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Using childhood memories to combat writer’s block

23 Sep

The podcast Grammar Girl had a good episode 292 about overcoming writer’s block, written by Roy Peter Clark, who teaches at the Poynter Institute. Especially "Lower your standards, raise them later," seems to apply to me. I get bogged down by how awesome my story is going to be. It paralysis the creative output, paraphrased from Mignon Fogarty narrating in the podcast.

First of all let me apologize for not posting for so long. I was preoccupied with personal fitness, which had gone down to an all-time low. Getting back into shape (which I’m still busy with) took all my attention, but now I’ve dialed down the intensity a bit, I have energy (and time) to resume writing.

Now about lowering your standards at the beginning. This very post you’re reading started with a few sentences written with a ballpoint pen on a piece of paper. Then I didn’t use a fancy text editor, but just what came with the OS (TextEdit on Mac OS X).

To help me with the formatting a bit, I used Marked by Brett Terpstra. It accepts markdown, as suggested by John Gruber of Daring Fireball. It also accepts an "improved" version of markdown, called multimarkdown, as developed and maintained by Fletcher Penney. Both methods use plain text files without special formatting (like RTF). The text and the formatting of the text are both readable, in characters you type on a keyboard, not by selecting text and applying style to it, as you would do in a word processor. Special tools exist to translate these plain text files into publishable formats, like HTML. You only need to write one source file to have multiple publication formats.

But never mind that, though. Use whatever tools work best for you. The point I wanted to make is that I used the simplest of tools, as lo-fi as possible, to lower my expectations and simply write instead of worrying about how it looks.

As useful simple and unpretentious tools may be for the writer, he or she still has to walk the walk. The basics of writing haven’t really changed in the last few hundred years. You need to come up with an idea that makes you want to work hard at something that (hopefully) will grab the reader’s attention.

Now as a writer you can only entice a reader to keep on reading. So how about that? How do you even begin to work on that part of the writing process? How do you get people to read what you write, especially if those people don’t know you personally?

Well, as an experiment, I went over some of my fondest childhood memories related to reading books. My reasoning was that if I can capture this feeling of fondness, use it for writing, surely some of it will be picked up by the reader. Maybe he or she will think: "Wow, this is good stuff! I need to read more of this!" If that’s the case: yay!

As a kid, I really enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" (in Dutch translation), which my mother lent from the local library when I had the flu and high fever (41 C, 106 F). I could only read a few pages at a time before I feel asleep from exhaustion, tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if those tears were from exhaustion (fever) or excitement (story). I guess a bit of both. It made the pain in my bones feel somewhat bearable and gave me something positive to think about when I was awake.

Sometimes your imagination can be sparked by something else than a book. I have fond memories of watching tropical fish in a fish tank. The sight made me imagine another world from my own, completely alien, but real. Real to me at least, at that moment. I can’t remember the specifics, though, because I didn’t write them down.

I think it is this mindset of a young child wondering about the world you should be after, not indulging into some kind of nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, other than it isn’t very productive for writing. You want the feeling, the mindset, not the accompanying train of thoughts of how things were better when you were young.

You want a sense of wondering, of seeing something for the first time, and wanting to explore it with a sense of discovery. In this mindset you could write the stars in the Heavens, if you wanted, and convey your deepest, most inner feelings to your readers (as you should).

Most likely, though, your very first draft will not accomplish the latter. You need to craft your story first before you can do that. However, if you don’t capture the description of your initial feelings, when things are still fresh in your mind and haven’t been tested and prodded by the story-writing process, you can never blossom as a storyteller. You need to be always on the ready. There’s no such thing as a part-time creative. It’s a full-time commitment, because new ideas can come to you at any moment and you need to capture them, then and there.

With the above in mind, I think one should use this child-like mindset for a first draft only, to get the rough emotions on paper, in words (and in the case of comics, in words and pictures). It’s the longing for something awesome, for something new and exciting, that you want to put in the reader’s mind. I didn’t do that with my childhood fish tank experience, but, as an adult and aspiring writer now, I should apply discipline to my craft if I want to be more than just another hack who only does first drafts.

