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?

Foundations

In the beginning…Once upon a time…There once was a boy…

Although many stories begin with interesting beginnings, it seems quite easy for a storyteller to get caught up in the “and then” action that propels the hero into the battle that faces him and the victory (we hope) that he enjoys at the end of the action.

I want to talk about the concept of setting up your story, building a firm foundation and then letting everything that follows stem from the first part of the story.

I owe this this attention and focus on the story’s beginning to Brian McDonald, who describes this phase as the story’s Act 1.  From this foundation of the story, all things must come.  They can’t be thrown in halfway into the story in order to rescue our hero because we, as the writer, hadn’t prepared for a solution. 

What this means is, Indiana Jones has to have already established early in Raiders of the Lost Ark that he uses his whip for all sorts of things.  If he pulled out the weapon/tool thirty minutes into the movie and it was the first time we’d seen it, we wouldn’t believe Indiana knew how to wield it.

In the film October Sky, we need to immediately see the father’s resistance to his son’s dream of building rockets and working at NASA in order to fully feel the son’s joy at the end of the film when his father finally supports his son’s dream.

In It’s a Wonderful Life when our hero decides to stay in his small town and take over the family business, we wouldn’t know that this meant something huge unless we knew about his dreams to travel the world that he now has sacrificed. 

Everything has to have a good foundation that occurs in the story’s beginning.  This doesn’t mean an info dump in the first twenty pages, but it does mean that the architecture must be carefully laid so that things flow naturally from one another and are logical rather an episodic. 

If a character makes an impulsive decision near the story’s climax, I want to have a reason that was established early on for why the character might act impulsively.  Is it because he had a father who never accepted impulsive behavior and this was an act of rebellion?  Was it because he was afraid of being judged for hesitating too long? 

Or when a character decides to risk her life for the man she loves, I want it established early on that she is idealistic.  Or, perhaps I might even make her a person who has hardened herself against idealism, in order to protect an old wound, but gradually she sheds this shell until she is ready again to risk everything for what she knows is good.

Think about the beginning of your story.  It sets the stage for everything else.

What beginning are you writing?  Are you stocking it with lots of fuel to burn through the rest of your story and give your character things to grow from and grow into?

The Great Balancing Act

How in the world am I supposed to write, rewrite, edit, market myself, blog, find an agent, network and find time for the seemingly hundreds of things that writers are “supposed to do” in order to establish themselves and win the great trophy of the title published?  (For those of you who can relate to this, it may be an appropriate time to tear at your hair).

I’m writing this to set your heart at some ease and keep the rest of the hair on your head.  I spoke to a published author at a writer’s conference a year ago who told me to go head and try all the recommended methods for finding an agent and getting published and then see what doors open for me. 

It’s willingness to do the necessary work that tends to lead toward opportunities and much-needed breaks, she said.

When I started getting overwhelmed by how I was going to structure my novel and whether I’d done things in the right order with the right timing and architecture, a mentor of mine assured me that no one in the industry “Knows what they hell they’re talking about.” 

He went on to assure me that most people know what they like to read, and that’s where it ends.  He didn’t intend to disrespect those on the publishing side of the industry, but the words were meant to comfort me, the fledgling writer who is beginning to spread her wings, and let me know that in the end it comes down to a really compelling story.

Revelation: I can’t write a compelling story if I’m exhausted, overwhelmed and bitter about all the busy-work I think I’m supposed to be doing to be successful.  For me, the desire to be responsible wells up very easily and chokes that creative, impetuous spirit that needs freedom and a light heart in order to function well.

So go ahead, enter the contests, create your own blog, join the professional twitter community, attend a writers group, submit short stories to magazines, start getting yourself out in the world and you will, at the very least, feel less alone on your journey.  That fact alone makes it worth it to me.

The most important thing for writers is to not lose the fire that started you down this road, before you ever wanted to make a living at it or gain recognition or be able to call yourself a published author.  If this means slowing down in your other marketing or networking activities, do it.  You can’t let that flame go out.

If you’re struggling to fan that enthusiasm back into being, I want to hear from you.  It’s our responsibility as writers to help each other stay writing.

An Unusual Detective: A Review

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Book CoverLooking at the world through another’s eyes can be enchanting, funny, disturbing or profound.

Christopher Boone’s avid attention to detail in this first-person canine murder mystery makes this story both funny and heartwarming.

A dog is discovered brutally skewered with a garden rake in the yard of Christopher’s next door neighbor.  His investigations follow the logic of Christopher’s revered Sherlock Holmes and continue dig up more trouble than answers, but he does not lose heart.

In between inquiries, Christopher explains what it is like to live in his autistic world by sharing his interests, dislikes and rational conclusions about events and subjects that he is told are irrational.   Nevertheless, he shows a very convincing argument for why yellow and brown are bad colors.   

For Christopher, logic can be used as a sedatives.  In stressful situations such as a crowded subway station, a complicated math problem that takes several minutes to solve is self-administered so that the body may relax while the brain is otherwise occupied.

As much a character study as a mystery tale, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is an intelligent and honest account of a young man perceiving the world with its hurts and challenges and bravely venturing forward to find his own place in it.

Concrete vs. Conceptual

All right everyone, put on your thinking caps.   I’m considering the ways we prefer to be inspired.

