Guest Blog Post, Vanessa Blakeslee: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Vanessa Blakeslee1. Take care of yourself. Much like the announcements before flights regarding the placing of oxygen masks, you can’t expect to render your characters fully if you’re out of shape and eating poorly. Exercise regularly and eat fresh foods. Caffeinate moderately. Get eight hours of sleep every night. To underestimate the power of the subconscious, the breakthroughs that undoubtedly come from the dream-state and walks in the park, is foolish and undermining of the imagination at work. Never mind that your ability to contribute to the literary canon is severely compromised if you’re sick or dead.

2. Become aware of the effects of environment on your process—and change it up if need be. If you can’t settle in at your desk today, try the couch. If the sun is shining during your writing hours and you can’t stand being inside your apartment one more second, find a park bench or an outdoor café. If you’re in public and one-sided phone conversations keep intruding on your characters’ dialogue, seek out someplace quiet. Go wherever you need to be to enter the fictional dream as completely as you can.

3. Write first drafts in longhand whenever possible. My initial drafts almost always turn out truer to my vision when I’m connected to the physical page through a pen or pencil, thus saving time later during revision. I think there might be scientific data to back this up, but regardless, one obvious benefit is that you are much more apt to cross-out and play with alternative phrasing in the margins and between sentences, etc., sometimes literally question what you may be attempting to say on the page. Whereas in word-processing software, you don’t like a phrase, Delete-delete-delete, and not only is it gone forever, but so is your record of what you were aiming for, even if your initial attempts at grasping for an image or line fell short. When you type up the handwritten pages, you’re composing your second draft—added bonus.

4. Keep questioning the stakes of your premise. Often, at the beginning of a new story or before a revision, I’ll write, “Is this a great story of love and death?” across the top. If the answer is no, then consider how you might approach the premise differently to make it more gripping. If it is a novel, trace the narrative backwards to see where you may have gotten off-track, or strayed from the tension. You may be surprised in going over your drafts at how much of what you may have considered essential is in effect tangential.

5. If you’re stuck or between scenes or sections and uncertain where your protagonist goes next, take a short nap. Again, sometimes a quick dip into the subconscious is just the trick for stirring up new ideas/images. Although you’ll have to wait until you get home if you’re at a coffee shop.

6. That said, sometimes you have to just power through. This is tricky advice to give, when to step away (or nap!) and when to power through, and largely instinctive. But powering-through happens for me after I do a good bit of questioning and jotting down of potential ideas in my notebook regarding where the story needs to go next. There follows the sort of heavy feeling of anticipation, excitement, and despair regarding how I am going to accomplish what is to take place—but all that remains is doing it. That’s when it’s time to log out of Facebook, brew a fresh caffeinated favorite, push ahead, and trust.

7. The Internet/Facebook/Twitter/Etc. Figure out your relationship to it. I love nothing more than perusing for articles on strange happenings and the idiosyncrasies of my friends’ lives; as such, I’m a self-proclaimed Facebook addict. I’ve never been a big procrastinator, either, but when I arrive at my desk I tend to scroll the Facebook newsfeed until I have an overwhelming feeling that I’ve been pummeled enough by everyone’s happenings and achievements, and am then happily driven to the page and my inner world. In between scenes or sections and when I take a snack break, I will often log back on. Sometimes I go to coffee shops because although I have a smart phone, I am much less likely to be distracted by the Internet when I have actually driven somewhere and purchased menu items with precious dollars. Only you can figure out how to balance the work/Internet pull.

8. Learn to trust and develop your gut instincts regarding your work, and others’ critique of it. True, you’ll always be too close to it, because you’re the creator. And there will always be some voices ringing out in workshop that are way off for your vision of the story, your aesthetic, etc. But then there will be some who are right on, whose searing feedback or advice matches the quiver in your middle when you hold the draft up before your eyes. Better to have a handful—even one—of these voices in your corner than none. Cherish such readers, yet also keep in mind that someone who may have resonated deeply with a previous project of yours may not have the same relationship with the next one. Have the courage to seek out fresh eyes.

