Overcoming Obstacles

There was another article in The Florida Writer (February 2016) which caught my attention: ‘Overcoming the 10 Biggest Obstacles to Creating’ by Leo Babauta.  Leo is a blogger and author of The Power of Less and Zen to Done.  His blog zenhabits.net has a million readers.

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Leo Babauta

Here are some excerpts:

  1.  Distractions: we all face the problem of distractions and we all give in to them.  The only way to overcome them is to clear them away with a clean sweep: turn off your phone, bookmark all your browser tabs, close it and all other programs, and open only the program you need for creating.
  2.  Fantasies about how easy and nice the creating will be.  Creating is not easy.  It’s hard and messy . . . but still great, and we should be thankful for the opportunity to create.
  3.  Fear of failure: putting ourselves out there is scary, and not being good at something is frightening as hell.  But how do you ever get to be good if you don’t try? . . . So to get us through the not-great times, we have to have fun, embrace what comes, and allow ourselves to play.
  4.  Discomfort with the difficulty/confusion.  It’s uncomfortable to do something that’s confusing and filled with difficulty when we don’t know for sure what we’re doing.  The only way I’ve learned to overcome this is to sit there and just feel the discomfort.  . . . And just sit.  I’ll feel the discomfort.  It’s not that bad, and I realise that I’ll be OK
  5.  Perfectionism:  We want things to be great, so we nitpick and are unhappy with the results.  It stops us from actually creating.  So we need to smash through perfectionism and get back into the habit of just putting imperfect stuff out there.  I do this by not allowing myself to edit before I publish a blog post.  I just publish, tweet it, and then go back and edit.
  6. The urge to switch.  As you’re trying to write, you’ll get the urge to switch to something else: check email, check social media, check the news, clean the kitchen.  Set a timer; don’t let yourself switch to anything else until the timer is up.  Let your mind complain, but don’t give it anywhere to run.
  7.  Interruptions: I write in a house full of kids.  I just tell them I need to write for an hour (or whatever) and plug in some headphones.  Or I get out of the house and go somewhere with solitude.
  8.  Not enough time.  We’re all busy.  Who has the time to focus for an hour or two.  Well, forget about an hour.  Just  do it for five minutes.
  9. Being tired: It’s impossible to focus and work hard when you’re tired, right? Wrong!  You can do it if you really want to.  So, ask yourself this: why do you want to create?  Is it important enough to push through tiredness?  If not, just forget it.
  10.  Negative self-talk:  We tell ourselves: “I can’t do this”, or “I can do this later.”  This kind of self-talk, often unnoticed, can be defeating.  So how do we counter it?  By paying attention.  Shine some light on it.  But don’t give in!

At the bottom of the page in The Florida Writer is a quote from Jodi Picoult: “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.  If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it.  You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page.  You can’t edit a blank page.”  Jodi Lynn Picoult ( born May 19, 1966) is an American author. She was awarded the New England Bookseller Award for fiction in 2003.  Picoult currently has approximately 14 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

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Jodi Picoult

To the above sage advice I would add two points of my own:

  • Start the next hard part before quitting; don’t quit in the transition.  If the next section of your work is a little different, and you’re not sure how to begin it, don’t leave it to be started when your mood isn’t positive.  Start it when you’re on a roll.
  • Try to live up to an output objective.  In my case it’s one page of quality text every day.  If I fall behind, I try to catch up and I like to stay ahead of target.

The Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading

This article, by Paula Munier, appeared in the recent edition of The Florida Writer.  She says that as a reader, a writer and an agent, she reads thousands of stories a year, or at least the opening pages.  And the reason she often stops reading is a lack of narrative thrust.

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Paula Munier

She goes on to say: “Narrative thrust is the taut building of a story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, using the complexities of plot an character to propel the story forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax.  You must write each scene to that it logically leads to the next as if you were connecting a model train, car by car. . .

“Narrative thrust provides momentum for a story; it’s the gas that fuels your story’s engine. . . . Just think of the last story that kept you up all night, the last novel you couldn’t read fast enough and yet didn’t want to end.  But, recognizing narrative thrust as a reader and knowing how to create it as a writer are two very different things.

