The Power of Focused Creativity

When I was in college, I dreamed of the day that I would be graduated, published, and making enough money off of my books that I could just spend all day writing and be so productive all the time.

But an interesting thing happened. There were a few months in my life where writing was pretty much my sole focus and priority, and you know what?

I wasn’t really that productive.

Now, I have a little girl with another on the way, and I teach piano. Those two things alone take up a lot of time, and when you throw in all the other little life things that turn up from day to day, things can get pretty busy. Yet I’m just about a month away from publishing my second novel.

People ask often how I have time to write. As any writer will tell you, it’s all a question of priorities; but I’ve also found that writing does not take as much time as I used to think.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve put hundreds of hours into writing, editing, and designing my novels. I can’t even begin to estimate a ballpark range of how long it’s taken me to get my books from an idea to a solid, tangible paperback.

But the thing is, those hundreds of hours don’t have to come in eight-hour-a-day increments. For me, I have maybe an hour in the afternoon to work while Scout naps, plus a couple of hours in the evening after she goes to bed. That means I generally have three hours a day, tops, in which to work. With other things in life and occasional lack of motivation (gasp!), it’s probably a better estimate to say I work for an hour or two daily on writing and writing-related things, including this blog.

But because my window of opportunity is so narrow, I wring the life out of those precious hours. I cut off social media (unless I’m social-media-ing for my books), plant my butt in my office chair in the farthest corner of the house, and get to work.

For me, this limited amount of time to work actually increases the quality of my writing. I know I don’t have long, so I’m focused, and I don’t work long enough to start going cross-eyed at the screen. My word count (when I’m counting such things) is just as high as it ever was when I had all day to procrastinate writing.

Moral of the story? Yes, it’s hard to write when you have a day job or kids or a million other things you could be doing instead; but if it’s important enough to you, if you’re willing to suck the marrow out of the small chunks of time you do have, that’s enough. You can do great things, and you will. Just keep getting those words down on the page.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you write in small chunks of time, or sit and pour out words for ten hours straight?

Naming beyond the names

When I was on study abroad in Berlin, our professor came to have dinner with the family that was putting up with–I mean, putting up six students from our university. This professor was an 80-year-old German who was kind of a grandfatherly figure among the students: gruff, soft-hearted, funny, exasperating, totally uninterested in political correctness, and dear to our hearts in spite of the times he drove up absolutely up the wall.

We, being young American students, generally addressed him as Herr when we were being good, though he tolerated a number of less-formal nicknames during those three months we traveled together. So when our host mother asked us how she should address him, we all looked at each other blankly.

After some scrambling to recall the German protocol for titles, we hesitantly responded, “Herr Professor?”

She didn’t look convinced. “Isn’t he a Doktor as well?”

“Oh, yeah. Herr Professor Doktor.”

Still not good enough. “Is it Herr Professor Doktor or Herr Doktor Professor? That’s an important distinction, you know.”

Uh . . . it was? We shuffled our feet and shrugged, and she finally gave up on us. When he showed up for dinner, she apologized profusely for not knowing his correct title and blamed us. We tried to look repentant, but I was mostly wondering how appalled our host mother would be if she knew my friend occasionally referred to our professor as “Kelly -Belly.”

I still don’t know the difference between a Doktor Professor and a Professor Doktor, but the experience drove one thing home to me: the effect of culture on names and titles.

Writers put a lot of effort into names. We look at meanings, look at sounds, look at origins, sometimes changing a character’s name twenty times before we find the one that fits just right. Names are a big deal, especially when that’s the only visible representation of your character to the reader.

But to be honest, I’ve never liked picking out names. I don’t like doing the research, and if the character isn’t on the main stage, I’m guilty of just making a name up out of thin air and throwing it on the paper.

What’s far more interesting to me is the culture of naming. How a society dictates the framework of its citizens’ names. Not just what mother name their babies, but how people refer to each other, levels of formality, titles, nicknames, etc.

