Imagination vs Observation

“It doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” — JOHN IRVING

“Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” — GRACE PALEY

As a person who has taught more university writing courses than I care to mention, I regularly hear some version of the following: “Creative writing? Isn’t all writing creative?” That question used to really get my goat, but I’m starting to feel like it’s actually a pretty important one, especially when it triggers thinking about whether the writing is supposed to be about something that happened or if the writing is supposed to be about something that did not.

I am a firm believer in the notion that there is no ex nihilo creation. It’s a very Law of Conservation of Mass kind of perspective, but I don’t think the imagination runs without some kind of fuel, and I think that fuel is experiences. In my life even events that feel a lot like inspiration are more about the miraculous connection of disparate ideas than they are about an idea coming to me out of nowhere.

Imagination is described as the ability to form new ideas, images, or concepts that aren’t present to the senses. Observation is process of perceiving something or someone carefully or in order to gain information or understanding. So, in a lot of ways these are opposite activities. Imagination traffics in what’s not there, while observation deals with what is.

So, to my thinking, writers have to start with an observation, with some kind of phenomena that has been either observed or taken in. Words are always referential, and even though I have experienced the sorcery of having ideas emerge from the act of writing, I have found it impossible to go from zero to words, or to have the words precipitate out of nothing. And still, even though writing begins with an observation in the world, the act of observing things in the world changes them.

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This concept is common in the scientific world. The physicist Neils Bohr has a marvelous little book from 1934 entitled Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. In his introduction, Bohr discusses the similarities between problems found in the theory of relativity and those found in quantum theory, arguing that in “both cases we are concerned with the recognition of physical laws which lie outside the domain of our ordinary experience and which present difficulties to our accustomed forms of perception.” According to Bohr, these difficulties of perception can be challenging but we can “by no means dispense with those forms of perception which color our whole language and in terms of which all experience must ultimately be expressed.” (5)

Basically we have trouble with perceiving things outside our normal experience and yet we can’t just write off the problems because our language as well as our ability to express anything are affected by perception. In a film class in college I heard this another way. John Greirson, the man who started the National Film Board of Canada once said, “Art isn’t a mirror, it’s a hammer.”

Quantum theory suggests all kinds of problems with observation. We know that observation changes the thing observed. This is a matter for physicists and psychologists. It’s also what made scientific understanding of exactly how a cat purrs to understand. The minute you hook sensors up to cat, it’s done purring. To make matters more complicated, Einstein has famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s difficult to divide out which matter more to the writer, the observation that must come first, or the imagination that shapes and forms the observation.

I’d like to argue that writers often blend imagination and observation together. I’ve noticed that my writing loops back and forth between imagination and observation. I start with some idea for a scene, chapter, or moment in my fiction, and I do my best to imagine it. Even when I feel like I’m making something up from scratch, I’m not. There are always ingredients, and they are always being changed and shaped by what I’m planning to do with them. Nothing is ever neutral.

The process is never linear, and now that I’m this far into my writing life, I can’t recall that distant first observation. In my memory, it has blended to become one thing.

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Works Cited

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge UP (1934).

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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

On Writing About Sensitive (Trigger) Topics

Trigger warning: This post mentions potential trigger topics.

I love writing happily-ever-afters (HEAs) for my characters, but in order for them to get there, they have to go through quite a lot. The following quote from one of my favorite reviews summarizes this nicely:

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My stories always include hard and stormy issues (This post explains why it helps to write darker topics for my characters). Some of these issues may be trigger topics: subjects that generate strongly negative emotional responses. Triggers could be related to a damaging experience in one’s past (e.g., war, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, hate crime, bullying, racism, sexism, and more). Triggers may also be deeply rooted in a phobia of varied or unknown origin (e.g., fear of dying, fear of blood or violence, fear of spiders, fear of being alone, and more).

Given the wide range of experiences in your readers, I posit that there’s no way to predict all of the elements of your stories that may serve as triggers. However, you might reasonably assume that what you’ve chosen as characters’ primary struggles or fears will resonate on a very personal level with some readers who have had similar or at least analogous struggles or fears. Ideally, isn’t this what every writer wants, to have our readers be deeply affected by our stories? Readers are more sensitive and also more vocal than they were fifty years ago, and this is a natural result of social media and increased social connections. But it’s also because of an increasing social presence and conscience. Voices in our society rise with the call to address lingering social problems such as rape culture, racial inequality, gender discrimination, and mental illness (just to name a few).

