January 31

Flawed Characters

I dislike perfect characters. I’m sure you’ve encountered them in stories you’ve read over the years. Those characters who are two-dimensional, always make the right decisions and the right times, who never make mistakes even when doing something they’ve never done before.

I find them to be frustrating. Encountering them breaks my immersion in a story. It makes me wonder if the writer ever met a real person.

Characters need to have flaws, scars (both physical and emotional), make bad choices, do stupid things. Well, not too stupid. There’s also the problem that writers can make their characters too stupid, too ridiculous. To use a television program as an example, The Walking Dead is guilty of this. In the later seasons, years after the initial zombie apocalypse, why do characters on the show still wander off into the woods in the middle of the night by themselves? Or try to walk over the rotting wooden floor of an abandon house when they know the basement is full of walkers? I understand the writers are trying to create tension and drama, but when characters do really stupid things I lose sympathy for them and start rooting for the walkers.

So I guess it really comes down to writing realistic characters. When I create a protagonist for one of my stories, I usually don’t know who they are when I begin writing. I have a general idea of who they are, what they look like, but their personality and other traits develop as I write the story. The first draft is a “get to know you” situation. But on the subsequent drafts I try to understand their motivations, what they want, what they need. I also try to compare them to people I know in real life. If I’m writing a female character I think about the women in my life and think about how they would act and react to events in my stories. If it’s a male character, gay character, immigrant…same thing. I look at the people in my life who are somewhat similar to the character and borrow traits.

The one thing I try to ensure is that the characters are believable, that they come across as real people. I think it helps that I try not to focus on what I, myself, would do. If I base character traits on myself then my characters would end up being too predictable. And probably boring. But also ridiculously handsome (just kidding!).

The trick is that I pay attention to the people around me. I watch how they act and react to things. It’s similar to how I keep my character dialogue fresh and realistic. I listen to conversations around me. If I’m sitting in a restaurant then I may eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in the next booth. If I’m at a party then I’ll hang on the edge of a group of people talking and simply listen to the ebb and flow of their words. While I’m at it, I also watch their body language, how they react to a revelation or a dropped secret. I note their facial expressions, how they stand, what they do with their hands. All that goes into the character maker in my head for future reference.

It’s also helpful to remember that everyone we know is flawed in some way. We all have fears and phobias, obsessions, likes and dislikes, and we’re all guilty of making bad decisions and doing stupid things. It’s what makes us human, and that humanity should be apparent in our characters. Perfection is boring. That’s why I’m not a fan of Superman. Superman is calm, cool, and collected. I’m more partial to Batman. Batman is emotional. He reacts without thinking, then regrets his decisions. He makes mistakes. He often does the wrong thing for the right reason.

There was a series of sci-fi books I read when I was younger that sums this up. The series focuses on a character referred to as the Stainless Steel Rat and was written by Harry Harrison. Basically, the Rat is a rogue who has a bunch of comical adventures in space. The first few books I read were fun and silly. But by the time I got to the third one I was getting burned out. The problem was the Rat. The guy always made the right decision, always got out of trouble at the last minute, without fail. He was always one step ahead of everyone else. Always. Even when he gets caught doing something illegal it ends up working out in his favor. This took all the tension out of the stories. Without any risk there’s no fun. I understand these are supposed to be light-hearted stories, but there still has to be some mistakes, some bad judgement.

I think that our characters deserve to be flawed. Not only does it make them seem real, but it also adds some quality to our stories. In fact, I feel it’s the little mistakes that make the difference. What I mean is, have a character bump their shin on a coffee table, or splash some hot coffee on their hand when filling their cup. It doesn’t have to be a key component to the story, but it shows they’re real. I like to do little things like this. I’ve had characters bite their tongues while eating, or drop ashes from their cigarette on their sleeve, or even stub their toe.

These actions aren’t usually pertinent to the overall story, but they help to build my character, make them real. In the course of an average day you probably end up with a paper cut or a new bruise, or maybe you bump your head getting out of the car or have your hairbrush get caught in a knot while getting ready for work. It’s the flaws and imperfections of everyday life that, when added to a story, help the reader to suspend their disbelief and connect with your protagonist.

Our characters should be just as flawed as we are.

RB

January 30

A Poetry Moment

I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger. I was inspired by both actual poets and song lyrics. On the poetry side there was Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Lewis Carroll. On the song lyric side there was Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and The Beatles. There were others in both camps, but far too many to name here. These were the main ones who inspired me to try my hand at verse. In fact, I was writing poetry long before I wrote my first short story.

