on writing

Story 101, Ep. II: Problems and More Problems

Don’t give it to ’em easy.

I’ve come to think of problem-invention as a parallel to my experience befriending people in Southeast Asia. American culture affords the sort of fast best-friendship that springs from extroverted social norms and bonding over sports teams or favorite authors, which immediate heart-to-hearts follow. This is not the case, though, for “cold cultures” — like introverted quiet sister Thailand. Culturally reserved but friendly, Thais accidentally feed the lie that you are not only friends but good ones. In a little bit, with some effort and time, you will be invited for dinner. You’ll think: “We’re totally friends!” But you’re not. When a wall comes flying up from a trapdoor in the ground, it’ll nearly clip you, and you may feel angry. Around the third or fourth time this happens, you’ll get discouraged at the thought of ever becoming as good of friends as you think you are. But still, you plow onward, and then another wall nearly takes off your nose. You may be in the jungles for a good few years before one day your Thai “acquaintance” will look at you and think and look at you and think and finally ask you what your favorite color is.

As soon as the main problem dies, your story is over.

The temptation as a creator is to invent the world you wish you had and make your characters flourish in it. But this is where we may mirror Real Life, which may not make a living off it but does enjoy a good dabble of thwarting. We learn through struggle, so let your characters struggle. Give them a problem relevant to their goal and let them want it so bad, their wanting bleeds through the pages and makes us match our breathing to theirs. Then thwart them.

On your character’s road to actualizing his or her goal, there are spring-loaded doors in the ground. But the more walls, the bigger the pay-off. I’ll never forget how happy I was to answer: “It’s green! Green green green!”

Keep an eye out for Episode III (concerning bullet 4.)!

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life, on writing

the settling

I know better than to tap on glass to make whatever creature move, but as I looked out the window this morning and saw the massive striped orb weaver shimmying up and down its glittering web, I wanted nothing better than to see what sort of underbelly it had, what color, and if it was poisonous. It’s been like that lately. A small obsession with all the things I haven’t experienced in two years, and all making me a little impolite, even childish. The yard is full of unswept leaves. They crackle underfoot, a common enough occurrence when I lived here, but so unlike the bendy green debris of my old home. Every once in a while, the wind will blow, sending down a burst of leafy yellow confetti, and I itch for cooler days.

It’s been a little over two months since I’ve been home. People ask me about Thailand, about cultural things I miss or don’t, and I’ve grown tired of answering them with the same sort of impatience that I turn toward myself: when will it feel normal again? In that vein of trying, just trying, to make sense of it, I sit down to my books and old notes and look for words. (When else will I remember it all as vividly as I do now?) But when the person inside you seems absent, standing back watching as if to see if things really will stop changing, it’s hard to make truthful statements about anything. I’m reading a really good book right now, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, and it’s only served to affirm my own quest these last years: make it real. Make it unpretentious. Make it yours. (Read it if you haven’t. I found it, a castaway treasure, at Goodwill.)

And perhaps it’s given me the peace to tell you, I exist currently in the moment, waiting for it all to settle. There are still many more autumn leaves yet to fall.

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on writing

on process: “wove, twue wove”

This episode is brought to you from the air-conditioned cave of my bedroom in Chiang Mai. Today’s weather heading is Death, and even my hyper cat won’t move longer than it takes for her to find an easier spot to breathe in.

It’s days like this that I have to reconsider why I write.

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My book is finished. My new idea is a stinker. It’s hot. A ticker tape of quotes runs through my head: Hemingway, “blasting charges through rock”; Joyce, “mistakes…the portals of discovery”; Gilbert, “woo the muse,” and still this nagging feeling persists:

Is it worth it?

 

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I once read a story of a man who went to a Q&A session with a famous writer. When it was his turn at the microphone, he said, “For years I’ve struggled with writing. I’ve fought and clawed, and it’s never gotten easier. People tell me to keep at it, keep trying, but I just never break through. It’s agony, and I want to quit.”

The writer stared at him over the podium. “Then quit.”

download (5)After the dumbfounded man blustered through a justification or two, the writer said, “Look. Why would you keep at something that’s agony? Everyone’s allowed their opinion, but you don’t owe anyone anything. If you hate it, quit.”

