The Weight of Things

No, this isn’t a post about diets (though if anyone has a good one, let me know).  It’s about giving events in your novel or story the proper weight. 

Not everything that happens to your character will be weighted the same.  For instance, giving birth to a baby should have more significance than eating breakfast.  Or finding your long-lost sister should be more important than arriving at work in the morning.

I think of it in terms of two different friends of mine, both of whom shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.  One of them, who I’ll call Mary, has a flat-line personality.   Steady as she goes!  Mary talks in the same tone, rarely laughs uproariously, and certainly never cries.  Her personal affect is all on the same level.

The friend I’ll call Sarah, on the other hand is alternately loud and quiet, joyfully happy or seriously depressed.  She laughs loudly and often, and sobs at other times.  She’ll screech with joy upon seeing you after a separation, and just as likely scream at you in frustration.

Now, you may prefer to be friends with Mary, but I’ll take Sarah any day, even if she is a bit high maintenance and exhausting.  Sarah’s life is properly weighted, you see.  She reacts to the various events in her life, as opposed to just trudging along.

And this is the same way I feel about fiction.  Writing scenes in fiction is about handling multiple characters and multiple events.  And as the writer struggles to manage it all, its very easy to get caught in a sort of flat-line mode.  Then marrying the love of your life is given equal importance to retrieving the mail for the day. 

I understand this problem very well because I struggle with it all the time.   At the moment, I’m finishing up the last few chapters of the second draft of my novel, and a lot of things need to be tied up.  So lots is happening, and when I read back over my chapters, I see that I’m guilty of lending it all equal weight in my efforts to get everything in.

How to solve this problem?

Make a list of everything that happens in the chapter and give it a ranking.  I do this mentally, but you can do it on paper.  What’s the most important thing?  Assign it a 1, or an A, and go on through the list. 

Then consider how you will present the most important thing.  You’ll probably want to give it a scene, rather than exposition, for starters.  And it may affect more than one of your characters.  Your main character will no doubt be pondering the meaning of this event for at least another chapter, if not more, perhaps while she is engaging in a less important event.  And, of course, this Very Important Event will also likely be the cause of other events.

Being aware of the weight of things and writing accordingly is a key to crafting good fiction.

Things to Avoid in Writing: Expositional Dialogue

Today, class, we shall talk about dialogue.  More specifically, expositional dialogue.  What’s expositional dialogue, you say?  Well gather round while we discuss it.

Even if you don’t know it by the fancy name I used for it, you are no doubt familiar with it.  When you are reading a novel and the characters start telling each other things they would obviously know for the sake of revealing the information to the reader, like this:

Mother:  "When I had you on April 20, 1992, you were the cutest baby I ever saw.  I just don’t know what happened."

Daughter: "You know, mother, my life changed when Dad walked out on us.  Now all I want to do is smoke pot and watch TV all day long."

That is expositional dialogue.  I exaggerate, but you get the point.  Obviously, when the mother mentions her daughter’s birthdate, it is information her daughter already knows.  And when the daughter replies with choice bits about her own life, it is, again, information her mother knows. 

Expositional dialogue makes readers groan.  Avoid it.  Usually expositional dialogue is a lot less obvious than the above example.  Writers sometimes use it unwittingly in their never-ending efforts to show, not tell, so the impulse behind it is pure.

I was reminded of the issue of informational dialogue when reading a post on Trashionista, which gives a great example of it here.

Another Great Blogger

One of the things I am consistently amazed about is how positive and supportive the blogosphere is.  Over and over again, I meet other bloggers who are willing to go out of their way to help each other.  The best community, as far as I am concerned, is Blog Catalog, but there are plenty of other good ones as well.

One of the awesome bloggers from Blog Catalog, Kim Darrell, runs five, count ’em, five blogs.  You can read one of them here.   But don’t go there quite yet, because first you want to hop on over here and read all the nice things she said about little ole moi!

