Giving Thanks to our Inspirational Books

It’s Thanksgiving today in the United States. In honor of the holiday, we thought we’d share the books that we are most thankful for — the books that have in some way inspired us.

Amanda Headlee:

Giving Thanks to Our Inspirational BooksI know it is cliche, but Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is the first book that I am most thankful for. It was the first full-length novel that I read as a child. Carroll’s words fueled my imagination. I felt as though this specific book unlocked something in my mind. It gave me permission to dream. Whatever boundaries that were being placed on my imagination by culture and society as I matured, I ignored. My imagination is my most prized possession and I am proud to say that as of today, in my 30’s, it is still brilliantly limitless.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is another book that I am thankful for as it taught me about letting go and finding where I am happiest. Elaine Risley was the first character that forced me to reflect on my life.  Her story was one that resonated with my soul. Just like Elaine, I also have a background in Biology, but I chose my passion and career to be in the arts. When I read this book, I was struggling to let go of experiences from the past. It was this very book that showed me how to let all of that pain and sadness go. Also during this first reading (and as a sophomore in university), I was wrestling with the decision whether to continue with my goal to become a Marine Biologist or to change my career to a Technical & Creative writer track. Cat’s Eye was the force that compelled me to choose writing.

Michelle Mueller:

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle was probably the most important book of my childhood. I read it around the time a horse I loved died, and in a lot of ways it helped me learn how to cope with loss. Though I read a ton of books as a kid/young adult, this is the one I always remember. I think every young person (and adult) should read it at least once.

A lot of people are surprised by this one, but Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is one of my favorite books of all time. No one can forget the brutal, stubborn, selfish Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t know if admitting this is a good thing, but she was one of the first characters I truly could relate to. She’s a survivor. Weaknesses and strengths aside, I understood her.

Chris Musgrave:

I’m going to buck the trend and eschew all that sentimental crap my colleagues are spewing. What books am I most grateful for? Good question. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ll read just about anything, but I have a very special place on my shelves for Terry Pratchett. The wit and surreal perspective, not to mention the sheer genius of the Discworld, have always spoken to me and keep me coming back for more. If I had to pick one book out of the canon which really stands out, I’d have to say Mort.

Another book and author to which I owe a lot in terms of inspiration is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I’ve grown up on myths and legends but this was the first time I’d ever seen deities in the modern world. The fantastical and yet everyday themes which colour Neil Gaiman’s tales started me down the path to insanity which I am currently hurtling down head-first.


Which books are you thankful for? Let us know in the comments!

 

Breaking the Word Blank

“One day, the songs stopped coming.  And while you’ve suffered from periods of writer’s block, albeit briefly, this is something chronic. Day after day, you face a blank page and nothing is coming. And those days turn to weeks and weeks to months and pretty soon those months have turned into years, with very little to show for your efforts. No songs.”  – Sting, 2014 TED Talk, Sting: How I started writing songs again

Writers of every style and form suffer from time to time where the slate goes blank.  Most would call this “writer’s block”.  I am not particularly fond of the term.  I find it too negative, which is counterproductive to creativity.  A block is something that I see as a brick wall, an impenetrable barrier.  Something that I am never getting through.  I attribute the term “writer’s block” to those things in my day-to-day life that keep me blocked from writing.  Things that are out of my control.

A blank slate, not being able to form your words is not writer’s block.  There is nothing substantial blocking you from writing but yourself and your mind.  It is something that can be overcome.  There is nothing impenetrable there.

Something has happened to cause this blank slate, and it is one of the most frustrating things for writer because it is 100% within our control.  Our page sits empty and nothing comes.  We have free time from family / work / responsibilities to dedicate to this craft and yet the page remains blank.

Why?

It is because for a moment, we have stopped thinking and fear of the words never coming back.  Internally, you go into a panic dreading that you will never write again, that the words will never come back.  It is self-sabotage and that causes your imagination to shut down.

The words have disappeared, however they are not blocked.  In actuality for this period of “blankness”, your words are just on vacation.  They are not choked from flowing, they just don’t feel like flowing.  Words need inspiration and stimulation.  Go hunt them down and bring them back to where you are.  Get your words and yourself back on track by starting at the beginning and stir that creativity pot.

