Tag Archives: things writers need

Winnie the Pooh is a Masters’ Level Writing Class


I’m sitting here watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my kid. You know, the one from the 70s that’s less a movie and more a bunch of cartoon shorts slapped together with honey-flavored caulking.

Now, there’s a lovely little book that came out some time ago called The Tao of Pooh, which takes the silly old bear and infuses him with all sorts of Zen mysticism. (Actually, the mysticism was in him all along, we just didn’t always realize it.) And that book has a companion called The Te of Piglet. Fantastic reads that you can pick up and put down as often as you’d like; the kind of books that grow with you. The kind of books that mean something entirely different to your full-of-piss-and-vinegar twenty-something self and your tired-as-fargo-from-wrangling-toddlers-all-weekend thirty-something self.

But I realized, watching the cartoons just now, just this instant, that you don’t need a zennified book to appreciate the dubious wisdom of Pooh. The beauty is in the simplicity. And as a writer, the simplicity resonates on several levels.

Let’s take the opening short.

We meet Pooh in his house, and Pooh wants some damn honey. Why? Because he’s a stuffed bear, and fargo your reasoning; his honey stores in the house are empty, so he’s got to go get some more. But he doesn’t have a grocery store with a plastic bear full of honey to overpay for; he’s got to go straight to the source. Who makes honey? Bees do, so Pooh goes after the bees.

He climbs a tree and tries to just straight-up jack some honey, but the bees aren’t playing that, and the twiggy brances at the top of the tree can’t support his honey-eating behind, so he falls all the way back down. Is Pooh discouraged? Not for a minute. Along comes his pal, Christopher Robin, with a balloon of all things, and Pooh says, hey CR, let me snag that balloon so that I can use it to get some honey. CR is no fool, and he asks the question that we’re all asking, watching this: how are you going to get honey with a balloon?

Don’t be silly, says the bear, I’m going to use the balloon to float up there. The bees will think I’m a raincloud, and they’ll let me have the honey. Now, this is patently idiotic, and being a good friend, CR points this out to him — you don’t look like a raincloud.

Right, says Pooh, let me roll around in some mud so I’m all dark like a thundercloud. So he rolls around in the mud for a minute, gets good and disgusting, then floats up to the treetops. This works until the bees realize that the bear is ganking their honey again, so they attack him and he ends up falling all the way down again.

Bees aren’t parting with their honey, he realizes, and goes off to his buddy Rabbit’s house, where he just asks for some honey without any niceties or prelude. And Rabbit gives it to him. Gives him so much, in fact, that Pooh can’t even squeeze his honey-stuffed stuffing out through the door anymore, and he has to go on a two-week diet before he can even go home again.

Let me not spoil the whole program for you if you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say, the shenanigans continue. All are ridiculous and wholesome, and all are approached with the same oh-well-I-guess-if-that’s-the-way-it-is-we’ll-just-have-to-change-the-way-we-think attitude.

So why is this relevant to the writer?

Pooh wants honey and he sets himself to the task with the single-mindedness of a cat stalking a crippled lizard.

He tries the direct route. When that doesn’t work, he doesn’t just think outside the box, he turns the box inside-out. When that doesn’t work, he dispenses with the pleasantries, doesn’t hem and haw his way around it, he just goes to somebody who can help and gets some damn help.

In short, once he decides he wants it, there is no force on earth that is going to stop him.

So it must be with the writer.

Sometimes the direct route is all it takes to get us there, but more often, the direct route is a boring and ineffectual route. We have to get outside the box. Sometimes that means redesigning the box, burning it, designing it again, throwing it down a flight of stairs, and building another box from the shattered pieces, then stepping into the box just for the purpose of stepping back out of it. And sometimes, we just need a little help.

So.

Let’s get some honey.

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Sideways Short Fiction


I’ve written a bit about the workshop I’m undertaking over the past several weeks, though I haven’t said anything about the works. (I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with these stories, so, y’know, sharing about them seems premature.)

But I’m on to the final “lesson” — writing the endings — and the workshop has offered some advice that really turns everything I thought I knew about narrative writing on its head.

It’s so different and powerful, I feel like I might actually do better writing in the future literally standing on my head. Because I feel like I’ve been doing this stuff wrong all along. Well… not wrong, per se. But maybe as if I’ve been driving a car around for hours, and I didn’t realize that the sun shield with the big dumb sunglasses painted on it was covering the windshield.

(Don’t pretend you don’t remember those things.)

