Write Hard, Rest Hard

Not writing is good for your writing.  I mean it.

This weekend I dropped my normal writing routine and got out of town for a two night escape with a bunch of friends.   We stayed in a cabin surrounded by snow, mountains, and sweet-smelling, air.  

A drastic change in routine can work like pure magic.  It reminds my body that it exists to live fully, not simply to fulfill a rigorous writing schedule, (though I have nothing against such schedules, see below).

I feel it’s necessary to state the obvious: My writing should support my life, not the other way around.  (Thanks again to Stephen King for this salient point).  As someone who loves to write, and who thus became a writer, I am doing what I love when I put pen to paper and pour out my heart, mind, and creativity onto the page. 

Elise's Writing Schedule

My Writing Schedule

Because I wanted to create a lifestyle and eventually a career out of this writing passion, I built a schedule.  My schedule consists of time dedicated to writing 6 days a week, with time for editing on 4 of those days. 

There are these moments when a weekend trip with friends doesn’t easily allow me to get up on Saturday and write for ninety minutes. 

What do I do?  There are two options.  Sequester myself away for part of a morning or afternoon and pass on some activity whether sleep- or social-oriented, or skip the writing for that day and fling myself headlong into what else is in store.

Here’s my theory.  For those of you looking for an easy excuse to break your writing habit, you should get up early or skip an activity and stick with your writing schedule.   Get those words in.  You need them. 

For those of you who sometimes feel stifled by the demands of your writing schedule, allow yourself the freedom from writing and enjoy a few days without the pen in hand. 

In both cases, what do you notice?  Are story ideas percolating into your noggin that you’d otherwise have missed?  Do you find that you really do have stuff to say when you buckle down to write it?  

If you’re not writing, did you realize you’d forgotten to the delights of smelling the coffee, making a snowman, and staying up late talking with a dear friend to talk about broken dreams and fearful hopes for the future? 

The soul and blood of stories are made from working hard and playing hard and, of course, that dash of inspiration that you can never control.

Whether you’re a writer who needs a stricter schedule or a writer who needs to remember to breathe and relish life, Write Hard and Rest Hard.  Play is important.  Writing on a schedule, although it may feel like play sometimes, is not play.  You know what playtime looks like for you.   Make sure you don’t skip it. 

Protect and foster that jubilant side of yourself, no matter how serious this writing stuff gets.  A great resource to help understand the importance of play-time for the artistic heart is the book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Do you have a writing schedule?  What does yours look like?  What goals do you have set for yourself each week?  Do you set aside time to rest and play? 

Three, Two, One…Launch!

Blood_Jack_RemickBook Launch. Def. a very personal and monumental event in which a writer gets something of his/her own published and then invites everyone he/she knows to commemorate the occasion

I attended the book launch for the novel Blood, by Jack Remick last week.  Jack is among the horde of writers who gather together at a cafe in Seattle to write and share their creations, fresh off the page.

He invited me to come to his book launch on the first day I joined everyone for writing.   Jack wrote the book itself during his many sessions writing at the cafe, and from there it had gone from handwritten drafts on notebook paper to a completed, bound, acclaimed piece of published literature. 

The experience was…overwhelming.  Sangria was offered as the evening’s libation (sangre=blood in Spanish) and I sipped this while I watched many people who I did not know, people who had connections in the writing world, who were old friends of Jack, who were fans of his prose and his poetry, all gathering, chatting, exclaiming how excited they were. 

I knew a handful of folks, Jack and a few others who write at the cafe, but I felt small and lost and wide-eyed.  I finished my sangria and a friend gave me his, since he wasn’t drinking it.  I drank half of that, too.  Finally, it was my turn to get a book signed by Jack.  He gave me a huge hug, thanked me for coming, and wrote a personal note on the inside pages of my book. 

Here, I want to stop and briefly reflect on what writing is and isn’t.  It isn’t writing in isolation, somehow honing and polishing your craft by yourself and then emerging as an independent, illustrious writing champion.  There is a lot of support, encouragement, criticism (helpful and unhelpful), feedback, recommendation, studying, despairing…There is no way (or shall I say it is extremely rare and exceedingly lonely?) for someone to climb to the top and launch a book successfully, if they plan to do it in isolation.  Sure, it can happen, but I’d never want to be that person.

Author Jack Remick

When Jack warmly acknowledged the people who had helped him along the road his process, he included the writers at the cafe.  By thanking these writers, he thanked me.  I was included, even if it was just for listening to the work of a writer who is more seasoned, practiced, and published than I am.  He still thanked me. 

