Meditative Monday: Decoding What Our Instincts Tell Us

*Inhales deeply*

I smell another sweet Monday people which means it’s time to get our Meditative Monday on. And today’s topic?

That old adage, “Follow Your Instincts” and how it can help us when we write, edit, or just exist on this planet in general.

We hear this a lot as success and motivation advice, but what people don’t always say is when to follow your instincts, or how to even begin to understand what the heck your instincts are saying because they don’t exactly speak-o the Engrish.

And besides, I could easily follow my instincts to a Korean barbecue restaurant or a strip club, but that does not mean I should be splurging on either.

Speaking Instinct And How It Helps When We’re Stuck

Without a mouth to say anything, your gut has to rely on feelings to tell you something, and usually these feelings tend to fall in the category of “good” or “funny”. People are all different, so you might have a richer palate of feelings behind your belly button, but for me they tend to be pretty binary.

But where they get tricky is that gut instincts usually show up in a situation where it often does not make sense to have that feeling. You might have had a feeling to tune into this post today, to go to a place you haven’t been to in a while, or to not take that job that looks really good.

For me, I tend to follow two rules of thumb about my gut:

Never ignore a funny feeling no matter how minor. I once had a friend that gave me a bad feeling. I never had this feeling when we met, so you can imagine that I was hella confused when I first had it. For a long time I would just rationalize it away as just typical ups and downs of friendship. As far as knew, my friend didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong.

But the feeling was persistent, and the degree of badness just felt worse until I started to realize that I was feeling the same exact way I would feel if my life was actually in danger. And at that point, I decided to end the friendship before the reason rears its head.

Needless to say, I haven’t had that bad feeling since and that feeling keeps me in line if I’m ever tempted to return. I have ignored bad feelings before and let me tell you, the results always made me regret it, so I always make sure to pay extra attention and take care of whatever causes that feeling as early as possible.

How Instinct Can Be Phenomenal When We Write

Story time again!

When I revisited opening scene for my current novel, I was so excited and brimming with new ideas.

Until I went back over it to add those ideas in.

I had decided to change it so that the POV character was married to the “villain” (wink, wink) because the first guy she was married too seemed too “nice”. It seemed good on paper. New guy had wants she didn’t. She had wants that he didn’t want. People had clear reasons for being where they were and there was conflict up the butt. But then it got to the point where the two supposed to have a moment…

I clearly remember how I just sat there at my aunt’s dining room table just staring at my unfinished sentence for like half and hour straight.

She just would not touch him at all, even though the “villain” wasn’t abusive or cruel to her in any way. And I give pronouns because it literally seemed like Eun Hae had exactly much enthusiasm for office nookie as this shiba inu has about lemons.

 

Now I didn’t have that danger feeling in my gut as I did with my former friend. In this version, my brain just shut down and refused to make any more beautiful words.

At first, I thought that I was just stuck on how to write the physical act of it, but I had a nagging suspicion in me and I decided to test it by switching the POV character to being married to the nice guy she was initially with.

To no surprise, there was still no office nookie. But she was more than willing to reassure Mr. Nice and show plenty of warm affection. And overall, his background fit the story’s flow much better.

This type of instinctual guidance is what I believe we authors often like to call “characters driving the story”, or “stories speaking to us”. And it’s one that we shouldn’t ignore, pantser or plotter.

As I’ve said before, we might feel snug and secure when we type up our outlines and pencil in that explosion on page 45 that we think is utter genius, but a story’s preparation and writing phase is when we understand the least about it.

There was once a part of my WIP that I planned, and all during the writing phase I felt awful about it. I tried telling myself that I could just fix it later, even if I didn’t like it, but it bothered me so much and felt so out of place that I just had to fix it right then. I felt much better about the scene that replaced it thankfully.

So in a way if all this talk about gut feelings is starting to sound a little far-fetched, think of it this way: the next time you’re stuck, it’s not because writing is hard, it’s not because your story is bad, it’s not because you don’t know how to write.

