I Find Myself Once Again in Portland

Having left LA last Friday and flown up the coast, I am adjusting to the relative cold up here (oh who am I kidding, forget the relative part it is flippin' freezing, 50 degrees colder than it was when I left California). 

But this morning was one of those foggy autumn mornings that I love, and when I stepped out back to make sure Igor, the blind pug, got himself off the deck okay I saw one of the 50 spider webs that ring our house covered in dew.   So I grabbed my cell phone and took a photo.  It is not the best of photos but I am happy with it anyway.   Pretty  awesome spider web, eh?

Photo_102108_001

I'll be returning to southern California next month, to keep Robert Hoyk company while his wife is out of town, and also to meet with clients.  I love my clients.  They all live in LA, every single blessed one of them.  And that means I get to return to LA often.  Here are some of the recent reasons I have enjoyed LA:

An Empowered Woman.  An amazing networking group–and more.  Let me tell you, I've always hated and resisted networking groups but I love attending events put on by An Empowered Woman because they are fun. Good shopping, interesting speakers, a fabulous collection of women, what could be better? Desiree Doubroux, the founder, is a force of nature.  She's amazing, and so is her group.

One of the event was held at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air.  I think that's where it was, I still get confused in LA.  It is on Sunset Boulevard, right off the 405, okay?  That's as specific as I can get. And wherever it was, I loved it.  That is how I think I should live all the time: men fluttering around as I arrive, lovely outdoor seating areas, a gorgeous lobby.

As always, staying with my wonderful friend, Suzanne, who is an healer extraordinaire.   She celebrated her birthday while I was there and besides eating at Maria's Kitchen (amazing Italian food and the best staff in the business–thank you, Joshua, we love you) we also drove up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory.  Fabulous views of the entire LA area, even though the valleys were all covered in smoke from the fires.  Fascinating place–the observatory was closed but it is quite an installation, the peak is covered with transmission towers and the like.  Not exactly sure what all goes on up there, but I'd like to find out.  I think.  The full moon rose on the drive back down the mountain and the sun set brilliantly red from the fires on the other side.  Amazing.

Another evening we drove up to Chantry Flat, then hiked down into Santa Anita Canyon.  Walking back up was a bitch, but it was worth it because at the bottom of the canyon there are cabins.  They are only accessible by foot and to get supplies in you have the packed in on burros.  Is that cool or what?  We only saw  a couple of them, but apparently there are many more still in existence and a whole camp at the bottom of the canyon.  You can see photos of it all here.

And besides all the fun, there was work, too, such as meeting with prospective clients, who shall remain nameless, and meeting with fellow writers. If you are in the Pasadena or Alta Dena area and you need help with marketing or marketing writing, you should call Don Simkovich.  He'll be happy to help you out, and he'll do a great job for you. 

I also spent a great deal of time critiquing the novel of my screenwriting friend Brian, who despite my best efforts does not yet have a blog or website that I can link you to.  And I spent time working on packets for the Loft.   I even got some work done on my novel while I was there. 




How Far Away Are You? Part Two

Several days ago, I wrote Part One of this post on distance in viewpoint.  Rashly, at that moment, I promised a Part Two,  complete with how-tos.   The how-tos are the hard part, because as with all writing, they are difficult to explain and sometimes even more difficult to put into action.  But sometimes not. 

But never let it be said that I have backed away from a challenge. So here goes.

The goal at hand is to get deeply into the head of your viewpoint character.  There are places in your novel when you might want to stay in a more distant, cooler viewpoint, but that is not the point of our discussion today.  The point of our discussion is closeness, hot and intimate closeness.  None of that Ice Queen distance stuff for us, baby.  Its all about connection. 

How to accomplish that, given that we're talking about on the page and not on the body?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Am A Camera.  Or you are.  You job as the writer is to be the camera inside the viewpoint character's head.  Go deep inside your character (it is not as kinky as it sounds) and see the world through his or her eyes.  What does he see, smell, hear, taste, feel?

