It’s an odd thing, but one of the best techniques I know for keeping my bottom in the chair and my mind on the page is setting a timer. It’s as if my brain knows it doesn’t have to think about or do anything else for that short burst of time, that its only job is to write.
And by golly, it works.
These days, I set the timer on my iPhone for 30 minutes, and I am almost always surprised when it buzzes, because I’m so deep in the work. If you’re prone to distraction from your phone’s beeps and buzzes, turn it off or tuck it in a drawer and use a kitchen timer. I landed on 25 minutes almost by accident—20 seemed too short, 30 too long—and only later discovered that the time management expert who developed the Pomodoro Technique advocates 25 minute sessions. (Why pomodoro? It’s Italian for tomato and he uses, and sells, a tomato-shaped timer.) Now that I’ve done this for a while, 30 minutes is just right.
Give yourself no more than 5 minutes for a break. Do a few deliberate stretches, pee, refill your coffee or water, sit back down, set the timer, and forget it. Don’t go online until your day’s writing session is over. Any longer break, or one that engages your attention in any significant way, will break the connection between your conscious and subconscious minds and disrupt the flow.
I often talk here about the importance to writers of reading as a writer, of developing the ability to identify why a book or essay or poem has a particular effect. When you begin to understand the power of certain tools, you can decide how, or whether, to use them in your own work.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US. We’ve all heard recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and we know that part of their power came from his delivery—his voice, his use of dynamics, his pauses and gestures. But you can feel the power even when you read the words on the page, as my college rhetoric professor, a wonderful old Jesuit, showed me 40 years ago. Smarter people than I have dissected King’s use of rhetorical devices—the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is particularly noteworthy—and their research is worth a closer look. Let me pique your interest with a quick look at three commonly-quoted lines.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — The two key phrases, “injustice anywhere” and “justice anywhere,” are parallel in structure, but justice is contrasted against injustice, and the change from anywhere to everywhere uses parallel, rhyme, and contrast, emphasized by the potent phrase “a threat” in between. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Another powerful example of parallels and contrast. “The time is always right to do what is right.” — This short line combines two cliches, but takes its power from contrast, through the use of the wo different meanings of the simple word “right.”
Think about how you use contrast and parallel structure in your sentences. Dialogue and scene and chapter endings offer lots of opportunities to use these tools. A common tool in revision is to identify the strongest line of dialogue and make sure everything else leads to it. Can you give that line even more punch with rhetorical devices—the ones I’ve mentioned or others? What about the last line in a scene or chapter, which sums up the action and creates a turning point? How can you use rhetorical structure to make sure the reader keeps reading? As you read or listen to Dr. King’s speeches today, and as you hear other speeches in the days ahead,listen as a writer.
In my Building Character class, one of the tools I describe is the free write, an exercise to delve deeper into a character. Use it with a character who is not forthcoming about their experiences, one who is very different from you, or even one you know well. In writing the stand-alone currently circulating with publishers, I used a free-write session with the main character who is in many ways much like me but whose particular motivation wasn’t clear on the page. I’ve also used it in revision, as with the forthcoming Bitterroot Lake, when my editor suggested that the killer’s motivation needed more depth. I combined a free-write with some emotional research to delve deeper and even found the basis for another scene I knew I needed but had resisted adding because I didn’t know what the story needed.
A student new to the concept asked how to get started. The keys are to write by hand, write in first person, and open yourself to the voice and experience of that character.
Why by hand? Grapho-therapist Jamie Mason Cohen said in an interview that “[w]hen you write by hand, the act itself slows you down, resulting in single-tasking and focused concentration on what you’re doing in the moment and fully present.”
I believe that free-writing these snippets of our characters’ inner lives by hand frees our creativity by creating a direct link to the subconscious. It frees us from judgment. This same effect comes from writing in first person, in the voice of the character we’re exploring, even if the story itself is in third, or in first but in the voice of a different character. For a few minutes—five to twenty—you’re giving that character a chance to speak directly to you. To tell you their story. You may not use it all on the page, but you’ll learn details and detect emotions that will help you understand that character, their emotional responses to the story events, and what they do as a result. In other words, this simple exercise will advance both characterization and plot
Try asking yourself a some questions, almost like a guided meditation. One of my favorites for mystery and crime writers comes from my friend Ramona DeFelice Long, a writer and editor, who called it channeling your inner OJ. You’ll remember that after OJ Simpson was acquitted of double murder, he claimed to be in search of the real killer and wrote a book called If I Did It, giving a hypothetical description of the murders and how and why they might have occurred. Talk to your suspect and let him or her tell you how and why they might have done it. Pay particular attention to the why, their motivation, and see what surprises they reveal.