Determining the naming practices for your fictional culture not only adds depth to the society, it also creates a unique unity that subtly tightens the believability of a culture that does not, in fact, exist. What people are called leads to exploration of why they are called that; and even if the answer to that why is only barely hinted at in your story, the important part is that you, the author, have a deeper understanding of the motivation driving the culture as a whole and where that motivation has come from.

For example: in Demon’s Heart, the length of names determine social status on the Courei peninsula. The longer the name, the higher the ranking. Another culture, in quiet disdain of that practice, keeps all names to one syllable. Yet another culture cares nothing for the length of the name, but every person is given a title before their given name, even the children. If the person is important enough, the given name is dropped, leaving only the title.

I’ve enjoyed finding naming cultures in other books: the titles in the Lunar Chronicles, the changing of names with age in Gathering Blue, the naming/numbering system in The Giver.

What are some books you’ve read with unique naming cultures? How do you incorporate the idea of naming into your stories?

Show Tunes and Character Voice

I grew up playing piano. And there was a very long stretch of time where “practicing” meant resentfully plopping down on the bench and plunking out whatever notes I’d been assigned from my method books that week.

Thankfully, my mother was more persistent than I was stubborn, and I eventually reached a point where I could play the songs I wanted to play, rather than those I had been assigned. One of those songs was “All I Ask of You,” from Phantom of the Opera.

I learned the notes, and I could play them fast. That meant I had learned the song, right?

No.

My fabulous, long-suffering piano teacher pointed out that the song was a duet sung by two very different characters. She challenged me to play the song so that she could tell who was singing without looking at the words on the page.

Something clicked. I realized that all those circles and lines and dots and swirls were not just blobs of ink on a page. They told a story, as much as letters in a book did. I went through that entire Phantom of the Opera book, experimenting and learning how to make the piano speak for the characters.

I was already a writing addict at that point, and I started thinking about how my newfound insight applied to my love of words. I looked at books I loved, and I looked at what I had written, and I realized:

Characters are not supposed to sound the same!

But my characters did. And I wasn’t sure how to fix it. So I took a long hard look at my favorite books–specifically, Harry Potter. There were big long segments of dialogue with absolutely no tags, sometimes between three characters, and you know what? I could tell exactly which character was talking, because they were so distinct.

How did she do that? And how could I manage that?

I decided to take the same tack I’d used with Phantom of the Opera. I took Harry Potter, the characters that were so well developed and so distinct, and I experimented with them. I tried to imitate their set voices in new situations, to get a handle on who the characters were, how they sounded different, why they sounded different.

Fanfiction gets a bad rap, but I’m here to tell you that it’s one of the most useful ways to learn the art of writing. With a good example to study and follow, a writer can pick up and practice subtleties and intricacies that eventually get translated from imitation to original stories and characters.

Writing, like anything else, takes practice and study. The difference is, our textbooks are novels, essays, poetry, picture books–whatever it is we’re seeking to write. Writers learn so much more from a well-written book from their intended genre than they could ever learn from an instruction book on the writing craft.

So go forth and study the books that stick with you. See what it is about those books that make them stand out, and then indulge in a little fanfiction. Absorb. Emulate. Then take those lessons and bring them back into your own work.

What books have taught you the most about writing? Have you done fanfiction?

The Care and Keeping of Your Writerly Friends

Let’s face it: we writers are a quirky bunch, sometimes requiring special care. Here are some suggestions to pass on to anyone who might need help knowing what to do once they have unwittingly befriended a writer:

  • Get used to stray pen marks. Hands, face, couch, clothes–writers can’t be bothered with neatness when they’re trying to capture the fates of their characters in a flash of blinding inspiration.
  • Don’t be offended if your writer friend stops talking mid-conversation. Just give them a few minutes to work out the plot snarl that is beginning to untangle in their mind.
  • Sometimes your writer friend will discuss possible ways to kill/kidnap/torture someone. Don’t call the police. Just accept it as story research.
  • Reassure them. Frequently. Writing is one long series of ups and downs, and writers need to be told they’re not crazy at least 500 times a day. (Yes, I know writers are in fact crazy, but we like to be told that we’re not.)

There are the basics! What would you add to the list?

The Lie That Tells the Truth

“We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.” Neil Gaiman