Thanks, Kim!  You’re the best.

Reading as a Writer

Sometimes I long to read the way I used to, back in the days before I became a writer.  That was actually such a very long time ago I have trouble remembering it.  But the point is that once you start writing, all of a sudden reading is different.

No longer do I just sit and read read, by which I mean reading for the sheer pleasure of it.  Not that reading doesn’t bring me pleasure, it does, but now when I read I’m studying everything that the author does.  Sometimes I get so excited by something I’ve discovered that I put the book down and run for the computer.

The days of being swept up in the different world of a book are gone, because I pay way too much attention to the way the world is being created.   Given that I’m ruined for life when it comes to reading, we might as well get something from it.  Here are a few tips on reading like a writer:

  • Study the Opening.  What techniques does the author use to pull you in?  Does she present a conflict or a compelling first line?  Is the main character introduced right away?  Does the book start with a description?  What pulls you in the fastest–description, action, or a focus on character?
  • Look at how the main character is introduced.  Years ago I read a screenwriting book by Michael Hauge, and what he said about introducing characters has always stuck with me.  In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, he says one of the first things a writer needs to do is establish character identification.  This is done in one of several ways, including:
  1. Creating sympathy for the character
  2. Putting the character in jeopardy
  3. Making the character likable
  4. Introducing the character as soon as possible. (This is a pet peeve.  I HATE when some minor character is introduced first, it is so confusing and unnecessary.)
  5. Showing the character in touch with his own power (this can be power over other people or the power to do whatever needs to be done).
  6. Placing the character in a familiar setting.
  7. Giving the character familiar flaws and foibles.
  8. Playing the Superhero (ala Spidey or James Bond).
  9. Using the eyes of the audience. (Which means the hero stands in for the eyes of the audience and the audience only knows as much as he does.)
  • Study how the author creates scenes.  Are they mostly dialogue, such as Elmore Leonard?  Or are the scenes more lush, and perhaps laden with description, as in many historical novels?  Is the author’s use of scene appropriate to the genre?  Terse, dialogue-rich scenes are perfect for mysteries, but most readers expect more in historicals.
  • Along these same lines, how often does the author work in scene?  I notice many British novels rely heavily on exposition, which I hate used elsewhere but seems to work just fine when Margaret Drabble does it.
  • What viewpoint does the author use?  Does she make good use of multiple viewpoints, or does she stick to first person?  Does this viewpoint feel right?  Can you imagine the book written in any other viewpoint?
  • How does the author approach plot?  Is the book a thriller, with all kinds of twists and turns?  Or is it a more meandering literary type book?  Can you learn anything from the way this writer handles viewpoint?
  • What is the author’s style?  Is it contemporary and snazzy, or languid, or clipped and precise? 
  • What is the overall arc of the story?  How does the writer pimp you along through it?
  • Does the author use symbols that are repeated throughout?

These are just a few questions for starters.  I know, I know, I sound like your high-school English teacher.  But the thing is, all of these considerations are vital to writing a novel, and in truth, there is no better way to learn to write than by reading a lot.  Oops, I lied, there is a better way and that is just to sit down and write, damn it.  But when your fingers are bleeding from banging so hard on the keyboard, then (and only then) you should go read a book.

And report back to me what you’ve learned from it.

Publishing’s Dirty Little Secret….

….is that it is easier to get published than it is to stay published.  This according to Larry Brooks, writing in last Sunday’s Oregonian.

"Deep in the black heart of every writing workshop instructor resides a dirty little secret: We are praying that no one asks when our next book is coming out."  So says Brooks, whose books have been well reviewed and bestsellers, yet who has found himself cast adrift from his publisher and uncertain when his next book will come out.

I thought his article was going to be really depressing, and start bashing all of the people wandering around out there who want to get published (the very same people that he is teaching).  But it actually isn’t too bad, and he redeems himself with sentences like this:

"I still believe that anyone willing to take on the daunting task of writing a novel or screenplay deserves the same respect as someone who, say wants to erase world hunger–but I do understand the frustration."

