Friday, November 13, 2009

Yoga and Writing

A writer's life can be active: speaking at conferences, attending book signings, giving interviews. But, most of my time is spent typing at my laptop or sketching out ideas in a notebook. Long hours of this sedentary type of work causes muscle strain and headaches.

When I become focused on what's going onto the page, I no longer pay attention to my posture. Without realizing it, I'm soon hunching over the keyboard, sometimes remaining in the same position for an hour or two, and even clenching my jaw. To soothe my cramped hands and alleviate the crook in my neck, I do yoga.

The practice of yoga began thousands of years ago in India. The same poses are still taught today around the globe. Gyms, fitness centers, and spas offer instructor-led classes for groups while many personal trainers now include some yoga in regimes for private clients. Novices can also teach themselves through a variety of media such as cable fitness programs, DVDs, and books.

For a decade I have maneuvered my body through poses and stretches in order to work out the muscle kinks caused by daily life. When I started writing full time three years ago, sticking to a daily yoga routine provided me with benefits beyond keeping limber and honing my balance.

Practicing yoga for one half hour a day forces me to leave the computer behind both physically and mentally. This break is part of my everyday schedule, as important to me as meeting a deadline because it has become a step in my writing process.

One of yoga's basic tenets is breath. We breathe constantly, yet seldom do we take the time to concentrate on our breath, to be in the present moment. For writers, breath can be both the literal action of inhaling and exhaling, but also the metaphorical stirring of creativity.

Sustained yoga breathing allows me to focus on what's happening at that moment without worrying about what still needs to be done or what transpired earlier. I stretch my limbs, lower my heart rate, and clear my mind. Breathing through poses with names like upward facing dog, butterfly, and warrior one, reminds me about the whimsy in life and never to underestimate the value and strength of even the smallest part of our world or my creative musings.

Since I've been doing yoga for many years I've learned to customize my practice every day. Depending on which muscles need the most attention and just how sore they are, I concentrate on specific poses and determine how long a session should last. I always end with savasana, a resting pose where I lay flat on my back and allow all of my muscles to relax and "sink into the ground," starting at the tips of my toes.

After a yoga session, I feel confident and rested. Because I am refreshed mentally and renewed physically, my creativity rises, and I look forward to sitting down to write again. I can look at my goals realistically and work on completing them one at a time, even if that involves hours at the keyboard or hours signing books at the local bookstore.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Think of the Scene

I have always been an admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I may have just a small prejudice because he is a Minnesota boy, but beyond that, he was just a great writer. His descriptions were always genuine and precise. Nothing he wrote ever detracted from the story. And so I look to him when I need help with my own writing.

One problem we writers might have is showing what each character does during a scene. When characters speak, how should we show that? Or what happens when a character needs to react? What if they are suddenly surprised, or angry? A common error is what is called, 'head bobbing'.

To show what I mean, imagine two characters sitting across from each other. Call them Tony and Jeff. Tony needs to tell Jeff that he lost the contract for the job. Jeff will blame it on Tony and they'll end up in a fight. If we do head bobbing, it would go something like this:

Tony thought about what he should tell Jeff. He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair for a moment and ran his fingers through his hair while Jeff watched him. Finally he decided just to spit it out. "You lost the contract, Jeff."

Jeff stared at Tony. He was stunned. He finally stood up so quickly his chair clattered on the floor. "That's bullshit!" he said.

Tony squirmed in his chair. "I didn't have anything to do with it," he said.

Jeff glared down at Tony. He was filled with a rage. His mouth curled into a sneer. "You're a liar."

"It was Jake," Tony said as he looked around for a way to escape. "Jake wanted the job. He out bid you."

Jeff puffed up and clenched his fingers into a fist. Then he slammed his hands onto the table. It hit Tony in the legs and he fell forward. Jeff leaned over and grabbed Tony's hair and with a fit of anger, slammed him on the table.

The writer wants to show what Tony does when he thinks, so he shows him tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair. And Jeff needs to react, so the writer shows him curling his lip into a sneer when he talks back to Tony. Somehow this all comes out as contrived.

When I re-read Fitzgerald, I saw that he did what all great writers do. He didn't do anything. There wasn't a single bit of head bobbing. The characters did only what they were supposed to do. His writing was transparent.

But how do we change the example above to reflect this? We don't focus on the characters moment by moment. We focus instead on the scene. With Tony and Jeff, we need to first see what the scene is about. Tony has to tell Jeff that he lost the contract. So we only show the action that will get us to this end.

Tony slouched in his chair. Jeff watched him from across the table. Jeff wasn't going to like what he heard, that was for sure, but if he didn't hear it, he'd hate him just the same.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Jeff.

The comment pulled Tony out of his reverie. "Uh--"

"Just spit it out, Tony."

Jeff was right. Best just to tell him. "You lost the contract."

"Bullshit!" Jeff jumped up so quickly his chair clattered on the floor.

"Look, I didn't have anything to do with it."

Jeff glared down at Tony. His eyes filled with a rage that was going to explode in just a second.

Tony eased himself away from the table. "It was Jake. Jake wanted the job. He out bid you."

"You're a liar!" Jeff slammed his hands into the table. It slid across the floor and hit Tony in the legs and he fell forward. Jeff leaned over, grabbed Tony's hair and slammed his head onto the table.

I got rid of anything that wasn't necessary. Of course, we can add a little bit of information, such as Tony running his fingers through his hair. But we should use it sparingly. It seems to add to the scene when we write it, but it only detracts in the end.