I’m pointing this out because I think it’s tempting to see writing as an independent, completely autonomous practice.  It isn’t.  It also isn’t something you did on your own.  You and I owe much of our polish and success to our readers, critiquers, and editors. 

These are people spending their precious time on us and our work to help us improve.  This is part of what makes writing so beautiful and heartwarming and emotional.

When Jack read an excerpt from his book, the room fell into a hushed, expectant silence.  It was a room filled with people who wanted Jack, as a writer, to succeed.  That’s an amazing feeling that I’ve felt a few times in my life.  It can bring you to tears.

If you’re invited to an author’s book launch, GO.  Support them, encourage them, buy their book, and invest in the friendship and in the literary community.  Read works by your writer friends and give them honest, supportive feedback.  See my post on how to form a critique group for some guidelines.

Remember that writing isn’t a solo act.  Your piece always starts in a room with a closed door.  It’s just you and the writing.  But then you open the door and let a few people in.  Then you refine it and show it to a few more. (Thanks to Stephen King for this analogy in his book On Writing.)

What writing have you done recently that’s been massively improved by the help, support, feedback, etc of others?

Music Calms the Savage Breast…and Whets the Creative Knife

Give a song lyric and a one sentence pitch for what your story is about. 

This was the prompt that lead me to enter the writing contest hosted by Larry Brooks at www.Storyfix.com

The idea inspired me.  Writing contests are great practice for presenting yourself, but it’s even better when they stir something inside you. 

A week later I was in for a delightful surprise.

I sifted through the words to songs that had really stuck with me over the years and took to heart what Larry Brooks said in his post, that

“it’s important to notice that the lyric that came to mind has remained with you over time.  Maybe a long time.  Which means there’s something about it that resonates with you.” 

I knew I wouldn’t have to look far.

Some songs absolute haunt me.  The song Mad World stuck with me so closely in high school, I made myself figure out how to play it on the piano.  

When I interwove the lyrics of this song with an idea that had begun in my head, full of symbols, secrets, fear, and family grief, I discovered a dynamic combination.

So I welded the two elements together, boiled down the story concept to one line and highlighted the song lyrics that most spoke to that.  I highly recommend this say-it-in-one-sentence technique to anyone writing a novel.  It forces you to focus and it’s very painful the first time, but it gets easier.

I spent about twenty minutes thinking, writing, praying, and then I submitted my idea to the contest.

I discovered this morning that my lyric and log-line (the one sentence pitch) were named as the winner!

I’m grateful for this clear indication that my studies and the application of them to my writing really do pay off.  See the announcement of me as winner here.

It can take months for a concept to sink down deep enough to where I can actually understand how to use it in my own writing, and having patience for that is challenging.  However, this was a sweet taste of encouragement that let me know I’m on the right track. 

I want this story to be an encouragement to any writer reading this.  Time dedicated toward learning the craft of writing and marketing yourself is time well spent. 

Pace yourself however you need to in your craft studies but make sure to study craft with a humble and teachable mind.  Much of advanced writing is a deeper study and understanding of the basics.   Of course, make sure to write regularly.

I highly recommend checking out StoryFix if you have not already.  Larry is a very articulate and thought-provoking writer with a solid sense of story craft.

Tell me what inspires you.  Do you have a story that was born from a song lyric?  Let’s hear it!  Did you see a painting that conjured  a saga inside your mind?  What was it?  Tell me places where you’ve recently found inspiration.

How to Form a Critique Group

You have reached the level of competency where you need another pair of eyes to look at your writing and honestly tell you what works and what doesn’t. 

You need a critique group.

Critique groups for writers are one of the best things you can use to improve your own writing. 

A good critique group should:

1. Be a safe place for all levels of writers.

2. Give constructive feedback.

3. Have a stated process for critiquing.

4. Meet regularly and encourage regular attendance from participants.

When feedback  is vague and opinion-based, the poor writer receiving the feedback is clueless as to how to incorporate the feedback. When questions arise from readers who have read the critique piece in a rush and haven’t bothered to read a second time often waste time with unnecessary questions. 

There are many ways groups can go wrong.  Those listed above are just some of them.

It wasn’t until I discovered a format, given to me in my final year at the University of Washington, that I had framework for a literary critique.  This framework forms the critical core of my own critique group and has helped all of our members immensely.

State the Meaning-

Open every critique session with affirmations.  Readers tell the writer what they read and liked, what worked, what was especially strong or profound.  Readers note any themes they saw in the story, anything that reached out and grabbed them.  No matter how rough a draft, there is always something to affirm the writer, who is currently baring his/her artistic soul by allowing this group critique.  Gentleness is always important and key here.