2.  Write Character Journal Entries.  One of the ways you get a character's voice on the page is to know that character well–so well that you can write her viewpoint as easily as you talk.  You don't always plan out what you are going to say, do you?  No, instead you talk.  Most of the time it is as natural as breathing.  Theoretically, the same should be true of writing in your character's viewpoint.

3.  Read Out Loud.  The best way to find out if your character talks the way you hear him talk is to read your manuscript out loud.  It makes a huge difference.   You'll pick up phrases that don't sound right and dull lines of dialogue.  If you character is the Duchess of York and you have her talking like Daisy from the Dukes of Hazzard, you'll hear it when you read out loud.

4. Interview with the Vampire, or at least your hero.  Another way to get inside your character's head is to ask her questions.  Make like Barbara Walters and find out what kind of tree she might be, among other things.

5.  Ordinary Day.  We all know there aren't any ordinary days, but just for the sake of your best-selling novel, let's pretend there are.  Take your character through a typical day in her life from the minute she gets up until she hies herself to bed.  Step by step.  This sounds tedious, but it is not, it is fun, and you'll discover way more about your character than what kind of toothpaste he uses.  You might get insight into what drives him (and also what kind of car he drives), what his day to day conflicts are, and perhaps even a taste of his motivation:  what gets him out of bed in the morning ( and the answer has nothing to do with an alarm clock).

6.  Put Her In Action.
  Have her do something.  Write a scene with your hero mowing the lawn or driving across New Mexico or teaching a child to swim.  These scenes will probably never make it into your book, but they will help you to understand who your character truly is as person.  Make a list of activities (use your life as a starting point) and every time you have a few minutes, choose an activity and write your character doing it. Action defines character.  Action is motivation in motion. 

So, are we recognizing a theme here? Are we perhaps noticing that the common denominator in all these exercises is a sincere desire to get to know our characters better?  Knowing your character inside and out is the key to being able to get inside his head to write in his viewpoint.  If you're having a hard time making your character's viewpoint come alive, go back to the starting point–character.  Ask more questions, delve more deeply, learn more about who you are writing about. 

How Far Away Are You?

I refer to the issue of distance in viewpoint.

Yawn.   Way to make a post fascinating, right?  Excuse you while you lean your head back in your chair and take a wee nap.  Once you've dozed for a minute, you might want to rouse yourself for this one, because it can make the difference between an engaging novel and one that skims along the surface.  Between a book that sells and one that doesn't.  Between a book that hits the best-seller list and one that languishes.

Perhaps you are now wide awake and paying attention.

Explaining viewpoint can be thorny.  Oh who am I kidding, even people who've been writing and teaching writing for years don't grasp every aspect of viewpoint.  So attempting to explain one aspect of viewpoint–distance–is tricky.

But I shall persevere in my effort, because, after all, you want to sell that novel, don't you? 

So let's begin with a quote from Janet Burroway, the godmother of all creative writing instruction (if you don't have her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, stop what you are doing right now and go buy it.  There are seven editions, and the most current one is dreadfully expensive, but you can buy one of the older editions in a cheaper used version.)  Here's the quote (its from one of the earlier editions, like the second or third, so don't go looking for it if you a later book):

"As with the chemist at her microscope and the lookout in his tower, fictional point of view always involves the distance, close or far, of the perceiver from the thing perceived.   Point of view in fiction, however, is immensely complicated by the fact that distance is not only, though it may be partly, spatial.  It may also be temporal.  Or the distance may be intangible and involve a judgment moral, intellectual, and/or emotional."

The kind of distance in viewpoint that I'm talking about here falls into the first category that Burroway mentions.    For instance, yesterday I was at a networking meeting here in LA,and a woman asked me to take a photo of her with my friend Suzanne. I'm a terrible photographer and so I did what I always do–aim and shoot.  The resulting photo was of the two of them from the waist up. The woman asked me to take a closer shot and she jiggled some button on the camera and in the lens zoomed and the two faces of the women were now framed in the viewfinder.  Et voila, a much better, more interesting photo.

Why was it more interesting?  Because the photo got in close enough to capture the essence of the two women.  You could see their expressions, the way each of them smiled, the twinkle and joy in their eyes.  None of that was visible in the waist-up shot.  If you've ever taken photography classes, you've probably been admonished to get in close to get the good shot. 