You may now think I’m harping on it too much, like a religious zealot and you may be right. I can get carried away a bit by new insights. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here for you more experienced writers. Experienced as a writer, a fiction writer, I am not. So this hopefully explains why I’m stating the obvious, to some of you at least.

I suppose in the second, third, etc. draft you start to use your skill as a writer, reorganizing events. You want to take the reader by the hand and gently lead them through your world, using a plot, a sequence of events, to tell them what this world is about. You, the writer, are not in that picture, not for them and not even for yourself. It should be all about the experience, the experience you had and want to share to others.

After all, isn’t that what fictional storytelling is all about, sharing sublime experiences?

Keep writing!

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Scrap that web comic?

2 Sep

It has been a long time since I posted something to read on this blog. At least, it feels like it. Since I started the web comic and, probably most of all, a personal goal to get into shape for a marathon by the end of this year, all my energy seems to go into that.

What bugs me the most about my web comic is that I’m so self-conscious. With that I mean I don’t just create something, but think heavily about what people are going to think about it. That may sound sensible, but it’s not. It’s keeping my creative ideas hostage.

This is exactly what I was afraid of. People told me: “If you want to do a web comic, just create one, don’t think too much about it.” Bad advice. For me at least. Now I’m stuck with that web comic.

I’m reading Orson Scott Card’s excellent book, titled “How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy.” It’s not so much a recipe book, but more a book about how to approach the creative process of writing novels, with a focus on speculative fiction. He has some great advice on ripening ideas:

The first thing you should learn […] is that no two stories are developed in exactly the same way. However, in my experience one thing is constant: Good stories don’t come from trying to write a story the moment I think of the first idea. All but a handful of my stories have come from combining two completely unrelated ideas that have been following their own tracks through my imagination. And all the stories I was still proud of six months after writing them have come from ideas that ripened for many months—usually years—between the time I first thought of them and the time they were ready to put into a story.

“Great,” you say, “I pick up this book, hoping to learn how to write speculative fiction, and now this guy’s telling me that I have to wait months or years before writing stories about any new ideas I think of.”

That’s what I’m telling you: You’ll probably have to wait months or years before writing good versions of story ideas you come up with now. But you probably already have hundreds of story ideas that have been ripening inside you for many years. For some writers, one of the best ways to help an idea ripen is to try writing a draft of it, seeing what comes up when you actually try to make it into a story. As long as you recognize that the draft you write immediately after thinking of the ideas will almost certainly have to be thrown away and rewritten from the beginning, you’ll be fine.

That’s just dandy! I wished someone told me that earlier. Since I’ve only started this thinking about stories this year, and reading other people’s stories has been limited by no access to them other than buying online, I have little reading experience as well.

So what should I do, start all over or muddle through? I’m tempted to put it on indefinite hiatus until I’ve found a good way to express my ideas.

Pride of lions

29 Aug

A few weeks ago I started a comic strip called “Big Schtick.” It was more like me venting ideas about running. However, I changed directions when I saw this would get old pretty soon. Within a few days I penciled together a cast of 5 characters, of whom I know little, not even what they look like exactly, even less how they act and reaction to situations.

Pride of lions

It feels like throwing myself into a pit filled with hungry lions who didn’t have anything to eat for weeks and weeks. Not good.

I will muddle through, but let that be a lesson to you (and myself) to do a test run of your web comic before publishing it. On the other hand, I would never have started this comic if I kept waiting for things to click. I guess I’m someone who needs trial by fire to get off his lazy behind and actually do something.

Like creating a web comic.

Story

31 Jul

I’m trying to get better at storytelling, so I’m looking for little signs about the craft. Hurray for podcasts!

After listening to Mur Lafferty’s interview with Tracy Hickman on I should be writing, Hickman did an offhand remark about story and realism, that story is how the world should be, not how it is (or what I thought, could be).

Then, after listening to Comic Book Outsiders, with special co-host Stacey Whittle and host Steve Aryan, where they talked about the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, there was another offhand remark. If you go from one book to the other, some time has passed and while reading the book you get a hint of what has happened, off camera, so to speak.

It was a subtle hint to write another blog post, before all of this fades away in oblivion. I just can’t keep all of this in my brain. I need to dump it onto my blog for later reference. So here it is.

