I'm not talking about the phone directory. I'm talking about what my son brings home, without fail, from his Montessori preschool each day: a small rectangular piece of white paper completely covered with yellow paint.
The first few days he brought home the yellow page, I thought it was cute. Then it started to seem a little weird. Liam's school has this slightly big-brother feature of a one-way mirror that lets you observe your child in his or her classroom (not that that factored into my ideas for The Knife and a Butterfly, ahem...). So we watched and saw that painting the white page yellow was the first thing that our son did every day. Not the only thing, mind you. But the first thing. A first thing that inevitably opened onto many other tasks which changed from day to day.
It seems that this yellow page is a kind of starting ritual for our son, something he does to settle himself into being at school. And it's pretty damn smart, actually. I'm thinking maybe that I need to start painting a page yellow at the start of each day as a way of saying to myself, here we go, let's get down to writing, you've got some shit to accomplish. Maybe not literally painting a page yellow, but establishing a ritual and preserving it's definitive significance: Now I Am At Work.
He's a smart guy, our Liam.
Everybody wants to write a winning story, but how do you do it? Some answers here, although not really from me. I have written stories--quite a few, in fact--and they won me some small money while I was in college. But I don't know anything about writing stories as a grown-up because I got the hell out of story-land just as soon as I figured out I could write novels. (It takes me almost as much start-up energy to write a story as it does to write a novel; my ideas come slowly, only with much cooking and many false starts. Sure, the execution is *sometimes* less involved for a story than a novel, but I'd rather suffer for something that gets to have its own cover.)
But I know people whose backs are bowed with the weight of all their story ideas. In fact, apparently there is such a thing as TMIS or Too Many Ideas Syndrome (posts at Writer's Digest, and Write World for those of you who, like me, wondered why many ideas would be a problem); sufferers report lack of focus and fear of attack from characters waiting to be brought onto the page.
Anyway, for you weirdos with so many ideas that writing stories is a must just to relieve some of the pressure, David Farland's daily newsletter has a post on what he looks for when judging a story (in this case, for the Writers of the Future contest). In this particular post, he talks about originality, and the story he uses as an instance of originality is by Quarter 2 Writers of the Future winner Alisa Alering, a writer I know well and whose work I love. The post offers great insights that can help you see your story in the context of what everybody else is (or might be) doing. Here's what Farland says about originality (and Alisa's story):
...in that quarter of Writers of the Future where I got several good ghost stories, one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s take, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a young girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world, that the girl can peer into.
So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before. Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it. So she scored higher on the originality scale, than did some of the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.
Check out the rest of the post for the various locations of originality in a story, and if you have ideas to spare, feel free to send them my way.
According to popular myths about writers, suffering is integral to the creative process; if you are not in pain, you aren’t serious about your work.
For the most part, I find this notion annoying at best, downright troubling at worst. There’s a whole pathological strain of thought that steers people toward seeking trauma and perverse intensity in the misguided belief that it will enrich their writing. (Instead, it usually ends up wrecking their personal lives.) I believe that happy people can be good writers, even if we don’t write out of our happiness.
Still, if writing feels too easy all the time, something may be wrong. Creativity is often awkward and uncomfortable because it requires that we think otherwise than we normally do. Like doing unfamiliar exercises, that means some pain. And when we get “good” at a certain aspect of writing, it’s time to push our personal horizons outward and find new challenges.
There’s nothing wrong, however, with having a phase of blissful productivity or finding a groove. I know writers who thrive in the early, generative days of writing a novel. They exult in the infinite possibilities; they play. For me, all the possibilities are terrifying, and I live in doubt as to whether there is any there there in what I’m writing. It’s a lot of floundering and flabby prose and trying to get shit down on the page.
But when it is time to revise, I shine. This is my golden time. Unwriting words, opening new spaces, and filling them with better, brighter, fuller writing than I could ever manage the first time: that is when I am at my best. Something takes shape in the mass, and I know why I am doing what I’m doing. The suffering quotient goes way, way down, and I remember: joy is just as integral to the creative process.