Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Neil Gaiman’s Words of Wisdom August 22, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 7:10 PM
Tags: , ,

On tumblr, someone recently sent Neil Gaiman a question about writing and received a – in my opinion – perfect answer.


I’ve had a lot of moments when I wonder if I’m insane for wanting to write. I’m smart. I’ve done well in school. I could get a job in chemistry or teaching or a million other things if I wanted them. Instead I’m chasing after an English degree with only a hazy idea of what lies beyond. I’m turning away from the paved road with multiple checkpoints and a McDonalds in the distance, instead trotting down the crooked muddy lane emblazoned with ‘here there be monsters’. Maybe I am crazy.

But I can’t stop. (That’s a sign of insanity, right?) There’s something about language that is beautiful. I experience a ridiculous feeling of excitement and joy when I come across a sentence or paragraph or story that’s written just right. The words flow, the images pop, the rhythm moves along… it’s how language is meant to sound. The idea that we can use words to reach into those dark, inexpressible parts of ourselves and outline them on paper is fascinating to me. I’ll never stop loving beautifully written lines (I keep track of them in a little notebook, even), and I will always keep trying to make them myself. All the pain and awkward sentences and embarrassment and late nights and despair melt away when you finally write something perfectly. It’s a feeling like no other for me, probably the same thrill an athlete gets when they make a goal. It’s the biggest accomplishment I can imagine – to say what I mean to say and to say it well.

I think Gaiman’s right – in a sense, writers never grow up. We retain that childlike instinct to ask “why” and “why not”, to make up stories and play make believe and ask why the world isn’t a different way. We just fingerpaint with keyboards now instead of that slippery washable paint that dried in funny ways.

Moral of the story (and this meandering travesty of a post)? If you want to write, write. We’ll be insane kids together.

We’re all mad here.


Research: If, When, How? July 18, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:07 AM
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday I was watching the news when a brief clip about urban vehicle auctions came up. It turns out that the government doesn’t really want unclaimed, stolen, abandoned, or seized cars. Instead, they auction them off, sometimes at extremely low prices. Many independent buyers and dealership owners frequent these auctions looking for a good deal. The car you get could come from anywhere, be owned by anyone.

It’s probably a testament to my writer’s (and slightly crazy) mind that my thought process immediately flowed this way:

Someone could get a car that was used in something illegal. Or owned by someone illegal. What if they were some spy hunted by a gang? Or someone on a mobster’s hit list? What if the people going after them recognized the car and came after the new owner?

Whoops. Plot idea.

Most stories – whether fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, romance, or whatever – need some element of research. It might be simply understanding how urban vehicle auctions work. Or it might be working out the subtleties of an entire counterpart culture. No matter what, I usually need to pull up Wikipedia (don’t tell my teachers) at least once while writing a rough draft. That brings me to the point of this post. When is the best time to do research?

Chris Baty’s guide to NaNo – No Plot? No Problem! – suggests leaving a space to come back and fill in later. That’s all very well if you’re rushing to the end of the month and 50,000 words. Otherwise, you’ll probably not want to leave important facts hanging. The answers to simple questions like “What do Frenchmen eat for breakfast?” might become vital plot points.

When not NaNoing, there are three major schools of thought on research. The first write until they reach a point where they need to know something. Then they stop and look it up before continuing on their merry way.

The second group researches intensely beforehand, finding out everything they can. Then they plug the information in as they need it.

The third group mixes these two ideas together. They research broad ideas and important facts beforehand, but discover new areas that need study later. I tend to operate this way. If I’m working on a counterpart culture for a fantasy novel – building the customs and geography of an entire country – I’ll do heavy research beforehand. I spend most of my research time working on world-building. Other minor details – how many stories in the average skyscraper, how vaccines are made, etc – come up and are resolved while I’m writing.

How many stories? Let’s get counting.

What about you? Which type of research works the best? Are there ways you think are more or less efficient?


Artist’s Envy June 7, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:32 AM
Tags: , , , , ,

Does this happen to you?

I read a poem/short story/novel and feel in awe. It’s excellent. They use images that would never occur to me but fit perfectly. They write in a style that flows, that’s haunting and beautiful. They’re great. Amazing. And not me.