Most likely, it’s because you’re forcing the story too far in the wrong direction and running out of steam is your creative mind’s way of saying, “Okay buddy, I’m gonna set another route on this GPS because I don’t like where we’re goin’. ”

Often, I hear about other writers giving up on a project and beating themselves up because a story isn’t going exactly the way they want to.

But something that I think that gets forgotten in the moments of writing is that just because we have ideas on the way things could be does not mean that’s the way things should be. The fantasy of being the cool, calculating mastermind that’s in control of every little fine detail to write their best-seller is just exactly that: a fantasy.

In fact, if you controlled every detail of your story on an unforgiving structure, you’d strangle the poor thing to a slow painful death.

Why? Because then you wouldn’t be allowing new ideas to come in an inspire you, or discover new situations. If something doesn’t go a certain way, then writing suddenly becomes unnecessarily stressful while you try to figure out how to stay on schedule.

I’ve been in this boat myself and I’m happy I don’t bother to get on anymore. I still make sure I plot whatever I’m supposed to be writing for the day, and maybe a little bit for the next day or so, but I’m a firm believer that our gut doesn’t nag at us “just because”.

Our conscious thinking brains miss out on a lot of things (hell, it even messes up on information we already know). If we only relied on our stable logic and never had epiphanies or followed our guts.

A goat herder would’ve never tried the fruit that gave us all coffee. Ruth and Sue would keep making butterscotch nut cookies and we’d never have chocolate chip cookies. And I’d certainly not be here talking to you guys.

But Buddhas almighty batman, this post has gotten way longer that I wanted (it’s okay though).

Until next week!

 

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Meditative Monday: Separate On The Surface But Connected In The Deep

Tea? Check. Philosophical mood? Check. Monday? Definitely check.

Today is a very special Meditative Monday folks. Why? It’s inspired by one of my favorite quotes by William James and it goes something like this:

We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.

Some time ago, I took a small break after I wrote the draft my current novel and during that break I took the time to stop and think about my writing process and reflect on all the progress that I’ve made. But as I’ve refined the way I write, and recently started on the final draft of my novel, I find that I keep coming back to this quote.

Technically, it’s about us as humans not being so different from each other, but when I thought about it some, it’s a very important lesson on writing too.

To Be Connected In The Deep

I often struggled with making my story stick together when I had my first few cracks at my novel. Sure I could write decent enough scenes, but when it came to putting those scenes together into a cohesive novel, it was a friggin’ disaster. The thing had more holes than swiss cheese and no sense of direction at all.

Everything was all about what sounds cool, what sounds sort of literary, and what could rouse emotions. And now I’ve started to realize that writing a novel is a very delicate tango.

The events must be separate enough that a reader can’t predict your ending from page 1. But at the same time, a story must have a tight sense of cohesion underneath, like well-oiled machine working to make sure that everything works as planned and that everything is accounted for.

The reader may never see a single part or gear of that machine. You may not even know the full complexity of your own novel, but there should be the illusion that something legitimate is there holding your story together.

When a story is not “connected in the deep”, you know right away because people will ask things, “Why does so and so do x…”, “Why doesn’t x just do…”, “How does x work…”, “What’s the point of…” A story that is well-thought out can usually answer these questions with a simple because statement.

For me, this lesson has been a great help on keeping my story from having unwanted plot gaps. And even if we’re not super obsessive plotters, it’s important to remember that the events of a book should come from the deeper forces of the story.

We’re talking about the political/ social/ economic climate, what the main protagonists and antagonists need and want, the stakes that people are willing to bet everything on the line for. When all these things are ping-ponging like helium in an air balloon, it’s bound to pop.

But they’ve all got to have that natural connection under the surface. Things that “happen” to line up only get tolerated for so long before the reader starts to call bs.

The easiest way to do this is to always check in with what characters want and think in a scene, and not just the main POV character mind you, all characters in that scene, good, bad and neutral.

But in a way, that original meaning of the quote can apply here too. When we write, our characters, even if not people, tend to behave like humans (or at least like a living thing) and tend to have similar base needs that we try to feel, and we all fall short of perfection know matter what we are.

