What inspires you?

Why do you keep writing, month after month? Why do you persist at honing your craft when encouragement is little or non-existent? What is your dream?

Me, I want it all. I want the New York Times bestseller (even though I know the NYT generally ignores genre writers and so doesn’t actually reflect the highest-selling books). I want to walk into a bookstore or a library and see my precious manuscript on a shelf, printed and bound and shiny. I want to be able to write full time. But more than all of that, I want to share my stories with the world.

Trying to break into the publishing world is a long slog, isn’t it? I have friends who are self-publishing. I don’t intend this post to be about the benefits or otherwise or self-publishing, so I’ll just say that it’s not for me. The publishing world is changing at a rapid pace. Some predictions are dire. E-books are apparently on the verge of taking over the world. Bookstores are closing. Some people say we will barely recognise the publishing industry in a few years. And yet still we push on.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Is it arrogance? A belief that although the world doesn’t yet recognise our genius, it will in time? Is it stubbornness? An unwillingness to let go of the dream just because it seems so far out of reach? I’ve been thinking about this over the last few months and the only answer I can come up with is from my “want” list: I want to share my stories. I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t know whether perhaps the day might come when the dream dies and I pack away my thesaurus, dictionary, index cards and assorted coloured pens and highlighters. Perhaps that will happen but maybe – just maybe – I will persist until I actually break through.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you two quotes I have pinned on the wall in front of my writing space. One is from Stephen King’s ON WRITING and likely most aspiring writers will recognise it:

It’s about the pumpkin.

Don’t know what it means? Get a copy of ON WRITING and read it. Seriously, if you intend to make a career out of writing, you should be familiar with this book. Buy or borrow it, read it, and take note of the story about the farmer and his pumpkins.

The second one is on a cardboard star. I have no idea where it came from. It’s about two inches big and is green and silver. It says:

 Dream Big

That says it all, doesn’t it? This is what the aspiring writer does. Perhaps your dream is different to mine. Perhaps not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all have the same goal: we are all dreaming big.

What do you keep in your writing space to inspire you?

The Bottleneck

Of late, I’ve had a somewhat difficult time committing words to paper (okay, fine, words to screen). There are many reasons for this. Insufficient world-building, insufficient characterization, laziness… trust me, there’s a lot of blame to go around.

When it comes to finding time to sit down and write, if I have something to write about, this is fairly easy to accomplish. Whilst in the middle of a novel, I have no trouble getting my butt in the chair, since I’ve achieved momentum. Writing a thousand words a day for four or five months? Easy. Doable. If anything, the long haul is where I excel.

But what about before I start a novel? For me, world-building cannot be done sitting in a chair. World-building happens almost by accident, when I’m out doing things, having conversations, watching television, readings the news, etc. The spark of an idea comes quickly, but then it takes a while for the world and characters to form around it. These worlds have to percolate for months-dare I say, years-before novel-writing can begin.

It would be easy to label it a discipline problem, but I don’t think that’s it.

I can try to force myself to write before the pieces are in place, but I never get very far. I started writing my current novel back in the spring, then again in summer, and then again last week. Lots of false starts. I say, “I just can’t get going.” And people rightfully reply, “It’s because you don’t know your world/characters well enough.”

Fair enough. But just like in the real world, where it takes months and years to get to know my fellow human beings, it can take a long and unpredictable period of time for all the right world- and character-building pieces to fall into place. And, despite how I’ve described it, this isn’t a passive process. It’s active, requiring constant thought, rumination, deliberation… cogitation…

It’s possible that I’m just slow, that other people get through this conceptual period a lot more quickly than I do. Maybe this is just a symptom of not being a “discovery” writer. I’m bursting with premises, but slow conceptualization is the bottleneck that keeps me from becoming prolific.

I so badly want to be prolific.

Anyone else in the same boat, or is it just me?

Valuing Your Characters or Maslow for Writers

A great plot and fantastic world building mean nothing without solid characters. Solid characters? Aren’t protagonists supposed to have weaknesses, flaws, desires which make them easier to relate to? And aren’t antagonists supposed to have soft spots to make them less stereotypical? True enough. But how do we determine those qualities?

