

On the other hand, think about Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights : a complex, multi-layered character capable of the deepest love and the deepest hatred, a wounded orphan who wants to be accepted, and a cold man who marries for money and properties…Unsavoury as he might be, he’s a memorable character. Those are the characters we want to create: unforgettable in the way they attract or repel readers.

Although is not easy, there are several techniques that may help you to create the multidimensional characters you want. Pretending you’re that character is one of my favourites: it’s creative, fun, and channels your inner entertainer.

Just think about a few defining personality traits, the most important ones, and put yourself in the shoes of a bank clerk forced to become a hero, of a plain teenager ignored by her classmates, or of the apparently loving nurse who’s a death angel. Imagine how they feel, what they think, where they prefer to eat, who they love or hate, how they speak….Pretend, and you’ll bring your character to life.

Now, would you like trying some acting and see what comes of it? Have a look at Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (which is one of my favourite paintings of all times) and pretend you’re the woman. Or pretend you’re the one who’s watching her. Just immerse yourself in the life and personality of your character.

Share with me your findings, if you want. I’d love to see where pretending’s taken you.

Panic…or the art of accepting fear

Panic…or the art of accepting fear

Panic, fear, anxiety… nasty words and ugly feelings, aren’t they? Who needs to feel nervous, anxious, afraid? Creative people do.

Ask any writer, artist, musician or opera singer how they feel when they embark themselves in a new project, how they feel before their novel is launched,  their paintings showed in a gallery, or the curtain is raised in a theatre full of people. The words “relaxed and at peace with myself and the world” won’t cross their lips.

Anxiety and nervousness are simply part of the creative life, just as inspiration, or lack of ideas are. To become an artist, you’ll have to get a grip on your mind, control your fear, and don’t let it become panic.

 

In her book Playing Big, author Tara Mohr writes about two kinds of fear:

  • There’s panic, the irrational fear that comes from imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what seizes you when you have to speak in public or that second before you hit the “publish” button and you’re afraid that nobody will like your post. Sometimes, it’s so strong that you feel like the horrified human in Edvard Munch’s The Scream
  • But then, there’s another kind of fear, the one that gives you butterflies in your stomach, the one that emerges from knowing that you’ve done your best, that you’re ready to share your story, your photograph, your illustrations or your music with the world. This kind of fear is a sure sign that you’re making progress, that you’re onto something big and meaningful.

Don’t be afraid of being afraid.

If you feel panic, know that we’re all wired to experience it. It’s a form of self-protection and we can change the way we react to it. (Now, I laugh at how anxious made me going to dance classes a year ago. I can’t dance much better now, but I’ve learnt to enjoy dancing!) But if you feel that creative anxiety, accept it fully, because is a sign that your goal is closer.

We don’t actually need to keep ourselves safe from every potential emotional risk. We actually need to take the emotional risk that come with sharing our voices and ideas more visibly and vulnerably. —Tara Mohr’s Play Big. 

Thanks to Marjolein Caljow for sharing the beautiful drawing that illustrates this post.

 

Generous Artists

Generous Artists

Creative people, artists, are among the most generous people in the world. You may not believe it because they prefer to be by themselves, and they need more solitude and silence to work in their creations. However, nobody exposes herself so much as an artist does.

Just a moment ago, I have lifted my eyes from my laptop screen and looked at the wall in front of me. Pinned to it is a reproduction of Raoul Dufy’s “The Artist Studio“. It’s as if the artist opened the door to his most private room, and let us in to have a look at his unfinished paintings, at his life as an artist. Isn’t that generous of him? Because, how many chances do we get to visit a famous painter’s studio?

These days, I am also rereading one of my favourite books on creativity: Eric Maisel’s “A Writer’s Paris“. What we have here is someone sharing with us his life as a writer in Paris: the places he loves to write in, the museums, shops, cafés, and street markets he likes to visit, his writing blocks, his family life, his moments of doubt and his moments of triumph. Isn’t that generous of him? I know many families whose members don’t share as much personal information as Mr. Maisel shares with us in his book.

It’s the same with actors getting “naked” in front of their audiences, or singers singing about lost love (remember “Songs about Jane” by Maroon 5?). The thing is that artists decide to be generous with their emotions, perceptions, visions and ideas. They choose to expose themselves to their public’s judgements, knowing that such judgements can be really harsh.

Because of those acts of generosity, art and artists should be respected. You may think the story is rubbish or that your five-year-old nephew could draw better landscapes, but you can’t deny that artists have to be brave to expose themselves as they do. Overcoming their doubts and fears about being judged by us is truly generous.

 

Progress and the newbie writer

Progress and the newbie writer

What does progress mean for a newbie writer? Many different things, as many as there are writers. For some of us, it means getting a downpayment from the big publishing house that has just bought our manuscript, while for others the mere act of writing a few pages every day means they’re making progress.

As a writer, you are an artist, a creative person, and your progress is subjective. No newbie writer should think of progress as something she has to demonstrate to others. Just as you ultimately write for yourself, you should be the only one deciding what progress means in the context of your writing life.

Progress and goal setting

For any writer progress has to do with goal achievement. Anything that takes you closer to your writing goals is progress. As a newbie writer, your writing goals are (and should be) modest. Writing 3 pages per day, resisting the urge to edit as you write, find the time and space to write, joining a critique group (and stop being afraid of showing your manuscript to others), are goals that a newbie writer should reach if she’s being disciplined, constant and patient enough.

Writing a perfect draft on your first try, winning every contest you send your manuscript to, or landing a publishing contract with your first novel aren’t reasonable goals, though. If you link your sense of progress to achieving such goals, you’re in for disappointment. And lack of progress may make you stop writing altogether.

Does this mean that you should set your goals low to make progress? Not at all. What I’m saying is that, for a newbie writer, keep on writing should be the most important thing. You should run from anything that could make you stop writing: disappointment, frustration, writer’s block, insecurities and the like.

Progress milestones and mid-course corrections

It’s great to want your novel to be the next bestseller, but instead of linking your sense of progress to such a big goal, why don’t you break it into more manageable chunks, each of them being a “progress milestone”? Have a few of these milestones, and you’ll be much closer to see your novel published.

Progress milestones will also help you to make any required mid-course correction on your writing career. Being creative is being flexible. You might have been writing poetry for a year, and suddenly find out a passion for historic fiction. What are you supposed to do? Keep on writing poetry and ignore this new field? Jump into historic novels and forget about haikus? The beauty of creativity is that allows you to experiment, to follow a new, interesting path for a while just to see where it takes you. Mid-course corrections are more than good; they are necessary to make progress.

 As C.S. Lewis put it:

Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be […] If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.

If you want to make progress relax, set some sensible writing goals, and don’t be afraid of walking back after having explored around for a while.