The Prompter Room

For Friday, August 11, 2017:

 

Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.  Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.

Stephen King 

(except for the period, punctuation is mine)

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The Prompter Room

For Tuesday, May 11, 2016:

 

“I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”

Toni Morrison

“Write a page a day.  Only 300 words.  And in a year you have written a novel.”

Stephen King

Or a memoir.  Or a collection of poems or essays.  I did the math – well, the calculator did – and 300 x 365 = 109,500 words.  That’s definitely a book.

Many of us who blog write at least 300 words a day, so we know we can produce that amount.  Add in our emails, Facebook posts and comments, and tweets (if we do those), and it’s likely we’ve already surpassed those 300 words.  According to WordPress’s convenient little word count down in the corner – thank you, WP 🙂 – I’ve already reached 121 words up to here.  So it’s doable.

Yes, blog posts, Facebook, and emails are different, and at least the latter two are far easier than writing a book of any genre, but the words are there.  Usually the time is there, too.  Since I started my blog here a year ago – last week was the first anniversary of magiclampedits! – for instance, I’ve reduced my time and words on FB so I can write this blog and work on my books.

Even when I’m working on the blog, it’s not always at one sitting.  Usually I get up from the chair a few times – to let the dogs out, get some tea, turn down the TV, retrieve a dog toy from the water bowl or from under the couch, answer the phone, sometimes even to think and ponder – but those 300-500 words get done.

When I get distracted from or discouraged with my new novel-in-progress, I remember this.  Because I want to read it.  Once I reach the period in this sentence, I’ll have 290 words.  Almost there … and if I can do it, you can, too!

The Prompter Room

For Monday, April 18, 2016:

 

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

“Your mind will answer most questions if you relax and wait.”

William S. Burroughs

How’s that again?  One says one thing, the other says something else.

Two thoughts … First, remove ‘with a club’ from London’s statement and I think you’ve got a better piece of advice.  Go after inspiration, indeed, but my experience is that we can be relaxed about it.  Up to a point anyway.

In his famous tome On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King tells us that ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and get to work.’  Sometimes – in my experience, at least – our work is to get out of our own way, which means sometimes we just have to relax.  If we’re too intent on looking for inspiration, we may miss it when it floats by.

This happens in other parts of our lives, too.  Surely I’m not the only one who forgets a word or a thought or idea and struggles to retrieve it from my brain.  When I focus on something else, though, it usually comes back to mind.  It may take a while or only minutes, but I’ve learned that the word or idea I’m waiting for reappears in some form or another.  It always shows up in a way that leads me to the original, and sometimes it’s even better.

As writers, we have different processes.  This is what works for me.  You may approach the work of inspiration in another way entirely.  It’s always fun, of course, when that exciting ‘ah ha’ moment happens, but we still have to be in its path to recognize it.

The Prompter Room

For Wednesday, April 13, 2016:

 

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.  There are no exceptions to this rule.”

Stephen King

Once again I feel compelled – nay, driven, even obliged – to question a statement by a venerable (respected, august, revered, wise) writer.

King’s ‘rule’ is actually a good one for a first draft of anything – fiction, non-fiction, poetry.  The same or similar words can serve as placeholders for the first round, but once revisions begin, I think a thesaurus is a good resource to have on hand.

When I read over the first draft of the current novel-still-in-process, I noticed there were two different words I used over and over again.  I changed some of those instances without a thesaurus (yay me!), some I deleted, some I rearranged so the context was there but the word wasn’t needed.  There were a few times, though, where I wanted more variety in my words, and that’s when I pulled out my trusty friend.

Sometimes the options in a thesaurus aren’t quite right, at least for the particular word itself.  The ‘dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, storehouse/treasury of words, language reference book’ I use most often (Roget’s 21st Century you know what in Dictionary Form), also has a section on context that frequently proves more helpful than the options provided for single words.  Even if I don’t find or use an alternate word, the myriad contexts help me think deeper and more broadly, and that is when this resource becomes a treasure trove.  Sometimes I even learn a new word and that’s always a good thing.

If King wants us to use our brains before we use a thesaurus, I do agree with him.  If he means don’t use fancy words when something simple works fine, I agree with him again.   At the same time, I believe – in my humble opinion – that we can make allowances for the times we want to depart from the norm or the same old-same old, to be innovative, to suggest different shades of meaning (see exception).

As writers, we’re likely familiar with the adage that we should learn the rules in order to break them.  There are some dictums (dicta?), decrees, and tenets (see rule) that can be circumvented, at least, if not broken.  This is one of them, I think, but it should be done with due consideration.  Don’t rely on a thesaurus only, but do use it to explore all the possibilities – the potential, the prospects, the promises – that live within the words we want to use.

The Prompter Room

For Saturday, March 19, 2016:

 

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

Kahlil Gibran

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer.  But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”

Stephen King

Oh, I remember them.  Some of the external ones are still visible, even 40 or 50 years later.  If one looks closely, you might see one or two that are still there from almost 60 years ago.

The internal ones are harder to identify, of course, but they’re there as well and, again, visible if one knows what to look for.  Once in a while some scar or another peeks through in conversation, but most of the spiritual and emotional ones show up in my poems.