And it’s from that seed that all the juicy conflicts and tension sprouts from. 😉

 

Meditative Monday: A Liberating Look Back At 900 pages of Freewrites

It’s been almost two years since I’ve started freewriting seriously. When I think about it and how far I’ve come because of it, I still can’t believe it.

When I finished the draft of my latest novel a few weeks ago, I decided that I’ve waited long enough.

I decided to port it out to my kindle and binge-read all 900 pages. For better or for worse, screaming voodoo monkeys and all!

So, in a post that I pray is short, here is what happened…

Rediscovering Old Ideas

This is hands down the second-best part of never throwing away those old ideas.

Why second?

It’s a double-edged sword. Sure you discover things that you love, but there are also things that you don’t want to see again. Not to mention there’s a lot of “wtf junk”. But as I filtered through all of it, I felt like a treasure hunter or a gold rush miner. There were also old ideas that helped me reconnect with the visions of what I wanted my stories to look like and stay true to them.

Being Able To Trace The Beginnings of Ideas Before I Was Conscious of Them

This is the trippy part.

I don’t know if anyone else’s brain works in a similar way, but the ideas I thought that I had come up with ‘while writing’ weren’t actually made while I was writing. The seeds of them had often been there weeks and months before as words, phrases, and small tidbits that eventually stuck and became something else.

I’ve often heard that the subconscious keeps working on a problem after you stop thinking about it. But I always thought of this as something more short-term. The possibility that my brain might be mulling something over for the long term is an interesting thought and one I hope to see more of in the future.

Recognizing The Patterns You Fall In

I apparently have an obsession for forests, beaches, food, the smell of butter and garlic, wind-powered cities, and cafes. I’m sure that I’m missing a whole bunch of stuff that sticks into my brain.

This is partly why I like to ‘train’ my writing skills with different exercises and absorb  different sources to get out of this. Constant exposure to different ideas makes it so that my brain latches onto different defaults. I find that I’ll go back to the boring imagery loops if I write in a vacuum.

Realizing That It’s Worth Doing Again

For me, I’ve grown so much through my freewrite training exercises and warm ups. Even if I don’t find the ideas useful, the mileage helps so much and it’s helping me understand the value of the journey over the destination.

Now that I think about it, I never started my private freewrites with the intention of having them end up take up so many pages. It had always been something I did for different purposes: to generate ideas, to have a safe space, to fine tune my skills.

Though, personally, I feel like I shouldn’t speak so soon because I’m still trying to understand how to enjoy the journey rather than fix on the results.

But freewriting wise it is a lesson, I don’t mind learning. 🙂

 

Meditative Monday: Do Heroes And Villains Actually Exist? Things About Good Versus Evil Tropes That Get Overlooked

Another week, another Meditative Monday which means another hopefully thought-provoking question.

And this one has been nagging me so much lately that I feel it’s finally time to actually take a stab at it.

1. Heroes And Villains Don’t Exist

Growing up, I’ve always been drawn to fantasy books and your standard fantasy RPGs where some bright-eyed hero goes gallivanting from home, stealing some poor NPC’s stuff, and charges off to fight some huge world-ending evil with your obligatory tank, healer, and rogue cardboard cut-out (but don’t worry this applies to other genres as well).

But one thing that I’ve noticed across movies, games, and books is the world of difference  made when a writer approaches their story with the hero vs. villain mentality compared to a protagonist vs antagonist mentality.

Now you might be wondering, don’t they boil down to the same thing?

Yes and no.

When you look at a situation from someone’s perspective for so long and if that character seems to be doing the right thing in our eyes, (assuming their personality isn’t written poorly), you identify with them and will naturally cheer for them. We see their thought processes and logic reasoning, and therefore when a character does something morally sketchy, we don’t think it’s so bad and will still happily call them a hero.

On the other hand, “villains” usually get much less screen time with a reader. When they appear, it’s usually to be a butt-hole to the hero, or a butt-hole to everyone in general. We don’t always see what they’re like when they’re not “evilling” (because we’re not expected to) and have a much harder time identifying with them (unless of course the “hero” manages to bore us to tears.)