Later, of course, there was Shakespeare, Poe, Byron, Shelly, ee cummings, Plath, Bukowski, and…well, basically anyone I could find.

But over the years I transitioned from mainly writing poetry to mainly writing fiction. Writing poems fell by the wayside in my late twenties, although I still read it when the mood strikes. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is probably my favorite collection, specifically the final version (he revised it several times). I usually take a paperback copy of it to the beach so I can lay in the sun, listen to the surf, and lose myself in Whitman’s descriptions of nature, love, and being human.

I really love poetry. I’ve gone to readings here in town and even participated in one, once. It was the first time I’d ever read in front of an audience and it was terribly awkward for me. My partner was encouraging afterwards, but she also pointed out that I read so quickly that it was over before anyone realized it. That explained the delayed sporadic applause. Live and learn, right?

I did have a few of my verses published years ago. Two were in a literary magazine, the other was in the local newspaper’s Arts & Entertainment section. Nothing to really brag about, but I was still proud of the accomplishment.

And for the curious, here is one I wrote that was published in The Eyrie literary magazine back in 1996.

 

The breakup

The door slams shut with finality 

and I hear your footsteps

fading into the night like a forgotten echo.

You are gone

but your parting words still hang in the air, swarming

and circling like moths to my flame.

The words are still charged, static, crackling

in my ears and shorting out my weary synapses.

You are gone like a passing memory, though

the room still reverberates with your anger,

the air is still thick with your heat.

You are gone,

without even saying good-bye or good-riddance.

And now I sit here in front of the television

as unseen images flash by

and I wonder

where you hid the remote control.

Lately, I’ve been feeling an urge to get back into poetry. Maybe I’ve been away from it for too long. If I do, I’ll be sure to share it here on my blog. Until then…

RB

January 28

The Television Influence

I think it’s safe to assume we all grew up with television in our lives. There are programs that shaped us, taught us things, or simply entertained and made us laugh or cry. But can we say that television is a creative influence for artists?

When I was studying creative writing in college, one of my writing instructors was anti-television. He considered it a waste of time and didn’t even have one in his house. Or so he claimed. He felt that writing for television was a hack job, beneath literary writers, and that we shouldn’t consider television scripts to be real writing. I remember the looks on the faces of my classmates. Shock, alarm, confusion. Why? Because they had all grown up watching television.

I’m no exception. I can remember television shows that aired during certain periods of my life. When I was very young there was Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, along with tons of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Rocky and Bullwinkle…). As I got a little older there was M*A*S*H* and CHiPs and The Waltons. Oh, and Hee-Haw. Later on I watched Saturday Night Live, Miami Vice, Cheers, Northern Exposure, Seinfeld…probably far too many shows for me to list here.

Sure, some shows were better than others. Some were just mindless entertainment, the sitcoms and cartoons. But there were some, like Northern Exposure and The X-Files, that had great writing and acting. I think it was around this point that I really started paying attention to the writing and began to realize how important it was.

Once I had this revelation, I began to rewatch shows. I went back to the old Twilight Zone episodes and realized they were basically short stories brought to life. As cheesy as the original Star Trek and Doctor Who shows were, the writing was excellent. All three of these programs had messages, made me think more deeply about myself and society, about the human condition. Some were more metaphorical, others more in-your-face, but either way I was learning how stories, good stories, were told.

But in a way, I think it’s sort of ruined me for mindless entertainment. Or at least, it’s made me more critical of bad television writing. And yeah, there’s a fair amount of that. In recent years my television viewing habits have shrunk to where I only watch a couple of shows. I still get my Doctor Who fix, and The Orville has filled the hole where Star Trek used to reside (I’m not a fan of the new Trek). Electric Dreams and Black Mirror fill in for Twilight Zone. And, well, that’s about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did enjoy The Mandalorian and The Witcher. So that fills my television entertainment quota.

I never did agree much with that writing instructor. In fact, I ended up taking a screenwriting class with a professor who had been a television writer. That was one of the best classes I took. It wasn’t that I learned how to write screenplays, but I learned a lot about the industry…and how I’d probably never be happy as a television writer. Too many hands on the scripts. I’m all for collaboration, but hearing how producers and studio heads would “tweak” things while wiping the excess white powder off their upper lips wasn’t enticing.

