Aweology

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The science of awe.

According to a review of one study, awe-inspiring sights elicit global activity of the autonomic nervous system, but shuts down parts of our parietal lobe, which contains our sense of self and our own boundaries and those of the world around us. In short, our brains are broadening their sense of scale, trying to encompass the vast and beautiful world. This is perhaps why awe also makes our own problems and worries seem insignificant in the grand scope of things. This same review cites a 2012 study showing that awe alters our sense of time, making us feel like we have more of it to spare, and even motivates us to spend more of that time helping others.

We also use awe to describe a sense of fear. This is also a process involving the autonomic nervous system, causing our heart and breathing to speed up, and in some cases, freezing us in place even as danger barrels toward us.

Becoming numb to awe.

Last month I was sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Atlanta from Seattle. I fly a lot, but certainly not as much as the man sitting in the window seat next to me. At one point during the flight, he lifted the blind and peered out for a few seconds before starting to close it again. The one and only time I spoke to the man was to keep him from closing it and to ask if I could take a picture. How he could have peered out the window at such a sight without taking the time to appreciate it was beyond me. The picture barely does it any justice.

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The ability to recognize beauty and feel fear is something most of us have. Unfortunately, it is also something we can become numb to with repeated exposure. In my novel, Quotidian, the day is repeating, but not just any day, the last day, the end of the world. The characters experience danger and destruction every day and have ceased to be awed by it, and even death has become something routine.

Make their jaws drop.

From a sun setting over a field of flowers to the plume of a radioactive mushroom cloud, these sights, like so many others, can inspire awe. But there are different levels of awe:

  • There is the kind that makes your jaw drop and stare speechless for a time.
  • The kind that gives you chills.
  • The kind that deserves a nod of appreciation
  • And the kind we assign to everything else that barely warrants noticing (in the words of Emmet from The Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome!”)

It is important to aim for the mind-blowing sort of awe in writing. Why? Because readers have become so overstimulated, that anything less than that will barely register. This concept is important for writers to grasp. If our target audience experiences the same conflicts, the same wonders, love stories, horrors, scifi dramas, etc. they will lose that sense of awe.

Some strategies.

Nowadays it is difficult to create an original plot.

Rather than racking your brain for a new story to tell to awe your readers, try presenting a similar story in a unique way. As my brother is fond of saying, “do it in a way that nobody has ever done it before.” This can be as simple as changing the tone or mood of your story, or changing something about the world, or show things from a new perspective. For example, the scene of a large open field is boring until you put on a pair of glasses that invert your view of the world, and suddenly it feels like you could fall into the sky. This can reawaken your reader’s sense of awe even thought the primary plot and conflict is little different from others they’ve seen before.

My own strategy is to open the reader’s eyes to the inner-workings of things. It is only when you understand a magician’s act, that you can appreciate the complexity of the sleight of hand, the talent, and the training involved to pull it off. It is the same for sci-fi. Only when you truly understand the hazards of space travel do you become awed by the accomplishment of traveling to and landing on another planet.

As I was trying to describe this awe, I realized I didn’t need to, I’ve already written about it. This is an excerpt from my second book of The Abyssian series:

There were two types of awe, I surmised. One that was inspired by the unknown, the majesty and mystery of the world the God-of-All had built for them. This was a powerful sort of awe, I knew, I had felt it before and could see it kindling in the eyes of those praying around me. The second type of awe was wholly different, the opposite in fact, but no less powerful. It was an awe of knowing, at least in part, how the world worked. From the weather, the formation of mountains and seas, to the inner workings of the human body, it was an awe of knowing how this last had managed to survive and even thrive among all the rest. It was this awe that I felt burning in me as I stared at the cluster of men and women who had managed to carve out a peaceful and quiet existence from the stones of the cold and unforgiving northern mountains.

No matter your strategy, it is important to chase the awe factor. As Brandon Sanderson says, “err on the side of awe.”

 

Can you think of any other strategies to awe a reader? I’d like to hear from you.