In a nutshell, rather than focusing on dialog and actions for each character, focus more on how the scene will come out at the end. This will avoid the head bobbing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Past is prologue

Pet gripe: Those who say we shouldn't feel any compunction read the classics because they aren't written in today's wonderful, exciting, easy-to-read style. My response: Today doesn't last more than today, and pretty soon "today's" wonderful style will be relegated to the same position as the styles of bygone ages. If we aren't versatile enough to be able to approach style via the parameters of its particular age, then we have become slaves to shallow fashion and the future looks bleak indeed. Literature is a growing language, one that brings about a cumulative understanding over years, decades, centuries, millennia. To read, or write, without reference to the past risks a hollow, dare I say, dangerous, experiencing. Don't forget Toynbee's admonishment. Oh, sorry, you probably haven't read Toynbee since he wrote so long ago and his style is too archaic to stomach. It's like a captain of a ship dismissing any prior experiences at sea and any knowledge of the principles of navigation. That ship will get nowhere fast. I am not against new, "modern" styles--far from it--but for goodness' sake, don't tell me we should reject what has come before as rubbish just because we are too stubborn to imagine a different time and a different place. I think with a little discernment and loosening of now-centric attitudes, we can see that those in the past aren't as different from us today as we might think. And if they are, so much the better for opening up new perspectives for us today.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Two new Philip Jose Farmer novels

Normally here at the Magic River we restrict ourselves to talking about "other stuff," and leave the shameless self-promotion to our personal blogs.

Hopefully a brief exception is warranted in this case:

Now back to your irregularly scheduled Magic River programming.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Quick Hits

  • Ganked from the GalleyCat at Dueling Sci-Fi Blogs from Big Publishing Houses.
  • Old School Wold Newton: I've revised my MySpace profile. For those of you who have been visiting my Wold Newton Universe website since it launched in 1997, the new MySpace wallpaper might provide a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
  • Hard Case Crime goes meta-fictional: Celebrating 50 years of Hard Case Crime! Okay, not really.
  • In more Hard Case Crime news, publisher Charles Ardai says: "Coming in 2009: an entirely new series that I'll be editing and the folks at Dorchester will be publishing, called THE ADVENTURES OF GABRIEL HUNT. This series is intended to be to pulp adventure fiction what Hard Case Crime is to crime fiction. It will tell the continuing story of a modern-day adventurer traveling the globe in pursuit of priceless artifacts and lost civilizations. Anyone who grew up reading H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Alexandre Dumas and Sax Rohmer, or Doc Savage and the Avenger...or who grew up watching adventure movies starring Buster Crabbe or Harrison Ford...will find a lot to enjoy in the Hunt novels. You can get a glimpse of the cover art for the first book at"
  • I guess, given that I was moved to post not one, but two gorgeous, retro covers hearkening back to the golden age of illustration, I'll add that Glen Orbick is my new favorite cover artist.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Free Battlestar Galactica Novel

Ganked from Matt Forbeck:

"Tor has been making e-books versions of some of their novels free for a week at a time over the past few months. This week, they actually have a tie-in novel available for free: Battlestar Galactica by Jeffrey A. Carver. Just go to to register and get your copy.

Each novel is only made available for a week at a time, but Tor posts a new one each week, with a couple of gorgeous desktop wallpapers to go along with it.

Although Tor’s been at this for a while, this week’s offering surprised me because it likely meant that the licensor had to sign off on the free release. It’s one thing to persuade a novelist that putting up a free copy of a book is a good idea. It’s another to convince a major licensor that it’s okay too."

As one who's been dipping my toe into the licensed property tie-in waters, I find this very interesting indeed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Writing a Script

If you're a writer of novels or short stories, there may be a chance that you've wanted to try your hand at writing a script for either TV or a movie. The difference in format may seem daunting, but once you overcome a few formatting rules, you'll get the hang of it. Mind you, I'm showing the equivalent of chapter, paragraph and dialog rules. However, since you all have the story structure technique down for novel writing, it isn't much of a jump to apply the same storytelling rules to the visual medium. If you see a script with terms like "CUT TO" and "FADE TO" interspersed through the story, you are looking at a shooting script. The writer's job is to write a spec script and it never contains technical directions. That makes things a lot easier.

Here are three important formatting rules:

The Master Scene Heading:

This is written in caps. It establishes three important points for the script reader and (hopefully) the director. It states whether the scene is indoors or outdoors, where it is located, and the time of day.


Once the establishing scene is written, and the action, say, stays indoors, then you don't have to get as specific. You could write the next scene by saying:


Once the Master Scene Heading is written, the next step is to indicate the characters of the scene and what they are doing. It is written in plain text and it uses the present tense.


Colonel Mustard leans against the fireplace with half a glass of brandy in his hand. He glances nervously at Miss Scarlet, who idly runs her finger across a candlestick. Professor Plum and Mrs. Green play a game of Gin Rummy in the corner.

The final formatting rule is dialog. The character's name is written in caps and is set at column 33. The following dialog should be at column 22. This is handled by all the screenwriting software programs and there are several templates for Word documents, so this isn't a worry. There should be no space between the character's name and the dialog. (Unfortunately, this blog won't allow me to single space the dialog, my apologies.)


I do believe that you're nervous, Colonel.



And that's it! Of course there is a lot more, but if you've had any experience writing in other mediums, you're already far ahead of the curve. The best book to read is "The Screenwriter's Bible" by Dave Trottier. And if anyone is interested in knowing more, just email me.