However, I believe that writers can learn a lot from good television. When writing a program you have to tell a complete story, or in some cases a complete chapter, in about fifty minutes every week. One of the things I learned in that screenwriting class is that one page of dialogue equates to approximately one minute of screen time. So a fifty-minute drama is going to have a fifty-page script. So that means a writer has to tell a fifty page story every week. That’s impressive. And in that time, they have to show character development, ensure consistent plotting with previous and latter episodes, verify continuity with various narrative elements, and keep the viewer interested. That’s no easy task.

Most fiction writers don’t have that kind of pressure when creating stories. We may have self-imposed deadlines, or maybe even a deadline from a magazine or publisher, but in my experience I’ve never had to write a fifty-page story in one week. Thank goodness.

I should probably clarify one thing – I’m not necessarily saying you should only watch quality programming. Watch what you want to watch. You can still learn from cheesy or badly written shows. You learn what not to do. It’s like reading. Sure, you want to read the classics, the award-winners, the well-crafted stories and books because you get to see how it’s done right. But even then, reading an occasional bad book, pulp fiction, or overly-commercial book can be educational, as well. It can teach you what bad writing looks like, things to avoid. It the same as making a mistake. If you do everything perfectly every time, you don’t learn anything. You learn from making mistakes.

Think about this the next time you start binge-watching a show on one of the many streaming services. Don’t just watch the show, look at how it’s written, how the narrative flows, how the different elements and plot points work together. I find that doing this adds to the value of whatever show I’m watching. It might teach you something, as well.

RB

 

 

January 28

Meditation and Writing

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a monkey mind. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it comes from Buddhism and basically means an unsettled and restless mind. In the west we often call it Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The difference is that with ADD it’s a medical diagnosis and is treated with pharmaceuticals, whereas Monkey Mind is more of a metaphorical issue and is treated with meditation.

I’ve been meditating for over twenty years now. I’m not as consistent as I should be with the practice, but I try to do it at least four or five times a week. I’ve found that it helps to calm the monkey in my head, helps him to chill out for a while so I can get things done.

Before I started mindful meditation I had a hard time focusing when I was writing. I’d start working on a draft and after a few paragraphs I’d start thinking about another story idea or one of the other in-progress drafts on my hard drive. It was difficult to make any substantial progress on my projects. It was frustrating.

I discovered Buddhism when I was a kid, probably around nine or ten. One of my family members was in college and used to bring me the books they were reading in their literature classes, and one summer he handed me Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It was a beautiful story and, although I didn’t fully grasp the full meaning of the novel, the essence of the philosophy spoke to me. Later, in my teen years, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. While it’s not necessarily a Buddhism-themed book, his philosophical discussions incorporated a lot of Zen concepts. After that, I wanted to learn more.

To me, Buddhism isn’t necessarily a religion. Or at least I don’t follow it as a religion. I like the philosophy behind it, how we are responsible for our own state of mind, and how it can guide us into thinking the right way in order to better process the issues in our lives.

From the perspective of a writer, I was intrigued with the possibilities. Not only using it to calm that crazy monkey bouncing off the inside of my skull, but also to address things like self-confidence, self-esteem, and motivation.

And for me, it’s helped. It’s given me the ability to separate reality from the illusions in my head. For example, do you ever get so caught up in negative thoughts that you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed? Like the negativity is pushing in on you from all sides? I’ve felt that way myself. But with meditation I’ve been able to compartmentalize those thoughts, to sort of put them on a table and examine them from another perspective. When I do this I can see how wrapped up I was in the negativity. I can also see the reality of the situation.

To put it another way – say you self-publish a book, something you spent a lot of time on, something you’re proud of. Unfortunately, your book doesn’t get much love. Sales are slim to non-existent. You check your sales stats daily and see nothing change. After a few weeks you begin to feel down about it, frustrated. You wonder if anyone cares, if you’ll ever build up a reader base. Your mood turns sour, there’s a dark cloud over your head, you’re unhappy. That’s the negativity you build – or allow to be built – inside your own head.

The reality, however, is different. While you may not be getting the sales you want, you’re forgetting that you self-published a book. You wrote the damn thing, you edited it, you compiled it, you chose (or maybe even designed) the cover. That means you did something the majority of the people on this planet haven’t done. In fact, there are probably millions of writers out there who haven’t done this yet. That’s something to be proud of. And sure, sales and reviews would be nice, but that’s not the reason you wrote this book. You wrote it because you had a story to tell, something to say. And you said it. Now it’s time to ignore the sales stats and think about the next story you’re going to tell.