I’m sure writer’s envy strikes us all. (At least I hope I’m not the only one who experiences bouts of crippling insecurity.) Someone is always better than me with their flow, imagery, action, voice, etc. I’ll sometimes have difficulty appreciating someone else’s work without beating down my own. It’s like I’ve got it in my head that talent has limited capacities, that it has to be rationed and divided and you can’t change the portions.

This happened to a friend of mine with art. She’s trying to get into a higher art class, and she has to provide a portfolio of her work. When trying to make it, she found herself stuck. Everyone else’s art looked better than hers. She hated everything she drew. She was a failure. Not good enough. Awful. She would never get better. (See the cycle of negative thinking here?)

We tried to console her by telling her that her art was great, that you couldn’t compare stuff like that. “Yes you can,” she insisted. “You can make bad art.”

My contribution was “Everyone has a different style. Only you can make your art.”

I don’t know if she took it to heart, but I did. I’ll often think another style is better simply because it’s different. I write my way, so it feels tired and dull. Every new angle is shiny and enticing. But it probably works both ways.

Does bad art exist? Maybe. There’s a difference between style and craft. Craft can be wrong. Style can’t. Still, if the craft/technique needs work, the artist is learning. They’re not a failure.

Seeing that she was still upset, I wrote this: “The answer is write. Or in your case, make art. Make lots of it. Don’t care if it’s good or bad or whatever. It’s yours. You have art in you that only you can make. Channel your feelings. Channel your insecurities. I wrote a poem about not feeling good enough. Make art about it. Make everything into art.”

When it comes down to it, no one can steal your spotlight. You have a story inside that only you can tell. So find your style, brush up your craft, and tell it.


Blocked? June 5, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:53 PM
Tags: , ,

Hi. I’m the creative part of your brain right now.

Writer’s block is overrated.

I believe it exists. I believe that sometimes the words won’t come and you can’t get your mind right and it sucks. But I also believe that it doesn’t happen as often as we think. When we’re lazy, or tired, or bored, we don’t want to admit that we just don’t feel like working. It’s easier to blame writer’s block. So we do.

It’s hard to be completely bereft of ideas. If I’m stuck on something, I try to make myself move to something else. Novel, poem, short story, blog post. It doesn’t matter. The idea is to write, no matter what. (You’d be surprised how many of these posts are born when I don’t want to edit.)

I have days where I set everything up – find my editing pen, lay out my pages, boot up my computer – and can’t bring myself to lift a finger. That’s not writer’s block. It’s laziness. If even chores seem preferable, I do the chores. I eat a snack. Check Facebook. Then I drag myself back to my story and make myself work.

If you’ve tried moving around and tried taking a break and trying to write still feels like staring down a brick wall, congratulations. You may actually have writer’s block.

Good luck.


Chasing Butterflies June 1, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 12:43 PM
Tags: , ,

Ideas can come from anywhere. In some interviews I’ve read, authors insist that they don’t know where they get their plots and characters. Others recount long stories describing the source of their inspiration.

For me, the best ideas come from combinations. It’s like a chemical reaction. Stories I’ve read, things I’ve seen, snatches of conversation, images… they bounce around, reacting with one another to form new and interesting products. Sometimes I get a flash of catalytic inspiration where lines and phrases pop up without any effort. At other times I have to let things stew, jotting down ideas before they fade away again, trying to salvage solids from a mess of solution.

I think I’ve written here before not to let those flashes of inspiration mislead you. Often they’re mirages – lush and inviting at first, but fading away as you approach. Then you either shuffle back to the project you abandoned or chase another imagined oasis on the horizon. Too much jumping from idea to idea ensures that you’ll never get anything done.

However, sometimes things have to be written. A perfect paragraph or poem that writes itself is like a butterfly. (Getting metaphor overload yet?) If you don’t capture it right away, it’ll fly off and you’ll be left with an indistinct memory. Even though I typically advise caution and prefer meticulously outlining my thoughts, it can be exciting and rewarding to race across the landscape chasing butterflies.