Love that line about writers of novels and screenplays deserving respect.  Years ago, when I had no idea what I was doing and I undertook to write a mystery novel, I developed instant respect for all book authors.  No matter how crappy the tome, it still took someone a lot of energy and effort to write the damn thing.  And that deserves our respect.

Brooks delves into answering the question of why so many of us keep working at our novels and screenplays, when so few of us are ever going to be able to make anything from it?  His answer is simple: hope.

And here is the takeaway thought from Brooks’s article.  He says the key to getting published is simple:  "Write something completely fresh and original, nor derivative of what you think might sell.  Understand the basic criteria of the game; they are inviolate. Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s either good or bad.  Just keep writing.  And for God’s sake, try to find a way to enjoy yourself as you do."

Good advice.  Just keep writing.  You’d be surprised how many people ignore that.

Writing Exercise: The DaVinci Device

I learned the Da Vinci Device from one of my MFA mentors, Melissa Pritchard. (And let me note here, this was probably long before the dreadful novel The DaVinci Code came out and ruined the name.)

The DA Vinci Device forces you to write in the three different styles of description. Take an object or something from the natural world and describe it three different ways:

1. Objectively–In a strict journalistic fashion, ie, who, what, when, why, where, how, totally objective. These are concrete attributes you can see, smell, taste, etc. Here’s an example:

“It’s a small farm town in the San Luis Valley, down by the New Mexico border. High and dry, flat and windy, ringed by mountains—Sangre de Cristos to the east and south, San Juan, La Garita, and Conejos-Brazos to the north and west. White frosted in winter, dirt brown in spring, green in summer. The cottonwoods that it’s named for turn gold in autumn, and the air is thick with the damp earth smell of potatoes, piled at the edges of fields, stacked in bins and boxes, truckloads and railroad cars full.” (Judith Ryan Hendricks, Isabel’s Daughter).

2. Figuratively or Metaphorically—what does it look like? What does it remind you of? The house looked like a ship docking, etc.

“Even our father is pressed into dancing, which he does like a flightless bird, all flapping arms and potbelly.” (Michael Cunningham, White Angel).

3. Abstractly—relating it to the emotion you feel when you see it. Poetry is full of abstract description, relating an object to a quality apart from itself. Example:

“And Dawes was restless because it was August, and August wasn’t a month, it was a short afternoon, an executioner leading directly, without jury, and finally toward the school where they chained him to dull rooms…” (Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer).

Here’s a brilliant descriptive passage that uses all several different kinds of description:

“The daughters march behind her, (concrete) four girls compressed in bodies tight as bowstrings, (figurative) each one tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a different path to glory or damnation. (abstract).” (Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible).

This is a wonderful way to train yourself not only to describe things in different ways but to teach yourself to see.

So here’s your exercise: Take an object and practice The DaVinci Device on it. 10 minutes. Go.

Once you get used to doing this, you can do it all the time to keep your description muscle sharp.

Writing Exercises: Techniques for Generating Ideas and Getting Started

Techniques for Generating Ideas and Ideas for Getting Started Writing

Generating Ideas

MAKE LISTS:

The best way to do this is to do it fast. Number a page from one to ten or twenty and go!

Drawing from your own life:

1. Jobs you’ve had
2. Careers
3. Passions
4. Obsessions
5. Quirks
6. Pet peeves
7. Loves
8. Interests
9. Favorite authors and their themes
10. Habits
11. Places you’ve lived or visited.
12. Hobbies
13. Your daily routine
14. Family members
15. Pets you’ve had
16. Names of streets you’ve lived on.
17. Items of clothing you’ve loved
18. Cars you’ve owned
19. Lovers/Relationships
20. Dreams you remember
21. Favorite movies, their themes
22. Favorite phrases, where did they come from?
23. Your most-used cliches

Now take a look at your lists. Do you see any themes emerging? Do all your passions and obsessions coalesce around one main idea with offshoots? Can you start to write about items on your list? For instance, under places you’ve lived, write what you like and don’t like about them. Start to cross-pollinate. If you want to write a piece of fiction, you could transpose your daily routine onto living in a different place.