You may decide to write about some of these trigger topics because they are part of life. If you do these topics justice, your readers will respond accordingly. Wendy Jessen had a great post with tips on how to write these tough topics. First and foremost, you need to pick your characters’ issues with knowledge and sensitivity. If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, do your research well. Also draw upon real people’s experiences — perhaps this is you, or if not, seek out the perspective of someone who has gone through the storm.

In addition, here are three tips about emotional preparation:

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  1. Deal with the emotions. Make sure you understand your own emotions as you write about these sensitive topics. Channel that understanding to your story so your characters deal with their emotions as they work toward a resolution. You need to also accept the fact that you will have some readers dealing with their own emotions as they react to these issues. If this manifests as anger, know that this is their right. I have seen authors become extremely defensive or (worse) respond directly to a review that is strongly negative about their book with a justification as to why people shouldn’t take offense to how they wrote it. Every reader will take away something from a story, and it is their right to love it or hate it. It is natural, of course, to have your own emotional response when someone reacts strongly negative to something that you’ve written. However, find a healthy way to cope with your own emotions — go for a walk or a run or journal or paint or meditate or hit a punching bag — and then move on and keep writing.
  2. Know your place. This probably goes without saying, but I need to say it. If you craft a character that lives with a mental illness, this in and of itself does not make you a professional counselor. If your character is a survivor of sexual assault, this does not automatically qualify you as a victim’s advocate. Both of these are professional positions with specific qualifications. I have had readers write to me about their connections to something traumatic in my character’s backstory. (In these cases, these have been strongly positive responses, but as I stated in #1, anything is possible.) As an author, thank your readers for sharing their own stories, but it is not your responsibility (in fact, it would be irresponsible of you) to counsel them further.
  3. Trust in yourself. When we craft stories, we risk putting a very personal part of ourselves out there. When we write about highly sensitive issues, this risk of putting ourselves out there increases even more.  But if you want to write these stories, you need to shelve your self-doubt and instead trust in yourself and your abilities to represent your characters’ stories to the best of your abilities. I debated a handful of times whether I should include one particular element into my YA character’s backstory before deciding that yes, this was part of who she was. Like everything that has happened in my own past/backstory, this has influenced my current actions, and so was it with her. As I look back now to some of the vocal responses of my readers (both positive and negative), I do not regret my decision. If you decide to write sensitive topics, above all, you need to trust yourself to guide your characters through that storm and then back out again.  

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

4 Tips for Decluttering Your Manuscript

This week was my Spring Break, and I spent the time getting my affairs in order. Spring is most definitely in the air (at least it is where I live), and decluttering is something I’ve been putting off, but this week I threw open my windows, rolled up my sleeves, and dove in(to my closet).

I also took the opportunity to declutter my WIP, a process that I dreaded but wound up enjoying. (What?)

When revising, you should go through your manuscript and declutter by cutting unnecessary words.  Yes, sometimes those words amount to an entire line. Or a scene. Or a character. Or an entire subplot. Yes, most writers find it painful to cut thousands of words *cries* when we invested so much to get to that high word count. However, a meandering story or pointless dialogue will not engage your readers, and if any of your words do not serve your plot or your characters, they need to go. (For super useful information about when and why you should be ruthless at cutting words, I highly recommend Elaine Vickers’ post on The Reductive Revision.)

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If either your house or your manuscript is beginning to feel like fodder for the producers of  Hoarders, here are four tips on how to declutter your life…I mean, manuscript:

  1. Put things in their place. I always feel better when everything is stored away in its place. There’s no reason to keep all of those hair scrunchies in my writing desk drawer, after all. Laundry, while functional in its basket, could be hung, folded, and put away, I suppose. As applied to writing, I like to organize the work that I have left so I can systematically put everything in its place. Scrivener has a handy feature where you can mark your chapters/scenes as “To Do,” “First Draft,” “Revised Draft,” and so on. I love this feature because I can tell at a glance where I need to be when I’m revising. Just like making a chore list at home (my kids do this, and yes, I also do this for myself), I also leave myself document notes for what I need to change in my drafts. As I complete those tasks, I cross these off one by one, and it’s even more satisfying than putting all of my winter clothes away for the season.
  2. Put things in storage. Not sure if you’ll wear that trendy jacket next year but not ready to get rid of it because you bought it this season? Put it into storage. Likewise, if you’re not sure if you need that scene or dialogue that you cut from chapter three, put it into storage. I save all of my extraneous scenes in a separate section in Scrivener called “Saved for Later” (you could do the same with a separate word processing file). If I do need those words, I know exactly where to find them. Sometimes I resurrect these words, but more often than not, I *gasp* don’t, which brings me to #3.
  3. Throw things away. My storage room in my basement has bins for toys that my kids don’t play with anymore. Occasionally they dig around in them and play with an old favorite, but the ones that are not touched within six months wind up being donated to charity. I also have items stuck away in that storage room that makes it to charity on a semi-regular basis, but a few pieces of this “favorite” junk have made the move with us to multiple houses. Similarly, I admit to carting around those deleted scenes and lines for multiple manuscripts. But here’s the thing: I’ve never used these words. When I’ve tried to insert something that I cut from one manuscript into another or even to a different version of a manuscript, it feels like trying to shove a puzzle piece into a space that doesn’t fit. I have to restructure these words so much that it would have saved me time and emotional energy if I’d just written them from scratch. Holding onto cut words and characters is primarily an emotional decision (in my opinion). If you’re holding onto them from project to project, evaluate whether it’s time to let them go. *clings* *says goodbye*
  4. Take a moment to admire all the things. The best thing about this week is that I’ve rediscovered the floor of my closet. Just kidding. I mean, I did rediscover the floor of my closet, and yes, the carpet is still the same color. But I’ve also rediscovered the joy in my story. It feels strange for me to say this, but I think I have been so focused on fixing my manuscript that I had fallen slightly out of love with my overall writing. Matt Williams posted earlier this week some great ideas on how to add voice to stories, and it inspired me to convert the chapter I’d been working into a .mobi file and drop it onto my Kindle app. As I read it, I was happy with how my changes translated to the page, and I was able to quickly bookmark one or two things that made it onto my to-do list. By decluttering, organizing, and shining up my characters and their scenes, I also have a better view of where they need to go from here. And I have a better appreciation of my writing, too.
  5. Have some chocolate. Technically, I said I would share four tips, but I find that a reward is always appropriate for good work. If you’re not a chocolate fan, choose your reward accordingly. ❤

Do you have any spring cleaning tips for your manuscript (or life)? I’d love it if you could share them in the comments!

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

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A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

Hear Me Out: Adding Voice to Stories

If it weren’t for writing you probably wouldn’t hear me at all. For a dark skinned, 6’3, bald guy with the physique of a NFL linebacker, you’d think it would difficult to blend in with the scenery. However I manage to do this quite well.

While I may not like to hear my voice in real life the one place I do want it heard is in my stories. Here are a few ways I keep my voice in stories.

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Audiobooks

Yes, this isn’t officially my voice, but I’ve found that listening to great stories helps me in crafting my own. I have three hours of commute five days a week so that’s a lot of time to think about stories and listen to how they should be created. My weapons of choice are the paid service of Audible and the library offered service of Overdrive. While on my drives I can listen to how a cadence should be, how worlds are built in genres I’m unfamiliar with, and other tools of the trade. Reading will always be our best teacher to better writing, and audiobooks are a great way to keep that education going.

Speech Recognition Software

I have fallen in love with the Dragon Speech Recognition software! Since I write longhand I get to read what I’m working on aloud. In doing so I can hear what works and what doesn’t work. Going over the passages one by one makes it incredibly easy to sure up what are weak parts of the story and what should be taken out. If you don’t have the Dragon you can try Google’s speech recognition out in their Drive or GoogleDoc apps.

Text-To-Speech

A recent discover (to me at least) has been the text-to-speech feature on Kindle. You can send your manuscript to your kindle and then use the feature to read your story back to you. Although it is a slightly robotic sound (think Siri) it will sound as if your words are being read by a member of your audience. You can hear how it would sound from someone else.

These are a few things I use to add voice to my stories. What are some things you use? Until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

Books to Help Writers Get Better

I have a weakness.

I mean, besides books. That’s obvious.

My other weakness is craft books. I love them. I love learning how people think about story, seeing how I can think differently or better about my writing, to be inspired by how others engage in the creative process. If you know me in real life, it won’t surprise you to know that analysis makes me super happy.