The science of motivation

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I have trouble with motivation. Usually this problem manifests when my obligations mount, and my time does not feel my own. But when I do manage to tackle an item on my to-do list, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction spurs me on to the next with renewed determination.

That feeling of pleasure and satisfaction is the result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which is released from the ventral tegmental area in my midbrain to the nucleus accumbens. This Mesolimbic pathway is otherwise known as the reward pathway, which reinforces the positive behavior, and encourages me to ‘want’ to be more productive. It is a process critical to reward-based learning and the survival of our species.

This feeling is far more rewarding if the task I wish to complete is something I am passionate about. Take a whole novel for instance. I completed my first novel while sitting in a coffee shop. While the other quiet patrons may have observed a man leaning back in his chair for a lengthy stretch, I was covertly raising my fists into the air in triumph.  Of course, the feeling did not last long, not when I realized how much work still needed to be done, but I set to it with renewed vigor.

Here are some tips to help you complete your works in progress (WIPs).

Use baby steps.

It’s important to work up to your larger goals, and not tackle them head-on. Standing before a mountain is far more daunting than taking it one ridge at a time. You can think of a novel as a series of scenes, or short stories, with each chapter an accomplishment in itself. Motivation will build as more and more of these accomplishments pile up. You can give yourself additional rewards for reaching these milestones, like a night at the movies or a particular food you enjoy. This will positively reinforce the hard work you’ve done up until that point.

But sometimes, the reward stops working, in which case, you are officially an addict going through withdrawal. Indeed, many drugs target dopamine or mimic it in some way. And like all addicts, it takes a little extra reward to get the same sense of pleasure. With planning, you can slowly build up the rewards, making each better than the last until you’ve completed the novel. For the record, I do not advise taking actual drugs.

Find a routine.

Momentum is inarguably, the best way to get somewhere and to keep moving once you’ve arrived. Seeing your word count rise day after day, will not only keep you motivated, but keep the creative juices from stagnating. Setting a routine for yourself, one that matches your own pace, will help you speed through the processes. However, it’s important not to take on more than you can handle, or you can quickly burn out, and the act of completing your novel will seem more an obligation than an aspiration. Take NaNoWriMO, for instance. I’ve heard from many writers that the month is indeed motivating, but can leave you never wanting to look at that particular novel again.

Gain some perspective.

Oftentimes we need validation, assurance that the success we are striving for is in fact momentous, worthwhile, and anticipated by our peers and loved ones. The more worth you pile onto your WIP, the more liberated and accomplished you will feel by the end of it. So it’s okay to daydream about all the success you are going to have, even if those dreams are unlikely to come true.

It’s also important to surround yourself by people who are invested in the outcome of your novel, who can make your hard work feel appreciated, and who encourage you to write more. If you are looking for critiques for your writing, it’s sometimes best to wait until the novel is complete. If a less that positive critique comes back, it can make all your hard work feel pointless and a waste of time. If you still want critiques before you finish, it’s important to ask your critiquers to tell you what you’re doing right. It isn’t in peoples’ nature to dole out praise, but if it’s honest, it is equally if not more helpful than constructive criticism.

Piggyback on a troll.

This is not an actual literary term, but one I made up for lack of a better way to illustrate the concept.

If you need more motivation to complete your WIP, make it a secondary goal to something much more important to you, such as your sense of ethics, values, or loved-ones. Most of us are easily motivated to right a perceived wrong, deal out justice, or confront someone/thing that has offended us or our sense of morality.

And this is where the troll comes in. If you don’t know about trolls, I will do my best to summarize it. Trolls are people who post hateful or inflammatory comments on the internet or other form of media just to elicit an emotional response. Most of the time, trolls just want attention. You can spot a troll’s blog, for example, by the sheer number of outraged comments they have following each post. They love drama. For the record, I have zero respect for trolling, but I make an exception if the only one you are offending is yourself. If you set up your WIP with a moral challenge or dilemma for your characters, you can often trick yourself into seeing the story through to the end just to make sure it ends satisfactorily, and that justice is done. In short, troll yourself. Of course, this works best when you don’t work from a concrete outline and have to discover how the story ends by writing it.