The Writer Asks-

Before any opinions or questions get lobbed into the air, the writer gets to ask the readers questions.  This is where the writer might say, “Regarding character X’s motives, were they clear enough in this scene?” or “I’m trying to communicate Idea Y.  Did it come through at the end of the story?”  This lets the readers know more about what the writer was trying to get at, and the group can zero in on weak spots that the writer has already identified as a place he/she would like to work.

The Readers Ask Neutral Questions-

I’ve heard negative opinions offered under the very thin veil of a question, but always implying that there is something wrong in the writing itself.  This usually puts the writer on the defensive and will jeopardize the fruitfulness of the session.

The way to ask about something that didn’t work is NOT: “This scene was way too long.  I’d suggest editing out all the unnecessary dialogue.” 

When asking a neutral question about this same twenty-page scene, you might say, “Why did you choose to have your two characters discussing the weather and their breakfast here?  Are these things going to come up later in the story?” 

Neutral phrasing allows the writer to explain something that has perhaps not been fully developed, giving readers and writer an opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm ideas for a better piece of writing.  When a writer understands why something isn’t working, this is far better than just being told it doesn’t work.

Opinions-

This is when the readers ask permission to share an opinion, no longer phrased neutrally.  Incidentally, an opinion offered at this stage in the critique is often well-received by the writer, in contrast to one offered near the beginning. 

Opinions can be anything from “I didn’t get a strong sense of setting in this story.  Adding more details on the rooms in the house would be good” to “I have an idea for how to bring this character’s inner monologue to the surface.  Would you like to hear it?” 

It’s best to have the readers ask if they can offer an opinion about a topic that the writer gets to then decide if he/she wants to talk about.  The writer always has a choice to say “no.” This keeps the writer in control (rather than at the mercy) of the critique. 

If the writer has plenty to work with, he/she can choose to thank the readers and decline hearing the opinion.  I’ve yet to see anyone reject hearing an opinion, but I like to keep it out there as an option.

Do you have questions about forming your own group?  Are you in a group with questions about how to incorporate some of these details?  Do you have something your group has done that you’d like to share? 

Let’s hear ’em!

We Are All the Same: A Review of The Golden Theme

“We are all the same.” This is the core principle of Brian McDonald’s second book, The Golden Theme, and a fascinating exploration into why certain stories resonate with us as human beings.

This book reads differently than his first book Invisible Ink, which at first surprised me.  Invisible Ink feels much like a teaching handbook with insightful exercises and examples.  The Golden Theme spoke on a literary level as well, but dug deeper into the heart and emotions of readers and writers on a human level.

The idea of we are all the same is the key message that readers, observers, audience members, etc, latch onto because it is the degree to which they can relate to the story and its players. 

When I am able to cry with the heroine over her grief and loss, it’s because I’ve been touched by the fact the she and I are the same, and thus I can share her emotions in relation to my own life.

I was intrigued by the concept of how the villain and the hero of a story must have enough parallels that the audience sees failure in the villain and victory in the hero over the same problem. 

This level of hero-villain parallel is harder to write than just crafting a demonized villain who everyone easily hates, but a set-up like this is much more satisfying.  It keeps the story human.  Villains are not some other brand of beast. They are humans, too.  We are all the same.
 
McDonald points out that style is something that a lot of critics celebrate, and that style may get a writer far, but it will not get a writer deep.  Resonating with humans on the human level is what makes something go deep.  That made good sense to me. 

Style doesn’t tell us that we are all the same.  Stories that we can relate to, that speak truths that will help us in our own lives, these tell us we are all the same and these are the things that go deep.
 
Stories are medicine.  The Greeks thought catharsis was healthy.  Even at the end of a tragic story (we know there were plenty of Greek tragedies), the emotions that the wrung-out or even devastated audience felt were still healthy.  This impacted me.

Following the medicine train of thought, McDonald uses the analogy that we don’t want a surgeon to handle the instruments with flair, we want him to be competent with the surgery itself. 

The same goes for writing.  It should be done with care and precision and the writer should see it as a blend of medicine that s/he is creating and not be as worried about the flair of style.  I find this both encouraging and empowering to storytellers.
 
McDonald sites scientific research that shows how humans learn things in our brains through stories as if we had actually lived them.  Our brains make no differentiation between story and real life.  Thus, a careful reader and observer of stories has lifetimes’ worth of wisdom to absorb.

This makes the case for good storytelling even more compelling: a poorly constructed story with no survival message purpose is like junk food instead of good wholesome nutrients.

At its core, the message of the Golden Theme explains how we are all the same, how uniting around our commonalities as humans in our storytelling will create impactful and long-lasting results, furthering the lifetime and use of our stories from generation to generation.

