The Mental Activity of Writing. Step Three.

Imagination is the key.

As long as I can remember I’ve essentially sung myself to sleep with a story. It’s like this:

I write a story in my mind and I feature myself as the heroine. So easy to do!

The easiest way to begin is to pick a story, any story you like provided it is a heroic story, as in I want you to take a hero’s journey. I’ll make it even easier. If you like romance, pick Outlander. If you like science fiction pick, um… Stranger In A Strange Land, or The Illustrated Man, or, oh… super easy– Battlestar Galactica.

Remove the protagonist, male or female. Substitute yourself in his or her place and imaginarily write away! Rewrite the narrative in your head featuring you! I’m not encouraging you to actually write fanfic. I’m not a fan of fanfic. What I am suggesting is that you learn from the greats.

Become John Blackthorn of Shogun. Starbuck (the female version) of BSG. (One of the Sharons would be even better!) Jon Snow of GOT. Become Jane Eyre of Jane Eyre. But write your own narrative. Change things up. Stir the pot!

The stories we put on paper grow out of the stories we hear in our heads. Don’t be derivative! But at the same time keep in mind there is nothing new under the sun. Certain universal themes are recycled over and over again by countless authors and there is a reason for this. Universal themes resonate with readers. The trick is to spin your own unique version of these universal themes.

Oh, and read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. Yeah, slog through it. (It really ain’t no slog!) At the heart of every story lies the hero’s journey. Your characters must move forward, face challenges, and evolve, either for good or for evil. If they do nothing more than spin their wheels, take up page space, they are doomed to forever be labeled as boring. Nothing kills a book like boring.

Oh, an no whining. Whiny characters do nothing more than annoy readers.

So, as a mental exercise, pick your favorite book. Remove protagonist. Insert you. Go for it.

The physical activity of writing.

Learning to write is no different than learning to play an instrument or learning to dance or excelling at a sport. What you want to do is create muscle memory, i.e., engram memory. There are writing muscles- nerve cells- in the brain that must be trained, conditioned.

Writing begins with desire, but the ability to write, the art of writing, is stimulated, improved and yes, honed with practice.

My advice?

journalStep One– Begin a journal.

Journal writing accomplishes the following:

It gets us in the habit of writing. Warms up the writing muscles, so to speak, and keeps them in good shape.

It provides us with food for thought, i.e., subject material. Every single day we experience something. Perhaps we have a conversation. Perhaps we observe an unusual interaction. Perhaps we are involved in an interesting interaction, perhaps we do nothing more than watch a flock of birds interact at a feeder. Almost anything may one day make a good story or be a part of a good story. A real story reflects the rules of real life, even science fiction and fantasy abide by the rules of their respective worlds, therefore it’s helpful if a writer, herself, learns the rules governing real life and can make sense of them for herself. These rules are learned through observation and reflection.

It helps us reflect upon and make sense of our observations.

It helps us improve. The more we write, the more we evaluate our writing (within reason– an author friend of mine once told me editing is never-ending therefore he ends after two edits no matter what), the better we get, the more progress we make. I don’t suggest editing a journal entry. But rereading from time to time can be valuable.

It helps us hear our own voice. As an author it’s best to develop an individual voice. The more clarity, the better.

Write by hand (as much as possible). This is a proven exercise. Writing by hand makes the brain work harder and stimulates  synapses in the brain. Makes us smarter!

It’s fun. Journaling is something with which you can have fun.

That’s it for today! Have a great week!

The Four Steps: Read, Watch, Listen, Body Language.

Are you aware that your dog communicates with body language? Most dogs cannot talk, aside from those dogs you occasionally see on youtube saying… “I wuv you.”

Well, I guess I can’t generalize about the entire animal kingdom… Our birds can talk. Cats can kinda talk.

We did have a cat who could speak English– Norman. He could say “Moror”, which is the bitter herb we eat at Passover, and “Myrywn”, a word similar to my husband ‘Oscar’s’ real name.

Oh yeah, his sister, Nolan, once said, “I dunno,” when asked, “Where’s your brother?”

Their mother could speak as well.¬† We all heard her. One night we were in bed, but the cat and her four kittens were down in the living room and the kittens were running around like they were on a nascar track. A strange woman yelled out, “Stop it!” And they did. There was dead silence. We all came out of our bedrooms and looked at each other. It was kind of stunning. The only creatures downstairs were Kitty and her kittens. We looked down at them. They looked up at us. But the kittens quit their running and went to bed.

All of which is to say… Sometimes what people don’t say means more than what they do say. Learning to understand body language is important if you want to understand people.

Dogs get it. Most animals get it because although animals can bark, growl, purr, snort, whatever, it’s their body that speaks for them. A good writer pays attention to body language in order to understand what someone is actually saying.

Does a person make eye contact? Or is a lack of eye contact cultural? Does a person lean toward me or away from me?

How much personal space do I need? How much does he need? Or she need?

What’s up with those hand gestures? How does an aggressive person appear and why/how does my body instinctively react to aggression? How does a person act when afraid? Sad? Weary? Confused? Happy?

Does that smile go all the way to the eyes? Or is the smile merely a politeness or, worse, a phony smile?

If you can learn to read a person’s body language, you will get more truth than you will from words alone.

Watch dogs. Dogs are masters at reading body language. My dog can tell if someone is fearful or aggressive or friendly from three hundred yards away, even farther.

Understanding body language will help you create fleshed-out, well-rounded characters. You don’t have to include, i.e., write down every nuance, every movement in your story; rather, it’s your understanding of body language that will make your characters real to your readers. Not cardboard or paper people (Guardians of the Galaxy), but real. Your insight will help you build real three dimensional people on that flat page.

Picture it as a pop-up book. That’s your goal. Characters who pop right off the page. We don’t want no ciphers. No. No. No.

I learned a valuable lesson from the Twilight series. Bear with me. I discovered the secret of Edward’s appeal to teens and young adults. He was one-dimensional, nothing more than a blank wall. The beauty of a blank wall is that each reader could throw against it whatever he or she wanted and it stuck. In other words, each reader could read into Edward what he or she wanted, make him over into her fantasy. Which is one of the reasons Twilight fanfic has been so popular. There’s no original there there. Sorry. Don’t mean to offend Twilight fans, but that’s my take on it.

The problem with a blank wall is that ultimately, it is unsatisfying– which, of course, is why we try to color it in. A real 3-D character is more like Jamie Fraser from Outlander. One might fantasize about Jamie, but one cannot improve upon Jamie. He IS. He has being.

Study up on your body language. It is the key to creating three dimensional characters.