I’ll shill for it again since I’m enjoying it so much — the program in question is Holly D. Lisle’s free fiction workshop at How To Think Sideways, and again, if you write a lot of short fiction like I do, it’s absolutely worth your time to check it out.

Anyway, the short fiction projects in progress should be wrapped in a week or two, and then it’ll be back to the Capital-P Projects — whether 2nd editing my first novel or 1st editing my second — and maybe finding some stability in my writing routine again.

Or not. God knows with Christmas rolling around, any sort of routine tends to go out the window.


Things Writers Need — The Hemingwrite


I’ve just seen a thing.

I don’t know what to make of it.  I’m very much of two minds.

I’ve had my say about typewriters before.  I think they’re cute and quaint and entirely impractical for any writer to be using to do any real writing in the — and I say this with no irony whatsoever, except for the implicit  — modern era.  I stand by that wholeheartedly.  When you consider the gamut of writing devices, a machine that uses paper, has no means to erase or edit on the fly, and that cannot multitask in any way, shape, or form, is simply an inferior alternative to any device which can, you know, backspace, or fit in your pocket, or at least your carry-on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a certain romantic nostalgia about typewriters.  The sounds they make as you click away at their keys are soothing and hypnotic — much more so than the impersonal muffled thumps that issue from the plastic construction of a laptop or a multi-function bluetooth keyboard.  And, you know, the greats wrote on typewriters, or something like that.  So there’s hero emulation thrown in there to boot.  I see the draw, even if it doesn’t measure up to even the flimsiest of word processors.

But then tonight, I see this.  The Hemingwrite.

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It’s a word processor stuffed into the body of a typewriter analog.  It syncs wirelessly and automatically with backup services like google docs and Evernote (which I love).  It has weeks and weeks of battery life.  It’s about the size of a very large book, or a very small chessboard.  It’s adorable.  And all it lets you do is write.

It looks like much of what I love about WriteMonkey (my drafting software of choice) literally crammed into a box that lets you write without the distractions of the wily internet and whatever apps you have chiming and sucking your life away.  And my Id-Writer stops slavering, looks out through the bars of his cage toward this unassuming little box, and ponders.

I can’t decide if I love or hate this idea.

The pendulum swings in favor of this thing initially.  It’s undoubtedly brilliant.  There are, I have no doubt, scads of writers and would-be writers, their heads clouded with that romantic image of Hemingway bent over a buzzing machine, the keys clattering into the night, who will happily throw money at the manufacturers of this thing just for the chance to ape the greats while still maintaining the creature comforts of cloud backups and wireless syncing.  The Hemingwrite website, which has only been up for a few months, overtly states that the creators are overwhelmed by the response already, and they’re not even past the prototyping phases yet.  This thing is going to sell like crazy to people wanting one for themselves, let alone as gifts for the writerly types out there.

But is it necessary?  I mean, my laptop automatically backs up my work as I write and is just as portable as this little gadget.  It also allows me to browse the web, watch movies, play games, and you know, anything else you can do with a fully-powered computer.  For that matter, it allows me — with the use of the proper programs — to have the same uninterrupted, distraction-free writing experience that the Hemingwrite seeks to provide, minus of course the vaguely romantic notion of typing on a typewriter that’s not really a typewriter.

But there’s something to that, isn’t there?  The feel of creating on something that’s not a do-it-all magic box.  They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have (though that’s perhaps a bad idea if you’re a businessman who wants to be an ice fisher), and doesn’t this gizmo allow you to advertise to the world that “I AM A WRITER” in a way that no simple laptop can?  And isn’t writing all about being in the proper mindset to create?  By extension, then, if this tool helps you, in any small way, to get a little bit closer to the zone, isn’t it worth the trouble?

And then my pendulum swings the other way again, because don’t I — don’t we, as Americans (make no mistake, this is for Americans, much as I hate the “we as fill-in-the-blank” construction) — have enough stuff already?  Part of the romance of writing (and I’m overusing the word “romance” in this little entry, I now realize, but fargo it, it cuts both ways) is the simplicity of it.  From the blank screen, the blank page, the flashing cursor on the screen, I craft worlds and people and plots and MacGuffins and really wild things.  If I’m a writer, I already have a computer or laptop to help me do those things.  Do I need another thing on my desk to help me do the same things?  I’m not sure I do.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.  I have enough of a headache working on two different computers in two different settings; I can only imagine the frustration of getting all keyed-in and in love with this little machine and then having to haul it back and forth from home to work.  And then forgetting it and having to work on my laptop anyway.  Or finding room for it on my already cluttered desks.  And justifying to myself and my wife the existence of this thing which doesn’t really do anything for me that the stuff I already had isn’t capable of doing.