This is a great book to read and absorb and ponder.  It brings awareness in your writing from a profound angle and it will linger in your mind as you watch its life-derived examples play out in front of you.

If you haven’t checked out Brian McDonald’s blog yet, I highly recommend it.  Visit it here.

Do you have a great writing-related book that you would like to recommend or see reviewed?  Reply to this with your comment and let me know what book that is.

The Four Agreements of Writing

Universal wisdom should apply universally, thus good advice should (most of the time) apply to good writing. 

I stumbled upon this idea in a previous post as I considered the importance of keeping my word when I say I will do something.  Not only does the phrase “keeping my word” include “word” in its phrase and thus hint toward the occupation of weaving and crafting words, but it underlines the importance of integrity to oneself and others as a personal and writer-ly goal.

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, he discusses the importance of four concepts that enhance and strengthen one’s life.   Half the reason that these agreements are powerful is that they are so easy to remember once you learn them.

I will take a short paraphrase of the four agreements in this book and use them in the context of  writing.

THE FOUR AGREEMENTS

1. Be impeccable with your word – Speak your word with integrity.  Say things clearly, and say what you mean to say.  Do not make promises that you don’t intend to keep, do not use this your word against yourself or others.  Use your word for truth and love.

If it’s true in life, doesn’t this make it true in writing?  This means that your writing should have a purpose and message.  It should offer your readers a clear means of understanding what you want to say and this message should be one designed to equip them, to make them better, stronger, more compassionate, etc.  It should be used for the good.

On a less serious note, if you’ve made a committment to yourself to write, you should uphold this.  The word grows stronger the more it is kept.

2. Don’t take anything personally – People behave the way they do 99.9% of the time because of themselves.  Their behavior is not because of you.  If you can shrug away the opinions and harsh judgments of others, you will be able to avoid becoming a needless victim.

This is especially helpful in light of your writing’s rejection.  Your friends and family might (or might not) read and enjoy your work, but then there is the much larger pool of critics and editors and agents who read your stories and respond with “Thanks, but this isn’t for us.”

You cannot assume this is only because your writing is bad (I have to tell myself this, all the time).  A humble, teachable writer will always look for ways to improve, but rejection is natural. 

In life, people will reject my advice, my friendship, my help–you name it.  My writing is bound to be rejected, too, and it’s my responsibility to not let that rejection form the assumption that I or my writing are not good enough.  It’s not a fair assumption.  Which leads me to the next agreement.

3. Don’t make assumptions – Clarify things that are ambiguous, step forward and ask the tender questions.  Make sure that when you speak, there is no room for another interpretation.  This agreement has deep impact on communications and relationships.

Let’s begin with the example of a vague critic.  Someone reads your story manuscript and says it’s not “unique enough.” They may have something in mind, but they’re not getting at the meat of what they think is wrong.  Ask clarifying questions as much as you can.  Don’t assume that a blanket statement means exactly what you think it means.  Don’t assume a rejection or acceptance has to do with what you think it does.  Listen and ask questions when you think you might have leapt ahead in your logic. 

This will always give you grounded answers that you can work with.  In the critic example, if your critic gives you more specifics, you have suggestions or trouble spots you can actually work on within your story. 

If the critic can’t give you anything more specific, it’s possible that their feedback wasn’t helpful to begin with, it was just vaguely insulting, which means you don’t have to worry about it

4. Always do your best – This does not mean 100% of your effort 24/7 or even that insane level of output and productivity for five days a week.  Your best depends on your health, your emotions, and your physical limits, prior to pushing them beyond the point of no return.  Your best means giving every project the attention and dedication it deserves without cheating it or faking it because you know you can slide by with less.

Allow yourself to gauge what you can do each time you approach a task or project and let your best be enough.  On the flip side, to do a half-hearted job is to fail that job  (J.K. Rowling alludes to this in her incredible commencement address to Harvard grads). 

Why undertake something if it’s not worth your attention to begin with? This is a great one for perfectionists and workaholics, as well as those who tend toward laziness.

If you’re going to write, set aside the amount of time each day/week you’re going to do it, and then write as best you can during that time.  Give it your best.  There is no room for regret or self-judgment if you do your best and allow this to be the only expectation.

I have used limited examples in this post, because the Four Agreements extend so easily into all corners of life.  Try one or two of these on for size and let me know what you think.

What was the most surprising or challenging agreement for you to consider for yourself?  Why was it challenging or surprising for you?

Hunger Games: A Review

Hunger Games Book ImageI just finished Suzanne Collin’s first book in the Hunger Games Trilogy.  It was a compelling, fast-paced read in an intriguing world with chilling rules and political complications that captivate the reader.