What would your current life be like in a totally new environment? Even changing none of the details of your daily routine, in a new place it would be different. If you moved to a small mountain town in the winter, for instance, suddenly you’d have to build in time every morning to shovel the snow away from your car. Of if you moved to LA from a smaller city, the morning commute would be much different. If you moved from LA to the country, you’d suddenly free up tons of time you used to spend in the car.

What if you crossed the authors on your list and imagined them writing about another author’s themes? What if a very macho male author wrote about domestic issues? What kind of story would result? For non-fiction, what kind of essay could you write linking several contemporary authors and exploring their themes in terms of a current social issue?

Drawing From the World:

1. Places you’d love to go
2. Political issues that make you crazy
3. Social problems you’d like to solve
4. Politicians you love
5. Politicians you hate
6. Celebrities you love
7. Celebrities you hate
8. TV shows you love/hate

Other ideas:

1. What you’d buy with a million dollars
2. What you’d take on a round the world journey
3. What three items you’d want with you on a dessert island
4. What people from your life you’d want with you on that island
5. Would you rather be too hot or too cold?
6. Other deep questions from childhood (like #5)
7. The first three things you’d do if you ruled the world

You can think of numerous other ways to cross-pollinate from your lists, and you can also think of other things to add to it. Write new ideas for lists as they occur to you. Keep going back to the lists and use them as the basis of a journal entry or a free-write. The thing about ideas is once you start cultivating them, they come fast and furious.

Word Games

1. Choose 20 verbs, 20 nouns, and 20 adjectives. Write them each on a separate piece of paper and put them, according to category, in separate containers. When you are ready to write, draw one of each, make a sentence of it, and start writing.

2. A variation on the above is to choose 20 occupations, 20 personality traits, and 20 locations. Draw one of each, create a character from it and start writing.

3. Take a thesaurus, photocopy random pages from it. Run your finger down the listings with eyes closed, stop, and use that word to create a sentence and then a paragraph.
4. Take first lines of poetry and use them as starting points. Or take a poem, photocopy it, cut up all the words and put them back together again into a sentence or several.

5. Use Refrigerator Word Magnets to create sentences and spark ideas.

If you have a vague idea, but aren’t sure how to develop it, try the following:

1. Utilize the five Ws and the one H. Who, what, when, why, where and how. Answer all of these in depth for your idea.

2. Explain the idea, in writing, as if you were explaining it to an alien who does not understand the mores of society. For instance, if you had an idea about the history of desks, you’d have to start by explaining what a desk is. If you had an idea to write about marriage, you’d have to explain what marriage is. This is an excellent way to go deeper into the heart of the idea.

3. Look at it through different lenses. How would a reporter, a poet, a screenwriter, a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist, a letter writer approach it?

4. As above, put through the eyes of people you know.

5. The old standby, do a cluster.

6. Quickly cut pictures from magazines that remind you of your idea and make a collage.

7. Do a repetitive activity, like walking or sewing or knitting or weeding. Some thing about this jars ideas loose.

The Big Questions

1. Why do you want to write?
2. What moves you?
3. What stops you?
4. For whom are you writing?
5. How can you be true to yourself as a writer?
6. What causes you to get blocked?
7. What is your legacy?

Other Useful Techniques

1. Brainstorming. Take one of your lists and force yourself to go deeper, writing as many ideas from it as you can in one minute.

2. Over-responding. Similar to above. Take an idea, a problem, a concern and over respond. Similar to over-reacting, except over-reacting is desperate and over-responding is positive. Think of all the ways you could possibly solve a problem and then push yourself to list more. This would be great for character development—over-respond to a character’s problem and think of all the possible things that could happen to her.

