writing advice

Asymmetric Creativity: Writing Through Personal Problems

We’ve closed the most public period for writers in the age of social media- NaNoWriMo. This one month free-for-all of would be authors and established writers plugging away at new projects or long-delayed ideas. The shared encouragement, venting or problem solving is a unique way for the otherwise solitary profession to become communal.

The rest of the year writers occasionally divulge projects online, give us sneak peeks at frustration or triumph. And in those good times the ecstasy is something a writer wants to share. Yet when the block strikes like an iceberg, the pain and frustration are legendary exemplified by dozens of writers block suggestions that make the rounds daily.

There is another trouble plaguing writers (and those of all professions)-  returning to work after trauma. Whether its mental or physical trauma the ability to recover one’s creative self and return to writing can be incredibly difficult and sometimes feel impossible.

We often see it online when writer websites go quiet for weeks or months without explanation. Inevitably we come to expect the standard off the shelf explanation- too busy with life. Often, I’ve come to realize, this is code for a personal problems or issues that has gutted or slowed the writer. It is a very personal act, creation. It is also a personal act to admit when life has dealt us some tough times. Yet our ability to share online those traumas that halted our creativity is incredibly hard. Call it the artist’s temperament, we writers can be a fickle and emotional lot. We tend to clam up or over share.

But we are creatures that explore and explain through our creations. We burrow deep within our minds and imaginations, so should we be surprised that when life deals us troubles that it is especially daunting to return to the creativity that defines us?

Perhaps the key is reminding/remembering every day through these traumas and trials that we are creative and it has been with us in good times and bad. There is no reason why we should use the tribulations as a new way to create. Perhaps its purging the ill feelings through fiction or song? Maybe these life problems are merely potholes in creative highway. You wouldn’t  stop driving down a road just because there were a few potholes. You drive forward, you keep an eye out, but you roll on.

Roll on, fellow writers, past the potholes of life and realize that no matter what is happening your creativity is who you are. It sees you through adversity. The rest are just potholes.

 

 

 

 

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Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

Asymmetric Creativity: Devil in the Military Details

soldiertypeFor almost eight years I was a newspaper reporter in the Boston-area. During that time my primary beat was law enforcement where I had daily experience with local and state police officers. I had the pleasure of getting to know them, training with them and writing about the job, its mundanity and its darker side. Overlapped during that period was my time writing feature stories about local men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, further hardening my appreciation for getting the details right. By getting stories and details right I gained the trust and respect of the soldiers and police I covered. That desire for authenticity has been transferred to my military or law enforcement fiction, even if the stories are about Lovecraftian monsters or future technological terrors.

Here are some basic tips that you might keep in mind when you plunge into the world of military or law enforcement fiction:

Authenticity builds credibility– Authentic language, structure and characters also go a long way to creating credibility in your work. Many authors will read military sci-fi or a techno thriller an mimic the language and jargon, but it often falls short in authenticity. Remember that authenticity builds credibility and fortifies the overall perception of your skill. A famous techno-author was great at ships and jets, but writing unconventional warfare and warriors he was quite lacking, eroding the overall credibility of the story being spun. But this idea of authenticity applies to all genre stories whether they are military, police or medical.

Magazine is not a ‘clip‘- There is a long line of mistakes made by authors when it comes to writing military and law enforcement but nothing is worse than ‘clip.’ Not to get all technical, but a clip is not a magazine. Yes, a clip can hold bullets, as in the M1 Garand’s ‘clip’ which holds rounds in a metal c-shaped clip, but it is not a ‘box’ magazine used in modern pistol or assault weapons. I learned from a police officer the need for credibility and clarity when speaking about ‘clips’ versus magazines. He told me that if he were to go on the witness stand during a legal case and called a magazine a ‘clip’ that would erode his credibility as an expert or authority as ‘clips’ and magazines are not the same thing. Similarly, a device attached to the muzzle of a pistol or rifle may have been called a silencer in the past, but its never called that now. Properly called a suppressor, or in slang as a ‘can’, it is a device that suppresses sound but never completely silences. So if you’re crafting a story of steely eyed professional, he or she should never “put a clip into the silenced rifle.”