That’s how meditation works for me. I feel myself getting caught up in the negative thoughts, then I meditate and take a few steps back and see that I’m looking at the situation the wrong way.

With my fiction writing, it helps because I can focus better on the task at hand. I can pack up that self-doubt and second-guessing and put it on a shelf. I’ve been able to stop worrying about whether or not anyone is going to read my work. I don’t worry about whether or not my fiction is too weird. I focus on what’s important…telling a good story and having fun.

Writing is hard. It’s a struggle to get that story out of my head and onto the page. I never feel like I get it right, at least, not as I envisioned it. But that’s okay. I’ll get it as close as I can and be content with that. Mostly. I’m human and humans have this annoying trait where we get so caught up in our own little world that we lose perspective. I think a lot of our depression and anxiety stems from that. If we can reassess our situations rationally, see things from the right angle, then we just may end up a little bit happier than we were.

Meditation isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s simple enough to get into and it doesn’t take too much time. There are dozens of apps out there that offer guided instruction. There are videos and books, too. Or if you’re up for it, there’s probably a Buddhist center near you that offers classes. I generally meditate for at least ten minutes in a session, but I’ve gone as long as an hour.

If you do decide to try it out, be patient. It’s not easy to calm that monkey and at first he’ll be resistant. But stick with it. Pretty soon, he’ll be napping quietly while you focus on the important things.

RB

 

 

January 27

Processing Shock

One of my best friends was hit by a car a little over a week ago. She and her partner were walking to an event at the local amphitheater and were in the crosswalk when an SUV hit them going fifteen mph. While that doesn’t sound like much, it knocked both of them to the ground. They both ended up with bruises, abrasions, and several fractures.

Luckily, they’re both back on their feet, although incredibly sore. Between the two of them they have five fractures and about a dozen stitches, but no head trauma.

She called me the next day to tell me about it. As soon as she opened with, “Don’t panic, we’re both okay” I knew something bad had happened. I felt as if an abyss opened up in my torso. It was a combination of fear, dread, relief, and more fear. It’s these exact moments when you realize how quickly things happen. And how quickly things can be taken from us.

I didn’t panic, but I immediately went into protection mode. I wanted details – what did the doctor say? What about the nurses? Did you get written instructions on what you’re supposed to do? What do you need? I was ready to head out the door to pick up whatever they needed from the pharmacy or market. Laundry? Vacuuming? I’m on it. I was ready.

The two of them have a good circle of friends. A bunch of us chipped in and brought them food, went shopping, ran errands, and worked at keep their spirits up. That’s one of those times when your faith in humanity is restored. Seeing people drop whatever they’re doing in order to help someone – friend or stranger – makes me feel as if there’s hope for us yet.

I know, this is personal and not necessarily related to writing or creativity. I’m writing this partly because I just wanted to get it out of my head. Writing in my journal is helpful, but I thought something like this should be shared. It’s possible you’ve gone through something similar, and if not, then maybe this might help you to understand when it does happen to people you know and care about.

Even though I wasn’t there, I keep playing the scenario over in my mind. I see the two of them walking across the street. I know the exact spot. I’ve crossed there myself many times over the years going to see concerts and other events. I see the SUV hit them. For some reason I see it as a black one with tinted windows. I have no idea what it really looked like. I see the vehicle stop, the other people on the sidewalks running over, people pulling out their phones to call emergency services.

All I have is my friend’s version of things, and she admits they’re fragmented due to, you know, getting hit. So my mind has taken over and created this entire scene, all the details. I see the other cars on the road, the variety of people walking along either side of the street. I see the trees and streetlights and hear all the voices and traffic.

I guess that’s how I’m processing it, by re-imagining what happened, giving it life in my head. I’m not sure if that’s considered healthy, but it seems to help. I guess that’s the downside of having a vivid imagination.

I have a feeling this is going to develop into something. Maybe just a scene in a story, maybe the catalyst for a story. Most of my stories begin as a “what if” scenario. In this case, what if I have two characters get hit by a car? Why were they hit? What are the repercussions? And down the rabbit hole I go…

I’m still getting over the shock of having someone I care about get hurt. It’s an unpleasant experience, as you can imagine, but instead of letting it eat at me I’m going to try and use it, write about it, own it. I’ll try to turn something bad into a positive. What else is there to do?

RB

January 27

The Prometheus Project Podcast, Ep 22, is now available!

In this episode I talk about what it means to be successful. How do you define it? Money? Recognition? Requests for selfies?

The truth is, we can’t all be rich and famous, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful. Join me as I talk about success, what it means to me, and how a change in viewpoint can help to keep us motivated and confident.

Episode 22 is available at iTunes, Spotify, GooglePlay, YouTube, and Podbean.

RB

January 26

Creative Immersion

Here’s a question for you. Have you ever immersed yourself in an environment when working on a creative project?

What I mean is, have you ever done something like write a short story while sitting in a library or drawn in a sketch book while sitting in an art gallery? I have, and I have to say it’s an amazing experience.

When I was in college I did this all the time. It seemed like every semester I’d have a free hour or two between some of my classes, so I’d head over to one of the libraries on campus, find an underpopulated area, then break out my notebook and write. There’s something about being surrounded by all those books, all those stories, that sets a certain mood. Couple it with that very specific smell that all libraries have – you know, that old paper and ink smell – and it was almost intoxicating.

Over the years I’ve written in all sorts of environments. I’ve sat in various rooms of my house and in the backyard. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants. I’ve written while sitting in my truck in parking lots. I’ve written while laying on the beach or sitting under a tree in the nearby national forest. They’re all great places because they set different moods. There’s different sensory input…noises, smells, movement, and color. It all ends up influencing my writing to some degree.

But sitting in a library, man, that’s completely different. When I sit along at a table in the fiction section, no one around but I can hear the whispered voices from the other side of the shelves, I feel like a monk sequestered away in a monastery. Libraries are like holy places to me. They hold the sum of human knowledge, experience, creativity. I can close my eyes and feel as if I’m absorbing all of it, I feel all those words and ideas swirling around me like mist.

I think this stems from when I was a kid. When I was really young my grandmother would watch me after school got out, and just down the street from her was a little public library. It was tucked away in this little nook as part of a small fresh water pumping station in South Florida. In fact, I’d been riding my bicycle past it for months before I even noticed it. Once I did, it felt like I had discovered Narnia. It wasn’t very large inside, probably no more than a couple dozen rows of shelves, but I spent hours in there, sitting on the floor and thumbing through whatever books caught my eye. I think the librarian, a kind older lady, asked me if I needed help every once in a while, but for the most part she left me to explore.

The feeling I had in that little library has stayed with me over the decades despite the fact that I fell out of the habit of visiting them on a regular basis. My love of books is the cause…well, my love of owning books, to be precise.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I got back into visiting a library several times a week. I probably could have used the time to do homework or study for an upcoming exam, but the urge to write was too strong. I’d stuff my backpack under my chair and sit there hunched over my spiral notebook (always with a black cover, for some reason) and lose myself in whatever story was flowing in my head. Over the course of four years I probably wrote a couple of dozen short stories (of dubious quality) and reams of poetry. Apparently, it was conducive to fiction writing.

I don’t get out to the local public library as often as I used to. The past few times I went I ended up getting cornered by homeless people wandering the rows asking for money. There were also unsupervised kids running around yelling and knocking things over. I think the local library was trying to be more inclusive, to increase their visitor numbers, but it got away from them. I hope they can get it back under control. I miss the experience.

Regardless, I recommend trying this for yourself. Find a nice place you can sit and create. Maybe it’s not the library, but a local bookstore may have tables (and coffee) where you can spend some time writing. Or maybe you can hang out in an art gallery for an hour and do something creative. I think you’ll find it’s a unique experience, that it stimulates your creativity.

If you do, please let me know how it goes.

RB

 

January 25

Apollo and Dionysus

If you aren’t up-to-date on your Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus were two of their gods, the sons of Zeus. And unsurprisingly, they had different mothers. Apollo is the god of rational thinking, order, logic. You can say he’s the god of the mind. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the god of wine, chaos, irrationality, emotion. In other words, he can be seen as the god of the heart.

Individually, each of these Greek gods is powerful and forthright. From Apollo we get rationality, common sense, structure…all good things. It’s keeps the trains running on time, keeps the shelves organized, keeps us from sticking a metal fork in the power outlet. Apollo is the one who keeps us safe and keeps us sane.

But a case can be made for wine and chaos, the power of emotion. Dionysus is the one who gives us passion, exposes us to love (and lust), who drives us to try new things, to be a little crazy every now and then. To quote Roald Dahl, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good for us to let loose every so often.

The problem, however, is when we are influenced by one of them more than the other. Too much logic, or too much chaos, is dangerous. For artists, it can ruin our work and our creativity. We need balance, harmony, between Apollo and Dionysus.

I’m a firm believer in balance. If you’re familiar with Eastern philosophy, you’ve probably heard of Yin and Yang, or seen the symbol that represents it (the circle split between black and white, like two tadpoles). It’s a similar concept…the balance between the light and the dark, the positive and negative. We need both in our lives. In other words, we need to have bad things happen in our lives to help balance out the good. Without the bad, you can’t fully appreciate the good.

In any form of art, balance is necessary. We have to combine order and chaos to create tension. It really doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction, horror, erotica, humor, or romance. Tension is always a key component to any form of fiction. It’s much like life…even when things are going well for you, there’s always going to be some tension, some drama, that can’t be avoided. That’s one of the things I learned while studying creative writing in college…you have to have some tension in a story to give it weight. When I first heard this I dismissed it. How can EVERY story have tension? But I later discovered it was true. I read through dozen of short stories and found there was some form of tension in each and every one. Even comedies have tension. Mind blown.

And it doesn’t just apply to the content of stories, it also applies to the writer. A good writer should have the rational and chaotic balanced in their heads. Or at least as balanced as possible. That’s the thing, Apollo and Dionysus are diametrically opposed. They’re in constant conflict, but at the same time they’re drawn to each other. The trick is to try and give them equal time, equal attention. It’s not easy, but with practice it can be done. When we write we have to use the rational side of our minds to consider plot and characterization, how the story is going to flow, how it’s going to come to a satisfying conclusion. With the irrational side of of mind we get creative, we think of the strange possibilities. How can I tell this story of boy meets girl in a new and interesting way?

That’s how it works. We have to accept that we have these two Greek gods at odds in our heads (or at least the spirit of them) and we have to mediate. We are the bringers of balance. We take the best from both sides and create something beautiful. That’s what art is all about.

The truth is, we won’t ever achieve perfect balance. That would be boring, right? Besides, perfect balance would mean no conflict, not tension. We have to let these two brothers push back and forth, let one take the lead for a while, then reverse it. Remember, there is beauty in perfection and beauty in chaos.

Together, well, it’s spectacular.

RB

 

 

January 24

Setting Goals

I think it’s safe to assume that most creative people set goals for themselves. Writers may have a specific word count they want to hit each day. Painters may have a certain amount of canvas they want to cover. Most of our goals are fairly simple and easy to meet. There’s nothing wrong with that. When I’m working on the draft for a story I usually want to write at least one-thousand words a day. That’s in addition to blog posts, journaling, and whatever else I have in the hopper.

Goals are good. They help to motivate us, even if they are easy to hit. One-thousand words a day may not seem like much to many writers, but to me, it’s a goal I know I can reach and it’s enough to give me a feeling of accomplishment.

And I think that’s the main point of setting a goal. You’re not trying to outdo your peers. You’re not trying to set a word count record. You simply want to feel like you accomplished something, that you moved in a positive direction.

I’ve known several creative people over the years who would set almost unreachable goals for themselves. For example, I knew a writer who wanted to write five-thousand words a day. This was a guy with a family and a full-time job. And no, he NEVER hit his goal. The result was that he it would bring him down, make him depressed, make him feel like he wasn’t getting anything done. I suggested to him that he should lower his goal, make it attainable. He argued that was cheating. In his mind, a goal had to be something you had to struggle to achieve so you had a better sense of accomplishment.

I think that’s self-defeating. Sure, goals should be set as something you strive for, but at the same time they have to be realistic. It’s like a runner stating he’s going to run ten miles a day. Sure, that’s impressive, but it’s not realistic…and it’s probably dangerous.

While setting an excessive word count may not kill you, it can affect your mood and your self-esteem. That’s the definition of self-defeating…you’re setting yourself up for failure.

As a creative individual, as an artist, you have to keep yourself motivated and one of the best things you can do is set attainable goals. For example, a writer can start out with a goal of hitting five-hundred words a day. If that goes well, then in six months or a year push that up to one-thousand words a day. Think of it like exercise. If you follow my blog or my podcast then you’ve heard me use this analogy before. Our creativity needs exercise, needs to be used and occasionally abused, in order to be strong. Starting with a simple goal, then slowly extending it, will help you work your way up to doing more and more. It’s a training regimen.