Other prompts to ask your character, writing for at least five minutes: What I most want is… If I don’t get this, I will … The thing that stands in my way is… What I am most afraid of is…
This week, I recorded a short video (really short!) as part of Sisters in Crime’s SINC-Up series of writing tips. My topic: emotional research. Watch it here.
In the unedited version, I also suggested talking with people who have had the experience you’re writing about, if you can, or folks who work with it professionally; and searching out articles, personal accounts, and other resources. In the example I gave, from my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, I found guides online for teachers and school counselors that were enormously helpful.
“It’s not about having a background that lines up with the characters you’re writing about, I realized. That’s not the responsibility of the fiction writer. Instead, you have the responsibility to be sympathetic—to have empathy. And the responsibility to be knowing – to understand, or at least desire to understand, the people you write about. … [Y]ou have to write something true by at least having a baseline of empathy before you start writing it. …
“Readers only balk at writers depicting people who aren’t like them when it feels like the characters are types. It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and 3-dimensional characters that people start to say, What right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.”
— novelist Angela Flournoy in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)
I wrote about the importance of reading like a writer a few months ago, but today I want to suggest that over the next week or two, you should just read because you love it. Read because it feeds your soul and reminds you why you write. Read because you’ve been reading since you were five or six years old and few things connect you to who you really, truly are than a good book. Read not because you want to learn how Elizabeth George handles shifts in POV (masterfully), how Laura Lippman writes the modern noir in Sunburn, or how Ken Follett makes building a cathedral fascinating—although it’s perfectly fine to notice those things, and even to make a few notes for your own WIP. Read to get lost in a book, to forget what time of day it is or where you are. Read to meet new people, eat new food, explore a new community, and find out what happens, as my friend Barbara Ross says in her “cozy covenant.”
I promise, if you take a little extra time during this holiday season to read for pure joy, you’ll return to the WIP invigorated and inspired.
“Given the ways in which race works in this country, and in the West in general, it actually becomes a radical political statement to introduce blackness into the consciousness of the reader without explanation or announcement. In this way, my characters are not measured over or against whiteness, or understood as a reflection of whiteness. They are simply themselves. The hardest thing about writing, I think, is observing properly. But more and more, I think, it’s what makes a piece of writing good.”
—Ayana Mathis, in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)
My favorite writing blog—it may be the only one I still subscribe to—is a group blog called Writer Unboxed, subtitled “about the craft and business of fiction.” Founded by novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, it’s a group blog with more than thirty regular contributors along with a cast of occasional contributors and guests, offering posts on craft, business, and inspiration. The craft posts are detailed—agent and teacher Don Maass, for example, raises a provocative topic then offers specific questions for you to ask yourself about your WIP. Novelist and teacher David Corbett writes often about character, and I’ve come to value craft posts from Kathryn Craft, Barbara Linn Probst, Barbara O’Neal, Heather Webb, and others. Editor Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, often posts snippets from manuscripts he’s worked on, showing his edits and annotating them with his thinking. Editor and novelist Ray Rhamey dissects the opening pages of NY Times best-sellers in his “Flog A Pro” segment. Other posts give a practical look at the business of writing. I was particularly inspired by a Barbara O’Neal post on using collage to better visualize a WIP, and drink in posts on refilling the well and nurturing the creative spirit. Dialogue often erupts in the comments, giving additional suggestions and ideas.
“We’ve all heard the expression ‘one person, one vote’ used to promote the idea that every human being deserves a voice in the political process. Well, I like literature that’s ‘one person, one truth’ – that each person’s experience, no matter how marginal, has the power to tell us something vital about what it means to be human. It’s true that, in many ways, fiction has not been universal: It’s probably been a middle-class form, and there are definitely forgotten people whose lives have not been chronicled. I don’t think writers should be self-congratulatory. But one of the ideological things that the novel form helped accomplish was to expand literature’s focus. The novel tends to show us that the lives of ‘ordinary people’ are as full of drama, emotion, and even political significance as those of the greats.”
—novelist Tom Perotta in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed by Joe Fassler (2017)
“—A caller reported a woman tried to steal from a local grocery store and was allegedly driving a small red pickup. Employees reportedly recovered the cart before she could get away with the groceries.
“—A woman who allegedly attempted to rob a local grocery store called to request access to her personal belongings that she left behind. In her rush to escape with the cart full of goods, she had reportedly left her purse behind.”
Something tells me that when employees discovered the purse, they called the sheriff—and that this isn’t going to work out quite the way she expected.