This happened to me last night. Several stories I’d read lined up, a few phrases melding together. I mixed together current event snippets I read in the paper, the image of a little kid with broken eyes, and the question: When you’re born, are you living or dying?  These all coalesced into a few lines of text. Immediately, I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing. I didn’t know who the peaker was, who they were talking to, or why. As the words  kept coming, I found out bits and pieces. It was a new experience for me .I’m used to knowing everything before I start to write. Typically I scoff at people who say they have to get to know their characters. You make your characters. This time, though, it was different. I had no idea who this person was or what they had to say. I was just along for the ride.

What resulted was a rather weird, improperly punctuated flash that reads more like slam poetry than anything else. It’s different from most of the stuff I write. Maybe I’ll play around with it later. Maybe it’ll rot away in my desk drawer. I don’t know. But I followed the butterfly and tried something new, which was a lot of fun. Don’t be afraid, once in a while, to let the inspiration take over and see where it leads you.


What’s in a Name? July 27, 2011

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 9:29 PM
Tags: ,

Names are a vital part of a story. It’s true you can get used to pretty much anything, but the right name makes an impression. I doubt ‘Eugene Phineas Potter’ would be quite as popular as ‘Harry Potter’. Just my opinion, of course.

My point is, I agonize for ages trying to pinpoint the exact right name for a character. Several times, I’ve switched names halfway through a work, or even christened a character ‘IDK’ and run a Find and Replace once I came up with a better label. But this post isn’t about not having names. It’s about finding them. Here are a few of the places I get my names:

1. Off the top of my head. That’s where a lot of my writing comes from – pure imagination. It’s probably all fueled by subconscious bits and bobs, but it feels like I just made it up. Sometimes a name just appears and sticks. This is rare, and I love it.

2.  I can’t describe how much I love this place. With the advanced search, I can plug in what letters I want the name to start with, how popular I want it to be, what ethnic background it has, and even what it means. I have gotten loads of names off this place.

3. People I know. After experiencing my fellow human beings, certain names gain certain connotations in my mind. Michaels are flighty, Courtneys are eccentric, and if I ever have a twisted, deranged character, he’s named Kevin for sure. Of course, these names are derived from my personal experience and so don’t have the same impact on any other reader. Still, I like them – like little Easter eggs hidden just for me.

These are the majority of the places I get character names. Where do you find names for character in books or stories? I’d love to get new sources.


The Idea Tree July 18, 2011

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 1:49 PM
Tags: , ,

I think everyone has had this happen to them. You’re a kid, you’re in the store, and you see something you want. You tug on your mom or dad’s arm and say, “Can I have that?”

“No, sweetie,” your parent responds. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”

It’s a rather odd image. Why don’t they say, “We don’t have much money”? Or “Money doesn’t fall out of the sky.” Why on earth would it grow on trees? (Actually, I believe our dollar bills contain cotton, so technically, money grows on bushes.)

Anyway, I’m here to inform you that ideas don’t grow on trees either. But never fear – they appear everywhere else. For most writers, ideas are not the problem. The problem is writing all of them in full. Here’s a list of just some of the places I get my ideas:

1. Dreams. A delightful romp through the subconscious mind can create all sorts of fun scenarios. Unfortunately, dream situations often make sense to us while we’re in them, but be completely ridiculous. To avoid working myself into a story that’s just plain crazy, I will jot the dream into a notebook and let it settle for a week before checking to see if it’s plausible.

2. Life. This is quite a broad category. People, places, events… all of these can spark ideas. I usually don’t write something that closely parallels my real life, but I’ll borrow bits and pieces. Next year’s NaNo (I’ve gone through five ideas so far, but this one’s a keeper) was inspired by a friend’s predicament. I used to say that every character I write is some split personality version of me. After all, I dreamed them up.

3. Media. Everything I read, watch, or hear influences me, whether I want it to or not. I’m almost a style/voice chameleon – after reading a book, I’ll find my thoughts mimicking the author’s style for a couple of hours. Books especially can give me ideas – I might read a historical novel and decide it would be neat to set a story in the past, or see a story done badly and think of how it could be done better.

4. Phrases. Just a few words can spark an idea. Strange Bedfellows actually started with the sentence ‘My roommate is going to kill me.’ I then tried to figure out why this would be the case, asking myself questions and answering them to build an entire world from one idea.

For me, at least, ideas are the easiest part of the story. It’s finding time to write all of them that’s the problem.