No, I don’t mean that you have to start plotting or writing your piece all over again, but instead revisit the beginning.  Look at what originally fueled the flames of your imagination when the project began.  Reconnect with who you were at the start of the project.  Talk to the old you and your muse.  Find out what inspired you in the first place to get the imagination steaming.  In Sting’s experience, he had to physically go back to where he came from — back to the beginning of everything —  to get the words flowing again.  Where ever that beginning for you, that is where you have to get your words back from their margarita-filled holiday.  If you can’t take a break – neither should they.

Now, if you are starting fresh on a new project, and you are drawing a blank on how to get moving, Sting made an interesting point in his TED Talk, that I believe is a fantastic solution.  Think about others instead of about yourself.  Typically, writers tend to put themselves into their work.  And when the well runs dry within our own perception, shift to another person’s.  Look at someone else’s happiness and struggles, anger and passions.  Use those experiences, events, and emotions as inspiration for your words.

The times of blank slates are only temporary.  Your words are not gone forever.  However, you have to be proactive and can’t just sit by, waiting for them to return.  Go hunt them down!  Get yourself and your words back on track by re-exploring why you are writing.  Reconnect with your beginning and subject to your muse.  Your words will follow and flow.

Writing 101 – Research

Research

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

We sit in near darkness pouring over dust-covered, leather-bound tomes. We scour the internet until the wee small hours. We track through the Amazon, machete in hand, in search of the last of the lost tribes. And, why do we do this?

For the story.

Research is a necessary evil when it comes to writing. It is the author’s greatest asset and their worst enemy. Without research, we wouldn’t have ideas, couldn’t build believability (especially of the unbelievable), and we certainly couldn’t speak with the authority of our characters.

With this post, I hope to provide a few tips on how to navigate the minefields of research.

Types of Research

Research can be roughly split into one of four main categories.

1. Traditional

This is the research that springs to the minds of most writers over the age of 25. To me, it invokes images of a desk in a quiet corner of a library (is there such a thing as a noisy corner of the library?) or bookstore, covered in piles upon piles of open books; the writer feverishly scribbling notes into their notebooks. This method has its limitations: research material on some topics may be unavailable, research can only be conducted during opening hours, all information gleaned will have already been filtered by the material’s author. Despite these minor issues, this is still one of the best ways of conducting research, not to mention a great way to spend an afternoon.

2. Internet

These are the days of the digital revolution. We have information literally at our fingertips (and our names on federal watch-lists). Every conceivable topic has its place on the web alongside armies of “experts” all happy to share with you the benefits of their experience. With a click of the mouse and the clatter of keys, you’ll find data and facts on military might. A quick email will return reams and reams of folklore and legends. You can even make contact with a practicing druid (no, you really can) who will provide you with the patterns of the universe — maybe.

This wealth of material is dualistic in nature. On the one hand, it’s there and readily accessible but, on the other, the sheer volume can soon overwhelm us and leave us unable to separate the good from the bad.

3. Social

This includes any form of interaction with others and can be key to developing believable characters, character quirks, and dialogue. It involves anything from people watching to conducting personal history interviews. It is the research we undertake whenever we enter a social setting, sometimes without realising we’re doing it.

4. Field

Although this shares aspects with the above category, it’s worth thinking of this as scouting for settings. In much the same way that a TV location scout scours the globe for ideal settings, we writers must do the same. Real life settings give depth and tone to our scenes and allow our characters a forum in which to develop and nothing beats experiencing out potential settings for ourselves.

Research Tips

Make a Plan

Research can be a real time sink. Each discovered piece of information can lead to many more avenues of inquiry and sometimes make it difficult to know when to stop. It becomes far too easy to lose yourself in the research and find you have limited time left to write.

The easiest way to avoid this is it to make a plan. Identify what topics/points require research, break them down into workable chunks and allocate time to each. In addition to budgeting our time, working from a plan allows us to determine the best methods of collecting the information we need. Do you need ideas for a setting? Organise a field trip. Is your dialogue sounding a little unnatural? Conduct some social research (eavesdrop) at your local coffee shop.