She talks then about Story Questions and says that they are posed at macro, meso and micro levels, and that the job of a writer is to build them all into your prose.  “A macro story question is the big question that drives the entire plot: Will Cinderella marry her prince?  The meso story question drives each scene: Will Cinderella’s step mother let her go to the ball once she’s finished her chores?  And micro questions are scattered through the narrative at every opportunity – the more the better.”  She uses this example from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: ‘The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. (Where is the house going?)  Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.  (What will happen to Dorothy?)’

“Just as important is pacing, the rate of your narrative thrust.  Pacing is the gait of your storytelling – and a slow horse is a dead horse.  The very word ‘pacing’ has become a touchstone in the industry today; if I had a dollar for every editor who complained publicly or privately about so-called ‘pacing problems’ plaguing today’s submissions, I’d have a lot more dollars – and a lot more deals. “

She recommends these do’s and don’t’s regarding pacing:

Do:

  1. Make things happen!
  2. Have your protagonist drive the action.  When the hero is passive or inactive, the reader’s interest lags.
  3. Raise the stakes for your heroine: give her bigger obstacles to overcome as the story progresses
  4. Add a ticking clock if possible: if he doesn’t find the bomb by 2 pm, it goes off!
  5. Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.
  6. Do aim for clarity.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t confuse foreshadowing and forecasting.  In foreshadowing, you use tone and style to create a mood or evoke a feeling to help create suspense.  Forecasting tells the reader what’s going to happen and eliminates suspense.
  2. Don’t tell the reader that something is going to happen before it happens: “If he had know then that his life would change . . .”  It destroys the suspense.
  3. Don’t belabor the descriptions.  Stick to one telling detail.
  4. Don’t let your characters talk too much.   Dialogue should not replace action.

I agree with most of what Ms Munier says.  I would point out that A God in Ruins, which I reviewed in a previous post, skips around in time so that one scene does not build on another directly.  But, as I said in the review, this technique works because Kate Atkinson uses it to build suspense.  It isn’t necessary to tell the story 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.  It can also be told effectively  2, 3, 1, 4.  The point about descriptions: this is a tricky one.  I have noticed that recent prize-winning novels do not stick to the ‘one detail’ rule.  In some cases the descriptions are quite lengthy and detailed but the writing is beautiful – almost poetic and a joy to read.  So I think that if you’re going to offer more than one detail, make sure it’s captivating!

Review: So Much for That

This novel attracted my attention as it is written by Lionel Schriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005 and which has sold over one million copies in twenty-five languages. Lionel Schriver wrote seven novels before Kevin, which she called her ‘make or break’ creation after seven years of professional disappointment and ‘virtual obscurity’. Six of her seven novels were published; one failed to find a publisher. Since Kevin, Ms Schriver has written five novels, including So Much for That, which was published in 2010. She is an inspiration to all of us novelists who feel that our creations have not received the deserved recognition.

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Lionel Schriver

So Much for That’s principal character, Shep Knacker, is an entrepreneurial handyman, who is both skilled and likeable. He is able to sell his New York City-based business for one million dollars, and his plan is to move his wife Glynis, his son Zach, and his daughter Amelia to Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania to live her rest of their lives in low-cost, stress-free comfort. Glynis, though she has been involved in numerous searches around the world to find the perfect place for their ‘Afterlife’, has doubts. Just as she is being confronted with a decision to go or to stay, she is diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Escape to Pemba has to be postponed while Glynis undergoes months of treatment. The American healthcare system being what it is, Shep’s nest egg is gradually depleted by co-insurance payments and invoices for un-covered treatments. In order to keep the insurance he has, Shep must continue on the payroll of his prior company, under the unsympathetic supervision of the new owner. Glynis finds that the likely cause of her cancer is exposure to asbestos, with which she had contact in her metal-working hobby. She decides to sue the company which made the asbestos products. Just as Shep is on the verge of bankruptcy, Glynis wins her case and the money received covers an Afterlife in Pemba.

There are several other characters, including Shep’s friend, Jackson, who engages in diatribes against the Mooches (the freeloaders) and the systems that lets them take advantage of the Mugs. Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, who suffers from a horrible, terminal, childhood illness is a vehicle, along with Glynis, for debating the value of human life. There are doctors of doubtful honesty with their patients. And there are decisions about whether to be a Mooch or a Mug.

