Author Archives: Ace Jordyn

The Demons Within

Are we as writers prone to melancholy? Are we prone to periods of madness so that the proverbial phoenix can rise from the ashes? Is that the true nature of the writer? Or, are we simply dis-spirited when we can’t write?

When life gets in the way and I don’t have the opportunity to write, I become a troll. An ugly self-deprecating troll. Oh, everyone sees the smiling me on the outside, but deep inside, I’m miserable and the world can just stop spinning anytime so I can get off this #@! merry go round!

Every time I find myself this way, I become more aware that the troll exists when I’m not being true to my nature, true to my spirit, true to my creativity. For me, writing isn’t like cooking (although I love to cook too) wherein something is created, everyone ooohs and aaahs their pleasure, the dishes get done and a perfectly satisfying moment has been shared by the hungry and adoring masses. Never have I had story written, published and admired in 3 hours or less and left the office tidy. If that isn’t a realistic goal …..

Some call it a funk, others a dead muse. I wonder who clipped the darn bird’s wings so it can’t fly? Life does that when it gets in the way of my writing. And my spirit feels like it’s died another irrevocable death.

As writers, we support each other through our dead-spirit moments, when we feel like an utter failure, like life is conspiring against our genius. Our genius which we lay, like nervous sacrifices on the alters of critiquers’, teachers’, editors’, publishers’ and readers’ unfathomable fancies. We trust that they, like us, will adore the gem we’ve created. Ooohing and aaaahing, grins of contentment adorn their admiring faces as their contagious pleasure spreads to others so that we, genius writers, may lay greater word feasts before our guests. And when this sarcastic and disheartening inner voice speaks, what can I, the melancholy writer, do?

Despair? Sometimes? Cry? Oh yes! Scream? Too polite to do that. Suffer in martyrdom? Definitely. Rise above it? Eventually. Yes, rise. Push that darn phoenix out of the fire before it gets roasted!

Why bother? you ask. Because the spirit knows no other way. You only give up if writing isn’t part of who you are. Because to give up is death for your soul and the emptiness is haunting. Denying the creativity drives me into deeper madness.

But how does one rise above the despair when the inner demons are so strong, when the melancholy is so deep?

One moment at a time.

One word at a time.

By knowing that life has to happen WITH me participating in it, with all its joys, sorrows, responsibilities, distractions and yes, with the demon of doubt.

The key to conquering the doldrums is not found solely in the act of writing. It is in the act of acknowledging that putting words together is who I am – it is an inextricable, wonderful, creative part of me. It IS my spirit.

That means that sometimes, I must be patient with life because I will need it to be patient with me.

That means I can find other ways to fill the void until life’s challenge is overcome. I can read. I can write a blog. I can research.

I can remind myself that as I emerge from the haze of the demonic funk, I will remember that I never left the path – I just couldn’t walk it for a while.

But most importantly, I can acknowledge the void and be satisfied that I know who I am, that I know what feeds my soul and most importantly, that one day soon, I will feast at the table of creativity and word-smithing. Until then, I get to do a deeper character study of the demon within.

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 “ΒΊ leadership/management
http://changingminds.org/explanations/needs/maslow.htm

Sloshing through the Slush Pile “β€œ Beginner Concerns

You wrote a story and submitted it. Good for you! Pat on the back! It takes courage to not only write but to submit! But, your story wasn’t chosen? That makes me sad, especially after all that effort. So, how do you get your story through the first reading also known as the slush pile? It’s no great mystery. I’ve been a slush pile reader and have judged the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) short story contest and I’m here to share some of the common writing mistakes made by beginning writers.

Actions speak louder than words
There is the saying that actions speak louder than words. For the writer the saying should be reworded to: a character’s actions and reactions, based on his value system, are more revealing than a mere listing of movements and setting. Feelings, actions and reactions, what’s worth fighting for, our successes and failures in that fight and how they affect us – those are the things which move your reader and create your story.

Damn, I hate lectures …
Information dumps are bad any time – back story, setting, telling me what the character is thinking. When I hear the “professor’ lecturing me on what it’s like in space when I want to know how the character will solve a problem, I’m gone ……. and please, stay away from omniscient musings on the human condition!