Then again, it looks like they’ll offer it in Georgia Bulldog Red.

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I think it’s a fascinating little thing.  I’m sure it will help writers if only in a Placebo Effect, I’m-becoming-a-better-writer-because-I-feel-like-a-writer kind of way.  But the more I think about it, the more it feels like too much novelty, not enough practicality.  I think I’d love to test-drive one, but I definitely can’t see buying one for myself, unless, when they finally get around to selling these things, the price tag ends up in the realm of the ridiculously low.  Based on the hype around this thing, though, I’d be shocked if it goes for less than $80, and I even think that might be optimistic on my part.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh on the little Hemingwrite, which for all intents and purposes hasn’t even been born yet?


Things Writers Need — Sanctuary


This week, in “Things Writers Need,” perhaps the last of the BIG ideas: a sanctuary.  If the series is to continue, it’ll have to start diving into the nitty-gritty, the finer, more specific things.  Lots to ponder.  But at any rate, the Sanctuary.

Let’s get one thing clear: writing is hard.  To be specific: coming up with ideas is hard, writing the ideas down in a coherent and meaningful way is hard, making the time to write is hard, not getting distracted from writing is hard.

On a good day, writing is like chasing butterflies with a net that instead of a net uses bubbles.  Just when you think you’ve snagged one of the buggers, the net bursts and you have to dunk your wand in the solution again.  (That’s not nearly as sexual as it sounded coming out.)  On a bad day, you have no net and must entice the buggers to land in your mouth using only the hypnotic ululations of your tongue.  (Also not directly intended to be sexual.)

On a good day, you’re tracking the movement of radioactive particles through the vacuum of space, standing in your backyard with a whacked-together dish of ceramic and tinfoil hoping to snare quarks from the ether.  On a bad day, meteorites are smashing your house to bits and your dish is on fire, and also the quarks are superheated and are burning your satellite dish to a cinder.  Burning it for a second time.

On a good day, you’re on the Atlanta perimeter trying to catch somebody using a turn signal.  On a bad day, the interstate has snowed under and everybody’s walking home.  Except you’re still in Atlanta and the walk home takes a day and a half.

That is to say that if you’re going to write properly, you need supreme focus, free from as many distractions as possible.  You need a sanctuary.  A safe haven from the world.  A bunker to protect you from the bombs, big and small, that blow up every day in your world.  A soundproof chamber to block out the low drone of life.  A treehouse you can climb into to escape the leaping jackals.  A little bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean.

Ideally, this would be a room of your own.  A room free of needless ornament and away from regular foot traffic, or maybe full of little bric-a-brac (is bric-a-brac plural?) that inspire you or fill your head with strange and wonderful ideas, and just off the hallway so that you can hear the soothing sound of footsteps as your significant other or your kids or your cats or your hamsters or the neighborhood dog approaches.  A room that has no television, or maybe one that has a television receiving no signal so that it only plays soft soothing static, or perhaps one hooked up to a DVD playing old episodes of Leave it to Beaver on repeat because that’s what stimulates your brain.  A room with no windows, or maybe a window overlooking the dense cruel cityscape below, or a window overlooking your children’s playground, or the soft contours of a white-sand beach, or the sweeping majesty of the Appalachians, or a painted backdrop of unicorns leaping over rainbows and farting out quarks for you to catch in your satellite dish.

Look, the makeup of the room is not a standardized thing; it should have the things that benefit the writer’s process in it, and it should forcefully reject anything that obstructs that process.  Writers need a space that keeps their heads level.  A space that can shut out the demons and distractions and the e-mails and the worries and the crises and the bills and…

Okay, I’m actually stressing myself out a little bit thinking about all the things that get in the way when I’m trying to write.  The simple fact is that there is no end to the stream of things that will try to stop a writer from writing on any given day.  If the writer is not equipped to fend those things off, they will sweep him under like so many tons of thrashing white water and deposit his soggy corpse with the rest of the broken dreams at the shattered delta of Unfinished Projects.  A simple place to write is one of the best defenses for keeping those things at bay.  It doesn’t have to be lush and finely furnished.  It doesn’t have to be lined with polished mahogany or stocked with leather-bound books or busts of famous dead people.  It doesn’t have to overlook a sunlit veranda or a tranquil garden.  It doesn’t even have to smell like scotch and candlewax.  It just has to be a place that makes a writer feel comfortable and safe and relaxed and creative.  It helps if it has a door.  But you know what?  It doesn’t even have to be a room.  It just needs to be a space where you do your writing.  Thoughts are semi-tangible things, I think.  Bits of them bleed out and seep into the walls, the floorboards.  They mingle with the air, and discolor the carpet over time.  You need that space to soak up the essence of your thoughts so that on the days when the ideas don’t want to flow, you can stew in those ambient thoughts to release some of the locked-in juices.