There was a small silence as the audience sucked in its breath. It’s always a queasy feeling seeing someone get hit below the belt.

“But.”

The man looked up.

“But if in the time you give yourself to clear your head, you keep coming back to writing…because it is what you must do…then write.”

And perhaps this is my only reason for returning: it must be love. Yet it cannot be that I am the only one who struggles with the process.

The Mighty 10

Since I began to take writing seriously in early college, I have discovered that there are ten stages to my personal writing process:

  1. the idea
  2. the brainstorm
  3. the Define the Relationship (DTR)
  4. the first page
  5. the 100
  6. the 200″download (1).gif
  7. the Pit of Despair 
  8. the afterglow
  9. the baby blues
  10. the empty nester

…and I want to open up discussion about the varying emotional climates associated with each.

Disclaimer

Not all writers are “feelers,” and not all “feelers” are melancholic basket cases. However, all writers adownload (9)t some point experience the psychological equivalent of middle school: the hopelessness, the endlessness, the feeling that you’re the only one looking this weird and everyone’s looking. It is a small one, but a trauma nonetheless, to judge your art. So be you a sensitive soul or no, these stages may still apply.

1. The Idea

I get ideas by accident and never when I’m upset. The mere act of thriving in life provides inspiration–biking, going to get groceries, surviving a cockroach invasion–and being surrounded by other art helps too. With these seeds of thought come that first spark: maybe… I store them in a travel-size notebook and laugh at them when I’m feeling cynical. But usually, it’s fun.

download (12).gif*sometimes, your brain thinks it’s hilarious to inspire you in the middle of a later stage (usually the 100). That’s what the notebook is for. Jot it down and ignore it ’til later. In time, like any child, it’ll learn to sleep through the night.

2. The Brainstorm

This is the notebook, tea, and relevant music stage. The purpose is to generate ideas. Being trapped places for long periods of time, a death knell for active folks, can actually be crucial: long car rides, waiting rooms, insomnia.

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Block entire outlines, make characters dialogue in “empty rooms” (not thinking about settings), and plan the metaphysical functions of the universe. I find generating quickly in bulk helps me keep things uniform.

This phase hdownload (10)as no boundaries. No commitments. It can be enjoyable as long as it is pursued with purpose. Otherwise, it starts to feel like you’re locked in the Dali clock painting, time endlessly melting away from you and no structure to prop anything up. Bolt through and later on, return when you’re stuck.

3. The Define the Relationship (DTR)

Okay, commitment-phobes, this is the sit-down-with-coffee-and-assess-“where-this-is-heading” stage, when you decide: I’m going to write this. To be honest, most of my ideas never make it here. Thanks, download (6)crushing creative self-doubt.

I imagine, though, if I was half as disciplined as I am imaginative, I could have several more drafts to “blast out with charges” than I do currently. Revision is its own monster. But at least there would be something growing to cultivate instead of a thousand dead seeds. So my advice? Commit and keep committing.

4. The First Page

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“This is the part where you run away.”

Some people hate middles, some people hate endings. I hate beginnings. My own. Anyone else’s. I’m most likely to turn off a movie within the first twenty minutes. Unless you’re just blessed with knockout opening lines, everything on the first page sounds like it was written by a blithering idiot.

My recommendation is to turn off the critical voices (there are many) and keep writing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up rewriting the beginning later on anyway.

5. The 100

The first 100 pages fall into the “beginning” category for me. If this is where you start to “get into the run,” good for you. As for me, I don’t fall into sureness until the second wind.

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6. the “200”

I hit my stride around page 200 (or about halfway).

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Now this is what I’m talking about. The frenzied typing, the smooth-flowing action, the realistic characterization, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the enjoyment of every second until you get there. That is, until…

7. the Pit of Despair

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During the final scene of my last project, a jungly fairy tale I ended up titling Faeble, my Inner Editor sprang up from the darkness and started strangling my Creative Spirit, all the while screaming death threats and halting the overall flow of productivity: It must be perfect! I hear the shrill tones even now. How dare you end your manifesto with this piddling exchange?! Kingsolver would quit the profession if she knew she had to share it with imbeciles like you!download (15).gif

Of all moments in your process, this final stage may be the most miserable. It will all feel for nothing because everything is The Worst. Again, fear not.