I found our main character, sixteen-year-old Katniss, to be a strong-willed, tough and likeable character.  She is not without her weaknesses.  Soon after the story opens, her love for her little sister, Prim,  forces her to take Prim’s place when the twelve-year-old’s name is drawn in the cruel lottery that will cast children into an arena for the annual sport of watching them kill each other until the last one remaining is the victor of Panem’s Hunger Games.

Katniss must leave her home in District Twelve, where hunger was a constant threat and where she was the ultimate provider for her mother and Prim in the absence of her father, who died in a tragic accident.  Katniss also leaves behind her friend and fellow hunter, Gale.

As Katniss prepares for her ordeal within the Hunger Games arena, she is surprised to discover that the other tribute from her district, a boy named Peeta, has declared his affection for her on the national interview of all contestants. 

Katniss’s game, once she and the other contestants are thrust into the arena, is one of physical survival and trickery, as well as that of the heart.  The game is completely televised and Katniss must play up the romance that Peeta has initiated in order to earn favor from her corporate sponsors.  It is only at the end of the game, when she and Peeta foil the plans of the government and emerge as joint champions, that Katniss discovers Peeta’s affection for her was not contrived, but genuine the entire time.

She feels a mounting terror as she and Peeta board a train headed back to their district where a celebration awaits them, as well as the intense scrutiny of the government.  This government designed the Hunger Games to force the rebellious districts into submission with the constant reminder that they can and will kill the subjects’ children if they have to.  Katniss has angered the government by refusing to turn against Peeta when he and she stood as the sole survivors of the Games, and the government will not forget this easily.

This book begs the question–how far are you willing to go and who would you hurt in order to survive?

A few thoughts from me, as a reader and as a writer.  First, as a reader, I found the ending particularly unsatisfying.  I’m not against sequels or cliffhangers, but I believe that books should be complete and stand on their own.  If they are bound separately, they should themselves be separate and whole stories. 

There was no reunion with Katniss’s family, no resolution in her heart about what she would do once she returned home.  There is also the question about Peeta and Gale, two men who have cropped up in Katniss’s mind as potential rivals for her affection.  Although I’m personally a little tired of love triangles in literature, I would have liked to hear Katniss making some sort of plan for her first line of action, instead of just hesitating in fear and anxiety until the book closes.  It didn’t seem characteristic of her. 

It also seemed to me that this book didn’t really have an Act 3 to its structure.  There was the Act 1 of Katniss’s life prior to the drawing of the lottery, there was the battle of the Games and her survival as an Act 2, and there was the beginning of her return home, but no completion of a third act.

I don’t particularly enjoy when people offer criticism without offering a possible solution as well.  Thus, from a writer’s perspective, I would have allowed Katniss to return home, gain comfort, perhaps even wisdom while she is there.  We have her mentor, Haymitch, who could serve as some voice of advice in her last moments. 

I would have rather had her confront Gale face-to-face and realize that she has feelings for both him and Peeta. 

I would have liked the relief of a respite for our poor heroine, that sense of “Today I can rest in the peace of my home and the love of my family.  Tomorrow I will face the world.  But that’s tomorrow.” 

I would have wanted to read the next book, even if it had a slower ending like the one above.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this piece of literature.  The characters and the world were well-drawn, there were several layers of mystery that pull the reader into the next chapter of the saga, and the characters felt real and convincing. 

Inspiration for the concept of the Hunger Games was drawn from the Greek myth of Theseus in which the young men and women of Crete are fed to the Minotaur by order of the King of Crete, who wants to punish the kingdom of Athens by killing its children.

I would recommend this book to just about anyone, and my only caveat is I’d advise you not start on a night if you have to get up early the next morning.  :)

Six Elements of a Scene in Action

Be impeccable in your word

This is the first of The Four Agreements.  In the context of the book’s philosphy this is a determined truthfulness and also a dedicated integrity.  If you say you will do something, it is tantamount that you do this.  Otherwise, your word becomes useless. 

More on the Four Agreements coming for future posts. For now, it is enough to bring these up and remind myself that I promised in a previous post to show you the Six Elements of a Scene in action

Mind you, this is not a polished scene at this point.  This is a scene that evolved out of the 31-minute exercise.  To do this yourself, write out your chunks in five minute increments, then rearrange them to form a scene.

EXAMPLE (From my work in progress)

One Minute Warm Up: Today I am writing about Percy Humboldt’s writing of the rules.

Setting

Three days after the incident with the stone door in the ground, Percy was still avoiding phone calls, leaving his mail unopened, and cancelling all of his appointments for the following two weeks.  He sat propped in his huge four poster bed.  In the far corner, a window overlooked his garden patio and the frozen pond full of brown lily pads.