I’m lucky in that, at work, I can sneak a half hour at lunchtime, close my door and be alone with my thoughts in total silence if I like.  I’m not so lucky in that my house (which my wife and I once thought so huge and cavernous) affords me no such luxury.  Between two babies’ bedrooms, our bedroom, and a guest room (which has also sort of become a makeshift library and cat bedroom), there is no sanctuary to be found.  The best I have is the use of the desk adjacent to the kitchen, which butts up against the stairs which are essentially the heart of the house.  There’s no door, even, to shut the world out.  Also, of course, when I’m at home, I’m Dad, which means I am always on call.  So I have to make the most of my time at work and enjoy what little sanctuary can be had while I’m there.

That’s not to say that I can’t write at home.  I can, and often do.  But it only works because I’ve talked to my wife and she respects my time and space while I’m writing, provided I don’t ask for too much of it.  It works because I take that time when the kids are asleep and don’t need my attention.  It works, in short, because it has to work and because I make it work.

That said, when we ever get around to buying a new house, it’s gonna have to have at least a walk-in closet or something I can turn into a study.  You know, in addition to the basement we need, and the bathrooms with reasonable fixtures, and the less ridiculous plumbing situation, and a lot fewer trees in the backyard, and a porch that isn’t falling apart, and…

Sorry, I got distracted.

What’s the most important thing inside (or outside) your writing sanctuary?


Things Writers Need — Books


Every Thursday I write a little piece for people who are thinking of writing books or for people who have writers in their lives.  A collection of things that a writer’s life is not complete without.  To continue in my series in Things Writers Need, here are some of my thoughts on one of the most important things in any writer’s life: books.

Nobody takes up soccer because they think it’d be nifty to kick a ball around without using their hands for an hour and a half.  They take it up because they watch a game or two and think it looks like fun and they start to practice and they get decent at kicking the ball around and that’s how we get soccer teams now.

Nobody takes up stand-up comedy because they think it’d be nifty to stand in front of a crowd and ramble about whatever minutiae are going on in his or her life at the time while a bunch of strangers sip overpriced drinks or shout abuse.  No, they see other comedians on TV or on stage and they appreciate the humor they see on display and they practice telling jokes to their friends and one day they step up to an open mic and that’s how we get stand-up comedians.

Writing is maybe a little different in that I think there may be an intrinsic desire to write things down and tell stories; something encoded in our DNA that makes us want to pass tales on to the rest of our clan.  But people don’t set out to write hundreds of pages without seeing it done several times, learning the intricacy of storytelling, learning the way characters can sprout fully-formed from mere words, learning the way an otherwise rational adult can develop a really unhealthy relationship with a collection of pulverized wood and ink: taking it to bed at night, carrying it around in a purse, caressing and holding its pages, staring into its face for hours and hours and hours on end.

Any great writer was a great reader first.  You can’t run before you walk.  You can’t write before you read.  Writers learn to love writing by reading lots and lots of books, and they learn to write by reading lots and lots of high-quality books on all sorts of things.  So, a writer needs books.

Think about your favorite book.  It changed your life, or at the very least, changed the way you thought about the world, right?  If writers want to write books that can do the same for others, we have to learn from the masters, we have to imitate their work, we have to transmogrify their talent and their teaching into our own twisted wonderful creation.

Reading is the lifeblood of the writer.  In order to keep up the steady flow of words out of our brain-holes, we need a just-as-steady flow of words in the other side.  Words are weird, words are a paradox.  You can never lose a word, but you can sure as hell use one until it’s so tired it can no longer lift its own head.  They’re a renewable resource, but you can only carry so much at a time.  I can only juggle a couple of story ideas in my head before they start knocking each other out through the ears.  And sure, I can write down every idea that comes to me, but that doesn’t necessarily help me.  The idea I jot down in February because it sounds brilliant looks like a puddle of mushy dogsharknado by the time I get around to wanting to write it in June.  These ideas have an expiration date, I think; a use-by warning that causes them to decay the longer they’re left on the shelf.

