The Poetic Un-Filter

I’m teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class at Green Mountain College this semester. We just moved into our unit on poetry, and a couple of days ago, during the opening lecture, I was talking to the students about the difference between prose and poetry. I quoted George Santayana, who wrote, “Poetry breaks up the trite concepts designated by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those conceptions were originally put together.”

This morning, I was reading an article in The Atlantic about Douglas Hofstadter, a thought-leader in the development of artificial intelligence. Hofstadter argues that the core of human intelligence is to “understand the fluid nature of mental categories.”

“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” as the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table”…and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on ceaselessly throughout your day. That’s what it means to understand…“At every moment,” Hofstadter writes, “we are simultaneously faced with an indefinite number of overlapping and intermingling situations.” It is our job, as organisms that want to live, to make sense of that chaos. We do it by having the right concepts come to mind. This happens automatically, all the time.

Now, the question is, how does Santayana’s quote belong with Hofstadter’s theory of cognition?

Both Santayana and Hofstadter agree that the process of cognition is based on recognition. We look at the explosions of colors and lines that are the given world and our mind pairs those sensations with “the right concepts” — that’s how we know a table is a table and not a rhinoceros.

But Santayana is saying that the poet is gifted with the ability to retain the original sensations, the explosions of colors and lines before “the right concepts” (or as Santayana says, the “trite concepts”) force those sensations into a specific category, into a specific box.

It is the the poet who connects us to the unfiltered sensations of the world and uncategorized emotions of the soul. As poets, it is our job to grab hold of those sensations before they can be boxed up into the prepackaged concepts constructed by our cultures, to save them from the inevitable loss that comes from being stuffed into a box.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: I is for Ideal Reader

I don’t know who you are.

I can look at my Google Analytics to get a rough understanding of where you are, where you came from, and how long you stayed on Fluid Imagination, but who you are — your motivation for coming here and the goals you hope to achieve — these I can only imagine.

Ideally, you are a fiction writer, and you’re interested in reading medium-sized chunks of writing advice. Ideally, you’re also a human being, with all the icky bits that come from being human, the same icky bits that make you laugh at poop jokes and cry at funerals and prefer common words over jargon.

As a member of my ideal readership, you’re neither male nor female, black nor white nor yellow nor red nor blue nor indigo or violet. What you are, instead, is someone who gets turned on, turned off, and rubbed both the wrong and right ways.

You enjoy television (good television), movies that make you think and feel, and books that either dare to try something new or succeed in doing the same-old same-old really, really well.

But more than anything, as a member of my ideal readership, you are fiercely curious about the craft of creative writing. You don’t want a magical formula. You want, instead, to work hard and sweat. You want to sit at the keyboard and, as the man said, “open a vein.”

You’re here because you want to write words until you find the phrasing that makes you cry at the truth of it. You want authenticity, earnestness, and syntactic acrobatics.

In short, you’re here on Fluid Imagination because you are my ideal reader. Where else would you be?

A Roundup of My Writing Apps

There’s never been a better time to be an OS X or iOS user than right now. Thanks to Apple’s App Stores, individual developers and smaller shops now have access to a large volume of customers, giving them just as much influence over the future of the platform as Adobe and Microsoft once wielded.

And with that greater democracy comes greater innovation. We’re now seeing ideas on the app front that wouldn’t have made it through the more cost-conscious or committee-driven development processes of larger companies. Shops such as Information Architects and individuals such as Marco Arment have expanded our notion of what we want from our apps.

So, wanting to help some of my favorite developers and wanting to shed light on apps that will be helpful to writers such as yourself, I thought I’d share the OS X, iOS, and Web apps that have made my writing not only easier to manage, but also more enjoyable to produce.

The Indispensable Writing Apps


Scrivener logoThe Big Poppa when it comes my writing life, Scrivener is a novelist’s best friend. Not only does Scrivener offer a fully-customizable, full-screen writing experience, but more importantly, it serves as an all-in-one project-management tool. Scrivener helps you keep track of all the various documents and files that go into developing a long piece of creative writing.

