Time to Play!

My brother and his family used to live in San Diego. I wrote that just to give you a little context. One day when I was visiting, I had ordered my nephew, then five years old, to do something. You know how much fun it is to order kids to do stuff for you—tasks you’re perfectly capable of doing but are too lazy to do. While I can’t recall exactly what I wanted him to do, I’ll never forget his response.

“I’m busy,” he said.

“Busy doing what?” I asked. Obviously not busy doing what I’d just told him to do, which annoyed me.

“Playing,” he said.

I was so taken aback by his answer, and the seriousness in which it had been uttered, that I just stood there, staring at him. Finally, I said, “Okay. I can’t argue with that.”

His response might not seem profound to you, but it was to me. My attempt to interrupt his schedule had been met by a rebuff I couldn’t refute.

Lest you think I’m one of those adults who think children should do whatever they want whenever they want (newsflash: nope), let me just say that this is not a post about teaching children responsibility or anything else. You see, my nephew taught me something that day: the value of taking playtime seriously.

Oh, I see that look. Adults have to behave responsibly. We’ve got mortgages, car insurance, and other bills. Can’t always sit around building with LEGOs, right?

Right?

Playtime is even better with a crowd.

I’m a better writer when I take time to play, when my nose isn’t always to the grindstone and I’m trying to force myself to write something whimsical and delightful. How many people know that you can’t force yourself to write anything with that description if your attitude is, “I MUST do this. I MUST suck it up and put words on the page because, y’know, that’s what you’re supposed to do”?

Yeah, yeah. I totally get the need to sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Sometimes, you have to do that. But sometimes, you have to allow yourself time to just play, whatever that might mean for you.

Playtime is like ma space, a rest (or space) between periods of action. (Look here for the Wikipedia article on ma space or here for a post on this blog about ma space..)

My friend Jill puts puzzles together. My friend Sharon takes photographs and draws. My friend Laura hikes or kayaks. My friend Lyn builds awesome things with LEGOs. Some of us play videogames or crochet lambs. (Yes, I consider crocheting playtime.)

What do you do to play?

Here in America, today is a holiday called Labor Day. What is Labor Day? According to this website on the history of Labor Day, “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

What better day to kickback and play? I have deadlines tomorrow, yeah. But today, I’m gonna play. Today’s playtime could usher in tomorrow’s inspiration.

Hopscotch anyone?

Donatina Shoppie with mini Donatina and locket by Moose Toys. Hopscotch photo from toysperiod.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

What Is “Nothing”?

Image the following conversation. Perhaps you’ve participated in one just like it.

Mom (or Dad): How was school?
Son (or Daughter): It was okay.
Mom (or Dad): Just “okay”? What happened?
Son (or Daughter): Nothing.

As an astute parent, you know “something” had to have happened. After all, your child went to school and participated in classes. But for that child, “nothing” probably meant, “Nothing I was interested in” or “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

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Having given manuscripts to beta readers to evaluate from time to time, I have had a similar conversation with them.

Me: How was it [the manuscript]?
Beta reader: It was okay for the most part.
Me: Just “okay”? What happened?
Beta reader: Nothing.

Okay, maybe the conversation was not that curt. But over the years I’ve had beta readers mark certain scenes or chapters with the assessment nothing is happening here. Clearly, I hadn’t presented a bunch of blank pages to the readers. “Something” happened on those pages. But for the readers, nothing is happening here meant, “nothing out of the ordinary” or “nothing that helped develop the plot.”

Now, I ask you, when you read a book or watch a show, what would make you think, Nothing is happening here? Perhaps the following factors might resonate with you.

Tension and Pacing
The issue of “nothing” sometimes crops up when tension dissipates. Now, some breaks in tension are necessary. A while ago, I wrote a post on Ma space (you can find it here) which included a quote by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki on this subject. Ma space is an interval between two movements or sections. Miyazaki’s movies provide great examples of respites coupled with action scenes. However, some breaks in tension are detrimental to the story.

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For example, I wrote a young adult novel in which the heroine was accused of being a liar and had to vindicate herself by proving that she did indeed see what she claimed to have seen. (I hope someday you’ll get to read it.) One of my beta readers wrote nothing is happening here in a couple of the chapters. The issue was pacing. In one chapter, after being ridiculed by a crowd of people, the heroine declared that she was going off to find proof to back up her story—a scene of high tension. But instead of sending her on her way, I included two chapters in which she took a nap and then woke up to have a meal and overhear a conversation taking place between two characters. This conversation had nothing to do with the heroine’s plight. Nothing to see here, folks.

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Nap taking and eavesdropping, while “something,” aren’t very interesting to a reader. I had to cut those chapters to ramp up the tension and make the reader want to continue reading.