Believe in yourself.

I felt like this post was about to take a turn on cheesy lane when I typed this section’s title, but it bears repeating. If you don’t believe you can do something, you will not have the motivation to try. If, for example, you don’t think you can learn a language, you are never going to attempt it. Again, it is important to surround yourself with people that believe in you. Don’t be afraid to fish for compliments if that is all that stands between you and finishing your WIP.

Finish your work.

This is the last and most important point. Don’t expect to be swept up by motivation halfway through a draft. It is almost always going to fail at some point and become a slow slog to the finish line, but it’s an important line to cross. Once you’ve experienced the pleasure of completing your first draft and then publish, you will have gained all the confidence you need to start your second WIP.

 

I’m sure there are many more points to cover, but I have run out of ideas, and ironically, the energy and motivation to think more on the subject. But at least I am finishing this post!

This is a really good article that covers many of these same points, and coincidentally, it is titled the Science Behind Motivation.

Please leave a comment if you have more tips to share on how to stay motivated and finish your WIP.

The creativity proclivity

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As writers, we have a penchant for creating things. Seeing something of your own imagination brought into the world provides such a sense of satisfaction that, for many of us, it has become a drug. When we need a fix, we simply pull out our computers or notebooks and let our imaginations spill out onto the page. We can create entire worlds and cultures, magic, and new laws of science, but sometimes we encounter writer’s block, or the act of writing is no longer enough to satisfy the craving. To keep withdrawal from setting in, many of us seek a creative outlet in the real world. If you suffer from this creation addiction, here are some tips on how to expend your pent-up creativity in a safe and productive manner.

Arts and crafts

One of the easiest ways to sate your creative impulses, is to take up arts and crafts. This includes any hobby that involves the creation of objects, not the intangible ones to which we writers are accustomed. Whether it involves glue, thread, needles, wood, metal, or glass, or paint or graphite, these mediums can be used to exercises your inner creative muscles.

I have tried my hand at lampwork (melting glass with a torch), pen making, sculpting, whittling, mold making and casting, and many more. But for me, the most satisfying form of arts and crafts is etching. I have etched images and text into metal (saltwater etching and electroplating), glass (chemical) and wood (wood burning), and even cloth (screen printing).

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An aluminum saltwater etching I made for a friend, quoting the Space Wolves Catechism from Warhammer 40K

Until recently, I have been doing this the hard way, but I came across this laser etching service called Ponoko, where I can have all kinds of materials laser etched to create key-chains, jewelry, game pieces, prototypes, etc.

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Insect wings cut and etched into acrylic by Ponoko. I gave these to my girlfriend who enjoys making earrings.

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Leather key-chains with a P kissing an M for me and my girlfriend, Megan.

Food

There is no creation as immediately gratifying as food. While you can enjoy food cooked by anyone, that urge to create something is not satisfied unless you do it yourself. Heating a microwave dinner or mixing a couple ingredients provided in a box don’t count. I don’t have a wealth of culinary skills, but I do like to experiment in the hopes of coming up with a new taste. I get the most enjoyment out of cooking something from scratch. Take a pizza for example. It takes no creative effort to order one or heat it in the oven. Instead, try making the dough yourself (water, yeast, flour, and some sugar and salt), the pizza sauce (tomatoes, salt, and herbs), and then cheese and toppings. I’m proud to say that I’ve made an entire pizza from scratch a few times, including the cheese. I hope that one day I will be able to plant, reap, and process my own grain into flour, too. Want an adult beverage with your pizza dinner, stop by a home-brew supply store and brew your own wine, beer, mead, or cider.

Growing your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables is also a rewarding process. Even if the plants are decorative, allowing them to flourish provides the same sense of accomplishment.