Scrivener is a huge application, with outlining tools, a system-wide scratchpad, file-tracking options, document versioning, character and setting templates, footnotes and comments, export options that run the gamut (including Final Draft, ePub, and Kindle file formats), syncing features that hook up with some of the more popular iPad apps, and more. But don’t let its giant feature-set fool you. If you want, you can just start a new project and start typing. Scrivener is an application that allows itself to be discovered. It has everything you want, but only when you want it.

If you do any writing at all, I can’t recommend Scrivener enough. It will, without a doubt, become the Big Poppa of your writing life.

IA Writer

Writer logoIf Scrivener is my Big Poppa, IA Writer has quickly become the ambitious little brother.

IA Writer belongs to a growing category of “minimalist writing applications,” and like other apps in the category, it promises to get out of your way and just let you write.

But IA Writer takes its idea of minimalism a bit further than its competitors. Simply put: IA Writer won’t let you do much else but write. There are no preferences to tweak, no formatting options to play with, nothing at all to distract you.

Because they take away all your options, IA put a ton of time into making sure that Writer looks and feels perfect right out of the gate. They chose a fantastic font (a customized version of Nitti) in a perfect color (HEX #424242) laid on top of a relaxing background (it’s actually a subtle pattern). IA even spent a considerable amount time developing a non-standard blinking cursor that, frankly, is more amazing than any blinking cursor has the right to be.

IA focus modeOn top of that, the folks at IA added what I’m pretty sure is a unique feature among all writing apps. They call it “focus mode,” and what it does is gray out all of the sentences you’re not working on (click the picture to embiggen). Focus mode helps you to focus all of your attention not on what you’ve already written, but on what you’re writing right now. I love the mode so much that I’ve taken to doing the majority of my writing in IA Writer.

Of course, as a minimalist writing application, IA Writer can’t approach Scrivener for project management, so when I’m done with a particular writing session, I just copy and past into Scrivener to keep track of it all.

I should mention that IA Writer works on both iOS and OS X. I bought the iPad 2 on the day it came out, and I bought IA Writer on the day the iPad got delivered to my door. I’d read so many rave reviews of it by that point that I knew I just had to have it.

As you can see, it lived up to my expectations.


Itunes logoI know iTunes isn’t a “writing app” per se, but it’s just as indispensable to my writing life as IA Writer or Scrivener. When I sit down for any writing session, those three icons are the ones I click on.

To clarify though, it’s not iTunes that belongs on this list. It’s a particular playlist within iTunes that does, a playlist I’ve named, simply, “Writing.”

Comprised entirely of bands who produce mostly instrumentals or extended jams, my “Writing” playlist creates an ambience that my muse has learned to trust. When my muse hears the guitar of Jerry Garcia, or the driving rhythms of Do Make Say Think, or the rising crescendos of Explosions in the Sky, or the urgent horn of John Coltrane, she knows that serious writing is about to get done, and thankfully enough, she comes running.

The Specialty Writing Apps

I use IA Writer to compose most any text, Scrivener to manage all the sections and chapters and files that go into my fiction writing, and iTunes to motivate my muse to find me wherever I am.

But these next apps I use for very specific purposes. If you don’t have to achieve certain goals, these apps might not be for you. But then again, they might be.


Marsedit logoMarsEdit is, hands-down, the best dedicated blog-writing application I’ve ever tried. I’ve been a fan of it for years, using it to post stories to both Fluid Imagination and the online literary-journal I edit, One Forty Fiction.

With customizable preview templates to show you exactly how your story will look when you publish it to your blog and customizable shortcut keys that allow you to format your HTML at the push of a button, the app is designed to work the way you want it.

Originally developed as the writing component of Brent Simmons’ legendary feed-reader, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit was spun off on its own and sold to a new developer, Gus Mueller of Flying Meat. Gus later sold it to its current developer, Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, and Daniel used to work as a Senior Software Engineer at Apple. ‘Nuf said.

