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.

 

Gift Ideas for Writers: The Wordstrumpet Christmas List

Christmas season has officially begun and even though I went to an awesome wine tasting and sale last night, it wasn’t at a mall or even a traditional store so thus I did not officially participate in Black Friday.  I did, however, buy a handcrafted Christmas ornament and started getting in the spirit of the holiday.  And what better way to celebrate the start of the season then with a Christmas list?  I love lists of all kinds but especially Christmas and birthday lists.  What follows is The Wordstrumpet Christmas list, full of books and and various other items of possible interest to writers.  It is admittedly random, in no particular order, and based on my current obsessions, which may well change completely tomorrow, in which case I’ll write a new list.  Until then, here we go:
1.  While we are talking about awesome wine tastings and sales, why not buy gifts from a local artist or craftsperson?  There’s nothing more special than a hand-crafted present, whether you made it yourself or bought it from someone who did.  If you don’t know of any convenient local sources, try Etsy for a vast array of fabulous ideas.

2. The Ethical Executive. This book by Robert Hoyk is a must-read for everyone, not just executives, because it will help you steer a path through the sticky wickets of multiple ethical dilemmas.  I featured this book on a page on my sister site, Bookstrumpet, which you can see here.

3.  While we are on the topic of great books, how about a little Christmas cheer?   You can buy Christmas is a Season, on Amazon (see the handy button to the left) and read a story by none other than moi.

4.  While we are on the subject of Amazon, I am still coveting a Kindle., the new electronic reader.  When I travel, and I travel often, I cart pounds of books along with me.  I had to buy a rolling carry-on bag to save my shoulder and I’ve takeen to checking it planeside because it is so heavy from the books.  If I had a Kindle, I could load every title I wanted to read on it and save my arms.

5.  I’ve just discovered the author Will North, and I’m reading his novel, The Long Walk Home.  He’s being billed as a latter-day Robert James Waller (author of Bridges of Madison County) but trust me, he’s better.  Way better.  He’s a ghostwriter, like me, though I can’t claim quite the high-falutin’ clients that he can.

6.  A session with Suzanne Peters to clear out any blocks you might have around your writing career or your ability to put words on the page.  She’s doing an amazing new process called  and getting great results with it.

7.  Every writer needs a furry companion, and there’s no better choice for that than a pug.  If you’re in the Portland area, try the Pacific Pug Rescue to adopt a pug in need.

8.  I’m addicted to office supplies, especially the really cool, elegant ones that Levenger sells.  I could spend entire fortunes on office supplies and books, and be happy.  Well, I do like to buy clothes, too, but that’s a topic for someone else’s blog.

9.  I desperately need a new computer (Vaio, don’t fail me yet) and there’s no denying it, I want a Mac.  Blasphemy, since I’ve been a PC user for years, but there it is.

10.  There comes a time in every writer’s life when he or she needs some support, encouragement, or instruction. Why not consider signing up for The Writer’s Loft? You’ll get one-on-one instruction, working closely with a mentor.

11.  If you have a desperate need to learn more about writing fundraising letters, you can purchase the book I wrote on said topic here.     Good stuff, honestly.

12.  Make 2009 the year you write your book.  I’m starting an online program to teach you exactly how to do that.  Your book is your business card.  You need one to achieve the success you desire.  Stay tuned for more details on this program, coming soon!

13.  Lucky number thirteen bonus idea:  sign up for my newsletter, full of writing tips and ideas.  Or sign up one of your loved ones.  Its free!  All you have to do is provide your name and address in the handy box to the right.

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?

Writing and Running

1093834_fast_lane
I've just taken up running.  Well, my version of running, while I get used to it, which is more like run-walking: run a block, walk a block.  Actually I'm up to running two blocks, then walking two blocks.  What started all of this was an offhand comment from a friend.  (Oddly enough, much of my life seems to stem from offhand comments.  I got the beloved pug when one of my son's friends said, "You should get a pug."  Guess that is not an offhand comment so much as a direct command.)

At this point, you may well be asking, what does running have to do with writing? I'm glad you asked, because it turns out to be quite a bit.

Let me tell you first what I like about running.  Besides the obvious thing,that it is going to help me get fitter and trimmer, there's the challenge of it.  I've been walking for years, but running is harder and it requires more concentration, because it is demanding more of me.  This is perhaps why running feels like a spiritual practice at times, too.

As I was run-walking this morning, pushing myself to run farther than I technically wanted to, several thoughts occurred as to what I could learn from running.   What I am learning centers around the actual doing of it, for lack of a better phrase.  Here goes:

Do what you don't think you can do.
  Last week I didn't think I could run anywhere, at all, ever.  But I can.  It takes me pushing myself every second, but I can do it.   And the fact that I'm running makes everything else in the world seem possible (kinda like Obama winning the presidency.)  Do you think you can't write a novel?  Think again.  You can.  Think you can't write that article for your website?  C'mon, of course you can.

Do what scares you.
  It scares me to run down a busy street sometimes.  Its very visible and I imagine everyone looking at me and sneering.  When, of course, most people are so intent on getting their morning coffee or getting to work that they don't even notice me.  What about you?  Are you afraid to write that memoir?  Afraid to delve into the dark places inside that you know need to see the light of day?  Take a stab at it, once you get into it, the work might not seem so scary. 