So, too, in writing.   A favorite admonition is to "go deeper."  Often what this means is to go farther into the head of the viewpoint character.  Think about the last piece of deeply involving fiction that you read, or the most recent discussion you had in your book club.  Odds are good that you talked about how alive the character felt to you, how you wanted to know what happened to them after the book ended.  How you thought about them after you finished the book and wondered what they were doing now–just like a real person. 

This kind of character identification–when we are so deeply bonded with a character we forget she is not real–does not come from a distant viewpoint.  A distant viewpoint is me taking the photo of the two women from the waist up, so you can't really see any of the details.  Close-in is that photo I took when their faces filled the entire frame.  Distant skims the surface, like God looking down on the world he created and watching all the little people do their thing.  Close-in is God being inside the heads of those characters.

To put it (broadly) another way–distant tells, close-in shows.  Distant explains, close-in feels.

Alright, enough already, how is one supposed to accomplish such a feat?

As with all fiction, that feat is easier said than done.  Easier explained than accomplished.  However, I shall rise to the occasion and do my best to give you some how-tos tomorrow.

Writing and Reading Odds and Ends

1. Le Short Story.

From my buddy Roy, here's a nice essay on the short story.  Best quote from it:

"That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William
Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a
grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small,
contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you
concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of
the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world
itself."

The essay is by Steven Milhauser.

2.  Le Frenchman180px-Nobel2008Literature_news_conference1-1

In case you hadn't heard, a Frenchman won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 
His name is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him until he won.  I'm intrigued by him, though, especially given that he divides his time between Albuquerque and France.   Check out the list of all the Nobel Prize winners at their website.  Its kind of a cool site.  Who knew?  (The photo at the right is of the announcement.)

3.  Le Weekend

I don't have a three.  It's Friday afternoon and I've been trying to get to my novel all day and so instead of casting about for some fascinating tidbit to balance out this post, I'm simply going to wish you a happy weekend and go write for a bit.


Photo from Wikipedia,
  published under the following Creative Commons license:
Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.0

What Do You Know About Ethics?

What do you know about ethical behavior?

If you are like me, the answer is probably not much–except, like art, you know it when you see it.

Given the current madness of the financial markets and its cause, good old fashioned greed, all of a sudden the topic of ethics is looking positively hot and glamorous.

So I've got a hot book idea for you.  Its called The Ethical Executive, and it is by a wonderful man named Bob Hoyk.  The book is grounded in practical science, and has an easy-to-read format (short chapters!  You gotta love 'em!)

Head on over the The Ethical Executive website and check out more about it.    Also watch for a page with more information to be posted at my companion site, bookstrumpet, and a full review will be coming soon over there.

Technology , Spirituality and Creativity

This is a funny confession, but technology inspires me both creatively, and spiritually. 

I used to live in a tiny bubble that was comprised of my immediate neighborhood, my city, occasional forays to other cities.  Now, thanks to technology, I’m connected to a vast web of people, through my blog, email, and social networking.  I’ve got ghostwriting clients in LA, students in Nashville, and friends all over the world.  People say technology is the death of intimacy, but I say the opposite.

There’s no escaping it–we’re all connected. Quantum physicists tell us that everything we do impacts even the tiniest atoms of matter.  Technology proves this to me, over and over again, every day.  Because I have physical evidence of our interconnections through technology, it is much, much easier for me to believe it in a spiritual manner.

As above, so below, the ancients say.  As technology, so spirituality. 


Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Three: The Word Book

In part one of this series, I talked about strong verbs.  Part two featured a rant essay about the thesaurus.  And now we come to part three, which is about the word book.  It could also be titled, write the word down, stupid.  (For those of you youngsters, or people with short memories, I'm riffing off the slogan that won Bill Clinton the election, way back in the days of yore.  The slogan, "Its the economy, stupid," was posted on election headquarters walls to remind workers what the key issue was.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except this time I'm pretty sure that Obama doesn't need reminding.)