So if words and story ideas can go bad like so much Aldi produce, how does one keep fresh stock on the shelves?  You go to the grocery store, naturally.  But not Aldi — their produce goes bad in just a few days.  No, you need the good stuff; you go to Publix, or the farmer’s market.  You go to books.

In reading and pondering the intricacies of the last book I read (The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde) I had no less than three ideas for new stories of my own, riffing off of elements found in Fforde’s book from genetically engineered pets to holding works of art hostage.  They might have been crap ideas, but I had them, and a lot of writing I think is in the exercise; it’s about the journey, as they say, rather than the destination.  I also rekindled a bit of my love for science fiction and the ridiculous, which I think is at the core of my contemporary writer self.  It was a welcome discovery after the detour into YA lit I’ve had over the last couple of years.  The heavy tropes and weighty themes of Dystopian Futures and Society Must Be Saved and The Chosen Ones have weighed on me and made my writing a little bleak, a little encumbered, a little melodramatic, perhaps.  (I’m talking about the Divergents, the Matcheds, the Hunger Gameses which have been so popular in recent years.  It’s good stuff, but man, it ain’t uplifting.  Pity the children being raised on this stuff!)

Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from those books.  Far from it.  No, in every book there’s something to be learned, even if all you learn is that you don’t want to write a story like the one you just read, ever.  (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.)  It’s a foolish student that turns aside the tutelage of his predecessors.  Writers need books like football players need to review tape.  Like babies need mothers’ milk.  Like a hurricane needs an area of warm, high pressure air moving into an area of cool, low pressure air.

Now, every writer out there has their preferences and tendencies.  One will gravitate toward sprawling works of incredibly detailed interpersonally linked tales of fantasy, a la Game of Thrones.  Another will splash around in the deep and impenetrable waters of gritty crime and mystery stories in the vein of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Still another will lounge in the comforting pages of a classic romance like Pride and Prejudice.  But tendencies and preferences aside, I think it’s necessary for all writers to consume all types of literature at least occasionally.

I’ll grant that attempting to read books in all genres is a perhaps insurmountable task just given the volume of what’s out there.  You could read a book a week for a year and still leave out some of the obscure genres like, oh I dunno, Interstellar Revenge Comedy Romance.  And maybe that’s a genre best left untapped (or maybe I just got an idea for a story…).  But I think it’s far too easy to stay in your own little cabin in the woods, reading books you know you’ll like before you read them, never sampling the waters in the streams and ponds that crisscross the landscape.

I think a good book is going to have lots of elements of lots of different genres and stories; a little something for everybody.  It’s an anemic adventure story if there isn’t a little bit of romance along the way.  No science fiction yarn is complete without a good solid dose of gritty down-to-earth human interest at the bottom of it.  Thrillers go amiss if there isn’t a little bit of a fantasy element in there; a bit of something that plays outside the rules of reality.  And I don’t know a single story in any genre, no matter how dark or dismal or defeatist, that wouldn’t be better off for at least a little dose of humor.  We must bring balance to the force, and if we want to bring balance, we must ourselves be balanced.

So, the writer needs a steady diet of books.  We need books that we like and books that we hate.  Great books and terrible books.  Books we can read cover-to-cover twenty times and books we can’t penetrate beyond the first chapter.  Books that uplift and books that depress.  Books that make you want to run out of your front door and start hugging people and books that make you want to nuke the planet from orbit.  We need to read it all so that we can write all of it into our own stories.  Writers are tasked with communicating the unending message of the human condition to those who will come after us; we don’t have the right to leave any of it out.  We have to read as much as we can so that we can tell our own stories as completely as possible.

If you’re a writer, you need a library card, or you need Amazon’s new book-rental service, or you need a bookstore in your neighborhood that will let you park in an armchair and read for hours at a time, or you need a friend with a crapton of books that you can borrow.  If you’re a friend of a writer, you can never go wrong by buying that friend a book.  Doesn’t matter what kind, what genre, what author; buy them a book.  But for god’s sake, don’t give them a gift card, don’t just buy something off Oprah’s Book Club or whatever… pick out a book that you like or a book that you think they’ll like or hell, just pick out a book with an interesting cover.  They’ll read it just the same, and maybe on the next thing they write, they’ll credit you with putting that book in their hands that inspired the new story.

What book has most influenced you as a writer?  As a person?  What would be your desert-island book?  If you could make one book required reading for everybody in the world, what would it be?


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