The scars that have healed to the point of scar tissue sometimes serve as catalysts for particular characters in my own fiction, but as I write it’s important for me to remember that not every injury, not every scar heals fully.  Not in real life and not in fiction.  Every Superman has his kryptonite, every Scarlett O’Hara has at least one dress made out of drapes, every Achilles has his heel.

If you think about it, the characters we remember best usually are the ones with the most massive scars because they’re the ones who have emerged stronger on the other side.  It’s possible we may not like where they come out, but at least we know they’re trying.  We can relate to them – we’ve been there and we know the struggle all too well.  We know those scars won’t go away completely.  They’ll peek through occasionally, in one form or another, usually in recognition of the scars of someone else.  Each stage of healing may evoke someone or something new, and fresh tissue is added to protect the old. Or the wound is opened up again and the process starts again.

And here’s the thing: whether our scars appear in fictional characters or in poetry or in memoir, every time we write about them, a little more personal healing takes place.  We need those scars, that scar tissue, for ourselves and on behalf of our characters.  As a beloved friend once told me, that’s what develops … well, character.

The Prompter Room

For Friday, February 5, 2016:

 

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

Stephen King

I guess he should know, eh?  We’ve got plotlines, ideas, characters and locations and dialogue all swimming around in our heads, and then we sit down to a blank piece of paper or computer screen and … Dammit, where’d it all go?  It was all there just a minute ago, threatening to outpace our writing or typing speed … and … nothing.

Nothing except ‘How do I start all this?’  ‘What should I put first?  An action scene, a character intro, or descriptive narrative?’  ‘Shit, there’s no way I can get all this down!’

Usually that’s how I start with each blog post, and then, later, when I get back into my novel.  It can feel overwhelming.  And it’s so, so normal.  That’s part of the angstthe creative anxiety that we need to start – and continue – the process.

I’ve learned I have to embrace – well, at least welcome – the feelings of discomfort and jitters, because without them I find I don’t do well when I sit down to write.  If I just close my eyes, though, and start putting words down, they soon start to flow and those uncomfortable feelings start to go away.  I can rearrange the words later, if need be – and I usually do – but at least I’ve got something to work with now.

As the master of horror also says, “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”  I know it’s easier said than done sometimes, but just write.  Write a few words now, then a few more.  If it helps, write about how scary it is to start.  Respond to King, tell him you know how it feels.

You can do it.  It can be gibberish at first, but it might not be.  Even if it is, it will start the flow.  Those words will be what gets you started.  It’s just a few words – let them do the work.

The Prompter Room

For Thursday, November 5, 2015:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Stephen King

A young friend who writes confessed to me that she rarely reads.  She’s actually a decent writer, so I was quite surprised to hear that she’s not a reader.  At some point in her life she must’ve read, or maybe her parents read to her a lot when she was a child.  The thing is, she won’t be a better writer if she doesn’t read now as an adult.  I hope she can discover that, like a master woodworker or master mechanic, she can’t improve if she doesn’t immerse herself in the process of the craft and the art form.

Some people who write, or who say they want to write, are worried that if they read others’ writings they will end up using others’ words or ideas.  Some fiction writers won’t read other fiction, some poets won’t read other poets.  They say they want to ensure the works they craft will be their own and not derivative.  While the intention is admirable — they don’t want to plagiarize, even if it’s unintentional, or they don’t want to be influenced by anyone else — they’re truncating their growth as writers.  They eliminate their base of knowledge and example, there is no foundation upon which to build their art.

Virginia Woolf’s advice to ‘Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river’ is sound and necessary.  In my far-from-humble opinion, all writers must know the world of literature from which they spring.  They need to read the classics in all — or at least many — of the genres available to us.  We need to know fairy tales and myths, who Beowulf is and why he is important, how Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales made the evolving English language more accessible to the ‘common people’ (hat tip to Rita Mae Brown for that reminder) and what we learned from his pilgrims.  Shakespeare, of course, is a given, and so is Mark Twain and Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sylvia Plath, and so many others.  Without their hard-won foundation, we can’t know what works or doesn’t work in the writings of William Faulkner, Steinbeck or Hemingway or Kate Chopin or Naomi Shabib Nye or Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, Zorah Neale Hurston, T. S. Eliot, or the different versions of the Faustus tales, or … or … or …

Literature represents who we are as human beings, at given times and places in the epochs of our evolution as a people.  Yes, we can write — and many people obviously do — without the foundation of all those who have gone before us.  If we haven’t grown up with this foundation, it’s never too late to start.  We become more fully developed writers, and we become better human beings because we discover, meet, and come to know, ourselves and our neighbors in the stories — in whatever genre — that have come before us.

It’s never too late to start adding tools to our toolbox.  It’s never too late to discover who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.  The more we read, the more we can discover together.  And that is why we write.

The Prompter Room

For Sunday, October 11, 2015:

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

Stephen King

Confession time: I don’t read Stephen King’s horror books.  I do, however, read his thoughts and advice about writing because he is such a good writer.  The quote above can — and should — be considered for any fictional genre, even some creative non-fiction such as memoir.  It’s all about character development and conflict.  Have we created characters — even the unlikeable ones — for whom the reader will have sympathy?  Or at least empathy (an anti-hero, perhaps)?  How so?  And then what conflict can we embroil them in?  What inner monsters/conflict do they have to deal with themselves, and what outer monsters are revealed that others must then deal with?  Perhaps the conflict itself is a monster.  How well or badly do our characters respond?

A lot to consider from this one sentence!