8. The Afterglow

You know that pink-orangey look of the sky after an all-nighter of rain? Or the high-arm V that runners make on the other side of the marathon? Or even just that first sip of coffee?download (16).gif

That’s you finishing your work. Though I claim to be a writer, there aren’t proper words for the sensation, and you won’t know it yourself until you buckle down and get there.

9. The Baby Blues

The other day, one of my best friends, a young wife and mother of two, was describing in grand detail the ordeal known as labor (also, how she stood up on the delivery table mid-contraction and told the nurses she was having a time out). She said perhaps the best feeling in the world is the bonding time with the infant after the adrenaline rush.download (7)

Perhaps we should all have babies and not books because I would say there’s probably no such thing for us writers. Almost immediately, the low hits: the show’s over, the thing to get up for and eat for. Oh, don’t worry, there’s revision. And sequels. But you don’t have the emotional energy for those just yet. Only the ponderous revisitation to life watching television and, if you’re wise about it, doing your actual job.

10. The Empty Nester

Never fear. If it’s meant to be, your brain will have you in fits over a new story soon enough. And the process begins all over again. That’s, I suppose, true love.

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Friends, I’d love to hear about your own creative process — in any medium! Comment below or email me at adnorman2@gmail.com. Happy writing 🙂

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on writing

knock ’em like rocky

I’m a “habitualist” about writing. Candles. Tea. Cold weather. Late fall and winter months give me the writer vibes while summers are always “time off,” dedicated to the books I abandoned for my own stories. But last month was my first Camp National Novel Writing Month: April, not November.

And guess what…

I finished a novel!

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#TRUTH | I share not to be all “wowowow I DID IT. IN YOUR FACE.” Rather, it’s my hope that this is a “wowowowow if I can do it, you can too!”

My life is hectic at times. I feel I can’t really say that since I have no kids, but for an unmarried twenty-something, it’s pretty all over the place. Between translation work in my second language, living cross-culturally, keeping in touch with people back home at odd hours, and the supposedly minor tasks of sleeping and buying food, I don’t have many spare minutes.

Therefore, let this be a testimony to all:

YOU CAN DO IT!

 

 

 

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NANOWRIMO | I would heartily recommend NaNoWriMo (there’s another one coming up in July!) for anyone in need of encouragement, a deadline, or just other writers in your life. That’s my favorite thing: the community. (The second would be the Stats Tracker.) Writing is a lonely sport, and it helps when you have cheerleaders in your NaNo inbox everyday.

Jet’s a pretty good encourager too. When she’s not mauling my curtains.

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Speaking of inboxes…

EMAIL ADVICE | A writing buddy of mine wrote me at the start of the month, asking about my high word count.

He also wanted to know if I had any tips for focus and why was I writing a children’s story?

I thought I would share my response with you…

Hi, ____________!

So confession: I picked 70,000 words for #campnanowrimo because a) I’m wordy and b) I’d already written 20,000 words. I tend to work on the nuts and bolts of various stories forever before I sit down to write them because I have a full-time (and incredibly time-consuming) job. Then when NaNoWriMo comes around, I attempt to knock those words out like Rocky in the ring. I do have a couple of tips, though, if my confession hasn’t disqualified me to share them:

1. AUDIENCE: It helps me to envision what it will be like to hand my manuscript to my father, who loves to read and critique young adult and children’s fantasy novels. Find that person you’re writing for because it’s daunting enough to write at all, and infinitely more so when writing for the whole world. One person, no more, no less.

2. OUTLINE: Do what works for you: I have tried both “pantsing” (not planning ahead at all except for a basic idea) and “plotting” (strenuous outlining and character profiling and even scene cards)….

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…and for me, writing in a void of nothingness does not work. If you need that freedom, protect it: don’t plan. If you need some structure, obey your inner voice and do it even if it isn’t fun. I need it, and I still hate doing it. Somewhere in the middle of puzzle-piecing cards on the floor, though, it becomes cleansing and pleasant, like organizing a closet.

