Tag Archives: Robert Olen Butler

Looking back: Writing in 2012

iStock_000002528747XSmallIt’s the end of the year (or almost) so, of course, I simply must look back on writing in 2012. All the cool kids are doing it.

Anyway, my key word for 2012 was growth. I wanted to try a few new things with my writing and untie myself from the notion that I could only do just one thing.

I think I succeeded.

First, I mixed it up with some classes. I took:

  • A poetry class
  • Writing in the flow (the Robert Olen Butler method) class
  • Flash fiction/flash memoir class

I ended up writing more than forty poems (not necessarily good poems, mind you). In March, I surprised myself by writing a piece of flash fiction that simply tumbled out of me one morning, sparked by a poem I’d read.

And I thought to myself: Why am I not doing more of this? I like this!

I liked it so much, I ended up writing seven more stories (complete drafts) and have several others in the “stewing” stage.

Than first piece of flash fiction I wrote back in March? The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty, which ended up:

In the big, surprising, out-of-the-blue sort of news this year, Darcy and I sold audio rights to Audible.com for The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading. And now you know everything I do about that. If/when the audio book is produced, I’ll be sure to let you know.

I finished off the year with The Southeast Review’s 30-day writer’s regimen. At first, I was¬†reluctant. Writing? During the holidays? Actually, it kept me writing during the holidays. I missed a prompt here and there, but I wrote something for nearly all of them. According to the website, it looks like they’re launching all new material in February 2013. Mark your calendars! I highly recommend this. I had a blast doing it.

And that’s my writing year. I think it was a good one.


Filed under Geek Girl's Guide, Writing, YA

Getting schooled: a writer prepares (for the worst)

Despite all his talk about writing from the unconscious, Butler believes a writer should prepare before sitting down to write a novel.

So, does he want you to outline?


Brainstorm, do character sheets?


Plot boards, Excel spreadsheets, synopses?


He wants you to dreamstorm your novel. Yes. You’ve heard it here first. (Well, unless you’ve read Butler’s book, in which case, you heard it there first.)

It goes something like this:

  • Dreamstorm a scene from something sensual, by making a list of words, having some sort of sense impression attached to it with the briefest identifier of that scene. Do this for a whole bunch of scenes. It doesn’t matter at this point if two scenes contradict each other.
  • After eight to twelve weeks (yes, really), Butler suggests the next stage is to write a phrase identifying the scene on a 3 X 5 card.
  • Then orchestrate the scenes, embracing the randomness in creating the sequence, but looking for continuity. (No, I don’t know what this means.)
  • Look for the first good scene, the best point of attack, to begin the flow of sensual moments. (This, however, makes more sense.)

Butler believes in the natural sequence. (I don’t know if this is like natural selection or not.)

Actually, what he means is the scenes will eventually fall into an order that works for the story. You start with the best point of attack, Then select a few more follow-up scenes to write. after you write those scenes, you look at the remaining ones. You may need to rearrange or dreamstorm new scenes based on what you’ve written.

He doesn’t like the idea of writing out of order. If you start writing a scene without any previous context, he believes you’ll lose the unconscious aspect of it. You end up creating ideas as to why the scene is happening rather than dreamstorming them.

At some point you type: The End.

In all seriousness, I am all over the index card idea. You can do anything with index cards. Miss B can create a whole cityscape with inhabitants and pets with index cards. The very least I can do is write a novel.

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Getting Schooled: If we were a movie

Now here’s a chapter I think we can all get behind. Butler calls it cinema of the mind. He’s not talking adaptations here, but rather film techniques writers can use. These are:

  • The shot: A unit of uninterrupted flow of imagery.
  • The cut: A transitional device for getting from one shot to another.
  • Dissolve: A transitional device that superimposes a second image over the first as it fades out.
  • Scenes: Unified actions occurring in a single time and place; a group comprises a sequence.

Butler considers the montage the most crucial element (that’s why it gets its own paragraph). This is where you put two things next to each other, causing a third to emerge.

For instance, we see pie tin with a bit of lone crust, a smear of chocolate filling, a bit of whipped cream. On the floor, two children (perhaps a big brother and his little sister), mouths rimmed with chocolate, whipped cream on noses and cheeks, the two snoozing lightly.

Yeah, we pretty much know what went on.

And that’s pretty much it. I know. Butler, this easy? Okay, so in the text, he goes into detailed (but helpful) examples from Hemingway and Dickens. But the advice is to write the movie in your mind.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting Schooled: The unbearable lightness of yearning

Ha. You thought I forgot. But, I. Did. Not. Butler is back and he’s feisty as ever. Today’s topic is yearning. Or, in Butler’s words:

I would say that of the three fundamentals of fiction, there are two that aspiring writers never miss: first, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion. Even when fiction writers are writing from their heads, abstracting and analyzing, they’re mostly analyzing emotions; so even if they’re not getting at the essence of emotion, they’re trying to.

But the third element, which is missing from virtually every student manuscript I’ve seen, has to do with the phenomenon of desire.

By which he doesn’t mean romantic desire (although I suppose it could).

Yearning is always part of the fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.

He goes on to state that you can have a story rich in character, conflict, problems, attitude and so on, and totally miss the desire boat. And if that ship sails without you, you pretty much don’t have a story.

This is also the chapter with what I call the Great Genre Dis. Butler draws a firm line between writing that is art and … all the rest, what he calls “entertainment writing.”


His main argument is essentially that this type of writing uses generalizations and abstractions and that what readers do is fill in the blanks left by those abstractions.