So Much for That is an entertaining story. It is human, sad, funny, heroic, and, and it is difficult to put down. I felt, at times, though, that the author was lecturing me about the dreadful state of healthcare in the US, and other assorted inequities in life. Several characters, including Flicka, and Shep’s sister, Beryl, are so polarised that one tends to lose what sympathy we should have for them. At the outset, I found it difficult to buy into Shep’s vision of the Afterlife; acceptance of his vision came when his troubles grew acute. Occasionally, I found the text somewhat oblique. For example: “It was disconcerting to be systematically punished for what might have engendered a modicum of gratitude.” Why not say: “He was annoyed to be punished for acts of kindness”? Sometimes, for me, the dialogue didn’t ring true, but perhaps I am being too picky.

 

I liked So Much for That. It makes some very important points about what is to be human: what’s good about our humanity and what’s not so good.

Review: A God in Ruins

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been out of the office: my PC has been neglected, but I’ve done some reading.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is without a doubt the best book I’ve read in a long time, and it’s easy to see why it won last year’s Costa Book Award.  In fact, the judges called it, “Utterly magnificent and in a class of its own.  A genius book.”

The author has some pretty heavy-weight credentials.  Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year in 1995 with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series.  Her last novel, Life After Life, was the winner of the 2013 Costa Novel Award.  She was appointed MBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

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Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is the story of Teddy Todd, a would-be poet, lover of the countryside, and heroic bomber pilot during World War II.  The story begins in 1925 and zig-zags back and forth in time until its conclusion in 2012.  As the number of his completed combat missions piles up, Teddy does not expect to see the ‘Afterwards’ in which he will become a husband and a father.  Throughout the story, he faces life as it is without complaints about lost opportunities, heartbreak, or feelings un-expressed.  He is surrounded by the characters of his own family and by some of the family who are neighbours.

The writing is captivating and tight; there is no excess baggage here even though the book runs to over 500 pages.  The characters are distinct, and the story line never lags.  What most impressed me about the novel was the authenticity of the descriptions of flying bombing missions in a Halifax, but then, at the end of the book is a three page bibliography of sources.  Ms Atkinson did a lot of research!  I understand why it too two years to write this novel.  There is an interesting device she used which turns fiction on its head.  Fascinating!  But I’m not going to give it away.  Sometimes I felt slightly put off by the broken chronology, but in reading the book over a period of days, I began to feel that it was building nicely to a conclusion.  This is a novel which fully engages both one’s emotions and one’s beliefs.

Review: The Meursault Investigation

This novel, written by Kamel Daoud, reveals the hidden side of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger.  In The Stranger, Camus has his principal character, Meursault, shoot and kill a nameless Arab for no apparent reason other than possible disorientation from sunstroke.  In The Meursault Investigation, Daoud names the murdered Arab as ‘Musa’ (Moses), and considers the implications of the murder from the viewpoint of Musa’s brother ‘Harun’ (Aaron).

Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher, an ‘absurdist’ who held that human life is absurd.  He was also regarded as an existentialist (he disagreed) and a pacifist.  He was born in 1913, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, and died in 1960.  In The Stranger, which was published in 1942, Camus used the murder of the nameless Arab for no reason as an example of the absurdity of human life.

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oman.  His background is similar to that of Camus: French-speaking, Algerian writer and philosopher. The Mersualt Investigation is Daoud’s first novel, published in 2015, and it has been recognised with several prizes in France.

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Kamel Daoud

In The Mersault Investigatiom, Harun is in a bar in Oman reflecting morosely on his brother, his mother and the book by the listener’s hero (Camus).  Included in his reflections are thoughts on Algeria, its people and its relationship to France.  The tone of the book is pessimistic and its conclusions are ambiguous (much like the tone and content of The Stranger).  One is left with the impression that there can be no God, and that life itself can have no meaning.

This is not an enjoyable book to read, because of its pessimistic philosophy, and because nothing conclusive arises from its reflective monologue.  No new ‘facts’ emerge about any of the characters, except that Musa was a real person who was loved by his mother and close the the heart of his younger brother.  Still, one has the impression that The Mersault Investigation is a classic in the absurdist philosophical tradition.  If you liked Camus’ writing, you will certainly appreciate Daoud’s.  He has created a well-written philosophical sequel to one of Camus’ great works.