Creating with friends and family

If you are a mother or father, congratulations, you have successfully brought life into the world, you are a creator. I do not advise expending your creative urges in this manner all the time, however. Instead, try the following collaborative projects:

– coming up with stories at bedtime

– create your own board or card games

– start a band and write music

– come up with science fair projects

– have art projects or arts and crafts nights

– play Minecraft or other sandbox games

– DIY projects around the house.

At work

If you have a job where you are paid to create (e.g. engineer, artist), then you probably aren’t lacking in creative outlets. In the lab, I get to make figures and schemes and presentations to accompany my research data. For many of you, there will be many opportunities to exercise your creativity at work. You can volunteer to put together a logo, a presentation, a memo, an advertisement, or anything else that requires a bit of imagination and implementation. If your job doesn’t offer those kinds of opportunities, it can be as simple as making cookies for your colleagues, customizing cards for special occasions, or decorating office space or attire, designing a business card with interesting graphics, or printing t-shirts for company getaways.

I once made a motivational poster of my boss peering down the barrel of a Nerf gun, with the words “stay focused” written beneath. Soon, everyone in the lab was requesting motivational posters with their own sayings. I also cultivated a line of petri -dish Jade bonsais that have since been spread to multiple labs as a window seal decoration.

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To supplement your writing

Of course, these creative projects should not impinge on your writing time, marketing, or other author responsibilities. However, you can supplement your writing with these creative projects to help sell your brand. You can focus your arts and crafts on making things specific to your fantasy or scifi world. If you describe a piece of jewelry or attire, try to make it. If you have a saying, motto, or logo, or book cover, print it on t-shirts, mugs, poster, etc. Perhaps you can sell these items on your website, or offer them as giveaways. That way when people show off these items, it will further advertise your book. You can even draw sketches of your characters, paint a scene, draw a map, or design a cover for your book.  Do you make music and have a bunch of audio equipment? Turn your novel into an audiobook. If you like to cook, make the dishes you describe in your world and write a cookbook. Not only will you be able to describe the taste of such a dish in detail, you can describe the making of it.

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A leather cover for the first round of edits of my first book.

It is difficult to be creative in today’s world; everything is made for us, processed within an inch of unrecognizable and provided with instructions as simple as “just add water.” It is no wonder the simple process of creation eludes many of us on a day to day basis. Writing can only satisfy our addiction for so long before we begin drawing inventions on the back of napkins or building a castle of epic proportions on Minecraft.

Are you an creation addict? How do you expend your excess creativity?

The Write Right Rite

This isn’t a post about homonyms, it’s about the rite of passage we all must take in order to become better writers, to write right. Contrary to popular opinion, people aren’t born great writers. Anyone can become a talented and successful writer so long as they possess the following traits:

  • The passion for reading and telling stories
  • The creativity to come up with those stories
  • The dedication, patience, and persistence to write, edit, and market those stories
  • The willingness to read, practice, and learn the craft
  • The humility to learn from your mistakes and accept criticism and feedback

If you are reading this, then you will likely agree that these last two traits are crucial to any writer who wants to improve. In the beginning, most writers are blinded by their own accomplishment, that act of putting so many words down on the page, that they fail to see their own deficiencies. OMG, they say, I am doing what all those authors in bookstores are doing, I am writing a novel. Once I finish, my book will be right up there with theirs. It is not their fault; they simply don’t realize how difficult it is to become a successful author, and their friends and family all insist it’s a work of art. They don’t know that they have just embarked on a life-long journey of self-improvement. Who knew that writing was considered an entire craft? How hard can it be? They’re just words, right?

birds.pngIf only it were that simple. Pretty soon these fledgling writers will leap from the cozy nest they were born in and try to soar to the starry heights of the literary skies. Unfortunately, many of them will plummet to the ground, their little wings incapable of bearing them up. Those that do rise will find that a cruel tempest lies between them and their goal. Once the reality sinks in, many writers will give up and lock their stories away where they can no longer embarrass them.

