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 now.  The image is not yet displayed on the 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. 🙂

Don’t Be Tossed Away

rejection“We’re sorry to inform you that your submission was not a good fit for our magazine.  Best of luck finding a place for it elsewhere.” 

Haven’t we all been there?  There’s no way I can avoid being refused or ignored when I take my art and show it to the masses.  Rejection is a fact of the writing life.  How in the world do I find ways to keep my chin up?

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, had some great things to say on this topic. 

Isolation is the best locale to for high impact discouragement.   I read harsh criticism, I suffer an attack of jealousy for another writer’s success, or I’m wrestling in front of my computer with writer’s block and if I’m I’m alone, it gets bad.

Natalie shared her technique of writing with others, including finding restaurants that never have all their tables full and writing in them for hours at a time, all the while keeping herself in the presence of people. 

She’d call a friend and leave a message asking her to meet at a particular time, but not to call back as to whether she could make it.  This made Natalie show up for the work regardless of whether her friend would be there.

She’d leave chocolate chip cookies in her studio to bribe herself  to work there.

The most important thing is to not be cast away by discouragement, laziness, or anything else that tends to block my path.  Surrounding myself with people and techniques to motivate  me is a good line of defense.

I’ve used chocolate MANY times.

What “safety line” do you use to keep yourself from being tossed away?

Writing Down the Goldberg

I was entranced by the candid, encouraging and graceful presence of Natalie Goldberg earlier this month.  She spoke as the keynote at the Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference in Edmonds, WA the first weekend of this month and the theater was packed. 

Natalie is very famous for her book Writing Down the Bones.  She began her talking by jumping right into her process of discovering herself and becoming a writer. 

Her first plan of action was to think of the thing that had brought her the most pleasure in the world.  This turned out to be selling raffle tickets for a goldfish when she was a small child. 

This fun entrepreneurial spirit morphed into her banding together with like-minded individuals and beginning a natural foods restaurant.  This, combined with a poetry book filled with lines about food inspired her to write about the foods that she she lived and breathed in the restaurant.

Natalie went on to study many things, including Zen, and after years of practice, she decided she had learned three extremely important things from it.  She shared these with us.

1. Continue Under All Circumstances

2. Don’t Be Tossed Away

3. Make Positive Effort for the Good.

I would like to explore these three lessons and what a writer can draw from them.  First, Continue Under All Circumstances:

This lesson has to speak to the times when I don’t want to continue, otherwise, why would I need the reminder?

If I am sick, I or have a big event that may impact my writing schedule, or if I’ve suffered a huge loss, none of these are reasons to retire my pen. 

To be honest, some of my best work has occurred when I was unhappy.  I’ve had a lot of great work when I am happy, too.   If I only write when I am happy, and I missing out on everything good I might have also written when I was sad/busy/tired?

How do we find it within ourselves to continue when laziness, exhaustion or even deep grief seems to build a wall in front of us? 

I pray.  That should always be the first thing that I do, but sometimes my “continuing under all” looks more like me barking at myself in a drill sergeant voice.  Trust me, it’s not nearly as comforting.

After praying, it helps to remind myself that writing is so much more than creating for others–it’s the way I have found to most closely express myself.  Writing is therapy, food, play, work, art, sorrow, rage, determination, trust, and of course many other things to me.

I believe we must continue in all circumstances with our writing even when we do not know what the writing will do for us.  Trust that no word is ever wasted, and allow yourself a dedication without 100% comprehension.

I read in the Artist’s Way that when it comes to our art, we just take care of the quantity and let God take care of the quality.   

Our responsibility is to continue under all circumstance.

Next time, thoughts on Don’t Be Tossed Away.


DessertsSome good friends of mine are an American and Canadian who got married and live nearby with their kids.  They invited me this last weekend to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with them. 

A new feast day!  How awesome is that?

How many traditional feasts do we get to celebrate in America culture?  Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, weddings for friends…Any other big feasts?  I would argue that feasts are needed more than every few months.  I would also argue, that sometimes those traditional feast days become more stress or rush than a leisurely feast.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love feasts!  Making food and gathering for the purpose of hanging out for hours, eating homemade meals and just relaxing in each other’s company is something that I think we do too little–my heart chimes in “yes” to this thought.

Some nights, I’d rather pop a DVD in the player and bake a frozen pizza.  It’s easier, it’s less intimidating, but it’s not a feast day.  Canadian Thanksgiving woke up a little part of me that wants to feast more frequently and more joyously.

That reminds me of a favorite painting.  Festivals, inspired by such works of art as Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Spring, shouldn’t be lost.  We should dance in the streets, wave flowers, sing songs and roast pigs with our friends and neighbors. 

If someone invited you to dance with them in the street, would you do it?

Family and All

I love my family.  I was home schooled up through most of high school and I learned a lot about getting along with people and loving someone despite all of their flaws before I had dated anyone.  I practiced a lot on my family.  Family, when it’s strong, sticks with you through thick and thin and is a place of support

Characters, unless they are loners and I don’t tend to write about these much, should have some sort of family.  They needn’t be blood-related, but they should be kindred.  A place where the protagonist feels at home, a safe place to state his thoughts without worrying whether they are politically correct.  Keep this in mind when you put your protagonist through the ordeals she will face.

As a side note, families that are blood related have an easy time harmonizing because their vocal chords are similarly constructed. This is my family: my mom, my brother, my sister and I singing at a benefit concert, We Are Priceless, to raise awareness about human trafficking that is happening right here in Washington.

Heroic Journey

Greek HeroWhen a hero or heroine sets out on The Quest, are we supposed to like them? I find myself wanting both things at once.  I want my protagonist to be likable enough that if she loses her way in a dark forest or breaks her arm from a fall, we experience empathy.  I want people to want her to win.

In my attempts to make a charismatic character, I sometimes find that I make them too “vanilla” because I’m worried that something “rough” about my character might force them to sacrifice the reader’s loyalty.

However, the more I write, the more I realize that my reader will be loyal to my character, no matter what the character does, just so long as that character is honest.  Sometimes, it’s the painful honesty that strikes a chord within the reader (‘Oh yeah, I’ve thought about doing that, too’).  A habit of stealing, or even of violence, which comes from a desperate upbringing is not repulsive.  The thief or bully who has no signs of a history of an abuse is much less compelling.  So when I study my villains and my heroes, I must study their families, the house where they were born, their first love, their beliefs about death, etc.

Suddenly, my characters begin to take on flesh and blood, and worries about empathy no longer exist.  After all, what hero walked around in their stories and thought, “I sure hope whoever reads my life story will like me”?

Mythical Journeys

muses sculptureI’ve found it hard to get away from the attraction that Greek myths have held for me.  Ever since the morning I opened a thin black volume, containing easy-to-read paraphrases of Greek myths, I’ve been absolutely fascinated with the stories that always played with high stakes–stories that quite often (and usually more often than not) ended with a devastating tragedy.

The unfairness of life was captured here.  The plight of a mortal at the mercy of a powerful and capricious god was here.  The endless journey and sacrifice for the sake of love was here.  The magic was here.

And so I begin.  I open the tomes before me.  Twenty lines spans twenty years, and I keep asking myself why Heracles killed his wife and was still a hero, why lovely Helen allowed Troy to be pillaged and gutted without flinching (or did she?), and why the Sirens allowed Odysseus’s ship to pass their island if they were such seasoned pros.

I use my pen and my voice to seek answers to these questions.