Character

Mable entered with a tray bearing his slice of buttered French toast, his oatmeal, a pitcher of  hot milk, his little glass teapot floating with pink and red rose petals, a china bone gilded teacup and saucer, and a crisp envelope that John has insisted she bring in with the breakfast things.  

Setting

            Percy sat bolstered by the goldenrod silk pillows edged in beaded strings.  The bed set was imported from India.  The poles of the four posts standing sentry over the bed were carved in the shape of stampeding elephants. 

Character

As Mable set the tray in front of Percy, he smelled her anxiety, searched immediately for something out of place and pounced on the envelope.

Dialogue

            “What’s this?” he demanded.  He curled his upper lip over his teeth so that the bristles of his moustache became scrawny fangs.

Mable stepped back, for a moment seeing only the inevitably explosion of rage.  Percy

looked up at her a minute later and smiled calmly.  “John put you up to it, did he?”

            She nodded.

            “I’m not angry, Mable.”

            She relaxed and spread his napkin over his stomach, tucking the end into his collar.

            “That’s lovely.  Thank you.”

            Mable turned to leave. 

            “Will you send John in?  Percy called after her.  “And tell him to bring paper and pen.

            “You wanted things for writing?” John appeared with several pens, and ink pot, sheaths of recycled paper as well as a folder filled with smooth ivory pages that Percy used for his important documents and letters.

            Percy waved the little envelope at John.  “What is the meaning of having poor Mable bring this in?”

            “It was from Mr. Hawke.” John replied.  “You directed me to always forward you any communications from him.”

            Percy sighed.  “Fetch my letter opener.”

            John handed him the silver crane-shaped knife that looked like a leg on which the rest of the crane’s body perched with its head burrowed into its feathers.  Before he’d read the letter’s contents, he set it all back down again and pointed at the pens and paper.

            “I wish to write my own set of rules before this man can tell me all of my civil obligations.” Percy announced.  “Will you take notes as I dictate?”

            John reached up to stroke his bearded chin, then stopped when his fingers encountered smooth skin.

            I’m changing them already.  Percy lamented.  There’s nothing I do about it.

Setting

He let his gaze drop beneath his window where a corner table bore two framed photos.   The first was larger, a print of he and his wife Ingrid looking over their shoulders in the getaway car on their wedding day.  The second frame held a photo of his cat, Ing, curled up on the blue checkered couch in his sitting room.

Action

Percy dictated the rules:

  1.       Any questions asked about anything other than the Client’s death will be strictly ignored.
  2.       Advice for matters of future decisions, tragedies, wealth, etc, shall not be given.
  3.      The future will be doled out with discretion.  Clients may not appear more than twice per annum.  If further audience than this is sought, a special need must be made explicit in writing beforehand and given approval prior to the additional visit.
  4.       Client may only inquire for personal details as to his or her own future. No information pertaining to relatives, spouses, enemies, business partners, etc will be disclosed.

 

John took the words down carefully, read them out loud, transferred the words in careful handwriting to one of the ivory pages and Percy dismissed him to study his freshly-minted code of conduct in peace.

Intruder

 As Percy was dictating, he thought he saw something moving in the trees beyond the forest.  It might have been a bird flying across the sun and fluttering bits of shade across his eyes.  He forgot it completely when Mable returned to clear away his tray.  This time, instead of pale cheeks and bunched forehead, her face was hot and fresh.  She was much prettier this way, except her eyes were full of tears.

            John stood awkwardly in the hall outside, watching the back of her head and squeezing his hands as if they were wet rags.

Dialogue

            Percy set down his paper.  “What is it, dear?”

            “I realized one of the pieces in the mail was for me.” Mable whispered.  “So I opened it, if you please.”

            “Of course.  What did it say?”

            “My mother is dead.”  Mable said it as if she were pronouncing her own death.  “Her heart just stopped beating.  It’s been sitting in the pile of letters for two days now.  The funeral is tomorrow at Alloway Baptist Church in Shiloh.”

            Percy nodded.  She would accept no comfort from him, but he could offer her freedom from her duties.  “You’ll go then.  Leave you chores for tomorrow undone and head out early in the morning.  You’ll need some to go alone with you.  It’s not right for a girl to go to a thing like that all by herself.”      

            Mable sniffed but did not reply.  She dabbed her eyes with the hem of her dress.

            Percy called out, “John, will you please accompany Mable tomorrow to her mother’s funeral in Shiloh?  She needs a strong arm to hold her up.”

            John’s discomfort straightened into a statue of confidence and purpose.  “Of course.”