But the real problem with breaking people down into heroes and villains is that people:

  • Generally believe themselves to be good, even if others don’t
  • Generally do what they think is right or okay
  • Are self-interested, meaning that they are not against you, they are for themselves
  • Generally do not accept blame, even if they are wrong

To TL;DR this all nicely…

Others are only “evil” because they want something that we think gets in our way or wrongs us.

An old lady that picks a watermelon in the store would never get more than a glance from the average person. An old lady that goes out of her way to chastise you about the way you pick your melons is now the temporary villain of our life story! For all we know, she could genuinely be passionate about the way people pick melons and really care about helping you so you can pick good melons for the rest of your life or maybe someone in her life died because they picked the wrong melon at the store.

But of course how many of us would actually think that? For our fight or flight brains much easier to dismiss someone as a snob that’s out to get us than it is to give the benefit of the doubt.

This is the biggest problem with the hero vs villain idea. It ignores that people (even good ones) are usually just minding their own business until that’s no longer an option.

And that leads quite nicely into our next topic!

2. Overlooking How Much Effort/ Emotional Cost It Takes To Be A “Hero” And A “Villain”

In fiction, heroes just jump out of bed ready to kick monster butt like it’s a cool thing to do. Now don’t get me wrong, some people out there feel like fighting a world-ending evil is their life’s calling.

But most people don’t.

Most people have this feeling called fear. Fear is so powerful in some that they can’t even use the bathroom around other human beings. Fear is what often pressures us to make “safe” choices, shoot below our potential, and ignore our dreams for things that we think makes sense. Fear forces us into self-preservation mode and many of us would rather sit somewhere safe than stick our necks out to die if we can help it.

It’s a big responsibility and a risk, therefore inaction is more common than we writers think. People tend to ignore what they don’t want to see or hear if it means trouble and when there are others around, they are actually less likely to help (called the Bystander Effect). This is likely why military bootcamps have to break their recruits down mentally, so they act when the need arises.

Now on the other side of the spectrum, the other thing that I see underestimated is how much effort it actually takes to be a “villain”.

To be an (good) antagonist you:

  • Can’t be lazy in anyway, if you are lazy, the protagonist will exploit your blindspots easily
  • Have to be very good at getting your resources (Including people)!
  • Should be charismatic to some extent, or have some nice benefits to offer, especially if you expect people or any living creature with a free will to follow them willingly
  • Have to expend a lot of energy to fight, stress out, and plan what to do next. Hence why I find it hard to rationalize why someone just “happens” to want to take over the world. Fighting an adversary takes a lot of time and effort that can be spent doing other more enjoyable things.
  • Have to have an inner drive strong enough to make you want to initiate action and persevere in the face of setbacks

 

Even if you are an all-powerful wizard that can destroy the planet, that level of time wastage has to be justified. It’s hard risky work like a business startup, and taking over the world doesn’t happen overnight so there has to be something about it that interests and motivates them on a deep-level.

Same thing applies to protagonists, being a hero is hard work. Why does this person in particular want to save the world/ town/ galaxy as opposed to sitting back, being practical, and turning a blind eye like a normal human being would? To be a good protagonist you:

  • Have to have a drive strong enough to put up with the antagonist’s nonsense.
  • Have to not have any easy way out (otherwise you would naturally take it by default)
  • Have to be able to overcome natural inhibitions like fear and giving up.
  • Also be charismatic to some extent if their role involves getting help from others
  • Can’t be too lazy, lest your laziness be exploited by the antagonist
  • Have to expend a lot of energy and mental resources to deal with the antagonist which results in a lot of stress

 

TL;DR: Why these people can’t just pack up and go home to watch football or the Witches Brewing Network? Why do they have to save/ take over the world right this moment? Why can’t someone else do it? Why are others willing to throw their life away in the name of a campaign that could fail? What keeps them in the game when an entire world might think they’re crazy? The actions will always ring hollow if everyone’s wants don’t line up, or they’re only going through the motions.

And most importantly, it’s a lot to ask of a character to be a “hero” or a “villain”.

Making a change in a world is a hard thing to do, guys. Look at how hard it is to make lasting change in our own world. Most people usually don’t do this stuff for the fun of it!