Category: Inspiration

Writing Tip: Feed Your Brain

One of the basic tenets of creative writing is that feasting on a regular diet of good literature will help improve your own writing. And I agree that there’s value in this tactic. But that’s not the kind of “brain food” I want to talk about today.

I’m talking about actual food. As in, if you want to write well, if you want to do your best work, then you have to eat.

It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s a lesson it took me a while to learn, and it was an eye-opener. When I engage in a fiction writing marathon (usually thanks to a fast-approaching deadline), I find myself getting hungry more frequently than usual. I didn’t understand this at first. Why would writing — which requires almost no physical exertion — make me hungry? It sounds silly.

And yet it happens every time, without fail. I finally came to understand that engaging in the kind of deep concentration required for writing may not be physical exercise, but it’s exercise nonetheless. Your brain is a muscle like any other: use it more than usual, and it needs extra fuel. Fail to provide that fuel, and it won’t be able to function properly. If you’re not eating enough during a period of heavy writing, then what you’re writing won’t be very good. In a worst case scenario, you may not even be able to get the creative side of your brain into gear.

Yes, you run the risk of gaining a little weight by following this tip. But your mind is your body’s engine. And every engine needs fuel to run.

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A Lesson in Suspense

When a writer thinks of creating suspense, we often think of building tension through pacing and/or action. But there are any number of ways to build suspense — it’s less about what you portray and more about how you portray it. (The same goes for storytelling in general: it’s better to have a humdrum story idea that’s told brilliantly than to have the greatest story idea ever but execute it horribly.)

Here’s a perfect example. The clip above comes from the 2002 Tom Clancy movie, The Sum of All Fears. If you’ve never seen it, I’ll be straight with you: it’s not that great a movie. But this scene is utterly brilliant.

Sum was an attempted reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise with Ben Affleck taking over as a younger version of the main character (12 years before Chris Pine did the exact same thing). Ryan spends most of the movie attempting to track down a missing nuclear bomb, and this sequence, roughly in the middle of the film, is when his search comes to a head. He phones his boss — played by Morgan Freeman — to tell him that he has a lead on the bomb, which has recently been seen at a harbor in Baltimore. Unbeknownst to Ryan, Freeman’s character and the U.S. President himself are in Baltimore at that exact moment, attending a highly publicized football game.

Watch how the suspense builds when Freeman’s character slowly realizes what Ryan’s report means. What’s so fantastic about this scene is that it builds suspense in an atypical way. There’s no action, no explosions or gunshots, nor any other standard suspense tropes that we’re used to. Taken out of context, you probably wouldn’t even know anything is amiss at this football game. It looks like all American fun, business as usual. But the music and the expression on Freeman’s face sell the truth of the scene.

Obviously, movies and books are quite different, and novelists employ different tools to create suspense than filmmakers do. But this scene always inspires me as a writer because it creates exquisite, heart-pounding suspense in a completely outside-the-box way.

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Hobbiton of the Future?

I love looking at original artwork for writing inspiration. Here’s a cool one I came across today. I love it because it merges obvious fantasy overtones with hints of science fiction.

What do you think is going on in this painting? What is this village? Who are the three travelers? Are they entering this place for the first time, or is it where they live, and now they’re departing for destinations unknown? What’s your story for this image?

Source: “Arrival in Ordania” by Timo Mimus.

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Writing Tip: Stop In the Middle

Teachers and experienced writers will tell you to “start in the middle” when telling your story, because the middle is generally more interesting and exciting. This well-known tactic suggests that all of the introduction and exposition materials that generally go at the beginning of a story (and can be a bit dull) can be filled in along the way. I’ve done this several times myself.

But I bet no one’s ever told you to “stop in the middle.”

When writing, we like to keep going and not take a break until we get to “a good stopping point.” In other words, when it comes time to stop writing, we prefer to get to the end of a chapter, scene, or section. It feels more like an accomplishment that way because you can easily measure your output.

Here’s a trick that I’ve found more productive: stop writing in the middle of a chapter, scene, or section. Don’t wait to the end. Stop smack dab in the middle.

Why? Because the middle is easier to jump back into.

Writers know when they’ve reached their sweet spot. That place where your creative juices are flowing like a river, your dialogue crackles, you’re thinking the way your character does (instead of the way you do), and everything pops off the page. Some writers can go straight into that mode the minute they start writing, but it takes most of us some time and effort to get there.

The problem with stopping at a clearly defined point of separation is that when you pick the narrative back up, you might be writing a different setting, a different situation, from a different character’s P.O.V., and so on. It forces you to start working your way back into that sweet spot entirely from scratch.

So I use this trick as a shortcut: Stop at a point in the narrative where you know exactly what’s going to happen next. It may seem counter-intuitive to walk away when you can already hear the next few lines of prose in your head. Just try it.

I’m always amazed at how quickly this little trick brings me right back to my creative sweet spot — as if I never left it.

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A Little Spark

I’m crazy about orchestral scores from movies. Nothing helps me more to set the mood while I’m writing than a great score. This track is one of my all-time favorites. It’s called “My Name is Lincoln,” and as you can see, it’s from the movie The Island. This big, sweeping anthem is hope perfectly portrayed through music. It also happens to be the music that my wife and I used as the recessional at the end of our wedding.

I hope it sparks your creative juices!

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