It takes a lot of courage to face your inadequacies as a writer and choose to stay in it for the long haul. And it won’t be easy. Today’s authors are encouraged to find their own unique voice and original story lines, yet produce writing that meets the standards of the industry. It is a narrow path to walk. If you stray too far from the norm, you will be criticized or ignored entirely, but if you adhere too firmly to the standards of the genre, you will be accused of chasing trends and your work will be viewed as derivative. Today’s author must stretch the limits of the genre’s boundary in order to find their niche.

The quickest way to learn the craft, is to do your research and seek writing advice. At one time or another, most writers will join writers’ groups or participate in online writing websites and forums, or follow blogs (cough…this one… cough). There they can absorb the hard-won wisdom of writers who have already been through the process. All writing advice is subjective, however, since it comes from an author with their own unique voice and target audience.  What will work for one person may not work for another. The advice may still be useful, as it has already gone through the extensive process of trial and error. Learning what advice to accept and which to disregard is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a writer.

You can read all the advice in the world, but it won’t make you a better writer without practice. It takes time and effort to produce quality writing. Consequently, many writers consign their first novel to the bin, proclaiming it their ‘learning or practice novel.’ Like most rites of passage, this one is particularly discouraging and painful, but is often necessary in order for writers to improve their writing. In a recent newsletter, one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, admitted to having written ‘numerous books,’ many of which were ‘very weak,’ before he sold his first novel.

Someone once told me that writing is a practice in shoveling a mountain of ‘crap’ (she didn’t say crap), and that every time you write you decrease the height of the pile. Only when the pile is gone, will the writing be free of ‘crap’. However, there will always be writers who do plenty of writing but are incapable of facing their inadequacies, who won’t listen to advice, strive to improve, read books, or learn about the craft. They will continue to churn out undeveloped stories and poor writing, and accuse the world of not understanding them. These unfortunate writers, don’t see the mountain of ‘crap’ they are standing on, and instead produce more of it in order to look down on the world from an even greater and loftier height.

Have you ever recalled a memory, but rather than experiencing it through your own point of view, you look upon your actions as if from third person? I am no psychologist, but I like to think this happens because, subconsciously, you can no longer identify with your former self. Something in your values, your mentality, your self-image has changed. You should strive for this feeling with your writing. If you can look back on something you wrote 5 years ago and see no way to improve it, then you are not doing it right. Writing as a hobby or as a career, requires continuous learning. Read more about the craft, learn more about what your audience wants, read over your reviews or go in search of critiques. There are always ways to improve, and as writers, we should use every opportunity to produce quality and enjoyable writing for our readers.

The science of curiosity

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Know naught but for naught but knowing.

I came up with this phrase when writing Agony’s Fire. Apart from its pleasing symmetry, I felt a strong connection to its message. Knowing for the sake of knowledge’s sake, is the very definition of curiosity. But where does curiosity come from? Almost everything has an obvious evolutionary imperative, a reason why it has come to exist in us. For those without an obvious reason, it has either lost its usefulness and has yet to evolve out (e.g. appendix, wisdom teeth), or exists because it can (provided no significant disadvantage to our ancestors), or both. But curiosity is not useless or indifferent, it gets people killed just as often as it saves their lives. Why then would we have evolved to have it?

I posit that curiosity is the feeling that compels us to solve problems with the ultimate goal of controlling our environment. The only way for us to have control over our environment is to learn about it. A baby explores the world by touching and tasting everything, for that is the tried and tested method of knowing if something is good or bad for you. If it tastes good, it is probably edible, and if it doesn’t burn or sting you, it is probably safe to handle. Other senses are not so discerning, but all have evolved to help you learn about your environment and solve problems. Curiosity helped our ancestors do more than decide which food was good to eat, it helped us discover medicines, and drove us to strike rocks and sticks together to make tools, fire, and even music. It gave us power to dispel darkness, to shelter us for the elements, and to hunt and ward off predators.

