Category Archives: Writing

Creative Borrowing

In my post Writing with Creative Constraints, I confessed the following:

“In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. “

Confession? Nothing to feel guilty about. After all, nothing new under the sun, right? Besides, since there are only seven basic stories, every work of fiction is only a variation or combination of them. So creative borrowing is simply what we writers do. Look at Star Wars. It’s just another space opera/fantasy/western/World War II/heroic quest tale.

Even the best look to other authors for inspiration. Take William Shakespeare, for example. The Cultural Tutor has compiled the source materials for all 38 of the Bard’s plays, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Titus Andronicus. So recycle those borrowed ideas with abandon, but don’t forget to infuse your creation with your own special style .

Writing with Creative Constraints

Dashiel Carrera, author of The Deer, has some great advice for beating writer’s block: Realize that every work of art requires constraints of some kind:

For writers, it may be the case that the magic of creative constraints doesn’t lie in the constraints themselves but in the ways in which they counteract some deleterious impulse. The creative constraint may also be a means of helping writers understand the wants and needs of a particular project. Certainly for the five projects in this collection—spanning the genres of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—creative constraints elucidated the shifting boundaries that circumscribed the writing process, and revealed a path forward.

This reminds me of one of my favorite aphorisms from Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I firmly believe this. In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. Too much freedom can get in your way, blinding you to possibilities.

The result? I’ve signed a contract with one publisher, and have submitted two additional manuscripts to other venues, pieces I believe are some of the best work I’ve ever done. (One, by the way, was sent to another publisher rather than the one who proposed the theme. Just another example of how writers find inspiration where they can!)

Creative constraints are everywhere, not just in themes mandated by publishers. The genre you write in imposes its own unique constraints, requiring you to invent fresh ways to work within or around them. A worthy challenge sharpens your craft, makes you approach your project in unexpected and original ways. And of course the form you choose (poetry, essay, novel, etc.) also provides creative constraints. As Robert Frost once put it, writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Obstacles bring out the best in us.

Quote of the day

image by David Shankbone

“Life, even on a quiet day, happens so densely and quickly around us and most of it is about seeing, feeling and thinking in a not-strictly verbal way. Writing translates all of this into words but paradoxically the most powerful writing uses words in a way that transcends language to become more true to life; it mimics how we live in a world that is constantly changing and moving before our eyes.”

Mary Gaitskill

How to Write Flash Fiction Crash Course

Puzzled by endless rejections? Unsure what editors are looking for? Are you still letting yourself be misled by those pernicious and persistent writing myths?

Don’t feel bad. It’s not just newbies who are letting themselves be held back by those myths.

Here’s a great introduction to the unique challenge of writing flash fiction. This FREE (!) course reveals the real reasons editors accept and reject manuscripts. (Hint: It’s not what you think.) It also includes guidance in choosing a POV for your next story, as well as time-tested principles in crafting relatable characters and compelling plots.

Enjoy!

Quote of the day

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn knew the human heart well. This insight explains why the bad guy who sees himself as the good guy makes a more believable antagonist. The mustache-twirling villain seeking world domination because that’s what villains do makes boring reading. When both the protagonist and antagonist have to deal with internal and external conflict, the reader feels like a miner panning for gold. We want to discover characters with depth, characters who are capable of surprise and even winning our sympathy.

The Monster behind the mask

Stephen King
Stephen King

One of the few writing books I keep on my desk is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s really two separate works. The second half offers one of the most concise and useful guides to clear, lively writing ever written.

But it begins with a short bio of the author, a life story I was not previously aware of. Despite (because of?) his success, Mr. King grappled with both alcohol and drug addiction. Though he didn’t overcome these problems until a forceful intervention by fed-up friends and family, he did deal with his addictions the best he could. As he puts it, a part of him recognized the problem: “It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters.” (On Writing, p. 96)

The Shining and The Tommyknockers express how that part of his psyche regarded his addiction. But Misery, in my opinion, is a more profound and revealing image of addiction. Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse who both idolizes and tortures the protagonist, symbolizes cocaine, which makes you feel good at first but extracts a heavy toll.

Notice that the protagonists in all three novels are writers. Hmm.

Other authors have imagined monsters as symbols for their deepest wounds. In The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft, a marvelous account of Lovecraft’s posthumous rise to celebrity, S. T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s monsters “were not to be taken literally but as symbols for the philosophical conceptions he sought to convey.” (p. 283) Lovecraft’s gods and demons have no regard for puny humans. A self-described man of “extreme sensitiveness,” Lovecraft long nursed an aching nostalgia for lost innocence and shattered ideals, victims of an impersonal, cold universe. His tales of isolation, despair, and creeping terror reflect his view of the uncaring forces that control human destiny.

A similar dynamic is evident in Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s classic. Levin did not believe in devils, but his most famous novel uses Satan as a symbol of the real evil people commit out of greed. Rosemary is not only lied to by people she trusts, but is betrayed by her own husband, who allows her to be raped for his own personal gain. Treachery is the ultimate evil, which Dante believed to merit punishment in the ninth circle of hell. I imagine Levin would have agreed.