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.

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.

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.

When The World, Or Your Scene, Is Flat

Elmundo_latierra_earth_738682_l
I've been having issues with flat scenes. 

Flat scenes are problematic because you may not even know that they are flat.  You have a vague notion that something is wrong with the scene or chapter.  It is boring, or it just doesn't work for some reason.  You struggle and struggle to improve them, to make them interesting, and still, they just lie there, dead on the page, like a limp noodle.  You poke and prod and give up in exasperation and let the poor flat scene lie there until next time, why have to face it again.

I recently dealt with this issue in a chapter of my novel.  There's always been something about this chapter that has bothered me, though I've rewritten it many a time.  It is a relatively static chapter, but it is important because it gives a lot of information about the characters, particularly our heroine, and so it can't be deleted.  I've brought in other characters, invented phone calls, tried everything I could think of to make the scene more lively.

And still, in its dullness, it resisted me.

This weekend I had a brilliant idea.  I chopped the chapter in half.  After all, I'd just done that with chapter one, and it worked, well, brilliantly, with the two chapters that were formerly one now snapped to attention and toiling much harder on their own.

So I tried the same thing with chapter five.  It didn't work.  Now I had two flat, lifeless chapters.

Yesterday, I went off to a movie (Twilight, which I liked a lot, if only for the gorgeous Northwest shots and the views of my beloved Columbia River, which you can see in the trailer) and as I watched the previews, an epiphany occurred.   300px-Vistahouse

The scenes were flat because they had no rising or falling action.  None, nada, zip, zilch.  They ended in the exact same emotional terrain in which they began.  Flat line from start to finish.  No ups, no downs.   Once I got home and took another look at the elements of the scenes, I could rearrange them so that there's a dramatic moment–a high point–at the end, one that makes you want to turn the page to the next chapter.

And then it occurred to me that not only would this make a good topic for a blog post, its such an important topic that it was probably worthy of several blog posts.  So stay tuned, because tomorrow I'm going to talk about the elements of a scene.  And the day after that I'll discuss rising and falling action, or, making a scene turn, in more detail.

Photo of the earth by Jaime Olmo used under Creative Commons license.

 

In The Body: Writing and Running, Part Two

A few days ago I wrote a post about writing and running.  Since then I've been staying in Laguna BeachTarget D1127
and running the canyon.  Okay, I run down and walk back up, but then so does nearly everyone else.  It is a looong way back up.  Yesterday as I hit the last and steepest hill I ran into a man named George who proceeded to tell me about Kangen water, which helped make the hill climb a lot easier.  (He dropped off some of the water for me to try later, and that was pretty cool, too.)

Water and interesting men aside, I have had Thoughts as I continue this new-found activity.  Thoughts which relate to writing.

My biggest Thought concerns the difference between writing and walking. Besides speed, the main difference to me is that when I run I'm totally in my body.  I'm focusing on keeping myself going, on breathing, maybe on that pain in my ankle, on making it to the next street or up the next hill.  When I walk, my mind roams free.  I ponder writing problems, and, alarmingly often, obsess about what I'm going to do first when I return from my walk. 

Over the years of my walking career, I've often noticed the difference between passing another walker and passing a runner.  Another walker always makes eye contact and greets me (at least in Portland, where we tend to be inordinately friendly).  But the runners always run on by.  I assumed this was an inbred snottiness about runners, but now I understand.  Runners don't say hi because they are in the body, not quite so focused on the surroundings.

How does this Thought relate to writing, you ask?  Just as a runner stays in the body when running, a writer needs to stay in the body when writing.  Its just that the body might be someone else's.  The body could be the heroine of your novel or the person for whom you ghostwrite a book.  In order to truly write from another point of view you need to deeply inhabit the body of your character.  This is also true in the case of writing a personal essay or even an article.  You must be in the body–your own body–in order to access the truths you wish to share in writing.

Some people get to this state by meditating.  You might have other ways to reach it.  Whatever path you choose, just remember that being in the body, deeply inhabiting the essence of yourself or your character, is the state you need to write from.