Like the possibility of a predator in the darkness, uncertainty will keep us up at night, make us sick, cause depression, and age us beyond our years if we don’t answer the question that plagues us. This physiological response to uncertainty occurs when the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated for long periods of time. Acutely, this hormone will improve pain tolerance, tissue repair, and stimulate cognition to help overcome problems during a fight or flight situation, but the body cannot be sustained at that level for long without consequence. Endorphins are also released during stress to counteract its effects. Endorphins are partly responsible for making you relaxed and feel-good after stress (runner’s high), reduce your sense of pain, and improve your mood. This is the bodies reward for solving a problem. Interestingly, the problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved in order to have this effect, the individual just has to believe that it is. The placebo effect is thought to be caused by endorphins, making a patient feel like their aliment is being remedied when they are in fact taking a sugar pill. Even more interesting is the fact that many people do see improvements in their health. That is the power of the mind.

I believe this is partly why we enjoy reading. Not only are we attaining knowledge, true or not, we are receiving the benefits of problem solving while in the comfort and safety of home. Curiosity is what keeps us reading from the start of the conflict to the resolution, much as it compels us to resolve conflict in our own lives. This is perhaps why most story arcs look the same and why deviations from the standard ‘shape’ do not perform well. Giving a reader too much conflict and too little resolution will prevent them from feeling the physiological benefits of problem solving. This is perhaps why cliff-hangers, which fail to bring the major conflict to an end, will leave the reader unsatisfied. On the other hand, having too little conflict will keep their stress from rising in the first place and have the same unsatisfying effect. If you fail to heighten the conflict much at all, they may not even experience enough curiosity to keep them reading.

As writers, we must capitalize on the emotional turmoil of our reader, enough to make them invested in the outcome of our story. We must stimulate their curiosity, but not so much that they are chronically or unduly stressed. We should help them learn about the world, and exercise their problem solving skills through the adventures of our characters. In the end, we can hope they will be flooded with endorphins and feel a reader’s high.

The science of writers’ retreats

It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been writing. Last Friday I left on a writers’ retreat with a couple members of my critique group to the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington state. If you are a writer and haven’t been on a writers retreat or joined a writers group, I highly recommend it. I’ve been to a couple of writing retreats over the past few years, and there is a science to getting the most out of them.

Go to write and go with writers- If you think you can get some writing done on an ordinary vacation with family or friends, chances are you won’t get to sit in one place for very long. If you are like me, you get distracted very easily, so you will need to surround yourself with like-minded people with similar goals. Join a writers group. There is something about sitting in a room with other writers that helps me stay on track. Perhaps it is the clicking of keys as they type, or the thoughtful expressions they wear as they stare beyond the physical world and into their imaginations, that spurs me to stay focused and keep pace. A writers’ retreat is really just an extended writers group meeting, where you occasionally toss around ideas and advice or ask for a certain word or expression that’s been eluding you. Make sure to go with people you know and get along with. Also, come to a consensus about what type of trip it will be. If someone is looking forward to a weekend away from distractions in order to write, while another thinks of it as a social outing with friends, neither will be particularly happy with the outcome.

Go to an inspiring and cozy location- Chances are that you will need to take a break from your writing. Ideally, the purpose of that break will be to reflect on what you’ve written so far and prepare you to write the next scene. Taking a walk along a forest trail or a warm beach, is the perfect recipe for inspiration. But if the scenery is far more beautiful than the indoors, chances are you won’t want to come back in and write. You should avoid places with too many nearby activities. If there is a movie theater down the street, a casino, or a theme park, their proximity will distract you from your goal. Chose a comfortable and homely dwelling that will help you escape the bugs, the heat, or the cold, a place you will want to stay in.

Set the mood- If you write best with a bit of music in the background, by candle light, or while wrapped in your favorite comforter: do it. You’ll need to come to an agreement with the other writers before blaring your inspiration mix, or at least wear headphones. You don’t want to be responsible for distracting another writer.

Go prepared- Hunger, headaches, sunburns, bug bites, and innumerable other distractions, can easily be avoided. Bring whatever medicine and sustenance you might need to counter these distractions. You don’t want to be a downer to everyone else in attendance. Take a break from writing to cook or order some delicious food. Delicious being the key word. Let yourself indulge in some comfort food and perhaps some wine, to make the trip even more idyllic and inspiring. Brew some coffee or otherwise be prepared to wake up early and get things done; it might be a vacation, but you still have a job to do.

Bring a few things to work on- If you aren’t making any headway on your current work-in-progress or if you lost your passion for it, take a break and work on something else. Writers retreats don’t happen often, so it would be a shame to walk away without anything to show for it. You should also feel free to start something new. Bounce a few ideas off of your fellow writers, write an outline, and start typing.

Many say that writing is a solitary occupation, and I say that those people have never been to a good writers’ retreat. Have you been to a writing retreat? Leave a comment if you have anything else to add to this list of considerations.

Inspiration from an unseen world

In our day to day lives, there are so many things that evade our senses and awareness. Many processes are occurring so slowly or are too small to see, we can never fully appreciate them. Fortunately, some nerds carry a macro lens on them at all times and do time-lapse videos whenever they sit down for extended periods of time. That guy you passed on the sidewalk the other day, with his nose pressed to his phone and his phone hovering inches above a rain-drenched ant mound, that was probably me. The girl standing not too far away, with her nose and phone similarly pressed against a tree, is my girlfriend.

IMG_20141230_134843917(On our first hiking trip together, she spent several minutes trying to capture a close up picture of a bug before I pulled the macro lens from my wallet and gave it to her. Though she would probably deny it, I think that’s when she truly fell for me.)

The small (microscopic or near microscopic) world around us, is as beautiful as it is disturbing, the perfect catalyst for inspiration. These micro- landscapes can be the basis of an alien world, or the backyard of a person shrunken to the size of an ant. The more detail in which you describe these settings, the more fascinating they become and the more realistic and plausible it reads.


Similarly, processes that take place faster or slower than we can perceive are perfect for writing. A realistic description of the clouds billowing past, or the expansion of gases in the moments after a trigger is pulled, will more believably convey the passage of time or heighten the suspense. 
In some cases, these observations can inspire entire stories. In the time it took to write this post, I have begun to outline a story about a man that gets pulled into another dimension (the same one as gravity) when he activates a new “gravity drive” on his spaceship for the first time. Because the dimension in which the graviton is believed to disappear into is very small, perhaps all he sees is a tiny window into the real world. Because it is the dimension of gravity, time passes slower there, so everything he sees through the tiny window is proceeding rapidly. From his pin-point perspective, flowers flicker open and closed, the sun flares at one horizon and darts across the sky. He can pilot near and through matter, viewing it up close and in alarming detail, but he can only interact with it in small ways. In wake of this accident, he has to figure out how to make contact with the 3 dimensions he left before all the people he knows and loves have died from old age.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it can also inspire fiction. So take a moment and examine the world around you. If you aren’t impressed or inspired, then perhaps you should lean a little closer.

Finding that novel novel idea

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“That sounds like a book I once read.” You’ve all heard it and it puts a damper on any enthusiasm you’ve grown for your literary creation. It might be gratifying if they speak of style and execution, but who gets flattered by being told their work is unoriginal?

Cynics often say that everything has been written before, that no idea is a new idea. But with 26 characters in the English language, over 250,000 distinct words, not to mention all the subtle changes in context or meaning, and a near infinite way to arrange them, there are more possible ways to write a book than there are atoms in the known universe. So why are so many stories similar? The short answer, if you want your story to make sense and be relatable and captivating, you have to write what people like to read. And unlike the universe, the human mind has a lot less empty space (for most people anyway). The brain is a large jumble of connections, turn on the right set and immediately memory of another story will stir and come to mind. You want your work to connect as many neurons as possible so that your reader will think of your book often and mention you to others.

