Month: September 2021

Shallow thinking, Shallow story?

A recent blog post from Writers in the Storm, got me thinking about “deep thoughts.” The writer pointed out that the human brain needs at least 23 minutes to truly concentrate on a subject.

As I read her post I remembered that feeling of deep focus I had as a student squirrelled away in the stacks of my university library. Insulated from other students, the distraction of the world outside, and facing a deadline for an essay, I honed in on one subject and delved deep into research and into my own thoughts. It was hard work, but a great feeling. When I surfaced from a session it was like waking up to a different world. I’d been so immersed in study, everything else had vanished from my conscience.

Very occasionally I get that same deep focus when writing and the words flow like a river in flood. I’m in the zone, so deep in the story the characters speak on their own, I’m “living” the book.

Sadly, that level of focus is rare.  Life in our modern world is full of interruptions — social media, family members, the telephone, a knock on the door . . . Delving deep into a subject, especially our wip, can be tough. But shallow thinking and lack of focus will result in characters that are superficial, a thin plot, and a predictable outcome. Would you pay good money for such a book?

Fortunately, focus is a lot like a  muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. So, how do we reach that level of deep focus?

  • Sleep Not enough sleep due to sleep disorders or persistent insomnia make it difficult to concentrate. If sleep deprivation clouds your brain, fixing that is a good first step in exercising your concentration muscle.
  • Health/age Depression, hearing loss, vision loss can all work against our ability to focus says Dr. Kirk Daffner, of the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. We can’t stop ageing, but maintaining a healthy life-style will slow down the inevitable effects of time.
  • Attitude Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln                                                                                                                                                                             People with an optimistic outlook are better able to put aside the nagging, negative thoughts in their head and knuckle down to the task at hand. The power of positive thinking is real.
  • One task at a time Many view multi-tasking as an achievement but according to a study out of Sanford University,  multitasking makes us stupid.  Our brains are wired to receive one set of information at a time. multi-taskers are trying to draw from several sources of information at once and they can’t keep it straight. Our brains just don’t work that way. The brain is meant to filter information to what is relevant. Trying to do many things at once slows down the brain. 
  • Editing is not writing  “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” Steve Jobs
    When your brain is confronted with two tasks that are seemingly on the same level of importance, it will choose the easier one.  In my world, editing is easier than getting words onto a blank screen. If you are in the creative phase of your wip, stick to it. Some writers edit as they go but it is very easy to get distracted with research or grammar or the search for the “right” word instead of concentrating on the story.
  • Motivation  Why do your write? For fame? For fortune? To make your mother happy? Because you love it? Love is the best motivation. If your love your job it’s not “work.”
  • Devices  One study showed that when working on a PC, desk phone or cell phone users worked about 2 minutes and 11 seconds before switching to another task. Electronics and the internet cater to our need for instant gratification. Remember you need at least 23 uninterrupted minutes to get into deep concentration. If you want to focus deeply on your writing, turn off the distractions.
  • Choose one  We all expect to accomplish several tasks in a day but it will boost your productivity if you choose the most important one and schedule your best time of day to do it. If you want to get into the zone and write 2500 words, decide whether you’re a morning person or a night-owl, then set yourself up to get those words down in your best time of day. The less important tasks will still get done and they won’t take away from your primary job.

 Writing this blog was my primary task for today. Now that it’s done I feel uplifted, energized and gratified. Making dinner will be a snap.

 

 

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Quirks and Traits

I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.

Many authors use quirks in character building —

  • Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
  • Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
  • Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.

In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk. 

Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected.  Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged. 

I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.  

The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it. 

So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.

In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.

In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.

Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.

Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.

 

 

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