As for how MarsEdit fits into my own process, I write the first draft of my blog posts in IA Writer. When I’m done, I export the text into HTML format, and then copy and paste it into MarsEdit, where I play around with images, proofread using the customizable preview, and revise as necessary. After the post is exactly as I want it, I click the publish button and voila!, it’s sent to them there Internets.


Evernote logoI’m not going to lie to you. I’m new to the “note taking app” category. Prior to getting my iPad, I spent the majority of my time sitting at my desk, working on my Mac. I didn’t need a note-taking app because right there on my desk, right where I needed it, was my trusty pad of paper (no bugs! no crashes! works with legacy technologies!).

But the iPad changed all that. Now I find myself in all manners of the house when I am struck by some idea or come across some inspirational article, and sure enough, my trusty pad of paper is nowhere to be found.

Enter Evernote. With an iOS app, a OS X app, and a Web app, all synced together so I never lose anything, I can save a snippet of text from some article or type in a few sentences to capture a thought, and then, when I sit down at my Mac for the evening’s writing session, boom, there it is.

Now, with all that being said, I’m not entirely sold on Evernote. It was popular enough so that I’d heard of it before even thinking about getting a note-taking app, and now that I have entered that particular market, it works well enough to have become a regular part of my writing process. But I still find myself wishing for something…different. Something that makes me say, “Yes!” as quickly and as passionately as I still do for Scrivener and IA Writer.

Until then, I don’t have any problem recommending Evernote to those who might need it.

Microsoft Word 2008

Word logoLet me state for the record that I do not like Microsoft Word. The only reason it still exists on my computer is because, in my day job, I work as a marketing specialist for a company that runs on PCs, and most every file they create comes from Microsoft Office. I’ve tried several workarounds (Pages->Word, Scrivener->Word, TextEdit->Word, etc.), but all of them take several steps and involve some worry about compatibility.

Microsoft Word may not be fun to use, it may take forever to launch, and it may crash more often than any other application I have, but it’s still the most used word-processor in the world, and it’s too much of a pain in the ass for me not to have it.

Some day though. Some day I’ll say goodbye.

The Online Writing Apps

What makes an app an app? Is it the chrome around the window that you’re working in? Is it that you have to install it on your computer? Wikipedia, the genius of the collective, currently says that an app is “computer software designed to help the user to perform singular or multiple related tasks.”

If that’s true, as we all (via Wikipedia) say it is, then here are the web apps that I use to perform certain writing tasks.

Etymonline logoEtymonline is an online etymology dictionary. Etymology dictionaries tell you what a word really means. It gives you not only a definition, but also the history of the word, the life of it. It tells you, as best as it can, how and where the word originated and how it transformed over time.

A self-reflexive example? How about the etymology of “etymology?”

late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s.

How cool is that? Using the etymology of “etymology,” I can know I’m speaking the truth when I say that “An etymology dictionary is where you want to go when want to know what a word really means.” After all, the very word “etymology” stems from the word for “true, real, actual.”

I’m telling ya: Skip the regular dictionary and go to instead.

OneLook Reverse Dictionary

Onelook logoKnow what’s frustrating? When you have a sense of what you want to say but not the word itself; when the word you want is on the tip of your mind’s tongue.

Enter the OneLook Reverse Dictionary. You type in the basic concept you’re looking for, and OneLook will check through its huge library of dictionaries to match your concept to the definition of a word. It then shows you all the words you might be thinking of.

You can even play around with wildcard searches. If you know the concept you’re looking for has to do with the process of thought, plus you know that whatever word it is, it begins with a “th,” you can run a search for “th*:process of thought.” And sure enough, the first word they’ll return is exactly what you were “thinking.”

The third option on that list of words that relate to “th*:process of thought?” Thermal depolymerization. Why? Because according to its definition, thermal depolymerization “mimics the geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels.”

See how that works? A search for “process of thought” returns a word whose definition contains “processes thought.” Pretty cool, huh? Are you telling me you can can’t use that kind of tool to help you write? I didn’t think so.

Behind the Name

Behindthename logoThere are more “baby name” pages on the web than there are babies born in a given day (estimated number of babies born each day: ~360,000; estimated number of pages related to “baby names”: ~52.6 million). And in the pursuit of the perfect character name, I’ve used a good number of those pages.

But the one I went back to time and time again, the one I finally ended up bookmarking in my browser, was Behind The Name. It’s a basic web app that allows you to search not only for a given name, but also for the given meaning of a name.

That last bit is crucial when it comes to character naming. You don’t just want something that sounds good; it also has to mean the right thing. With Behind the Name, you can run a search for a name that means, for example, “warrior.” You can then filter that list for male or female names. Then you can just scan down the list to find the name that sounds best for your character.

It’s quick and easy. And you don’t have to deal with a cutesy, family-friendly design, or have the names compete with ads for diapers or skin cream. There’s just a purple background and text-driven design.

Oh, and did I mention that its tagline is “the etymology and history of first names.” After what I wrote above, is there any way I wouldn’t prefer this site over the crap at Didn’t think so.

Writing Apps (I Think) I (Would) Like But Don’t Use

I’m only going to mention two, and they’re both by the same developers, The Soulmen.

The first is Ulysses. Ulysses is similar Scrivener (or going chronologically, Scrivener similar to Ulysses): they’re both full-featured, writing and project-management applications. The major difference is in Ulysses’ design philosophy. As the folks at Scrivener say about their competitor:

The designers [of Ulysses] have a very strong design philosophy—if that philosophy matches the way you work, you will love this software; if not, you might find yourself frustrated at the lack of rich text and hierarchical organisation capabilities. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out Ulysses.

I used Ulysses before I used Scrivener. And while I thoroughly enjoyed it, what ultimately turned me away was its price, which at the time (if I remember correctly) was about $30-$40 higher than Scrivener’s. Funnily enough (and several years later), Ulysses 2 is now about $15 cheaper than Scrivener 2. Who’da thunk it?

(Updated on July 25, 2011: Since writing the above, I’ve not only used Ulysses 2.0, but I’ve also written a review of it for Mac.AppStorm. You can check it out here: “Managing Your Writing Projects with Ulysses 2.0.“)

The second app on the list is an iOS app I haven’t used yet, but the concept of it deeply intrigues me. Its developer, the Soulmen, describe Daedelus as “the first truly next-generation text editor for iPad,” and they make a bunch of fuss about the app being based on the metaphor of the paper stack (don’t ask; just watch the video).

Of course, I kid about the “fuss” thing. As you can see from the video, it actually looks pretty great.

The only reason I haven’t bought Daedelus yet is because I love, love, love my IA Writer and I don’t want another app on my iPad that competes for the same attention. Maybe if the iOS App Store could offer demos of different apps…but alas, Apple says no.

Final Thoughts

App store logoThe galaxy of writing apps on OS X and iOS is huge. It didn’t used to be. Now that it is, you owe it to yourself and to your chosen platform to explore its furthest reaches.

There are hundreds of developers out there working hard to make magical code. Most of them do it because they’re writers themselves, and they’re trying to make an app that they most want to use. Who knows? Maybe their dream app, the one they’ve put all their effort into developing, shares the same the design and features as the one writing app you’ve been waiting for. You owe it to yourself to find them.

Besides, it beats writing.

Cherry Picked Ideas

Steven Silberman has an interesting post today, entitled “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors.” The authors are responding to Silberman’s prompt, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

While each author has their own great tips, here are the ones I liked best:

  • Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful. – Carl Zimmer
  • There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. – David Shenk
  • Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend. – Geoff Manaugh
  • Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. – Ben Casnocha
  • Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. – Ben Casnocha
  • This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead – bask in the madness. – Peter Conners
  • Just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery. – Nancy Cooper
  • Take the due date for the first draft EXTREMELY seriously, like everything depends on that day. – Sylvia Boorstein
  • Have the courage to write badly. – Josh Shenk
  • Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it. – Maryn McKenna

You can read all of the tips (and get links to books by all these authors) on Steve’s original post. Find it here.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: F is for First-person, Present-tense

A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.

The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.

The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.

It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.

Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.

And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.

Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.

Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.

My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: E is for Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is the process of translating one form of art into another, whether that means writing a poem about a painting or singing a song about architecture.

As a writer, it’s your job to translate one work of art — the world of your imagination — into another: the words of your story. Ekphrasis is one way of doing so.

This post is not about the trick for performing ekphrasis. It’s about conceiving of your writing that way.

Whether you’re working on science fiction, fantasy, horror, a romance novel, or a tale for young adults, the need to conceive of the world — your world — as a work of art, is paramount. You have to remember that the description you’re about to give of an apple, a chair, a blonde bombshell, comes not from reality, but from art, the art of your imagination. It’s your job to translate the work of its art into the words of your art. Be free in your interpretation, and allow yourself to color in words all your own.

What’s an example of ekphrasis?

It doesn’t matter. Search Wikipedia if you’re interested. Or check out the Guardian’s examples of the ten best uses of ekphrasis.

The point is not what ekphrasis is, but what it does.

Relate its process to your writing, and see what it does for you.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: D is for Defamiliarization

In Art as Technique (PDF), the literary theorist, Victor Shklovsky, writes:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…We apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object…fades and does not even leave a first impression; ultimately, even the essence of what it was is forgotten… And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, [removing] from objects the automatism of perception.

In other words, art involves the technique of rendering the familiar as unfamiliar, defamiliarizing the objects of perception in order to engender in your reader the experience of seeing something again for the first time.

While providing a “clear” description of a given object allows your readers to assimilate it into their conception of your fictional world, providing a defamiliarized description forces them to engage with the text, to wrestle with its strange and wonderful language before “getting on with it.”

Defamiliarization is the not the technique of turning your text into a riddle, however, and it should not be used for the sake of obfuscation. It should be used, instead, to draw your reader deeper into the world of your story.

In his novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner uses defamiliarization to describe the driveway of his main character, Police Chief Clumly:

He went up the gravel driveway to where his garage sat half-hidden under burnt-out lilacs and surrounded by high weeds. In the glow of the headlights, the weeds looked chalky white and vaguely reminded him of something. It was as if he expected something terrible to come out from their scratchy, bone-dry-looking obscurity—a leopard, say, or a lion, of the mastiff bitch that belonged to the Caldwells next door. But nothing came, and only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind had for a moment slipped into expectancy. He put the car away…

We all know what high weeds around a garage might look like, but had Gardner left his description at that, his readers would have hardly perceived them. The image is familiar, and our perception of the weeds would have been habitual, which means, nonexistent. By presenting the weeds as a potential source of danger, the hiding place of a dangerous animal, Gardner forces us to consider the weeds anew.

What’s more, Gardner not only defamiliarizes the weeds, he defamiliarizes his character’s perception of them as well. Chief Clumly’s perception of the weeds as a potential source of danger did not occur in his upper consciousness — “only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind” experienced the foreboding. Gardner does not throw the defamiliarized weeds away as a one-off perception; he uses it to defamiliarize the sensations experienced by his character. Gardner forces his reader to wrestle with the philosophical assertion that an individual’s mind contains a myriad of parts, two of which might be described as barbaric and philosophical. In order to even conceive of the author’s intent, the readers must engage with their own notions of the human mind, which forces them see these notions as if for the first time.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote that fiction writers need to eschew ambiguity when it comes to their sentence-by-sentence descriptions of a fictional world. Defamiliarization is a technique for doing that. If you don’t give your readers a new perception of the already familiar, you run the risk of giving them nothing at all.