My Morning Writer Mantra

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As an aspiring author I have spent a great deal of time reading books on self-editing and ways to improve your writing. In college I took creative writing courses and I am constantly critiquing and editing my own work. I think of writing (mostly the editing bit) as an act of self-reflection and an opportunity to grow. But honestly, with so many different techniques and critiques out there, I found it confusing and difficult to remember some of the important points.

In order to clarify and keep all this stuff in mind while I write and edit, I now have a morning mantra.

When I first get up (usually I have to write something down from a crazy dream the night before). I get a glass of water, take some vitamins and then go to my desk. There, as you can see in the picture, a ton of sticky notes are hanging. This drives my wife crazy, but hey, I am a messy guy. I then spend some time reading each note, to remind myself of various important elements of writing.

Here are five (I have 19 currently) of the daily reminders I use to improve my writing.

  1. How much time do you spend describing the characters, character?

This is classic show don’t tell but specific to characters. When I am going through additional drafts I copy and paste this to a new document and delete anything like this. Then I try to incorporate elements of the character’s personality into the scene in a way that moves the story forward.

  1. Engage in Talking Head Avoidance Devices

In other words, instead of straight dialogue (imagine floating heads detached from a scene) try to incorporate action that tells you something about the character. This also means allowing the character to use the environment to tell you about their habits and behaviors or what kinds of actions they do on a daily basis.

  1. The War of the Long and the Short

This one is about creating good tension in a scene. Long sentences tend to mean that a lot of activity is happening all at once. Short sentences usually represent quick action or flashes of insight. For good tension and better narrative flow the long and the short sentences should be in a kind of battle for control, constantly trading off.

  1. Be Specific, Definitive and Concrete

A simple reminder that vague writing is often boring writing. Creating specific and decisive sentences is the key to strong description. If you can’t make up your mind about what is happening in a scene (via vague writing and passive voice) then you will bore the reader.

  1. Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)

I think this is the one that I have to remember most. I am constantly removing this stuff after my first drafts. I find myself wanting to justify the character’s actions with a bit of history or some roundabout explanation that really doesn’t advance the story. I usually have a separate document for these so that I keep track of what I have said about the characters and delete as much explanation as possible from the main story. Later these can emerge in the dialogue or through action.

Hope this was helpful to some of the other writers out there. I would love to hear if you have any morning mantras or rituals that help to improve your writing. If so what are they? Feel free to share them in the comment section below.

To Me Writing Is…

Moth-in-handsI am a bit in danger of waxing philosophical here… but here goes. To me writing is the solidification of the very potential of the human experience. In other words, writing takes the empty spaces of existence and creates via a spectrum of possibility and imagination.

Lots of big words I know. But this isn’t just about writing, this is about art.

Art has no easily definable value for immediate survival. What purpose does it serve exactly? It does not keep us alive. It does not nourish us or keep us warm during the cold winter. It does not quench our thirst or fulfill any of our other basic needs. Art is primarily based on social interactions and imagination.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The very fact that it is beyond the meager nature of basic survival means that it is something entirely important. Art and writing are a demonstration that we, as human beings have discarded the fear surrounding the acquisition of our primary necessities and taken another step forward into the realm of all that is possible.

In particular, writing shares other worlds, other ideas, other possibilities for humanity to interact with. Ultimately all writing is some sort of fantastical thought experiment (yes even dime novels) asking the question, what would the world (or my world) be like if…

That is the beautiful nature of all art, to ask the questions that we may not be able to ask in our everyday working grind. So many of us work multiple jobs these days or are distracted by sitcoms and reality TV that demonstrate the same plots and patterns over and over again. In a time when humanity is undergoing a sizable crucible, when we have to collectively decide what role we would like to play in the future of our species, art has never been so important.

I believe that experimentation, imagined or real, is the only way forward through the fires of human suffering. I believe (there is an awful lot of my beliefs in here isn’t there?) that art and writing to help create a space for the flowering of all human potential. Fiction in particular gives us the opportunity to step back from ourselves and allow questions to be asked, that we would not normally not ask (A master of this was the well-known author Ursula K. Le Guin) and try on a different pair of shoes or clothes or skin.

So, to me writing is… the nourishment of the soul and a meal for the mind. It is the birth of what we can be and perhaps in time, what we will be.

Science Fiction + Anthropology???

I always have a lot of irons in the fire. I work on film projects, create visual art, write and teach. However, everything I do is grounded in one thing, Anthropology.

When I was an undergraduate I changed my major… a lot. I started out in music performance (I was in rock bands and jazz bands playing the guitar) and realized that I was nowhere near as good as some of my fellow classmates. I got burned out and quit school for a while. When I went back I tried majoring in English and Creative Writing and then in Philosophy. Then one semester, I decided to take an Intro to Cultural Anthropology and it changed my life.

I quickly realized, that my whole life I have been fascinated by human beings and other cultures. After taking that course, I switched my major to Anthropology and Religious Studies. I went on to do field research schools in Northern Mexico and on Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation in Southern Colorado. Then I went to graduate school at Portland State University and worked on a project with 17 Native American Tribes of the Great Basin and a project that involved a community theater troupe in Denver. After finishing graduate school I began teaching at Metro State University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver.

There is little more I enjoy, then exploring other ways of knowing and experiencing the world. I have always wanted to understand what it would be like to see the world through many different sets of eyes.

So what in the world does this have to do with Science Fiction? Well a lot actually. Science Fiction, as most of you reading this probably know, is about creating a unique and different world from our own. It is about imagining the future (Note: for a wonderful blog on Indigenous Science Fiction visit https://medium.com/space-anthropology/navajos-on-mars-4c336175d945#.3sgnjptnl ) and other possibilities and potentials. In short, science fiction is about stepping back and trying to see the world through a unique set of eyes. This is not unlike cultural anthropology.

This is one of the reasons that my novel ‘Upon Stilted Cities’ doesn’t just have a singular main character/protagonist. Instead you view the world from several different individuals, each with unique perspective on a future world with giant walking cities. There are several different cultures within the book and I even took time to do some additional research on those cultures in the present and then attempted to imagine their future. Basically, I wanted to try and create a world that was as authentic and diverse as possible, all while crafting an engaging story with unique characters.

Science Fiction does not need to be informed by Anthropology, but the two are certainly complementary, just look at one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut http://www.openculture.com/2014/02/kurt-vonnegut-masters-thesis-rejected-by-u-chicago.html