Lack of Character Conflict or Development
This probably goes without saying, but if you’ve read this blog even once before, you know I usually state the obvious. Characters need to be more than interchangeable talking heads. They have to serve a purpose. Conflict is one way they serve a purpose. Having fully realized secondary characters in conflict with a main character is a great way to avoid the “nothing is happening” designation.

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In the young adult novel I mentioned above, my main character had a twin brother who was kind of goofy. I liked the dude. His antics made me smile. Well, an advisor of mine read the early chapters of the book and said, “He’s got to go. He serves no purpose.” I soon realized she was right. The twin brother was not in conflict with anyone. He was kind of like a chair in a room—useful for sitting on, sure, but just taking up space otherwise.

The advisor also mentioned that another character—one I had decided would not be mentioned beyond one chapter—had more potential. Like the main character, just about everyone in town had a conflict with him. Most importantly, he had a conflict with the main character. So I turned him into the sidekick of the heroine on her journey. The novel was all the better for it.

Have you ever said, or been told, that “nothing” is happening in a chapter or scene you’ve written or a book you’ve read? What did you have to do to change that dynamic?

Japanese character from Wikipedia. Nothing here sign from outwardfromnothingness.com. Sleeping person image from 1001freedownloads.com. Characters image from standoutbooks.com.

Ma—Space to Breathe

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Space Series

Today’s post is the first in a series on space. I’ve asked other writers to contribute guest posts, giving their thoughts on space—however they choose to interpret the word. I’m starting things off, so please fasten your seatbelt.

If you read Laini Taylor’s recent blog (which you can read here) as I did, you read about a subject I’ve also grappled with but could not articulate why until now. The post helped me understand why I felt exhausted at the end of some of the movies I’ve seen but always felt exhilarated whenever I watched a Miyazaki film. I know that probably makes no sense right now, especially if you haven’t read the post. I hope it will in a minute.

Laini quoted from a Tumblr post by Sara Ryan that discussed an interview the late film critic Roger Ebert had with Hayao Miyazaki. I won’t repeat the entirety of the conversation. You can read it in Laini’s post (and I totally recommend that great post) or the Ryan Tumblr post here. I’ll just repeat Miyazaki’s demonstration of the concept of ma, which sparked this post. I don’t want to come up with a poor explanation of what I think the term means, so here’s Miyazaki’s explanation:

He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”

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Ma

I still wanted to know more, so I dug deeper and discovered posts mentioning a 1979 exhibit (MA: Space-Time in Japan) by an architect, Arata Isozaki, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. In the search for information on that exhibit, I found another quote on ma, this time at a site called Big in Japan:

The Japanese spatio-temporal concept of ma suggests a gap, opening, delay or silence. It can be understood as a demarcated in-betweenness in space or time. A room, being the space formed inside walls, is ma. A pause in music, as the gap delineated between audible notes, is also ma.

In Miyazaki’s films, moments of rest are built into the action. Those moments never felt gratuitous to me. Instead, they have a meaning beyond just scenes of people staring at the pretty scenery. I can’t help thinking of the interlude in Miyazki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s novel) where Sophie and a young wizard in training, Markl, gaze at Star Lake or the scene in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä hears the prophecy of the warrior in blue—an interesting bit of foreshadowing in each movie. Some might roll their eyes at both scenes. But I love them, because though “rests,” they still advance the plot and help me understand the characters in a deeper way.

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Nausicaä and Sophie and Markl

In contrast, I can’t help recalling some of the drawings of M. C. Escher, the well-known Dutch graphic artist, particularly his symmetry drawings like the one below (click here for others) where all of the space is filled with images. These drawings are the visual equivalent of some of the movies I’ve seen and also some of the books I’ve read over the years (and no I will not name them, so please don’t ask)—a space filled with action from Fade in or page 1 until the end (or fade out); no rest for the weary.

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Reminds me of our fast-paced culture, where waiting is cut down to seconds. We fast-forward through commercials or skip them altogether to get to the program we want to see. Thanks to the constant influx of information, our brains rewire to the point where a slower paced scene in a book seems like a commercial—an unwanted interruption. We want to skip over it and get to the action.

Writers are told over and over: “You have to engage the reader at the first paragraph and hold on to that reader’s attention.” This accounts for the frenetic pace of many novels that aren’t even classified as thrillers. Stories about newborn kittens become The Bourne Identity: Feline Edition (the perilous account of the struggle for life among tabbies).

I find that I need space between the action, that moment of rest where I can breathe and interpret the action in the grand scheme of things. So I include those moments in my manuscripts even if there’s a danger that an impatient reader might simply skip over them.

How about you? Are you all about the action? Or do you, like me, need space to breathe? If so, how do you build those moments of rest into your narrative?

Escher bird painting from WikiPaintings.org. Nausicaä cover from rpgland.com. Scene from Howl’s Moving Castle from hilery.wordpress.com. Kanji character from wawaza.com. Space image from wallsave.com. White space from dessign.net.