That being said, novelty serves to make a story exciting and memorable. How many of you remember the drive to work each morning? Now what about that time you had to detour through an unknown section of town because of some unparalleled traffic accident? Your mind is excellent at discarding experiences if they are very similar to the ones already stored in your memory. Memorable is what sells a story for years. If your book doesn’t fit with the current popular trend, no problem, book markets are always in a state of change, adopting one trend and discarding another. If you write for the current market, your book will be that experience that is forgotten among all the similar ones of its kind. You probably have no chance of starting a trend of your own, instead, write something that will always be interesting and original and eventually the tides will change and your book will be swept up with it.

Originality is not in a story’s conflict, it is in the unique parts that collide to create it. These parts are the characters and setting. Strip away the setting and character from any book you’ve read and you will find that most stories look the same when so bared. The shape they take is the story arc. Clothing your story arc in an original fashion is accomplished in two steps: creating a unique setting in which the story will occur and creating the character that will stand out in it.

You should begin with either the setting or the character in mind, but preferably not both. The reason for this is simple. If you want your protagonist to be aggressive and psychologically damaged by some trauma or another and then you decide your setting should be a post-apocalyptic earth where zombies endlessly chase humans (not a very original setting FYI). You will soon find that all of your characters will need to be aggressive and psychologically damaged. How then will your character stand out? Instead, imagine the setting and then figure out how this setting will affect the lives of those in it, and then make your character different in some subtle yet memorable way. Conversely, mold a setting to accentuate your character’s strengths and weaknesses. No matter your approach, the reader expects conflict and has likely seen it all before, but insert an original setting or unique character motives and you will give them an exciting new way to experience the same story arc.

The character you make should stand out from others in one key way, their drive. This drive, or character element, should be a part of the human psyche that is both underappreciated/under-recognized and yet critical to who we are as human beings. Sound conspicuously like a theme? Good, it should. The theme should be the vehicle your character drives across the story arc, the thing that moves them, gives them strength, and protects them from buffeting wind and rain. Before they’ve even started the book, your reader has decided to join consciousness with your main character, to try to think what they think. Turn that into a memorable relationship by giving them a theme to agree with and a cause to stand behind. Straying away from the most common drives like anger, love, and greed will help grant originality. Examples of these uncommon themes are a desire for change when everyone else is rooted in acceptance, a desire for emotion when they are surrounded by apathy, conquering of fear when everyone else is cowed by it, and a desire for knowledge when everyone else enjoys ignorance. This character element provides the motive, the fuel to carry the character as well as the reader over the story arc. Be wary though, a weak drive, such as the desire for a funnel cake at the City Fair, will peter out and die the moment your character realizes it is not worth the trouble.

The setting has to be more than just a forest in Maine for you to have any chance of making something original and memorable. While your character element gives forward motion to a story, your setting should provide friction, obstacles, and other characters that seek to stop your character from proceeding forward. The setting sets the mood of the story. That seems like a lot for just one aspect of the novel, but it is this by which everyone will remember and describe your book. What good is a character’s desire to experience freedom when taken outside of the context of slavery or a prisoner of war? Again, stray away from the most common settings or at least give them unique characteristics. Instead of an alien planet, why not a rogue planet taken up by our sun’s gravitational pull? Maybe its thawing inhabitants want war. What’s more, make every aspect of your setting matter. If the power goes out in the apartment building, make it mean something; make the darkness or the inability to heat a Hot Pocket essential to the story in some way. If it doesn’t matter to the story or help set the mood, it will be forgotten.

A big mistake people make when chasing an original story is following it off the map, creating a world that is so full of original ideas that it borders on the unrecognizable, or characters with such unique strengths, weaknesses, or personalities that they become unrelatable. This is why genres exist, to categorize books for different audiences. Know the genre in which you intend to write and strive to make it original within the confines of what is expected and enjoyed. There is at least a small corner in each genre’s box that has yet to be filled.

 

~originally posted here