I’m neither here nor there with this argument, although I know it upsets some writers greatly. There’s some great genre fiction out there and some pretty crappy literary fiction. I also find some “entertainment fiction” far from entertaining and some literary fiction utterly absorbing.

I don’t know art, but I know what I like? What else can you say?

Still, Butler does give genre writers their props, since they almost always “get” the idea that their character yearns for something–to solve the mystery, save the world, get the girl. (Dude, that sounds like a great story. I’m so writing that.)

So, genre wars aside, yearning is a concept that you can apply to any type of writing. I decree it so.

Speaking of yearning, I’m sure you’re dying to know how I’ve done on my quizzes so far:

Quiz 1: 13/15 for a B

Quiz 2: 8/8 for an A

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Getting Schooled: Review

So today I thought we’d review what we’ve learned so far thanks to Robert Olen Butler. But instead of actually writing something, I thought I’d let the Internet do it for me.

Just think of how close we are to the day where we won’t have to write our own blog posts!

Let’s review:


Summary brought to you by Wordle.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting Schooled: The (twilight) zone

Now that we’ve left boot camp and hell (bonus side trip!), we get to enter the zone. If you’re familiar with the term re: athletics, Butler uses it much the same way. It’s muscle memory, only for writing, it’s dream space or sense memory. You perform (or write) without thinking. It’s all from the unconscious.

So, cue the music: Y’all ready for dis?

I thought so.

But getting into the zone is difficult. We don’t want to go there in the first place (hell, remember?), so NOT going there is far more tempting than actually going there. Until we actually get there, that is. Because when you’re writing in the zone, it’s great. You’re on the literary equivalent to a runner’s high.

So, getting there? Well, here’s Butler on that:

You may not be ready to write yet, but when you’re in a project you must write every day. You cannot write just on weekends. You cannot write this week and not next; you can’t wait for the summer to write. You can’t skip the summer and wait till the fall. You have to write every day. You cannot do it any other way. Have I said this strongly enough?

So … is he saying we should write every day?

He suggests writing in the morning (going from one dream space to another), but most importantly, using something–a cue, a routine, anything that says: I’m writing now.

This alerts your imagination that it’s time to get busy. So, light your aromatherapy candles, cue up your Yanni album to track three, and set your word processor’s font to GirlyGirl.

Whatever works. Although Butler isn’t talking about pampering so much as routine. He relates how he wrote four of his novels on his train commute from Long Island to Manhattan and had a terrible time when he moved to Lake Charles, LA during the middle of his fifth novel.

Butler also talks about what happens when you don’t write. Unlike a lot of writing gurus, he does believe writer’s block can happen. Again, unconscious = scary place = no writing. You know something is off, you try to write, but you’re thinking too much and nothing’s there.

He relates it to having insomnia. I’ve coined the term “writer’s insomnia” and I think it perfectly describes the state. I know I should write; I really want to write. I try to write.

I got nothing.

It can really turn you into a Cranky McCranky Pants. (Not to be confused with Hottie McHottie Pants. Two totally different things.)

Butler describes the self-loathing that accompanies this: you’re both a worthless human being and a worthless writer.

If this is the only message I take away from this course, it will have been worth it.

Because I’ve been Cranky McCranky Pants for the past couple of months. It sounds crazy to have a book sale, with that book coming out in eight months, and not be able to write. But there you have it. I’ll spare you my self-loathing.

The remedy is deceptively simple. You write. Sure, it’s scary, and there’s all those side trips Butler wants you to take. But in the end, you-to borrow an overused but athletically appropriate phrase-just do it.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting Schooled: Making sense(s)

Despite what I wrote yesterday, Butler really wants to be your friend. He does! He loves you!

Butler’s premise is this: to create art, we must write from the unconscious. We cannot think–as in analytical thought. We have to turn off that self-conscious inner voice that’s going all the time.

Do you narrate your own life? Well, stop it.

It sounds easy, tapping into the unconscious, but according to Butler, not so much. He says:

If the artist sees the chaos of experience and feels order behind it and creates objects to express that order, surely that is reassuring, right? Well, at some point, maybe. But what do you have to do first? And why is it so hard? This is why-and this is why virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious: because the unconscious is scary as hell. It is hell for many of us.

So, the first stop on our Butler tour was boot camp. Now we’re in hell. Nice.

But why is writing from the unconscious so important? Well, according to Butler, you access your sensual memories rather than your literal ones that way.

This is why when you write something from literal memory no one believes it, even though you protest, “But it really happened!”

Write a big honking lie, but write from the unconscious, from emotion and the senses, and everyone thinks it’s true to life.

Butler’s deal with the senses: Emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses. He’s got five for you:

  • Sensual reaction: inside our body, such as body temperature, heartbeat, throwing up a little in your mouth, and so on.
  • Sensual response: what we send outside our body: posture, gestures, facial tics. Any YouTube of the presidential debates would make an excellent primer for this.
  • Experiences of emotion: flashes from the past, not so much analysis as impressions, waking dreams.
  • Flashes of the future: essentially anticipation, yearning (more on yearning later; Butler is big on yearning).
  • Sensual selectivity: we have to select which senses to convey in a story, since at any one time, we experience thousands of sensual cues. In other words, we don’t want the kitchen sink of details flooding our stories. How do you pick which ones to convey? Well, by emotion, of course.

Do you feel like we’ve just traveled around in a big circle? I think maybe yes. But that’s okay, it’s gets us ready for our trip into the (twilight) zone. More on that later.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing