When a Novel Grips You

I'm reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, and, like an obsessive lover, I can hardly keep my hands off it.   I steal moments during the day to read it, I read it at night and I wake up thinking about the book.

This kind of getting lost in a book doesn't happen often to me anymore.  As a writer, I'm constantly absorbing what the author I'm reading is doing as I read.  This makes it difficult to simply get lost in a book.  Instead, I'm analyzing: how did she make that scene so snappy?  Why did he put the backstory there? And so on.

One way to get around this is to read books completely unlike that which you are writing.  Bury yourself in a science fiction title if you're writing a mystery, for instance, or read an historical novel if you're writing science fiction.  Thus the tendency to compare and contrast is somewhat reduced. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery, and while what I'm writing is completely different, that is not why I chose this book to read.  I can't even remember how I happened upon it, but I found it on Amazon and after reading the rave review there, I bought it on a whim.  For once, the Amazon reviews did not let me down.

The novel is a traditional closed-room (not even sure if that is the correct term) mystery, though in this case it is a closed-island mystery.  It is set in Sweden, and makes me long to go there, activating my Danish genes.  The characters are complicated and flawed and yet full of integrity and righteous indignation about injustices which translate to action. 

There are also reasons the book shouldn't work for me: long stretches of narrative, some of it inside our hero's head; scenes that go on forever with talking heads; that weird switch from third to first inside a character's head that drives me nuts.  But, for whatever reason, I love this book and I'm thrilled that the second in the series is due out in the states in July.

Sadly, Stieg Larsson died a few years ago or a heart attack when he was only in his early fifties. The good news is that he had turned in the manuscripts for three novels before his death.  He was a graphic designer (like a character in the book), a magazine publisher (like the hero of the book) and an expert and campaigner against right-wing extremism and racism.

So that's my report on my reading.  Now excuse me while I get back to it.

Character or Plot Driven? and Other Between Holiday Thoughts

My screenwriting friend Marc sent me a link to an article by Lawrence Konner, writer for a gazillion projects including Planet of the Apes (!) and multiple upcoming movies that sound blockbuster-ish.   There's a lot of good bits in this article, so much so that you could take any one of Konner's pronouncements and expand into a longer article.  Remember, nearly everything he says applies to all kinds of storytelling, be it fiction, or creative non-fiction, or you latest short story.  It is helpful to study screenwriting no matter what genre you are writing in, because screenwriters focus on story.

The part of the article that I enjoyed most was his thoughts on character versus plot.  "If you try to get characters to do what the plot determines, then they're moving falsely," Konner says.  He goes on to explain that the first thing you should do is write a biography of your character because the number one thing you want to do is get your audience (or reader) involved in some way with the character.  You must know your character's background, upbringing, current status, dreams, goals and desires.  The last aspects are among the most important because a character wanting something is what will power the plot.

Go read the article, its worth a look.

In the department of other bits and pieces, here's a small round-up of recent interesting things that have crossed my desk:

Nobel Prize winner Le Clezio says that writing was actually his third choice of career.   Firsthe wanted to be an architect, but his math skills were poor.  Then he wanted to be a sailor, but his eyesight was bad.  So he became a writer.  Writing soon became an "uncontrollable impulse."  Le Clezio considers himself a storyteller above all else, and not someone who writes to espouse political views. 

Has anybody read any of his novels?  I'm intrigued by them, myself.  Read the article about him here.

Anne Wayman did a good post called Of Creativity at the beginning of the month.  She links to a couple good posts on the subject. All of them are worth checking out.

PhilosophersNotes is a really cool idea–they call it Cliff Notes for Self-Development books.  During this holiday season, you can download the top 25 titles for free–its an awesome deal.  Be sure to read the Meet the Philosopher page on the site, about Brian Johnson, the guy behind it all.  It's inspiring.

For those of you looking for freelance writing jobs, Anne Wayman lists the places she hunts for them (or just subscribe to her job listing).  Two links to Anne Wayman–clearly she's doing awesome work for writers!

And, finally, Obama's chief speechwriter is 27.  Honest.  This is a fascinating article about him and his relationship with the president-elect.

I think that clears up all the things I've been saving to post about in my Google notebook.  Now its time to return to the magnum opus I'm working on, my 2009 goals.

The Party is Finally Over and Its Time to Ponder 2009

Everybody left today.  Our house party began a week ago, when the snow started falling and didn't stop Snow 060
for days.  There's still snow on the streets, but now it is accompanied by deep tire ruts filled with water, because it is raining.  Hooray!  We Oregonians love the rain.  At least this Oregonian does.

Regretfully, I waved goodbye to my daughter, the last house guest to leave, this afternoon and realized it was time to get back to work.  For quite some time I've wanted to enter the new year with a plan.  I'm not good at planning and scheduling because I am a rebellious sort.  You know that advice you always hear to schedule time for what you want to get done and write it on your calendar?  Doesn't work for me because once it is written down, I rebel against it.  Too much of the free spirit in me.

Just as I was writing that last paragraph my friend Suzanne called, disturbed because she felt that another friend of hers was disrespecting her time.  In hashing all this out we touched upon the idea that perhaps he was disrespecting her time because he didn't respect his own.  And then I remembered what I had just written about being rebellious about time and realized that maybe it is a matter of respecting oneself more than anything.   Does it ever cease to amaze you how these things get pointed out to us?

I'm determined to change, and the path to change is going to be my plan for 2009.  I'm going to think deep thoughts about what I want to accomplish this year and get them all written down in a way that I can follow. My inspiration is a post I read on Chris Guillebeau's blog about creating an Annual Review.  It's worth a look, and even if you don't make it all the way through, I suspect that the acting of thinking about it will have a big impact.

I'm going to work on my 2009 plan this weekend.  As part of it,  I'll be going back through the posts I've written this year and creating my own personal Greatest Hits of 2008 list.  So I'll report back soon.

Meanwhile, what are you writing goals this year?  Let's all fess up together.  There's strength not only in numbers but in stating our plans.   Leave a comment and get next year's writing success rolling.

Lessons From The Snow

Its been snowing in Portland since Saturday and now we have about a foot on the ground.  I know that Snow 070
most of you consider Oregon a northern state and you thus assume that we always get a lot of snow, but such is not the case.  Its been five years since we've gotten an appreciable snowfall, and 40 since we've had this big of a storm.

Because we don't get snow very often, it is not cost-effective to maintain a lot of equipment to clear it.  So despite the fact that the city employees work very hard to plow roads, they simply can't do enough in a situation like this.  And most motorists don't bother with buying chains. After all, if you only need them once every five years or so, there are more compelling things to put in the budget.

So I've been mostly stuck at home with a houseful of people, a sort of early Christmas house party.  Yesterday, going a bit stir-crazy, we all walked down to the Daily, which, thank you God, was open.  All pedestrians walked down the tire tracks in the street as the sidewalks are just too drifted with snow to allow easy passage.  Later, we found chains in the basement and spent an hour digging the car out and putting them on.  Um, when I say "we" I mean the royal we because I wasn't about to get anywhere near a snow shovel. 

And did I mention that I only started my Christmas shopping on Friday?  In a panic, I started ordering things online.  Since then, I've gotten notice that the packages have been shipped but none have arrived on my doorstep.  You think its because planes haven't been flying in and out of PDX? Or because even trucks with chains on them are getting stuck on the snowy streets?  Hmmm, I wonder.

You'd think I'd be getting tons of writing done, what with being snowbound and all.  Think again–all this is incredibly distracting.  And, I will admit, lots of fun.  But while I may not have been writing much, I have, of course been thinking.  What follows are my profound Thoughts having to do with snow.  And writing, of course.

1.  It will all be okay.  So the presents don't arrive in time, at least the kids are old enough to understand why.  I'll wrap up cards that tell what they were supposed to get.  Or we'll have another dinner later and unwrap the real presents.  There's not a lot I can do about it, so why spend energy worrying about it?

2.  Details are what make the story.  We know this. Of course we know this.  But it is one thing to hear on the radio that buses are having a hard time navigating the streets and yet another to talk to my son and have him tell me that he saw 10 buses stuck in the snow on his way home yesterday.  Or to talk to my sister who was riding a bus this morning and just as she answered my call it got stuck and everyone had to get off.  The whole lot of them walked off looking for a new bus and when it came, it was so full it zoomed on past.  Aren't those details more interesting than the bland radio report?

3.  Stepping away from the computer is good for the soul.  Shocking, I know, but since we've been having our non-stop house party every night we drink wine, eat dinner, and watch a Christmas movie.  News flash: this is fun.  Even more fun than hanging out on my computer, writing.  Amazing the things you learn in a pinch.

4.  Showing up is what counts.  You might not finish the whole damn novel, but you can write a scene of it.  Or a paragraph.  Or even a sentence.  I know, I beat this drum constantly and loudly but over the last couple of days I've seen again how effective it is to spend even a minute or two with whatever project you are lovingly shepherding.  What with the tumult in the house, I've been hard-pressed to find time for my client's projects, let alone my passion projects.  But spending a half hour with Emma Jean yesterday reminded me why I strive to make time to work on my novel–and it made me feel like I'd accomplished something so I could go watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation without guilt.

That is it, the sum total of my Thoughts after being cooped up for four days.  But, hark, the sun is out and could it be I just saw a drip coming off the roof?  Never mind that the forecast calls for more snow tonight…

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Writing and Resting: The Winter Solstice

A theme is emerging as we near the official start of winter.

A friend emails that she's tired, depressed and depleted, the end result of consistent beating herself up for not writing.  Never mind that a beloved friend of hers recently died, her business, like so many others, is rapidly changing, and she suddenly finds herself back in touch with people she's not heard from in years.  (Facebook, ya gotta love it.)  Stress much?  Ya think?

A family member tells me she's not going out much these days, hasn't seen friends for awhile.  Never mind that she's got a new love with whom she is deliriously happy and that she doesn't really want to go out.  She worries about it all the same.

And I myself spent much of December wringing my hands and flopping about the office, sighing dramatically as I resisted the new ideas that so desperately wanted to take up residence in my brain.  In a session with my very wise coach yesterday, I voiced the thought that I'd been feeling the urge to reinvent myself.  Yet at the same time I felt stagnant and unmotivated.  Plus I hurt my knee and there's been ice all over the streets and sidewalks so I couldn't get out and run.  And my computer is failing fast and my 92-year-old mother's furnace broke on the coldest day of the year.

I-yi-yi, what a season.  Oh right–it is an official season, the holiday season,  when we are all supposed to be of good cheer.  Nothing like a little forced gaiety to ramp up the resistance.

In the aforementioned session with my very wise coach, she reminded me that December and January are traditionally times to rest and take stock.  To eat healthy food and go to bed early and take care of ourselves so that we have energy for the more active seasons to come.  Yet we, in our modern society, resist the idea of slowing down, of being passive, of storing up, of resting.  We feel the need to go, go, go and when we feel the urge our automatic response is to resist it and keep going. 

And thus resulteth the running injury, the negativity turned in ourselves, the constant shoulding.  Conversely, giving yourself the time to relax opens up space–room in your brain for that new writing project to finally take shape, for the fresh idea to bubble to the surface, or simply for your whole being to just say, "ahhhhhh" and do nothing.

So just remember, to everything, even writing, there is a season.  If you're struggling with the desire to rest, quit resisting and let yourself go.  And report back to me when you awaken again in April.  Kidding!  You only get until March.

I’m baaaaack

Please forgive the long absence (well, its only been a week and a half or so.  But that's an eon in blog years.)

I have not been blogging for two good reasons:      476px-Chimp_Brain_in_a_jar

1.  I was out of town.

2.  I have been having Thoughts, of a deep nature.

Thoughts about what, you might ask?  Well, if you read my last post, which was a survey asking why you read this blog (and offering a free ebook in return) you know that I've been pondering which direction I should go with the information I offer.

Thank you to those of you who responded, and for those of you who haven't yet, the offer still stands.  Meanwhile, my Thoughts have rejuvenated me and I'm feeling ready to return to regular posts with renewed vigor and more of a focus on the craft of writing and the life of a writer. 

However, let me just say that the bit about regular posts depends heavily on nature and the universe cooperating with me, neither of which has happened thus far this week.  I've been dealing with ice, snow, and my mother's furnace breaking on one of the coldest days of the year.    (Can you even imagine how much fun it was to call furnace repair companies yesterday and beg them to please come over?)

But, barring more natural disasters or appliances breaking, I will soon be back at it on a regular basis.  With all kinds of juicy goodness to come.   See you soon!

Photo by Gaetan Lee, used courtesy of Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Free Book Offering: Going To A Place Far, Far Away

Well, its not that far, really.  I'm heading up to the Washington coast to visit my Nashville friend Sue at her father's place.  What makes it feel far, far away is that there is no internet service and no cell phone service.   No blogging!  No Twitter!  No text messaging! 

However, I'm only going to be gone until tomorrow.   I'm taking my camera and since my new end-of-the-year resolution is to snap lots of photos, I'm hoping to come back with many of them to share.  In the meantime, here's a photo I took last night of the Christmas train at Oaks Park:

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Not quite sure how to get that date stamp off it.  Words are my forte, not photos. 

Which brings me to the point of this post.

I'm feeling a bit tired of it all and in need of some inspiration, which is where you come in.  I want to know what you want to read about in terms of writing, and what you need to know.  If you feel so inclined, pop me an email at wordstrumpet@gmail.com with answers to the following questions and in return I'll send you a free beta bcopy of my Ebook, Set the Words Free.  (But bear in mind that I'm going to be out of wireless range for a few days and thus will not be getting back to you with it until the end of the week.)

1. Do you write:
fiction
screenplays
nonfiction
poetry

2. What is your biggest writing problem?

3.  Do you struggle more with finding time and motivation to write or issues with craft?

4.  Are you a published writer?

5.  If not, do you aspire to be a published writer?

6.  If yes, what do you aspire to publish (ie, novel, short story, get a screenplay optioned, poetry, etc.)

7.  Do you aspire to make money writing?  If so, in what area?

8.  What kinds of posts are most helpful?

9.   What kinds of posts do you enjoy the most?  (ie, life of a writer or craft)

10.  What is your biggest writing goal for 2009?

11.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, what brings you back to it?

If you only want to answer a couple of questions, that's cool, I'll take any and all feedback.  Thank you so much and I'll be back with photos at the end of the week.

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

This is the third post in a series on scenes, and specifically, flat scenes. You can find part one of the series here, and part two, here.

What is a flat scene?  It is one in which the emotional tenor is the
same all the way through.  For instance your heroine may start out the
scene depressed and end it depressed.  Or your hero may begin the scene
happy and end it happy.  A flat scene can also be flat by virtue of the fact that there are no turning points  in it.  A turning point is when a character acts on a goal (or call it an objective, if you want) and is either successful or unsuccessful.  Since you want to create as much conflict as possible for your characters, odds are good that you will be torturing them by making them unsuccessful.  Then they have to try another way to achieve their goal.  Or if they are successful at achieving their goal, that goal creates other, unforeseen problems.

But I digress. 

A scene turns when it ends at a different place than it began, and I don't mean just physically.  If your character begins the scene unhappy, creates a goal to change that unhappiness and achieves the goal, she might end the scene happy.  And thus the scene has turned.  There has been rising action, from sadness to achieving the goal, and then happiness.

Or if your character begins the scene unhappy, works on a goal that fails, she might end the scene devastating, destroyed, completely ruined.  The scene has turned.  That would be a case of falling action.  Now she must pick herself up and figure out what to do next. 

Rust Hills talks about the end of the last chance to change as a turning point in short stories.  If the character has a chance to change and takes it, that makes a story.  But there's also a classic short story structure in which the character has a chance to change that is his last, and doesn't take it.  And that is a story, too.  Both options create turning points.

In a flat scene, there is no turning point, no chance to change, no last chance to change.  Your characters begin and end in the same emotional terrain. 

How to avoid this?  The easiest way (and I say that facetiously, because there is no easy in writing) is to start each scene with a goal.  This can be as simple as creating a desire for a character.  Then put obstacles in the way to achieving it.  This is exactly what we do when designing a plot, and if you do it for each scene, you'll have a strong structure for your novel (and by the way, all this talk of scene applies to creative non-fiction, also).  If you suspect your scene is flat, ask yourself what your character's goal is for the scene and see if that doesn't give you a spine to hang the action on.

Bear in mind that each scene is like a mini-story, a hologram of the big picture, if you will.  Don't go off creating scenes willy-nilly just for the sheer joy of it.  Your beautifully crafted scenes must relate to the plot.

Remember, death to all flat scenes.  Make them rise, make them fall, make them turn and twirl and dance.  Your novel will thank you for it.

Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway

We interrupt the current series on scene to bring you this post on writing, fear, and creativity. 

I was having breakfast with my wonderful Nashville friend Sue (wait, should I say she's from Nashville if she is originally from Portland?) this morning and we started talking about feeling skittish and being nervous and anxious.  (Did the world financial situation have anything to do with this conversation? You be the judge.) 

I allowed as how I've recently realized that I'm nervous or scared pretty often these days. I travel alone a lot, and that makes me nervous.  I meet new people all the time, and that does, too.  Staying at home makes me nervous that I'm missing things out in the world.  And then we get to writing.  As my sister would say, gee-zus.  I attempt to write emotional truths in my novel and then I think about what my 92-year-old mother will say and I get nervous.  Or I write these true confessions in this (very public) blog and that makes me nervous.

But here's the deal:  I'm so used to the feeling of being nervous that I rarely even notice it anymore.  Ratchet it up to terrified (say, book deal) and you'll get my attention, maybe.  Meanwhile I go about my business being happily scared half out of my mind, doing it anyway: boarding the plane and hoping some kind gentleman will volunteer to lift my heavy laptop bag to the overhead compartment, meeting the new client, and opening up a new page to write on the computer or the spiral journal. 

I'm finally beginning to realize that if you're not scared, you're not living.  If you're not putting your nerves on the line on a regular basis, it is time to dial it up a notch.  This is true in garden variety living life, and its true in writing. 

Fear is the flip side of creativity.   But you can–and must–harness it.  Maybe there's a creative person somewhere on the planet who doesn't experience fear, but I don't know where that someone is.  If you find him or her, let me know.  Meanwhile, here are some ideas for harnessing fear in the service of creativity:

What you resist, persists.  Like anger or any other strong emotion, you can't let fear drive you but if you try batting it away, that doesn't work so well, either.  Try just letting it be.  Acknowledge it and then go write or board the plane or run the marathon. 

Denial is a river in Egypt.  And it is a big river, indeed.  Denial is a tricky mistress because being in denial means you don't realize you have a problem.  Its a brilliant coping mechanism.  Seems to me, though, that even those of us swimming in the depths of that river always see a glimmer of the light of truth.  Swim towards that light.  Allow it to illuminate the fear.

Only way out is through.
  I hate this emotional stuff, because it is so damn hard.  Which is of course, why we resist and go into denial.  But truly the best option is to plow into it.  Have you ever had the experience of resisting and resisting writing and then finally getting to it and having such a blast you wondered what the fuss was about?  I have.  It happens nearly every day sometimes.  Often you just have to walk through the fire.

Just do it.  This is probably about the gazillionth time I've invoked the Nike mantra in this blog.  That's because it is so simple and true.  Honestly?  This is the gist of it all, the kernel, the seed, the nut graph, the takeaway.  The single most important thing in life is to just do it.   Ignore the fear, forget the pain, concentrate on the moment, right here, right now and go write.

And, in case  you need more inspiration, here are some links about creativity you might find of use:

Building Success with Creative Adaptation

How To Write Remarkably Creative Copy

Of Creativity

We'll be back to the regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, with the final post in the series on writing scenes.  Meanwhile, you can read part one here, and part two here.

Elements of a Scene

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of flat scenes (not to be confused with flat screens) and how they can be very dull and boring.  As I emoted about the dullness and boringness of flat scenes and planned to write about how to avoid them, the thought occurred to me that this might be a good place for a recap about the elements of scene.

Writing in scene is one of the most common things that new writers do not do. Chairs_home_stage_265084_l

In general (and you can argue with me on this), a scene:

  • Takes place in one location
  • Is confined to the viewpoint of one character
  • Has a specific purpose in mind (or at least it should), such as showing character, creating conflict, advancing plot

The best scenes work hard and accomplish several of these things at the same time.  The basic elements of scene are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description

This is as opposed to narrative or exposition, which is straight writing, with no action or dialogue.  Again in general, a scene shows while exposition tells.  A scene is actable  (goofy Hollywood term for you) which means you could watch actors play the roles.  The only way actors could act exposition is in a monologue.

Now that you've had this handy little reminder of what a scene is, the next step is to write an effective one, which is way more complicated than just putting words in your characters' mouths.  An under-appreciated way to make scenes work hard and keep your reader's interest is to make sure they turn. 

And that, dear reader, is the topic of the next post in this series.

Awesome photo of chairs onstage by Mazartemka.  I found it on Every Stock Photo.