Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Keen Observation Skills

by Kelley Lindberg

Keen observation skills. That’s pretty much an essential quality for a writer, right? We observe setting. We observe atmosphere. We observe human nature. We observe conflict and emotion and irony.

But boy, I’d be lousy as a crime scene witness.

Detective: “Can you describe the perpetrator?”

Me: “Um. I think it was a white guy.”

Detective: “Are you sure?”

Me: “Or maybe it was two black women and a Chihuahua.”

Detective: “A Chihuahua?”

Me: “Wait. It might have been a goat.”

My husband is the one with the keen observation skills. He sees someone in a mall and asks if it’s someone I used to work with. I look carefully. “Uh, maybe,” I say. But it probably is someone I used know, because my husband is far better at faces and names than I am. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls into the garage and within the first ten seconds notices that the left front tire on my car is low, the lawn mower has been moved a couple of inches, the birdseed bag is almost empty, and the porch light is on. Me: “We have a porch light?”

So why isn’t he the writer? He remembers details. He notices things out of place. He pays attention. Apparently I just bounce through the world like a pinball, blithely banking off hard surfaces. (Speaking of which, where did this bruise on my shin come from, anyway?)

And yet, when I sit down to write, I can see the entire scene as clearly as if I were standing there (okay, obviously clearer). I can see how the clouds wisp over the mountains, and how the late afternoon haze obscures the horizon. I can trace the grain in the wood of the table where my character is sitting, I can feel the tension lines in my character’s forehead as he puzzles over his latest conflict, and I can make the breeze lift the hair on the back of his neck just so. I know the color of his eyes (coffee) and the length of his palm’s lifeline. I see the pattern knit into his sweater and where his work gloves have nearly worn through a crease at the base of his thumb.

And I can feel everything he feels, from his wildest passion to his tiniest shiver of misgiving.

Some people’s real-life observation skills and memory are like photographs: the lines are sharp, the details vividly clear. Mine are more like an impressionist painting – I feel the shape of things, sense the emotions, absorb the color and texture. The actual, observable details are less meaningful to me than the emotional weight pressing down on someone’s shoulders.

When I write, I try to take all those impressions and create a new picture of the reality I sense is important. Something fresh. Something untried. Something intoxicatingly real.

Just don’t ask me to be a witness in a crime investigation. “He seemed distressed and forlorn” isn’t much help in a lineup.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Writing Rituals

by Kelley Lindberg

Writing rituals are the little tricks we use to talk ourselves into writing. They can take any number of forms: a certain type of music playing in the background, a particular pen, a favorite table at the coffee shop, a symbolic toy or figurine perched by the keyboard.

Like a baseball player's lucky socks, writing rituals can give us a strange sense of detachment, as if the results won't really be our fault. Or they can settle our fears, doing the wordly equivalent of a yoga centering pose to help us channel our energy into our work.

A writing ritual can help train our mind to focus quickly, developing almost a "muscle memory" to drop us into our writing zone fast.

On the other hand, writing rituals can become superstitions, or crutches, that paralyze us if they're missing, giving us handy excuses to delay writing (or avoid it completely).

They can, if we're not careful, begin to flutter around us like small drifts of dead leaves, distracting us from the very thing they're supposed to be helping us do.

So I try to avoid letting writing rituals find me. I confess to preferring to write on my computer than by hand, and in my own home office than out in public, yet I'm writing these words in ink on a small notepad while sitting elbow to elbow with strangers on an airplane somewhere over the Grand Canyon.

As a freelance writer, I've learned that deadlines eliminate the luxury of rituals. Magazine editors don't really care if your muse wasn't feeling especially pampered. Business clients don't understand lucky pens and the problems they can cause when they go missing.

So if you're finding that your writing rituals are beginning to clutter your writing time rather than focusing it, try shaking up your routine.

Go somewhere new to write. Try a new background song. Write without a safety net. Freedom from rituals may be just the new charge of energy your writing needs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Do I Write?

by Kelley Lindberg

Why do I write?

That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? And one we’ve all asked ourselves at some point or another, I’m sure.

Is there a correct answer to that question? I doubt it.

Writing means different things to different people. And more than that, it can mean many different things to each of us.

I write. Of that one thing I am sure.

But why I write is always changing. Sometimes I write to earn money. Sometimes I write to learn something new. Sometimes I write to help out a friend, or a charitable cause, or family member.

I also write because I love writing – a phrase or a sentence will sing its way through my mind like a line of pelicans gliding over water, and I’ll feel compelled to capture it. A character will appear in my head and give me a come-hither look, and I’m seduced. A scene will present itself and I’ll have to write it down or lie awake all night wishing I had.

I write to persuade. I write to apologize. I write to confess, to love, to tease, to please, to play, to mourn.

I’ve tried other passions. I’ve pursued other careers, other hobbies. But I keep coming back to this one. I can’t imagine a time in my life when I won’t be pulling up a blank page and feeling the comfort – the perfect fit – of words appearing where a minute ago there were none.

And I’ve hated writing. I’ve agonized and writhed and hit the Delete key with wild, furious abandon. I’ve felt the acidic little knives of rejection. I’ve despaired of ever putting three words together that anyone but my mom would ever want to read. I’ve taken long vacations from writing. I’ve moved away, changed my address, and screened my calls. But writing still finds me.

And I open my door and welcome it in once more.

It’s an addiction I will never be free from. Nor it from me, I fear.

I write. Of that one thing I am sure.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Buff Up Your Writing with Exercises

by Kelley Lindberg

Writing exercises are the bane of every student’s existence. But they are the favorite playground for many, many professional writers.

Why? Because writing exercises do for your writing skills what physical exercises do for your body.

A muscular build isn’t a “talent” you’re born with. It’s the result of dedication to a routine of exercises that focus on building up every part of your body, bit by bit. You do exercises for your upper leg muscles, your lower leg muscles, your “core,” your arms, your back and waist and buns and middle toe and left earlobe. You do different exercises to tone up your muscles, your heart, and your lungs. You run, you lift weights, you do yoga, you bike, you swim. You dance, ski, rock-climb, play sports, or chase your kids around the park.

And you keep at it. Then one day you realize your body is in pretty good shape, and you finally have the stamina, strength, lung capacity, and know-how to take on a 5K, or a marathon, or a century bike race.

Writing exercises do the same thing for your writing craft.

I have non-writing friends who are surprised to learn that sometimes in my weekly writing group we do writing exercises. It apparently doesn’t occur to non-writers (and, sadly, to newbie writers) that there are ways to improve your craft – that you aren’t just born with genius-level writing skills. They are astounded to learn that writing skills can be enhanced by doing writing exercises, just like our bodies benefit from physical exercise. And what’s more, if you don’t stretch and work those writing muscles, they’ll wither away or atrophy from neglect.

No one wants their writing to be pasty, flabby, and weak. And let’s not even think about writing that shamelessly displays love handles and beer bellies. Not a pretty picture.

Just like with physical exercises, we can buff up our writing by targeting our exercises to individual muscle groups, like dialogue, character, description, or conflict. Then we can do whole-body exercises that work on problems like growth arcs and theme. And let’s not forget those “toning” exercises that perfect our voice.

I know some writers that do a short writing exercise every morning, just to get their creative juices flowing before they start writing their novel (the writing equivalent of stretching before a run). Other writers, like me, do them less frequently but target them to problems we’re having that week. Maybe I’ll focus on doing some character exercises if I have an antagonist who’s just not sounding authentic enough.

Where do you find writing exercises? Well, I post a new writing prompt or exercise every week in this blog. But there are plenty of websites with writing exercises, and there are seemingly unlimited shelves of excellent writing books chock-full of exercises. Go hang out in your local bookstore’s reference section and thumb through several until you find one that has exercises that make sense to you. Donald Maas, Natalie Goldberg, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Dufresne, John Truby…these are just a handful of writers who have produced writing craft books with helpful exercises (and they’re all on my shelf). But just because I like one doesn’t mean it will speak to you, so you have to find one that really grabs your imagination so that you’ll actually feel like doing the exercises (instead of just reading about them, which works about as well as reading about running).

Your body (of work) will thank you for it.