Set Time Limits and Deadlines

I’d bet we’ve all lost count of the number of hours lost to research that was unnecessary to our current projects. How many times have we just checked one more link? How many hours have we wasted through distraction? How many times have we watched that video of the baby panda sneezing (you know the one)?

Use your plan and set yourself a time limit or deadline for each key piece of research. Try and stick to it as closely as you can.

Use the Best Tool for the Job

Research is useless without having some way of capturing it. Likewise, the way we capture needs to be relevant to the information and research method. Unless you’re an excellent sketch artist, a camera may be best used for recording that manor house frontage you’re considering for the setting of your horror story. Even an expert in shorthand finds tape recorders invaluable for conducting interviews (although be sure to take notes as recordings aren’t 100% reliable).

Organise Your Research

Research requires organisation. Just as unrecorded research is useless, so too are research notes you can’t find. What good is that great piece of dialogue if it’s scribbled on a post-it note and lost forever between the pages of a randomly selected book?

Highlight or underline important notes in your notebooks for easier reference, or group like notes together in their own folders, sections or notebooks e.g. keep a dialogue file and record all potential dialogue in it. Allocate time in your research plan to organising and processing the research and use it.

What to Keep and What to Lose?

Not everything you research will be relevant to or make it into your latest project. It may not even fit your style of writing. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be loath to throw any notes away. Still, you’ll need to filter the good notes from the bad, the relevant from the irrelevant.

You need to decide what information you need for your story and refile the rest for later viewing/projects. Each piece of research needs to be interrogated for added benefit to the project you’re working on. If it has none, file it away and move on but don’t forget to revisit these notes later, especially when brainstorming your next project.

Write Your Story

Research is a means to an end and that end is the story. There comes a time when the research has to stop and the writing needs to start (otherwise you’re just a grad student and not a writer). The biggest difficulty for some of us will be resisting the urge to research during the time we’ve allocated for writing. We always feel the need to just double check that fact. The problem with that is that a break in your train of thought can create difficulties in getting back into the flow.

While writing, make a side note of any items you wish to check or research and add them to your plan at the end of your writing session. A journalist once taught me a trick for dealing with names or facts that you can’t recall easily while writing. He said to mark the place in the text where the fact/name will go with a “TK”. “TK” rarely occurs together in English and it is easily spotted during editing. If I come across a “TK” during edits – that’s the time for research.

I hope these tips have been useful and I would like to hear from you with any tips you’ve found during your own research processes. Likewise, I’d love to hear of any unexpected ideas and tangents research has taken you on. As always, please share in the comments below.

 

Phonetic Punctuation: How Do You Hear Punctuation Marks in Your Writing?

I once wrote a post suggesting that writers should think of their writing as music, but what happens when someone takes this seriously? What would happen if we actually sounded out punctuation marks when we spoke, for instance? Well . . . we would then be using what Victor Borge aptly calls phonetic punctuation. Though he approaches the idea with humor, it’s worth noting that, in addition to being a comedian, Mr. Borge was also a conductor and a pianist. It’s probably fair to say that he understood punctuation in ways many writers do not.

Punctuation is a tricky thing. All those marks decorating the page, silent and unavoidable in our writing. Yet, those marks — which have no actual phonetic transcription, no sound (minus Victor Borge’s interpretation) — are the rhythmic backbones of words. How is that?

When you use punctuation in your stories, you are transcribing beats — pauses — that enhance and maintain the rhythm of your prose. But if you think of it from the standpoint of sound, as he does in the video, perhaps it may change your perspective. If you think of letters and words as the carriers of sound and meaning, then punctuation marks are the bridges, the ropes stringing them together.

Keep that in mind when you’re writing. Punctuation is a tool, and though it’s relatively easy to use within the given rules of a language, it’s still one of the most difficult tools in the writer’s arsenal to master. You have to learn to hear it the same way you hear letters and words: every pause, every stop, every small inhalation. That’s what gives your writing a pulse.

Alas, since I’ve got 10,000 more words to write for my thesis by the middle of December, all writing effort is going to it at the moment, which is the primary reason why there will be no editing post this week. However, so as not to leave you all empty-handed, I’ll share this amusing, yet linguistically thought-provoking video of phonetic punctuation. Enjoy!


How do you hear punctuation marks in your writing?