The sleep inducing setting
Starting a story with a list of items the character sees isn’t exciting. Not even in real life do we note all the details in a room when we enter it. But we do notice things which affect how we feel or cause us to react like a dead body on the floor or the missing captain and the view screen showing the planet’s surface growing larger.

Setting not only sets the time and place for your story but more importantly is used to stimulate the senses; to evoke a feeling for the situation and to provide a context in which your character will react. Yes, some novels start with awesome descriptions of setting. So what makes that work? Setting is used as a character – it evokes a feeling. It’s no mistake that in Twilight, for example, the climate is cold, rainy and generally depressing. Similar, is it not, to how Belle feels about herself?

Writing in first person
Many a good idea was killed by this Point of View. Writing in first person doesn’t mean it’s a free license to explore your grey cells to produce copious ponderings. Writing in first person is difficult because there is only one point of view through which to reveal a world, create drama and to incorporate a story line which is interesting. It can be done. The trick is not to tell, but to show the person actively assessing and responding to his situation. Through his eyes and actions, he must reveal information about the people he interacts with, his surroundings and how he feels. First person can be a great way to get deeply into someone’s psyche, the trick is not to get bogged down in the thinking process. All the rules for a good story arc still apply.

Stories need to be dynamic
Whether they’re dynamic emotionally or action oriented, I don’t care. Have some tension, carry it through to the climax and ending. Actions need reaction. Reactions produce more actions. Show, don’t tell. Don’t list events, or actions, or use empty words like “pondered “which evoke nothing except that the writer didn’t really know how the character felt or how he should react. A story needs a plot and increasing tension with a climax. Writing a descriptive scene isn’t a story.

Proof reading and feedback
Truly, most of us cannot be a good judge of what we write, certainly not in the beginning of our careers. The act of writing is a solitary event insofar as we need to write our story. After that, it’s a collaborative process requiring feedback and revisions. Your manuscript is easily rejected because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, clunky dialogue or extensive monologues. Plot problems or character concerns such as inconsistency or believability are things proofreaders can catch.

Keep on writing!
Cheers!

Creative Discipline

Creative discipline – that’s an oxymoron for every writer! Creativity conjures images of free flowing thoughts; unfettered imagination spilling effortlessly onto pages and pages. The brilliance of remembered grade school grammar coupled with the adult’s ability to focus childhood imagination – that is every writer’s ability. Turn the tap on when you need it. Shut it off when life interferes. Always the stories will get written.

Or so my family and friends think.

Creativity requires time, space and yes, discipline. My writing got its kick start when I went back to university in my thirties for a degree in Food Science. That coupled with the first degree in English, I can spot an error in any recipe or food safety plan for slaughtering chickens! But, it was those nasty chemistry classes with all their formulas, all those reactions, which gave me the big Aha! and allowed me to write.

Observe. Note. Analyse. Explain. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isn’t that what most articles on writing ask us to do? What is the character’s reaction to a given situation or action? If they act, what is everyone else’s reaction? What is the character’s ensuing reaction? Like in chemistry class, writers ask the question, What happens when I mix this with that? Explosions? That’s a good thing. A fizzle? Need better chemistry.

What if? is the magical question that blows worlds apart, creating compelling scenarios, challenging protagonists and readers to explore beyond their comfort zones. What if I as a writer don’t answer the phone or check emails regularly? What if I ignore the house work? Put off the laundry? Make a quick something instead of a feast for dinner? Just as for my protagonist, What If? also throws me out of my comfort zone. Yet, I’ve discovered that when I play by What If’s rules, I don’t starve. The laundry eventually gets done. People rarely need an immediate response. And, most importantly, my characters and worlds flourish because my discipline affords them the time to.

So yes, I’ve discovered that creativity needs discipline to flourish. Disciplined blocks of time and discipline to brainstorm What If? Turn the creative tap on and let it stay on. Otherwise, thoughts get lost, diluted or stale. Thoughts need discipline to be created and to appear on the page.

Now when you’re revising or editing, that’s a different discipline and a different blog!

Just remember, we write because words are our air, the page our playground, and our imagination feeds our spirit.