At a WOTS steering committee meeting last night we were debating the theme for our next year’s writing contest.  Entrants are given a word or phrase which they must use to form their work of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Last night we narrowed our choices down to two words, which for now shall be locked away in my secret vault. 

There was quite a distinction between the final choices.  One was a concrete word (think memory, door, flight) the other was a concept (think beauty, perseverance, beyond). 

We realized, after a surprising amount of time spent debating, that a concrete word gave the writer something tangible to start working with, while the concept provided a broader range of possibilities. 

I knew without asking myself that I’d rather have a concrete detail around which to wrap my story.  Another committee member said that the conceptual word was more flexible and inspiring and gave him more to work with.

For the sake of the exercise, if I said you could write about Endure or Rain what would you choose?  What are details that most inspire you?  Is the past or a the future more magnetic to your pen?

Unhappily Ever After

I’m rooting for the hero. I’m hoping to learn some deep truth, even at the cost of emotional pain for the hero and also for myself, because I tend to read with empathy. 

I reach the final page and I realize the story has ended without any resolution of the sorrow.  The ending has no consolation to offer me. 

I’ve just finished reading The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a piece of short fiction by Carson McCullers.

This story deals carefully with the human condition and its propensity to love, and to love dangerously.

A divorced woman who loves a broken hunchback, a criminal who loves this woman, and the hunchback who loves this criminal intermesh into a love triangle.

The protagonist, Miss Amelia, receives love that is not earned, merited, or wanted and also experiences her own outpouring of unconditional, irrevocable and unrequited love for someone who does not return it in kind. 

A deep message arises: love needn’t have a logical motive, reason or cause.  A lover loves because that is what a lover does, regardless of the acceptance, suitability, or inclination of the beloved.  McCullers writes: “The value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover” and later: “The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

This brings to mind Ariadne’s love for Theseus, which is fueled by her own bright, unclouded heart and his desperate need for help.  We know little of their love, since it was so short-lived, but it is safe to say that Ariadne gave her love without mutual return.  

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe draws to its close with a feeling of stranded and abandoned emptiness, similar to Ariadne’s plight when she wakes alone on an island while the man she loves sails away.

What is your reaction to a story that ends sadly?  Does you want to immediately throw it aside? Do you pause to contemplate that the lesson may be a tragic one?

Do you write only sad stories?  Only happy ones?

The Golden Theme

It’s more than just an creating entertaining story, it’s building a story that resonates.  If this new book by Brian McDonald is anything like his Invisible Ink, you will blown away by the structure he reveals for how to write a story with maximum impact.

The best stories are not those that simply dazzle us with a car chase or wow us with clever dialog.  There is nothing wrong with either of these elements, but they shouldn’t be the main selling point of the story.

According to Invisible Ink, the story should follow a seven-step process and be supported by its key message or armature.

There is something to be said about striving towards a story with nothing extraneous to its message.

I am expecting great things from Brian McDonald’s new book.  You can pre-order The Golden Theme on Amazon.com now.  The image is not yet displayed on the Amazon.com page, but I’ve included it in this post.

To get a sense for Brian McDonald’s perspective on writing, visit his blog here.

I also highly encourage everyone to check out Invisible Ink.

The Humble Improve

sunsetA fellow literary mind approaches with the frank question–how much experience do you have in your field? 

“Oh well, I’ve been writing since I was ten.”

Which means, “I definitely know what I’m doing.” 

Any past success, whether it’s a published story of mine, or encouraging feedback from a reader, easily lures me into the trap of thinking that I’ve “arrived” and finally know exactly what I’m doing.

In an excellent post by Brian McDonald (author of the writing handbook Invisible Ink), he talks about meeting experts who keep open hearts, minds, eyes and ears for learning.  Even though these masters are considered leading thinkers and creators in their fields, they exemplify a readiness to be taught and receive correction.

Brian McDonald uses writers at Pixar as an example.  Pixar invited Brian to tell them what he knows about creating story structure.  Although they are considered top writers for what they do, they were kind and receptive to the new information presented.  (Nobody said “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know what I’m doing”).

I hope as I continue to gain knowledge and increase the breadth of my work, I remember to welcome every learning opportunity with the same enthusiasm and attention that I had when I first began my journey.

It’s a little scary to not lean on past successes as a comforting crutch.  The result is that you are once again a beginner. 

What is the scariest part for you about keeping a “beginner’s mind”?

Make Positive Effort for the Good

Writing and life are inseparable.  I think this is why Natalie Goldberg applied the Zen lessons she learned to the practice of life, art, and writing. 

This morsel of wisdom, the third and final in the list she shared at WOTS, reminds her audience to “make positive effort for the good.” I almost seems too simple, too transparent. 

Practically speaking,  Natalie used the example of forcing herself to brush her teeth when she didn’t feel like doing anything.  A recent divorce served as the prime reason for her listlessness.

Perhaps it begins with brushing my teeth and evolves into buying a bundle of pens that I prefer to write with or having healthy, yummy snacks in the place where I work. 

Some days, it means writing one page of nonsense, just to make sure I’ve written something.

The little bits of determination add up to a large swath of gumption.  I wish you the very best of luck. :)