A story is an amped up anecdote

Compared to anecdotes told among friends, a written story should be amplified for dramatic effect. Personal anecdotes are only interesting for those who know the storyteller intimately and can related to him or her. If you are writing for a wider audience than your friends and family, you need to step outside the bubble of personal life experiences. You need to stylize what you tell, so it will be more accessible for people who don’t know you. They can use their own life experiences to fill in the blanks you left in your story on purpose.

This means you can’t simply let the words flow from your mind to your keyboard, but you have to craft your story. What you can assume known amongst your friends (and if not, they can ask while you are doing the telling) has to be conveyed to a reader somehow. However, if you merely state the facts, most readers will get bored, because facts have little emotional impact, do little to engage. It’s all about packaging the facts that are required to understand the story. Therein lies the craft of fictional storytelling.

So you don’t want to bullet point facts. You may assume anyone above the age of six has some level of storytelling ability and you can and should make use of that ability. Hence you can assume some level of sophistication when it comes to relaying story facts in imaginative and novel ways.

That’s as far as I dare to go. Nuggets of knowledge about the craft come in little chunks. I suppose this is because most authors have little to no insight in their creative process, at least at a level that is useful for novice writers. They can tell you how they write, which could be totally different from how you best write.

One thing is certain, though. You learn how to write by actually writing, not by merely thinking about writing. Even so, you should do so with the intent to entertain your reader, to grab his or her attention, while (and hopefully beyond) reading your story.

Tell it in your own words

What does that actually mean, “in your own words?” To me it means that you interpret the story, give a spin of your own. If it’s a factual story (an anecdote), the amount of imagination you will put into it will be low. However, if it’s a fictional story, you can put as much imagination into a story as you want.

Now I have ventured out into unknown territory, where I have no authority (at least not yet). I feel lost and unsure of myself. I know I’m not yet ready to write stories that are worth publishing.

This is actually a good thing. How many novice writers are sure they are about to write the next bestseller, while they’re clearly not ready? They couldn’t write themselves out of a paper bag.

So there seems to be more to storytelling than merely retelling in your own words. I’m puzzled, at a loss. What am I to do next?

Ack!*

Yes, I’m here, but I’m still not sure what’s next.

I promise I will tell you once I know more.

*Sign of presence, answered with the same word by anyone present.

Only one year of portrait drawing

28 May

In their infinite wisdom, the Dutch government has decided to start raising value added tax on education for people over 20. Since I was just able to pay the lesson fee for a weekly portrait course, with the help of special social benefits (which are likely to be cut away as well), I can’t really justify such a high fee on what is essentially a hobby.

That’s just too bad. I thought the portrait course was really helpful. Now I have find other means to work on my life drawing skills, probably draw in public spaces.

I had plans to go the nude life figure drawing in my third year, but I guess that’s out of the question now. I’m sure I’ll be missed.

Thinking of a new mini-comic

22 Apr

Pigguin s conquest of the world

I’m thinking of doing a mini-comic based on a guinea pig who wants to conquer the world. His human companion, Jon, is a cartoonist who loves superhero comics. This has inspired the guinea pig, called Pigguin, to become a super villain and conquer the world, in his secret identity of Dr. Incognito.

The idea started with the sketch of the cartoon hamster on the top left. After I made a side view, I remembered once saying in a chat on Ustream with Canadian cartoonist Jonathan Rector, while feeding his girlfriend’s guinea pig, that he should do a mini-comic about the little guy.

Since Jon is all wrapped up in work as an independent illustrator and his own mini-comic, about Jesop King, I decided to do this mini-comic about the guinea pig myself. Mind you, just about 30 minutes ago or so.

Sometimes things go faster than a speeding bullet.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog post. Definitely check out Jonathan Rector’s website or follow him on Twitter (artbyjar).

Warmup sketch, likeness and failing art

16 Apr

I’m exploring the point of failure in drawing. At what point am I giving up and why? Why in blazes do I want to bother about failing? Isn’t success much more important? Simply put, I want to improve my process. The best way to do that is to fail often and fail early and then revise where you want wrong.