Writing Exercise: The Bluebird Canyon Special

The Santa Anas are blowing and fires are erupting all over southern California where I am currently ensconced at the top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific.  It is not quite as idyllic as it sounds, though I admit it is stunningly beautiful here, because I am here to care for a friend.

Perhaps it is the change of locale, but yesterday I awoke with a writing exercise resounding in my head.  Weird, huh?  Then again maybe it is due to the physical exercise I am getting.  This morning I ran down the canyon, so very proud of myself because I was not out of breath at all.  Then it was time to turn around.  And I realized I was at the bottom of a very steep hill.   Suffice it to say that I did not run back up said steep hill.   But I did make it.  And despite the sore legs, of which I am reminded numerous times a day in this house of stairs, I feel great.

And so here is the writing exercise that my subconscious created, The Bluebird Canyon Special.  This one is probably good for generating material for a new story, or if  you get stuck in your current story and need to jazz it up with a new character.  I've not had a lot of time to play with it, so give it a whirl and let me know how it works out.

Here we go:

1.  Pick 10 names of people ( such as Tara, Brunhilde, Eric, Sam..)
2.  Pick 10 locations  (LA, Boulder, Portland,Taos…)
3.  Pick 10 adjectives (blonde, lanky, beautiful, lush..)
4.  Pick 10 occupations (police officer, artist, CEO, waiter…)
5.  Pick 10 nouns (pen, journal, phone, table, car…)
6.  Pick 10 verbs (threw, jogged, spiraled, blasted…)

The key is to do this fast and don't over-think it.  You are simply generating material here, okay?

Now take the first four items and make a character with them:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer.  Take the next two items and put your character into action:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer who threw her journal out the window of her car.

Voila!  Now you have a character in action.  You can use this sentence as a prompt for generating a scene or a vignette or whatever you need.  Write the sentence at the top of a piece of paper, set a timer and write for 20 minutes without stopping. 

The other thing you can do with blond Tara is put her in the middle of a cluster.  This is hard to describe on a computer, but it is the same thing as Mind-mapping and it is also called webbing or spidering.   Write blond Tara's name in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it.  Then write another bit of description and draw a line from the circle in the middle to this new bit of description.  Another detail of her appearance goes on the same line.  Then you get an idea about her family–that's a new line.  And perhaps up pops a thought about the conflict she faces–another line.  Pretty soon you will start to have quite a few ideas about ole Tara floating about in your mind.

But ole blond Tara needs a conflict, right?  Here's the fastest way to find her one: either in your clustering or your freewriting, answer the following question:  what does she desperately want or what is she desperately afraid of?  In the case of wanting something,  put obstacles to her getting it in front of her.  In the case of fearing something, make her face it.

Follow these steps and before you know it, you should have Tara waltzing about your novel or story.  Let me know how it works out for you.

When One Is Born a Writer, Redux

Last week I wrote a blog post titled, When One is Born a Writer.., and listed some of the things that accrue from the condition of being wonderfully scarred at birth with the love of the word.  I promised then that I would compile any additions people came up with, and let me tell you, you came up with some great ones!

Here we go. (And, all you wonderful commenters, please forgive my wee editing in order to make things fit the format):

When one is born a writer,

…one can't
read fiction without analyzing sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and
whether one POV per scene is mandatory.

…one can't help but wonder
whether she's on the early part of the popularity curve in terms of subject
matter, at the top of the curve, or on the downside and sinking fast.

From Robin Gideon, erotic romance writer extraordinaire.

When one is born a writer,

…one ignores the laundry so long that a mouse makes its nest in the full basket…

From Louise Bostock, Italian village dweller and so much more.

when one is born a writer,

—one owns Costco-size Advil for relief of carpal tunnel.

….one constantly is weighing what bits of conversation you hear that can make it into a story without losing friends.

From K. Harrington, Elvis Rum Cake lover and writer

When one is born a writer,

…you think you are just being quiet and interested and everyone else thinks you are 'special'/antisocial

…one is surreptitiously earwigging on buses/public transport

…you have an almost fetishistic pursuit of the perfect notebook/pen

…if you see someone reading in a cafe, you are struck with the uncontrollable urge to know what they are reading so intently …

From Kate Lord Brown, UK blogger, writer, and Nanowrimoer.