Avoid the Slang Cyclone– You may get magazine and suppressor right, but avoid bombarding readers with too much slang. Yes, police communications or platoon leader instructions may be filled with lingo and slang, but recognize that its done with a purpose of brevity not drama. To the untrained ear most jargon or slang becomes gibberish, even if its used correctly. And if your reader knows the jargon and you load a sentence incorrectly then it lessens the credibility. Pepper the work with authentic language or details to keep the story grounded in reality, but ensure it is readable to laymen.

Never use Black Ops– This is a term that had very limited credibility for several decades, but was never the kind of term truly used in intelligence or military circles. Other jargon to avoid- wet works, commando (unless you’re writing a World War II story,) chopper (use helo or bird,) or bullet proof vest (ballistic vest/plate carrier are acceptable modern terms.)

Reference– There is a good quick hit list of slang in an NPR piece on the subject of fiction and jargon. For another list with more slang check out ITS Tactical or pick up a modern military-tactical magazine (the thing you read) for up-to-date gear and its associated language. Another way to understand the mindset or hear the cadence of modern military lingo, check out any number of videos on Youtube. These will give you a sense of character and diversity of modern soldiers, while also showing you the proper operation of many weapons used in stories but never personally handled by authors.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Creativity: No Shame in Films as Writing Inspiration

Fancy yourself a writer? Have a novel or two in the works? Maybe you’ve finished a half dozen short stories. Proud of each finished project and new idea. Yet there is a bit of shame when the more bibliophilic friends or fellow writers ask,”What author or book inspired your love for the genre,” and you answer, “Uh, movies.”

During several panels at writer and reader conferences I’ve attended in recent years I notice the conversation about writing and books is communicated through the vernacular of movies. A panel on ghost stories talked more about Hammer films and classic monster movies than gothic writers. At another conference a panel on spies and soldiers drifted quickly to good portrayals of warriors on film, rather than bringing forward great examples in print. It is not that we all don’t read or know the authors of today or yesterday, but for some reason we are creatures that find it easier to communicate through movies.

So, it’s OK to become a writer of novels and short stories after a lifetime of watching and dissecting movies. Embrace how you got to this creative point, keep reading and looking for new authors, but remain true to how you got here. That is by watching movies. Yet if you feel a bit skittish about film as inspiration, perhaps its time to seek a new level of inspiration in film.

A few more thoughts on movies as authorial inspiration:

Sometimes we come to genre late: Its perfectly acceptable to come to the bookish end of your favored genre later. Movies are often the easier to consume forms of entertainment when we are in our formative creative stages. Growing up I read less than some bookish friend, confining reading to  comic books or pulpy science fiction. My ideas and tutelage on narrative, characters and scene construction were informed by movies. Film is story telling too, perhaps burdened by the stigma of celluloid mass-market, and not something to be looked down by “authors.”

Find a Director: Directors may not write the films you love, but they have a role that is often editorial and always creator of the visuals in storytelling. When I go to the movies a good portion of my discretionary entertainment income I tend to go for the director. When you find a director, see how he or she uses a color pallet or sound design to further their story. Those can be your inspiration cues. Michael Mann’s The Keep, while flawed, is classic modern gothic war-time movie making. Mann also painted a vibrant and beautiful story in his Last of the Mohicans; while his use of blues and cold tones aided in his crime masterpiece, Heat. Opposite Mann but equally creative is John Carpenter, a horror auteur who understand speculative fiction on film better than director. His The Thing and The Fog, as well as the overlooked Prince of Darkness, position Carpenter as a classic inspiration of mine.

Color Pallet and Sound: When watching movies, you may register the tight scripting or great acting, but you subconsciously absorb everything else. For me I make a concious effort to notice the color pallet and sound used by a director. In Mann’s Mohicans amber and earth tones bring the wild to life. In Heat steel, black and blue colors create a cool, precise world. Bring that new appreciate for color to your work and see where it takes you. Same for sound in film, crunch, crackle and gristle often have more of an impact than we appreciate. Watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and listen to the sound effects and design for a feast of sounds. Analyze those sounds, express them in your own words and perhaps your next story will have a new brisance and energy.


 

© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.