Solid, well rounded characters, above all else, need value systems. What is the character’s core philosophy? What does he/she value above all else? What is most important? Family? Survival? Pursuit of knowledge? Loyalty? Money? Control? Love? Revenge? Adherence to rules? Fully realized characters have values which are challenged as they try to achieve their goals or live up to them. For example, an heiress, loyal to her father and his values which made him wealthy, searches for love and finds it in someone who hates everything her family stands for.

Value systems create opportunity for conflict and give characters depth. Once we’ve discovered those values, the plot comes alive as characters struggle to be true to themselves. For example, in The Hunger Games, despite all contestants valuing survival, they each value other things which motivate them: Katniss wants to save her sister and to avoid loving people but finds herself falling in love with Peeta who she’ll have to kill to win the competition; and Peeta wants to save Katniss but to do so, he must overcome his pacifist nature and kill others.

Ask – What three things does your character value the most?
The most important thing for X is: survival ….. adhering to the rules ….. scientific discovery …. family ….. avoiding love … finding love …. and so on.

We can use Maslow’s Hierarchy to explore the range of values to determine which ones will create the most conflict for our character and our story. Maslow’s Hierarchy orders our human needs from the most basic to self-actualization. Remember, fulfilling our needs determines what our values are at any given point in our lives. That means we can be on level 1 while trying to achieve level 5 because conflicts are never tidy packages – they are individual to the person and even to the culture.

Maslow’s Hierarchy
Level 1 – Survival: basics such as food, shelter, water, clothing, health – what the human body requires to function
Level 2 – Safety and security: personal (violence, natural disaster), financial, health and well being
Level 3 – Love/belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, this is our tribal nature of needing to belong in a group to enhance safety and survival needs
Level 4 – Esteem: being respected by others, needing status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. self-respect, mastery, independence and freedom. Respect = greater power
Level 5 – Self-actualization: concerns personal growth and fulfilment

Now use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand your character’s values and to create conflict. Let’s start with Cindy. She’s a mom, a scientist and a peace activist.

Ask – What three things are most important for Cindy? What does she value? How does that fit into the hierarchy?1) winning the Pulitzer prize for peace by creating a Virtual web around the earth which neutralizes weapons (levels 4 and 5);
2) survival because nuclear proliferation threatens world safety (levels 1 and 2); and
3) her family (level 3).

Create your plot line by threatening all or some of the values or pitting them against one another:
Terrorists steal Cindy’s invention to use it to control all political powers on earth. Cindy must cooperate by agreeing to be their spokesperson and by activating the device in order to save her family. Will Cindy sacrifice her family to save the world? Will she die saving the world but be dishonoured as a traitor?

The higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy can be compromised by the lower basic needs or vice versa. Take a value and either go higher or lower on the chart to find a situation or value which can undo it. Ask what your character wants to gain and then ask how that can be undone or threatened by another value or what the effect of that will be.

Once you’ve determined your character’s values, putting them in emotional or physical conflicts which challenge those values makes for interesting reading. How your character responds to those situations creates wonderful opportunities for more action and reaction and moves the story along.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on values helps create the elusive pitch! Here are two quick pitches developed using Maslow’s Hierarchy and a character’s values.

Tom cannot remain the invisible technician aboard a space ship (level 4) when a computer virus compromises life support (levels 1 and 2) and he must overcome his insecurities (levels 4 and 5) to find the traitor before everyone dies.

Kim values family above all else (level 3) but his desire for wealth (level 2) puts him in a compromised position which threatens to bankrupt him and leave his family penniless (levels 1 and 2).

Using these examples create a story by exploring the protagonist’s values. Ask yourself: What is important to the character? What threatens his values? Now, create the supporting characters and determine what is important to each of them. Which of their values will conflict with the protagonist? What internal conflicts arise for each character?