When one is born a writer,

…one learns to be happy in a
bookstore without buying, to use libraries, and the like, particularly when one lives in a 150 square foot RV.

..one does not miss sunny days, because that's what laptops and wireless are
for–but then, living beneath a mountain and beside a river, I'm seldom
short of inspiration. *grin*

…when one is spoken to while writing, one makes polite "mmm" noises but won't know what was actually said
until you say "but you SAID I could buy the Lambourghini!"

From Linda R. Moore, motorcylist, author, and "wyrd" woman of the world

When one is born a writer,

his/her muse is always tangled up in his/her thoughts.

From Malcolm R. Campbell, author of The Sun Singer, southern journalist and author.

Amazing list, no?  And be sure to visit the original post to read the comments that didn't quite fit the list.  And if anyone has anymore, keep 'em coming.


The Dream World

"Imagination is sacred and divine–I trust it implicitly."

So said Andre Dubus III at his Wordstock reading last weekend.  Dubus, best known for House of Sand and Fog, read from his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, which was inspired by the Florida sojourns of the 9-11 hijackers.  After he read from the book, Dubus talked about writing the book.  He quoted Flannery O'Connor, who said, "writing is waiting," to make the point that even when you are staring at the computer monitor, you are writing.  And then he ripped off this line: "You are summoning, almost like a prayer to an angel, the imagination to give you something."

After hearing that line, I was ready to go buy every book the man ever wrote.  He went on the say that if you summon the imagination regularly it will reward you with things to write about.  Someone in the audience asked him how difficult it was to get inside the head of one of the September 11 hijackers, and he told how he resisted and resisted it, that he had no interest in making one of them a viewpoint character.  But then the novel seemed to sputter and fall flat and he was in danger of losing it completely.  He realized that he had to make one of the hijackers a viewpoint character, so he sat and did nothing but read books about the Middle East for five months.

Dubus quoted Mike Nichols, saying that the charge of the storyteller is to share what it is really like to be in the midst of whatever is happening.  In character-driven fiction, you want to establish empathy for the characters, not sympathy.  As a writer, you do this to the point that there is no other.  What you do in writing is to go beyond knowledge of the other to totally be the other.

Interestingly, this is true in fiction, as well as in many other arenas of writing. When you write a press release, there's a certain tone and style that you emulate.  In a much more superficial way, you're becoming the other–the PR pro who knows what will grab attention.  A blog post sounds different than a web page and an article in a newspaper is dissimilar in tone to a piece in the New Yorker.   In each instance the trick for the writer is to figure out the trops and do them.  Be the other.

I was discussing this with Mary-Suzanne yesterday in terms of ghostwriting.  How does a writer get out of their own skin and into the skin of the person who is supposedly writing the book?  Here are some tips (which are applicable to every kind of writing imaginable):

1.  Get Over Yourself.  Clear the gunk out.  Do it however you like, but I think the best way is to write a bunch of crap down on paper.  Set a timer and write out all the petty judgments and grievances and even all the things that are making you happy.  (You may get some ideas along the way, though that is not the point of this.  As an added benefit, you may also improve your mental health along the way.

2.  Enter the Dream World.  Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, center yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself calm and zen and relaxed.  Listen to music if you need to. 

3.  Start to Observe.  Pull an image of the person you are melding with into your brain.  What do they look like, smell like, sound like, feel like?   Be aware that in making these observations you are still on the outside looking in.

4.  Become the Other.  Now, go a step farther and sink deeper into the character.  Instead of observing the character, imagine yourself actually going into her head.  What does the world look like from inside her viewpoint?  Where is she sitting?  What is the view outside her window?  What does she do when she first gets up in the morning?

5.  Trust Your Imagination.  Remember, as Dubus says, it is sacred and divine.    All you are really doing in this exercise is imagining life through another person's eyes.   And, honestly, what could be more important than bridging the gaps between us?

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.