3. INSPIRATION: What sort of environment inspires you? Do you need time to walk around and visualize? Do you need a notebook to scribble in? Music? Silence? Coffee shop and/or people sounds? If you need ambience but can’t afford to keep going out, try noisli.com.

4) HABIT: I like routines when it comes to writing, so I set up a “I’m going to start writing now and no more Pinterest or movies” ritual. For my November novel, each time I would start my writing session, I would watch this one inspiring youtube video (Rachael Stephens is fun). Then I would put on my book playlist on iTunes or YouTube and start reading where I left off the day before. Once back in the moment of that scene, I would start writing. Habit prevents sneaky distractions. Your brain locks in on the routine, like a child getting ready for bed. Eventually, if you submit to the routine long enough, your brain “gets it.” Writing mode clicks on faster, and you’ve ceased being your own worst enemy.

As for writing young adult/children’s fantasy… I suppose the greatest difference is I feel a sense of freedom from the gruesome darkness that often imposes itself as “realism” on adult fiction. Writing good adult fiction as a Christian, for an audience that isn’t Christian, is difficult. I don’t want to shy away from it, but I haven’t mastered the art, and while I learn, I return to my older passion: fairy tales. In a fantasy world, I feel more in my element. I have noble characters, and I have bad guys, and they’re all, at times, a little bit gray. But they’re round figures with difficult moral decisions to make. Like all of us. And on a more basic level, I had a great idea about humans turning into dragons, and I wanted to write it before someone else did. 

Sorry for the “novel.” 🙂 I feel honored that you asked! 

Best of luck,

dori

And best of luck to you lovely folks too! Throw off the distractions, keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll be a doing a victory dance too 🙂

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travel

lanna finds

Wednesday brings you another coffee post from the north of Thailand.

Lanna Welcomes You

Often, you will see this phrase around the city. The region, the Land of a Million Rice Fields, used to be known as the Lanna Kingdom, and the language varies a bit from Central Thai. For instance, instead of greeting a friend or stranger with Sawatdee ka!, the locals may say Sawatdee jao!. 

Perhaps what I find the greatest difference is the “look” of Lanna from the south of Thailand. Up here, everything seems rustic. Or as they say, “lao” — the equivalent to an American calling something “hick” (I get the feeling the term may be a slur against one of our neighboring countries?). Think less the gaudy gold of the Bangkok province and more thatch roofs, muted jewel tones, wooden wats…

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Yes, I staged this #hipstergeneration

This last year, northern Thailand has provided excellent visual material for my current project and Camp NaNoWriMo novel, The Jungle Kingdom. Though I am only halfway through the draft, I can already say that this has been my most rewarding writing experience since college. The serious intelligence of graduate school tends to bias you against children’s fiction.

When we live in a world of genocide and epidemics, perhaps there are richer, maturer subjects to tackle.

However, I am learning — if it’s possible for your own brain-child to teach you anything — that we can struggle with death and dark choices even in children’s stories. (See J. K. Rowling for love as sacrifice and C. S. Lewis for alternate creation stories & what is free will?). Check my progress out here if you’re curious — or if you’re also creating this month and need a writing buddy!

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Yay for friends who will take you to neat coffee shops and leave you alone to write!

At the height of the water festival, my friend Erin and I escaped to Tanita Coffee House in the nearby mountains to create for a few hours. What a quaint place! If you’re wanting to work in a natural, breezy environment with Internet and delicious coffee, look no further. There’s even an art gallery for inspiration breaks and a local crafts shop (spend all the money!).

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Utterly off topic, but on the way there, Erin tore the car across four lanes of traffic so we could snap pics of this.

I usually prefer weird characters or funny political statements, but this tag was a sparkly rainbow thing, and glitter and I have been best friends since fifth grade. Besides, we risked our lives for it. I’ve heard that increases fondness.

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Channeling our inner Asian and snapping moody pics

 

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Well, I’m off to boost my word count 🙂 Playlist below for any other fantasy writers out there. Happy creating!

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