Anyway, strong verbs and word books.  Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 041
Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 045

Behold, images of my very own word book:  I know, I know, the photos are not the best, but I am proud of them nonetheless, because I so rarely manage to illustrate posts with photos.  They are clear enough, I hope, for you to get the gist.  My word book is a cute little (5 by 8 ish) purple binder with A to Z tabs and in it I write down, wait for it, words. 

The genesis of my word book stems from my MFA years.  One of my mentors, Melissa Pritchard, gave a lecture in which she talked about a word book that she had begun years ago and now could not live without.  I had a writer's crush on Melissa and vowed to emulate every single thing that she did, ever.  And so I started my own word book, not having the first clue what hers actually contained.  I just liked the idea of having a book full of vital words that I carried with me everywhere.

At first I laboriously wrote new words in my word book, looked up the definition, and then wrote that down, too.  A nice idea, and I do love all the words I've defined in my book.  And even though it is fun to leaf through and admire the words, I find this approach is not terribly useful.  After all, how do I know what word I'm looking for?  I have to confess that this wee problem made me set aside the word book for a few, gasp, years.

But since I've been on my Verb Safari, I am reconfiguring the word book.  Mostly now I'm using it to write down verbs.  Strong verbs, weak verbs, verbs based on nouns, verbs I made up, verbs that don't make any sense.  The best way to find good verbs is to start becoming aware of them.  And once you find them, write them down.  Make your own word book.  Write them on index cards (my new favorite way to keep track of ideas).  Write them on scraps of paper, throw them in a basket, and look over them every once in awhile.  Doesn't matter where you write them, but do it.   And while you're add it write down other words that catch your fancy, also.  You'll find your verb use and your vocabulary improving drastically.

So that's it, my three-part series on verb use.  If you find any good verbs, share them with me, would you?  I'd appreciate it.

How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words

Big Word Hunting, Part One: What is a Strong Verb?

Have you ever read a novel and been impressed with the originality of the author's use of verbs?  One of the hallmarks of good fiction is the use of strong, original verbs.  Yet how does one go about finding these verbs when our daily lives are most often assaulted with weak variations of "to be" from every angle?  When I read a novel full of good verbs I sigh heavily and lament that I am not a good verb finder.

But of late I have deduced that my inability to find good verbs is a result of laziness.  I hate when that happens and I discover that something I thought was a congenital trait is actually because I am slothful.

Why laziness?  Because it takes more effort to pull out the thesaurus and look up a word then it does to hit Shift F7 and use the lame Word synonym finder.  And because it takes consistent exertion to look for verbs in your daily travels and readings, and most important, when you find them, write them down.  It takes energy to drag yourself out of the rut of using plain, ordinary words and passive verbs.

Perhaps at this point you might be asking, what, exactly is a strong verb?  Let us take a look:

  • All variants of the verb to be are weak verbs.  (Sorry, to be it is a harsh judgment, but it must be said.)  Poor old to be is so over-used that it does not pull up any fresh imagery (or any image at all).  To be is the work horse of the verb world, and work horses age early and get tired and sick and feeble. So send your to bes out to pasture and find some young fresh fillies, or colts if you prefer.
  • Verbs with an ing ending are weak verbs.  Yes, I know, the justification for using the ing ending is that it indicates time passing.  Such as "I was reading while I waited for the train."  However, a simple ed ending accomplishes the same thing in a crisper fashion:  "I read while I waited for the train."  I have a tragic propensity to fall in love with ing endings and so once in awhile, I must whip myself soundly and rid my manuscript of as many of them as possible.  Put those ing endings out in the back 40 with the workhorse to bes, where they can have AARP parties together.
  • Verbs based on nouns are strong verbs.  A fun verb exercise is to sit in a room, look around and start naming every noun you see.  What you'll discover is that many of our most beloved verbs are based on nouns. And in the process of turning nouns into verbs, you might stretch your mind a bit to discover some hot new verbs. 
  • Strong verbs stand alone, on their own two feet.  They don't need helpers like had, or would, or any other words that exist mostly to suck up to the handsome strong verbs.  For instance, "The policeman had run so fast he was out of breath."  How about "The policeman ran so fast he was out of breath," instead?  You get the gist.  Banish the helper verbs.  They can rent the room next to the AARP verbs and hold a wake for themselves.