By answering these questions, your plot comes alive through conflict, your characters rise beyond cardboard cut-outs and your readers, well, they’ll love you for it!

So, value your character by developing personal values which are threatened or clash with one another. Let those values drive the plot and watch your story come alive.

Happy writing!

Research sources:
psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/…/hierarchyneeds.ht
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs
www.businessballs.com Ҽ leadership/management
http://changingminds.org/explanations/needs/maslow.htm

Ethics in Writing

Every year, Virginia lawyers have to complete a certain number of class credits (CLEs) to remain certified as a lawyer. A certain number of those hours have to be in ethics. Yes, I know, insert applicable lawyer joke here. Regardless, I still attend ethics classes every year. So, I took a course in The Ethics of Legal Writing. I know-the jokes keep coming.

Most of what I write as a lawyer is derivative. I quote from cases, statutes and articles. The standards that govern my cases are often so ingrained that it’s tempting to repeat them without citation. Junior lawyers (associates) draft pleadings signed by senior lawyers. All these things are plagiarism if proper credit isn’t given to the initial author. One would think I wouldn’t need a class to tell me this. Anyway, the class, an opening written by someone who’d commented on one of my stories and using the same set-up I had (prompting a “déjà vu” comment from one of the critters), and a “Daily Kick” from Dave Farland (Davefarland.net) sent out on September 10, 2011 started me thinking about plagiarism.

A judge once used a paragraph I wrote in his final decision. His opinion didn’t reference that the section came from my brief. Is that plagiarism? Yes. It’s using another’s words without giving that person credit. But, while I’d see red over someone reproducing my fiction writing that way, I took the judge’s use of my paragraph as a huge compliment. I never even considered that the judge was guilty of plagiarism. On the contrary, I’ve pointed to that section of the published opinion with pride.
Senior lawyers have associates who write briefs (the legal documents we file with the Court). The senior lawyer then may file the completed brief without reference to the poor associate who slaved over the document. In the legal profession, as long as the partner reviewed and retained oversight over the work, his taking credit for the associate’s words is acceptable. Yet, in the non-legal writing world, this purest form of plagiarism-stealing someone’s words-destroys careers.

So, is it that lawyers don’t believe in plagiarism when it comes to legal writing? No, we just have different pressure points. The legal writing world is a bit schizophrenic about ghost writing. Ghost writing is when someone writes for a fee knowing that someone else will be listed as the author. In non-legal writing, ghosting is a time honored tradition. Writers are hired to make famous people’s good stories readable. The writer doesn’t get credit for the work, the famous person does. It’s an accepted form of plagiarism since the writer is fairly compensated for the use of his words. Even within the legal writing context, we accept certain types of ghost writing like the associate/senior lawyer example above.

But I can lose my law license if I ghost writing a pleading for an individual who then files the document on a pro se (i.e. without counsel) basis. A pro se party is likely to get more leeway from the Court than an attorney. So Cheatum hires Attorney Dewey to draft a law suit for him. Dewey then allows Cheatum to file it without Dewey’s role being disclosed. Because Cheatum is “pro se”, the Court will likely forgive some of “his” mistakes even if it would have raked Dewey over the coals for those errors. The Virginia Bar considers this form of ghost writing fraud on the Court and the opposing party.

Maybe there’s a reason lawyers need classes on plagiarism. We often don’t think of ourselves as “writers” even though a large portion of what we do, our craft, is written. Plagiarism is center stage in the information age. It’s not just college students trying to fill space in a paper who are plagiarizing these days. Dave Farland’s September 10, 2011 Daily Kick warns of writing scams offering to review or edit your manuscript in order to steal it. The availability of e-publishing allows “writers” to sell their books to readers before those books have been professionally vetted. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But plagiarism can flourish in this unrestricted marketplace. Non-lawyer writers don’t sit through CLEs. All writers, legal and non-legal, need to be vigilant about the many forms of plagiarism given current technology. As David Farland suggests and the Bar Association requires, be careful with electronic documents. Don’t send them to people you don’t know.