Long distance runners don’t start out competing in twenty-six mile marathons right from the beginning. No, they have to work up to it. Creativity is the same way. I started out writing short pieces of fiction, three to five page page short stories, then worked my way up to longer pieces. I didn’t attempt working on a novel until I’d been writing for many years. Sure, there are some people out there who have innate talent and can write a full novel right out of the gate. That’s fantastic. But for the rest of us, well, we need to build up our stamina, our self-confidence, our routine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just common-sense creativity. If you set your goals too high, you’ll find that you may not be able to reach them and, in turn, you’ll run out of steam and feel bad about yourself.

And I’m not trying to dissuade you from pushing yourself, testing your limits. I’m all for pushing the envelope. Don’t be complacent with your creativity. But at the same time, don’t set unattainable goals, or goals that are nearly impossible to meet.

You’ll find that setting reasonable, attainable goals is just as satisfying as winning that aforementioned marathon. My one-thousand words a day is still a struggle on occasion, but hitting it always feels good. Just like typing “the end” at the end of the final draft of a manuscript. It’s not necessarily something you’re going to brag about, but as long as it makes you feel good inside, makes you feel like you accomplished something, then that’s all that matters.

RB

January 23

Life Becoming Art

Write what you know. That’s the mantra for writers.

In my definition, it means to write about experience. You don’t have to be well-traveled, speak seven languages, or the master of the martial arts. To me, it’s more about emotion and feeling stemming from things that have happened to you. You may not think you’re life is interesting enough to spawn story ideas, but I disagree.

Have you ever been in love? Ever been in a fight? An argument? Have you ever witnessed an accident or someone getting hurt? Have you seen something that made you laugh hysterically or cry uncontrollably? I’m certain you answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. That means you have fuel for the creative fire.

The smallest experiences can be the catalyst for a larger story. I’ve often mined my personal experiences for stories. The trick is to use some event or experience as the starting point, but then fictionalize it. I have an unpublished story I completed last year that is a perfect example. I used some long-standing family strife to write a story about two siblings attending their father’s funeral. The characters are much different from the real people, and the events in the story are completely fictitious, but it’s still based on real experience. What I did was use the strife as a starting point, but instead of using actual family members I created four characters with their own personalities and had them work through the issues.

In a way, I guess you could say it was a form of therapy, as well. Of course, the story is dark and takes a turn, but that’s okay. The point here is that I used real events and turned them into fiction. I didn’t have to travel to some exotic locale, I didn’t have to do any research, and I didn’t have to try and come up with some fantastical premise. Oftentimes, the best plot devices are the simplest.

There’s another unpublished story I wrote years ago that also uses life experience as a starting point. My biological mother died when I was four years old. I don’t have any memory of her and it’s an event that’s stuck with me through my life. One afternoon I was sitting in a library at Florida State University, just doodling in my notebook while waiting for a friend, and I started thinking about her and about closure. I wondered what it would have been like if I’d had an opportunity to say goodbye to her, to have a solid memory to hold onto.

So I started drafting a story about a young boy who has lost his mother. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, why all these people are at his house, why they’re all crying and upset, so he goes out to the backyard to sit on his swing set. After a bit, a woman joins him, sitting on the swing next to him. He can’t quite see her face, but she seems familiar, and she talks to him about loss. It was a difficult story to write, but in the end I was happy with how it turned out. It’s also a good example of using personal experience – writing what I know – to create a piece of fiction.

You can use anything for a story. That trip you took to an amusement park with some friends, the brief encounter with the cute barista at the coffee shop, or that time your family was in a car accident. The event doesn’t necessarily have to be life-changing or traumatic, but if you have something like that happen in your life, use it. Otherwise, look for the small things. What about that time you went to the animal shelter to adopt a puppy or kitten? Or maybe that conversation you had with a school counselor about your future. You could even write about a trip to the bookstore.

Literally anything can be a prompt. It’s all about what you do with it, how creative you get with massaging it into something new, something interesting. As I like to say, you have to be honest in your writing, use real emotions, real reactions, but your settings and characters can be anything you want.

I think that writing from real life makes stories better because the author is more invested in it. Life can be stranger than fiction, so why not use it?

RB