            Mable was almost instantly clinging to his arm which he’d gallantly offered to her.  Percy overheard something about buying black lace for a hat before the two disappeared around the corner.

            He chewed the tip of his pen for a moment, then added a rule to the list.

            The Consultant and Client agree to never do anything to change, advise, or alter the future that has been seen or made known.

High point

Percy finished the rules, folded the paper neatly into thirds and sealed it inside a fresh envelope.   He wrote Tobin Hawke’s information into the space for the addressee.  He slipped in a note reading

My dear Tobin,

Yes, I know it’s been too long since our last appointment.  I want you to find me some legal form I can sign and frame to act as a personal binding contract, and then let’s make another disclaimer/agreement that I can make sure all of my future clients sign.

 

Goodness, I’m getting quite ahead of myself.  Did I tell you I can see the future?

 

Affectionately,

Percival T. Humboldt

This technique is can be found in Robert Ray’s book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.  You can also visit Bob’s blog that he and his fellow writer write.

Painting is Related to Writing Fiction?

A friend of mine recently noticed that a painting in my dining room was an original with my name in the corner.  He told me that he wanted to know more about the part of me that studied and loved painting,  not just the isolated section of me that identifies with stories and being a wordsmith.

Another friend asked me, how does my love for painting, singing, and dancing interact with my passion for stories?  Even though I see my primary vocation as a writer, I (and all of us, writers and otherwise) am much more than that.

Painting is a balance of shape and color, light and dark.  I can look at a painting and sense that a particular color is missing.  The absence of a shadow or an object in the foreground will make me cock my head and experiment with my brush until that feeling of something missing is alleviated. 

The better I get at writing a story, the easier it is to pause, ponder, and realize what is missing in a draft.  Creating fiction is a balancing act.

I often paint from life.  Some of my best paintings come from those modeled after photographs.  Writing is most vibrant when it is taken from actual instances and truths in real life, starting with something tangible from my own experience as a springboard and then diving into fictional embellishments to put flesh on the armature.

Dancing is something I’ve studied ever since I was young.  All choreography has a beginning, middle, and an end.  I’ve heard choreography described as “Do something to open your dance piece, then do something else for the middle, and to conclude your piece, do that same thing you did in your when you opened.”

The same goes for storytelling.  In Joseph Campbell’s model for a  Hero’s Journey, the hero must begin in his world, travel, and return again to his world in order for the journey to be complete.

Also, in the case of partner dancing (which, incidentally, is how I met my husband), you have to learn to balance two elements, carefully making sure you do not upstage one with the other.  The beauty of the dance is the interaction of the two. 

In writing this might be villain and hero, friend and friend, father and son, lover and beloved.  The interaction itself is the beauty of the dance.

Similar to the unity of partner dancing, there are elements vital to singing that also apply to the literary arts.  In ensemble pieces, the quartet, choir, etc must not only have their individual parts polished, but must take into account the singers around themselves, blending, harmonizing, and balancing the tone. 

 A vocal soloist must practice daily to keep vocal muscles toned and supple.  The piece must be well-rehearsed; a single flat note could mar a performance. 

A story must be honed and edited before it is publishable for the public eye.  Writing must be undertaken with devoted regularity.  A complicated piece of fiction must balance diverse elements toward the goal of a larger, cohesive story, similar to a choir balancing musical notes toward the goal of a greater, fuller sound.

If you are an artist and practice one or more of these disciplines, you are already learning methods and practices requisite to writing.

Post a comment about your experience with other artistic disciplines and how it affects your writing.

Six Elements of Writing a Scene

I recently encountered a technique for fleshing out a scene that has blown my mind with its insightful attention to detail. 

Whether writing the scene for the first time or rewriting it because it needs more substance or just plain rewriting the scene because something isn’t working, this technique can be used for any of these purposes.

I have a tendency to sink heavily into one or two of the six elements and when later I re-read what I’ve written, I’m left with the feeling that the scene rushed so fast through the narrative that I lost my sense of place and no longer felt the setting.  Other times the dialogue (however witty) is isolated in itself to the point that I don’t have a good sense of where my characters are standing, how their faces look, or even what their physical movements have been during their conversation.

This six element technique balances the scene and fills in the details that each scene in a story desperately needs.  This exercise can be done in thirty-one minutes.  I usually write it out with pen and paper since my thoughts flow smoothest this way and I can’t get distracted with typos on a computer screen.  I then type it up, so it takes my about an hour, total. 

The technique, used here with permission, is taught in Robert J. Ray’s book: The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the  Novel.  The overview is found here:

31-minute Template:

Writing time: Take one minute for the warmup and then five minutes each for the six sections:

One minute warmup: This scene needs rewriting because…

Setting: The time was… the room/street/alley/cell smelled of…

Character: His/her hairdo looked like…

Dialogue: What are you looking at?