Which is why I have a shelf that looks like this:

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And amid the great novels loaded on my kindle are the following:

  • Creativity Inc.
  • A Writer’s Guide Story Structure and Beyond
  • The War of Art
  • John Gardner’s Collection on Writing
  • The Art of Work
  • The Anatomy of Story
  • The Right to Write
  • All of the Emotional Thesaurus books
  • Crafting Unforgettable Characters
  • Getting Published in the 21st Century
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Million Dollar Outlines
  • Save the Cat

But still, I found myself wondering what books people went to when they wanted to study their craft more. Below are some of the dozens of suggestions I received (several I’ve never heard of!):

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New Craft Books:

  • Author In Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published Paperback by Therese Walsh
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
  • Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Books to Improve Overall Writing:

  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein
  • Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack M. Bickham
  • Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark
  • Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  • Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry

Books to Nurture the Writer:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Fierce on the Page by Sage Cohen
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Books to Help with Editing:

  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
  • Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques by Sol Stein
  • 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected Paperback by Mike Nappa

Even MORE Great Writing Books:

These are new to me, so if you know more about them, please share! 

  • The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Paperback by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Forest for the Trees (Revised and Updated): An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  • This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
  • Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

Lifetime Achievement Awards:

Face it: these books are so good, we still need to talk about them.

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Elements of Style by by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Did I miss any? Do you have some favorites? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Novel Writing Lessons from the Movie ‘Fences’

 Did you ever ride on the back of a garbage truck as a black man in 1950s Pittsburgh? Or narrowly miss a shot at playing baseball in the Major Leagues? Probably not. I didn’t either. However, when you sink into the leather seats of the theater surrounded by darkness except for the lighted screen and the held breaths of other moviegoers, you’re transported into the world of trash collector and would-be baseball star Troy Maxson. The movie Fences based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson offers a master class in how to craft a novel.

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Make your characters multi-layered and complex.

In the movie, Maxson, played by Denzel Washington, is charming and playful, yet he can also be cruel, his caustic monologues often making his younger son flinch and his wife turn away. He wants to protect his boy from the disappointments of a racist America, while also fearing that his son will shine in ways he never could. Even as he pushes away those closest to him, you never doubt how fiercely he loves in the only way he knows how.

Our first instinct as writers is often to go with one-dimensional characters who are good, bad, happy, sad, bitter, or sweet. You get the idea. The characters we create in our fiction should be just as complex as Maxson and the rest of us. Even the baddest of bad guys in thrillers can have a soft spot, something that makes him smile, someone who renders him vulnerable and puts a dent in his armor. It’s often those redeemable, human qualities that make the character come alive on the page and grab us in unexpected ways.

Deepen characterization through dialogue and details.

Fences uses the boisterous voice of Maxson to show the quiet desperation of a man who picks up other people’s trash all day, comes home and whacks a baseball hanging from a tattered rope in his backyard, makes love to his wife in a cramped little house and then does it all over again the next day. Those are the kinds of details that bring authenticity to our stories and richness to our characters.

In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Maxson’s wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, sheds her quiet demeanor and delivers one of those lines that makes you tremble and forget to breathe:

“You not the only one who’s got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”

How powerful is that? In that one piece of dialogue, we learn so much about Rose. She’s a strong, long-suffering woman who’s had to swallow her own dreams for the sake of her family. Let’s think about how the dialogue in our own novels not only advances the story, but also helps the reader understand who the character is at her core.

Explore universal truths that connect with readers.

The books I enjoy most have something important to say about the world, not in a preachy sense, but in a way that makes me say “aha” and helps me understand humanity through a new lens. Fences explored loss, racism, squandered chances, abandoned hopes, fatherhood, manhood, suppressed dreams and more. Maxson delivered a simple truth when he described how he’s survived over the years by “taking the crookeds with the straights.”

Our novels should be more than a series of acts and scenes that entertain, but do little else. Universal truths are ones that help us make sense of life and allow us to see ourselves in the characters we root for on the page. Again, while we may not look like Maxson or have his life experience, we know what it’s like to lament over unfulfilled dreams and we understand the toll that merely surviving takes on us and those we love. Don’t give your readers a sermon, but tell a story that builds empathy, one that connects on a visceral level with their own wants, needs, joys and struggles.

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nancyNancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her
personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.