Do what you don't want to do.
  At the end of a run-walk, I just want to saunter home.  I don't want to push myself and run two more blocks.  But I make myself.  So, too, with writing.  Maybe you don't want to stay up late to finish your word count for Nanowrimo or to revise that chapter.  Nobody does.  Do it anyway.

Do what you want to do.
  Yes, this is opposite advice from above.  When it comes to writing, consider doing whatever you want.  The best writing has a voice and tone to it that is mostly indescribable.  It is different from anyone else's voice.  And that comes from writing what you want, how you want it. 

Do whatever it takes.  Such as lacing up your shoes and heading outside even if it is raining.   Inclement weather is not an excuse. Or setting the alarm for 5, so that you can get up and write before you go to work.  If that's the only time you have, use it.  Do whatever it takes, because….

It gets easier.
The more you write, the easier it becomes.  The more you run, the more your body gets used to it and quits complaining quite so much.  The point is to get yourself outside or to the computer.  Showing up consistently makes it easier. 

And finally, since we are talking about pushing ourselves and doing things we thought we couldn't do, here's a story for you, the one about the pilot suddenly blinded by a stroke.  Who was flying a plane solo.  Who landed the plane safely.  Read it here.

7 Ways To Ruin a Writing Session

I want to make it perfectly clear that I have never, ever, not once, done any of the things on the following list.  No, not me.   I know some people who have, though, and they told me these things.  It was yesterday, during the time I had set aside to work on my novel, when suddenly I got the idea to write this blog post.  So I emailed those people and when they weren't available, I called them all.  Here's what they told me:

1. Don't plan ahead.  Don't have any idea what you are going to write about, or what chapter you want to work on. 

2.  Don't reread your work ahead of time.  Don't look at the chapter you most recently finished to keep it fresh in your memory. 

3.  Open all of your email inboxes so that you can constantly check for new mail while you are writing.  Then be sure to take time to answer every single email that comes in right away–the second it comes in is best.

4.  Keep all of your favorite websites open so that you can constantly switch over to them.  You never know when breaking news will happen now, do you?

5.  Keep your phone next to you, keep it turned on, and whatever you, answer ever call that comes in during your writing session.  Every single one.   That telemarketer is lonely, so lonely, and just waiting to talk to you.

6.  Drink a lot of water, so you have to get up and go to the bathroom a lot.  Then, on the way back from the bathroom, you can veer into the kitchen to fix yourself a snack.

7.  Realize that you have now eaten too much and are a slug.  Decide that taking a walk will help the slug situation and clear your head for writing.

If you have any other things that you would like to add to this list, please feel free.

Happy Halloween

I'm in the process of cleaning and cooking for a Halloween party we're having tonight.  Somehow, my610px-Jack-o'-Lantern_2003-10-31
annual chili dinner for one or two friends has turned into a last-minute shindig.  Alas, this means not a lot of time to write today.  However, I did rise early to work on Emma Jean,inspired by comments from my critique group last night. And I've made huge progress on my ghostwriting projects this week.  So you know what that means?  It is time to party!

Meanwhile, I've been racking my brain for a clever Halloween post.   Or a trick or a treat. I heard that Bruce Springsteen has a free download for Halloween on his website, but that seems a bit off-topic.  A couple of internet marketers have offered me free Ebooks, but they've turned out to be not worth the time it takes to download them.  And since I'm busy cleaning and cooking, I don't have a lot of time to figure anything else.

Ah, but light has dawned as I am writing this.  Seeing as how today is Halloween, it is a Friday, and tomorrow is November 1st, when many of you are starting Nanowrimo, how about we all give ourselves a huge pat on the back and take the day off?  We could start a movement to have Halloween be National Take the Day Off From Writing Day. 

Are you with me on this one?

I suppose you have to be a crazed workaholic like me in order to really get behind it, or at least a person who feels guilty if they don't write every day.    I know there are many of you out there.  So, c'mon, stand up and be counted.  We can make this happen.

The thought occurs to me that by writing this post I am, um, writing.  So I've got to knock it off.  See you all tomorrow, when I expect reports from everyone who has begun Nanowrimo (Kate and CJ, this means you, and I know I'm missing others so stand up and be counted.)

Photo by Toby Ord, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5.  I found it on Wikipedia.

When One is Born a Writer….

…one is simply different.  That's all there is to it.  We writers are unique (some might say odd), and often misunderstood, because we have a passion for words.

Queen Victoria, ever mindful of propriety and history, once told her granddaughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie, the future queen of Spain, "Young woman, when one is born a princess, one cannot behave like others."

So, too, with writers.  When one is born a writer, one cannot behave like others because one, above all else, must write.  This means a few adjustments to a normal life. 

When One is Born a Writer, one often must:

  • Stay up past midnight late to write
  • Rise with the dawn to write
  • (When Nanowrimoing, one must sometimes do both of the above)
  • Miss sunny days to work on novel revisions
  • Skip meals to write (somehow, this one never happens to me)
  • Consider books a line item in the budget
  • Live with either pen and paper in hand,  or head buried in a book. 
  • Appear antisocial because of the above
  • Appear dim-witted because you listen and observe instead of talking
  • Have stooped shoulders from working on the computer so much
  • Have poor vission from above
  • Be incapable of walking past a bookstore without going in
  • Be also incapable of walking past a stationary store without going in

Anyone want to add to the list of congenital traits of writers? Post a comment,and I'll compile them all for a future post.