Action: She reached out and…

Intruder: A shadow makes her look up…

High Point: …and then s/he swung the…

BEGIN: One Minute Warm-Up-First of all, you need to set your mission.  Take just a second to write something like–I am writing about the first time Cleo and Calvin enter the manor.  Or maybe it looks like I am rewriting the first time Cleo and Calvin enter the manor because it needs more suspense and foreshadowing.  State what you’re about to do.

1.  Setting-Take a moment to look around the room, restaurant, park, alley, and describe where your character(s) are.  Public place?  Isolated?  What time of day is it?  What is the weather up to?  How is everyone dressed?  Are there any smells or sounds that will add to the picture?  The musty smell of rotting wood filled the library, making the visitors search unconsciously for a leak in the roof.  The rain had pounded against the windows and walls all morning, and it was starting to give Lawrence a headache.  In this example, the setting has already set a mood for our character, before he’s said a word.

Writing time: 5 minutes.

2. Character-Here is where you get to drop some insight into the character.  Is she having a flashback because something reminds her of her mother?  Is she dressed in a way that reveals insecurity about her fashion sense?  When she speaks to her husband, does it conjure a reaction from him that’s entrenched in memories from their childhood?  This is where you get to go deep and reveal some part of your characters as living, breathing people within your story.

Writing time:: 5 minutes.

3. Dialogue-What words do you need spoken in this scene to carry off its purpose?  Since you’ve already stated your purpose in your one minute warm-up, this should help to focus your dialogue.  I have a habit of meandering in a lot of dialogue that becomes extraneous after I discover what it is I need to say.  Is your main dialogue an argument?  Pressure from one character to make the other reveal information?  Flirtation?  Veiled threats?  Sketch it out, using your springboard of setting and character that you’ve already written.

Writing time: 5 minutes

4. Action-This is the structure of what happens in your scene.  Write this as a narrative.  He flung open the door and ran inside, peering at the paintings as if trying to decide which one hid the secret door.  She watched him, her hands reaching discretely for the telephone.  This is a good way for you to decide the events you will cause to transpire throughout at the scene. 

Note: the farther I get into these six elements, the more I tend to coalesce them as the scene takes on a life of its own.  This mixing of elements seems fine to me, since the whole point is to round out the scene, not to get stuck by filling out these boxes and sticking to the letter of the law.

Writing time: 5 minutes

5. Intruder-What force, person, bit of news is going to break into your scene and insert something new and exciting, emotional, forboding, revealing, horrifying, mysterious, threatening…you get the idea.  This can be the radio suddenly announcing a fatal accident on the highway and your hero suddenly needs to know that his girlfriend is safe.  This could be a strange song that interrupts two characters arguing and they wonder how a woman could be singing from the attic if it was sealed off two years ago.  This could be someone bursting in on dinner and announcing that they’ve been awarded a trophy at work.  It needn’t always be a soap-operatic gasp “You’re pregnant!” moment, but it need be some kind of interruption.  Something as simple as the shadow of a cloud passing over someone’s face and distracting him from his work is enough, especially if we can use it to plunge deeper into the personal and emotional lives of our characters. 

I am excited to say that this element has been transformational for my scenes.  I have had many scenes that seemed to “fizzle” or lose steam and I didn’t know what to do.  I felt compelled to close them in some way, which often wasn’t particularly exciting, but I didn’t know what else to do.  Now the scenes can more easily slip from one to another with the use of the intruder element.  Enjoy this one. :)

Writing time: 5 minutes

6. High-Point-This is where the action crescendos.  If it’s a fight scene, it’s the moment when the deciding strike is made.  If it’s an argument, it’s the moment when the new or final information is revealed and the two participants must decide how to react to it (or perhaps one must retreat).  This is probably the most difficult element for me to write, at the moment.  I do know that once you have your high point established, you can send your scene rushing towards its crest and then slide away from it with more care than if you don’t know your scene’s high-point.  For me, it’s often as I’m planning my scene’s intruder that I discover what my high point might be, in retrospect.

Writing time: 5 minutes

Rearranging.  Obviously, a scene is not going to read well in six little chronological chunks without any rearranging.   Dialogue, for example, is often interspersed with action, character, and setting.  Once everything is written, you can type it, then arrange it so that the scene flows more smoothly.  The thing you will have accomplished is that the scene now has healthy proportions of each element.

I will share an example of writing these six elements for your learning edification in a subsequent post.  I also want to hear from those of you who try the exercise.  Let me know your experience.  What element was challenging for you?  What element was easiest?