Warmup sketch, likeness and failing art

Since the above drawing is my warmup sketch, I didn’t give a dang about structure. I took a random ad from my TV guide and started drawing top to bottom. There was some structure, but not much. Warmup is all about getting the bad drawing out of your system, so what follows is pure gold (one hopes).

And then it happened. The magic was lost. I saw so many mistakes on top of each other, so many entangled knots that I simply gave up. Of course, I knew this was going to happen, because I didn’t work systematically, being a warmup sketch and such.

And to be honest, a year ago, I would have been very proud at a result like this. I wouldn’t even have known that I made any mistakes, let alone how to avoid them. At most, I would have noticed that the result looked “odd”.

Also a year ago, I would have needed a 2B or even 4B lead, or I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at on the page. I enhanced the contrast of the scan considerably, so it reproduces better on a computer screen (and still it’s rather faint).

What has changed is that I’ve started to use a 4H-lead. The marks left behind by such a pencil are so faint, that you must be very aware what you are drawing in order to recognize the image on the paper. With that I mean that by using a faint pencil sketch, I force myself to internalize the original. I can then use that internalized image as my guide, instead of what is on a sheet of paper.

Yes, you read that correctly, if you want to draw from life, most of the drawing happens in your mind, not on paper. On paper are just the slight notations and some landmarks. The real story is inside your head. If you want anyone else to understand that story, you need to make it as clear as possible.

With “story” I mean “visual impression”. It is hard to explain to non-artists, but I will try to do so anyway.

How do you recognize a face? Well, I suppose you don’t really know. You just do. However, take a photo of someone you know and cover the top half. Do you still recognize him or her? You probably do. How is this possible? Aren’t the eyes what makes you recognize someone?

You have internalized the missing part. You already know the photo, even if you only got a glance at it before covering the top part. In your mind’s eye you can see those eye, even if your eyes can’t see it, because the top half of the photo is covered.

The same goes for drawing. You have drawn so many faces, that you’ve internalized a “standard face”, which you can draw with your eyes closed, so to speak. If you draw someone, you only have to notice in which ways that person deviates from the “standard face”. It’s this deviation you put on paper as an artist in the initial sketch. After all, you want to capture the particularities of a face, what makes it different from other faces. Then you fill in the rest with your knowledge of the “standard face” (what you’ve internalized by drawing so many different faces).

A typical beginner’s mistake is to start with the standard face, by using a schematic face they have adopted from a book about drawing faces. While such books are helpful to point the beginner what to look at, it’s no replacement for drawing experience. You need to have drawn a few hundred faces with some effort of trying to make it look like the original. At that point you have some conception of what a face looks like, beyond the point of recognition.

Again a stunning revelation for some, I guess. If it looks like the original, if I can recognize who it is, isn’t that enough? Well, it can be. For a mug shot, a composited portrait of a crime suspect, recognition is the only quality that is important. Rendering is kept to a minimum, so people don’t have to interpret the drawing too much. Even so, people are not as good in recognizing strangers, because they try to avoid eye contact. So these composite drawings seem to work best if the suspect is someone you know, someone whose face you have internalized.

Having a bad memory for faces myself, I don’t care as much about likeness as some do. It’s the structure of a face and the rendering of the features I’m concerned with as an artist. That this happens to coincide with a likeness is a happy accident, if you’d ask me in honesty.

So it’s the combination of likeness, structure and rendering that forms the “story” I want to tell with my sketches and drawings of faces. Because I publish my art and know that others care about it, I still need to concern myself with likeness. For most a portrait that doesn’t look like the original is a failed portrait, however “artsy” the drawing might be.

My take on it is that putting likeness at the top of the list of things to do in a portrait drawing or painting will lead to stiff art, like the person is consciously posing. If you put it lower on the list and start playing with structure and rendering first, the result will be much looser and satisfying.

I guess time will tell if I’m right. Many of my fellow students at my local community college I see measuring with a pencil first and mechanically reproducing a face with some kind of formula. The few who don’t have much looser art, but needed many years (ten or more) to arrive at that point. I have only been drawing seriously since 2009. The only difference is that I don’t put as much value on convention as some seem to do. Some may say that’s a weakness and if that’s true, I’m using that weakness to my advantage.