9. Realize the value of your work—because if you don’t value it, why should others? Delegate as many nonessential, non-writing tasks to whatever degree you can—to agents, interns, teenage children/siblings, eager grad students, etc. If you’ve got a $50,000 a year teaching gig, hire a maid service to clean your house once or twice a month so you can invest in those precious days off to write. Figure out which holidays you prefer to celebrate with family and which ones you can skip to attend a writers’ colony, or borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods for a couple of weeks.

10. Meditate on your death every day. This meditation will usually be fleeting and hardly morbid—but certain, yes. You are going to die. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or six months down the road. Then again, maybe today. All that will be left of your essence in this life will be what you’ve left behind, written down. Is what you have to say essential? If not, how to make it so? Most everything pertaining to the craft of writing can be boiled down to those two questions.

The Aesthetics of Scale: An Artistic Collaboration

The Aesthetics of Scale InterchangeNow through April 28th the Orlando Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition titled The   Aesthetics of Scale. The exhibit showcases the collaborative work of Rachel Simmons and Lee Lines and explores the ways in which landscape affects how people live in conjunction to the land. Perhaps more importantly, from an artistic perspective, the exhibit opens a discussion about artistic collaboration and what it offers to those willing to pick up its admittedly unwieldy mantle.

The project that would eventually lead to The Aesthetics of Scale started in 2010 during a research trip to Iceland. What was eventually born out of this trip was the marriage of Simmons’ artistic background and Lines’ knowledge of geography and environmental issues, a collaboration of not only academic goals but artistry.

This does not mean that the marriage of their backgrounds and intentions came together easily. In an interview conducted by Laura J. Cole for Rollins College, Lee and Simmons discussed a point of tension between the two over an image for a presentation. Simmons wanted to flip the image because she felt that it looked better aesthetically while Lee saw that as a misrepresentation of the regional landscape. Simmons was speaking from the artist’s point of view and was more concerned about how the piece spoke to its audience. On the other hand, Lee was looking at it from a geographer’s point of view and felt that repositioning the piece was dishonest from a scientific standpoint.

loft windowHere, in the variance of vision, is where collaborations like this so often fall apart. These differences in artistic direction are likely to pile up and can easily have the capability to either destroy the project completely or just pull it towards a weaker middle where neither artist’s vision is fully realized. Art is, after all, to be done in one’s loft in total secrecy and seclusion until gallery opening or publication.

And this is the opinion I had for a long time. Having been an artist earlier in life and now, as a writer, I knew the value of working in an environment free from distractions. Another artist who might question your decisions or vision certainly has to number extremely high on the chart of distractors.

While that need for seclusion is still strong and one that I find necessary a great deal of the time, something changed for me recently and I no longer feel that sequestering oneself is a hard and fast rule. The first step was realizing the value of another artist’s opinion. This began by using family and friends in the artistic community as sounding boards. This practice was broadened during my exposure to writing workshops. Granted not everything you hear from either group will crack open your work, but by listening to others’ perspectives you may begin to understand how your work appears to your audience, something which is certainly invaluable. Whether this newly shifted perspective on your work means a change in the work itself or merely a change in how you see it working is entirely up to you.

theaterThe second big break came when I started to become involved in theater. Here is an art form where artistic collaboration is an undeniable necessity. Actors, directors, lighting, media, and stage designers, and playwrights are all necessary for any given project. Each person involved has their own artistic vision for the piece they’re working on. It goes without saying that this often leads to creative differences and disagreements, but once you do you are more likely to end up with a piece which is more fully realized. What I’ve found is that, and partially because of artistic differences, you are left with a much stronger piece. In a well-functioning group, each artist will have had their input and that input will push the piece further than any one person might have been able to do alone.

The interesting thing about collaboration is that it is not an event that happens terribly often in the artistic community and even less in the literary world. Obviously a lot of this has to do with the private nature of writing itself and how differently the craft operates from one writer to the next. This is disappointing because artistic collaboration seems to have such an interesting potential if for no other reason than expanding the understanding of craft for those involved. In her interview, Simmons said “there’s nothing like trying to understand the point of view of another academic discipline to help you understand your own.” Why should this be any different for the artistic community? Shouldn’t we, as artists, being doing all that we can in order to push our craft to the highest level possible? It seems that collaboration is just another step down the road to self-actualization for any artist.

The entire interview with Simmons and Lee can be found here.