3. Utilize your sub-conscious. Tell it you need an idea. Tell it you need to develop an idea you have. As you are falling asleep, read over what you have and tell your sub-conscious to work on it in the night. Or do that right before you go for a walk.

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Being Critiqued, Part Two

Last week I wrote a post about being critiqued.

Today I was talking with my friend Suzanne about this getting critiqued and I thought a bit more about it.

What we talked about was that feeling you have when you are confident in your work, and in you step sprightly to meet with the agent or editor or critique group–the judges.  They treat you harshly.  Or maybe they don’t even treat you harshly, but they do what you asked them to do–critique your work. 

And it is so damn hard.

You thought you had a story ready to be accepted, but they find all kinds of things wrong with it.  You have heard over and over again, not to take criticism personally, that it is not about you.  But, damn, at the time it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?

I’m sorry, but no matter how adept I am at receiving criticism (and I’ve received a lot of it, so I think I’m pretty good at it) I still take it personally.  And I remember feeling, after a rough critique, that if my work is no good, then what does that say about me?  I was so aligned with the work that when it was critiqued harshly I felt like my world was over, like I had no worth, like nothing was worth it.

I don’t take it quite that personally any more.  Here’s the deal, though: if you are able to be very zen about it all and not be affected by criticism of your work, then that means you have to be very zen about it and not bask in the praise when it comes.

That’s a tough one, too. 

I’ll report back when I’ve mastered the art of listening to neither criticism or praise.  It’ll be in about 50 years or so, if I’m lucky. 

I Want Patti Smith To Play at Armageddon

414pxpatti_prayer I saw Patti Smith last night at The Bite of Oregon.

I’m in complete and total awe of how incredible she is. 

It was a cloudy day, with some rain showers (you would not believe what a crappy summer we’ve been having here) and so we almost didn’t go.  But the rain held off and mid-way through her set there was the most beautiful sunset, with the clouds turning brilliant orange and yellow over the lights of the city.  Audience members were taking pictures of Patti and the sunset.

But back to Patti.  According to her website, the woman is 60, and she is still the most kick-ass rocker in the world.  She played full out for two hours.  Her voice, that deep throaty growl, is still in great shape and she uses it, baby.  I didn’t keep a list of songs, but some she played were Gloria, Gimme Shelter (amazing), Because the Night, Are You Experienced, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and others.  She did play several from her covers CD, Twelve.

Apparently she was hanging out in the Music Millennium booth earlier, signing CDs.  From the stage, she talked about how she’d enjoyed walking around the festival and stood in line to eat 6 tacos from the Canby Asparagus Booth.  Wouldn’t you love to be standing in line for a taco and turn around and see Patti Smith behind you?

She played the clarinet and the harmonica and the guitar and I adore her spoken word interludes.  Over the course of the evening she referenced the meteor showers, Barry Bonds (a "flawed hero") and her beloved H.P. Lovecraft several times, since Portland is the home of the H.P. Lovecraft film festival.

She came back out and did an encore, even though this was technically a festival setting and she said encores usually weren’t done out of respect for all the other artists who had played.  I’m so glad they came back out because she did a heart-stopping cover of Lou Reed’s A Perfect Day. 

What does all this have to do with writing?  Everything.

I watch Patti sing and play and just put herself out there, and she does it in front of thousands of people, and all I have to do is sit at my computer and put myself out when I’m all alone in a room, so why is that so damn hard sometimes?  Watching someone give their all, full out, no holding back, no apologies, no justifications, in front of thousands of people gives me chills.  It’s the essence of rock and roll, it’s the essence of writing, and it’s also the essence of all creativity that is worth a damn throughout all of time.  So let us all go forth and do it.

Photo courtesy of Gareth Owen under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.  I found it on the Patti Smith entry on Wikipedia.