Blog Entries
Road Trips
Category: Writing
Tags: plot planning character control

ROAD TRIPS

I am, at present, on a two-week road trip in the US, digging up my ancestors, first in Western New York and now in Massachusetts. The planning phase before departure was long as I tried to decide which towns to head for, where to stay, and exactly what to do when we arrived. Fortunately, nowadays you can do a good deal of the research online and have the aid of GPS navigation when you actually start out on the road.

It many ways, the planning is not unlike writing fiction, and for that matter, non-fiction as well. You really should have an idea of where your piece is going and how you intend to arrive there. Writers usually have their own modus operandi as to how much outlining or planning they do before setting out on their journey. Some plan in detail, others prefer winging it. Here, too, online research can take you places you would otherwise never access.

I recently read one bit of “advice” from a writing guru who maintained that knowing the ending of your story destroyed your creativity, and he advised setting out more or less with blind faith that your characters would lead you to their destination.

Although I am not an outliner, that’s a bit too risky for me. On the road trip I am on, we have been flexible; we have taken detours to visit sites not in the original planning, and left out some places that were initially on the itinerary. But I always knew where we would end up at the end of the day. Otherwise we would be in danger of going around in circles and never completing the journey, not to mention not having a bed to lay our heads as night fell.

It is very true that characters do often have minds of their own and hijack a writer to places she/he didn’t intend to go. That can be great fun and stimulate irresistible new thoughts and plot threads that enrich a story. A writer should give characters a chance to take her down those unexplored paths. And if a new final destination presents itself, a writer should at least check it out. It may be a better ending than the planned one.

How do you see the question of planning your stories? Do you control your characters or give them free rein?

TICK-TOC!
Category: Writing
Tags: suspense thrillers plot device

TICK-TOC!   

There is nothing more motivating than a deadline. To me at least. It concentrates my mind in ways that having all the time in the world never will. For instance, right now I need to write a blog post about a writing theme, yet my brain, despite the deadline, and contrary to the above statement, will have none of it.

            So, I am trying that ol’ trick of just writing what comes into my head to get the juices flowing – another writerly strategy! The clock on the wall in front of me is ticking, ever louder, it would seem, counting out the hours, minutes and seconds until this piece needs to be published.

            Come to think of it, a deadline is also a great plot device. Just think of all those thrillers with ticking clocks. The hero – James Bond in every possible incarnation, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and dozens of others – have to beat the clock to save the world, usually, from nuclear obliteration or, at least, from some very bad hombres. Nothing like sitting on the edge of your seat watching or reading those kinds of stories.

            Of course, we can probably think up some less explosive plots with deadlines that are every bit as gripping. Like a lover trying to prevent his ex-girlfriend from marrying the wrong guy. Or a divorced woman tracking down her evil-ex who has kidnapped her child before he can escape with said child who is desperately in need his asthma medications. How about a murderer who must be caught before he reaches his next victim? Mustn’t leave out the doctor stories where the clock is running to save someone’s life, maybe from a rare disease that they don’t know how to treat. Or a gun-shot wound that is killing a child, then cardiac arrest!   Tick-toc, tick-toc!

            The unrelenting march of time elevates suspense to almost unbearable levels. Just like yesterday’s Germany-Sweden football game, where the suspense lasted down to the closing seconds. Me? I couldn’t watch it. The stakes were too high for me to invest my nerves in. I left the room so Germany could win without me going into cardiac arrest.

            Hmm, I guess there is also a lot to be said for stories that, well, take their time, develop the characters, portray their inner conflicts and let the reader invest her emotions in the fate of these new friends. When that decision has been made, it’s high time to pull the battery on that #*! clock.

           

 

IT'S RAINING GREAT MASTERS! NOT. Monday's Motivational
Category: Writing
Tags: Rubens Turner Tate Britain Stadel motivation talent

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Peter Paul Rubens exhibition in Frankfurt at the Stadel Museum. A month previously, we visited the Tate Britain art museum in London to view the works of J M W Turner. Two hundred years separate Rubens (1577-1640) and Turner (1775-1851) and their masterpieces. However, what struck me about both of them – and one can probably extrapolate this to masters in every field of endeavor over the centuries – is that they did not "fall from heaven". In German there is a marvelous saying: "Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen." Literally: Masters do not just fall from heaven. No, it takes hard work, constant practice and a lot of passion to keep you at it. And yes, a bit of talent would also be helpful.

The commentaries accompanying both of these exhibits certainly confirm this. Although their styles and subject matter were completely different, Rubens and Turner had something in common: They travelled extensively to experience what other artists were doing or had already done, no doubt, with an eye as to what they could learn from them and build on. The Flemish Rubens spent a lot of time in Spain and Italy, studying the masters, even purchasing books of their sketches to copy and rework. Rubens, thus, learned from their techniques and developed them further until he came up with something uniquely his for his canvases depicting religious or mythological subjects. In the early nineteenth century, after having already entered the Royal Academy of Art in London at the age of fourteen, Turner began sketching his way around Europe, filling books with drawings to be used later for his large-format land and seascapes when he returned home to London.

Both artists kept developing their skills over decades, always with an eye to the current "competition", yet in reality, building upon what earlier generations of artists had achieved. It calls up for me the image of a young artist standing on the shoulders of a past master as he climbs towards genius.

What is true for the aforementioned Masters, is true for all artists, regardless of their medium – visual, acoustic or verbal – and regardless of their level of talent. One is capable of taking canvas and a bit of color to paint a masterpiece; another plucks sounds from thin air and conjures melodies; still another transforms words into poetry or tales of love and hate. Such a person seems, to me, a magician, for they create beauty from thin air. Yet he or she would have wasted their talent if they had not studied their craft and been disciplined by hard work.

What lesson I took away for my writing from my brief encounter with Rubens and Turner? To start with, I really need to work harder: read more (learn from the masters), write more (practice), rewrite more (kill those darlings). Please don’t think I dare compare myself to these all-time greats. Obviously, I do not see myself destined to be a Great Master of Anything, but I can make the most of the talent I may have, augmenting it with hard work and looking to the stars of literature for motivation.

Another adage Germans use and I find myself uttering almost daily is:

"Man lernt nie aus." –  You never finish learning.

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