In part two of this diatribe series on verbs, coming tomorrow, God and goddess willing, we will discuss the wonders of the thesaurus.  Until then, have a look at your current writing project.  What kinds of verbs do you see?

Another Way to Get Publicity

Publicity for me, that is.  Here's the deal.  Drumroll please….Wordstrumpet is now an Alltop blog!

What is Alltop, you ask?  They call themselves a "digital magazine rack" and since I am a magazine harlot as well as a Wordstrumpet, I like that description.   What this means is that they gather up a bunch of sites for your reading pleasure.  Or, as they so eloquently put it, "in other words our goal is the 'cessation of internet stagnation' by providing 'aggregation without aggravation.'" 

And since the folks at Alltop are "highly subjective and judgmental" (their words, not mine) about who they include, I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to be a part of it. 

How does it work?  Head on over to the writing page at Alltop and you'll see several feeds listed, including mine, down there at the bottom.  Also listed are the headlines of the five most recent posts, which you can then run your cursor over to get an instant preview to see if you want to read it.  Cool, huh?

I'm heading over to get one of their kick-ass badges to put up, but first I need to thank Frank Marafiote, who got me going on Alltop in the first place.  Thanks, Frank!

Lasagne for Lewis, Pineapple-Upside Down Cake for Emma Jean

Pineapple_upsidedown_cake_9I've just finished making a pan of lasagne for my son's birthday dinner tomorrow.  (Brief aside: on Twitter, the spell check wanted me to spell it lasagne, which I thought was correct.  Here on Typepad, the spelling gods insist it is lasagna.  But I sticking to my e ending.  I like e endings.)

I'm sort of famous for my dislike of cooking, but lately I've been trying out new recipes (cooked pineapple and cheese–thank you, Candace), making old favorites I'd forgotten about (apple, celery, and walnut salad), and creating new dishes (brown rice, black beans, burger, onion garlic, other interesting things I can't remember.  My Mom would call this Icebox Cleanup.)  Fall is in the air and it makes me want to cook.

I've always seen cooking as one more thing that is taking me away from writing, one more thing to rush through so I can get back to what I'm working on.  I've been known to set a pan of some slapped-together concoction on the stovetop and wander away to get back to my work–only to return to find the food a burned mess.

Ah, the writing gods are harsh masters, demanding such fealty that we scribes have time for nothing else.  Certainly not for cooking, or any other hobbies.  Alright, I do knit–but it is a rare occasion when I actually finish something.  Writing always beckons before I have a chance.  And then there's the fact that it is difficult to knit or cook while reading, and let's face it, reading is a critical aspect of writing.

But I'm starting to think I've been missing out.  People always yammer on about how grounding and relaxing cooking is and I roll my eyes and tell them cooking bores me, implying, of course, that I have way better and more important things to do.  And the thing is I admire people who cook.  Deeply admire them.  I think that people who cook are very likeable.  They cook to feed others, to please others, to make others happy, right?  So most cooks are very good people, except those snotty ones who will only use a certain kind of cheese from France and the finest olive oil and all that crappery.

My point in all of this is a confession of sorts.  Part of the reason I've started cooking is that the heroine of my novel is cooking.  Emma Jean has recently informed me that she loves to bake (pineapple-upside down cake and cookies to present at her readings) and cook (I don't know what yet).  I'm happy that Emma Jean has told me this because she is a kick-ass, larger than life character, and kick-ass, larger than life characters are sometimes difficult to write in a sympathetic manner.  But because Emma Jean loves to cook, particularly for others, this will make her more likeable.  Right?  Right? 

And so I have some catching up to do in the cooking department.  Hence the lasagne–everything from scratch–for Lewis.  Try as I might, however, I could not convince him that he needed to choose pineapple-upside down cake for his birthday dessert.  I'll just have to bake it another time, seeing as how it is Emma Jean's specialty.

Photo of Pineapple-upside down cake by Mark Pellegrini, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 license.