"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dawn is making an appearance swathed in gray. Yesterday I was indoors most of the day so when I stepped out for a walk, I was surprised at how soft and springlike the air felt on my skin. Although the geese around here are unreliable as harbingers of spring, since there is a large pond nearby, I counted three flocks winging north. Then I noticed that daffodils that have joined the crocuses blooming in sunny patches and camellias with their fuchsia-colored and waxy leaves are appearing also. Finally I passed a mother and her small son drawing with colored chalk on the sidewalk, stars and dogs and a smiling sun.

But while spring is coming to this country, our government is still borrowing millions a day to run this war, taxes are still being cut for the rich, while there is a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan with its nukes is becoming increasingly unstable, the government in Iraq is still not solidified, and the number of American troops cannot be maintained because the troops are exhausted and there are none to replace them. It seems that there is no sector in this country that the Bush policies and corruption haven’t damaged or ruined. But spring is coming, spring is coming.

Meanwhile, I believe I have forgotten to report that I finished my latest book for Writer’s Digest, Bullies, Bitches & Bastards: How toWrite the Back Guys in Fiction. It will be out in July and I handed in the last revision a few weeks ago. I and have taken a few weeks off from working on a book and have editing projects to work on, but I’m also cleaning, gardening and trying to catch up with friends. Next week I’m going to start on a new book that will be out in spring or summer of 2009.

But let’s get back to the elements of effective fiction:

Characters are built from dominant traits. Create main characters with dominant and unforgettable traits as a foundation of personality. These 3-6 traits will be showcased in the story events, will help him or her achieve or fail at goals, and will make the story person consistent. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ dominant traits are that he is analytical, deductive, intelligent, and deeply aware. These traits are showcased in every story he appears in along with secondary and contrasting traits such as his Bohemian tendencies. When your character first appears in the first scene, he arrives with his dominant traits intact.

Emotional need Protagonists and main characters are people with baggage and emotional needs stemming from their pasts. These needs, coupled with motivation cause characters to act as they do. For example, in Silence of the Lambs Clarisse Starling is propelled by childhood traumas to both succeed as an FBI profiler and investigator and heal the wounds caused by the death of her father.

Significance The storyline focuses on the most significant events in the protagonist’s life.

Motivation entwined with backstory Motivation, the why? of fiction, fuels your character’s desires and drives him to accomplish goals. It provides a solid foundation for the often complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development, as a character’s past inevitably intersects with his present. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits and realistically linked to goals so that readers can take on these goals as their own.

Desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, they want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, desperately struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays for it.

Threat Fiction is based on adversity and this is revealed in a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action and conflict.

Inner Conflict A fictional character doesn’t arrive at easy decisions or choices. Instead he is burdened by difficult or impossible choices, particularly moral choices, that often make him doubt himself and question his actions. Inner conflict works in tandem with outer conflict—an physical obstacle, villain or antagonist--to make the story more involving, dramatic, and events more meaningful.

Complications A story builds and deepens by adding complications, twists, reversals and surprises that add tension and forward motion. Plots don’t follow a straight path, instead there are zigzags, dead ends, and sidetracks. Complications create obstacles and conflict, cause decisions to be made, paths to be chosen.

Midpoint Reversal The middle act of a novel comprises more than half its length. At about the midpoint of most novels a dramatic reversal occurs. The hunter becomes the hunted; a second murder occurs proving the detective has been wrong in his suspicions; a former lover arrives in town to complicate a budding romance. This reversal keeps the middle from bogging down and becoming predictable and also breathes new life and often a new direction into the story.

Satisfying Ending every story needs an ending that satisfies the reader while concluding the plot. The final scenes, when the tensions are red hot and the character has reached a point of no return, must deliver drama, emotion, yet a logical conclusion. This is not to suggest that every plot ends with a shoot-out or physical confrontation, because some endings are quieter, more thoughtful. Some endings are ambivalent, some a dramatic or a violent clash of wills. But there is always a sense that all the forces that have been operating in your story world have finally come to a head and the protagonist’s world is forever changed.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The morning sky is mostly blue with a few wisps of cumulus clouds drawn in like feathers. I was thinking about the Academy Awards show I watched on Sunday night. I had returned from teaching in Seattle, and thankfully the train ride home was without any hitches. No cherry pickers driving out onto the tracks to be knocked off by the engine, no broken cars that needed to be exchanged. So I unpacked, went for a quick walk, and settled onto my couch to gawk at the stars.

As I was watching the awards, noting which dresses were fabulous and which were dreadful such as that black sack worn by Tilda Swinton who appears to be such a lovely person and Diablo Cody the screenwriter of Juno who was wearing a ghastly leopard skin number that showcased a particularly unattractive and oversized tattoo. I noticed that I’d fallen behind in my movie viewing. Still hadn’t seen The Savages or Michael Clayton.

I like how my emotions zigzag throughout the show as when I’m happy when Javier Bardem who attended with his mother, won and gave a tribute to her, remembering his chilling role as the sociopath in No Country for Old Men and thrilled when the ├╝ber-charming Ratatouille won for best animated film. Although as someone who once worked in the food industry there is still something about rats in a kitchen that gives me the creeps.

Usually somewhere along the way during the show I’ll become teary-eyed as when they show the montage of the people that have died since the previous Academy such as Ingmar Bergman, Suzanne Pleshette and Heath Ledger. But this year the tears sprung up when Nicole Kidman (what in the world has she done to her face—have you noticed that it’s carved out like a wax museum figure?) presented the Honorary Oscar of the night to Robert Boyle, who received a standing ovation. I’m a huge fan and if you’re not familiar with him, Boyle is a production designer and art director with four Academy Award nominations to his name. The 98-year-old Boyle gave a halting speech in which he thanked many people including Hitchcock for their collaborations in films like North by Northwest, Marnie and The Birds. He also worked on The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof and In Cold Blood among others.

A montage of his films including the famous scene in North by Northwest where the crop duster plane swoops down on Cary Grant and the especially famous scene where the actors are climbing on Mount Rushmore. In an interview Boyle explained that for the crop duster scene Hitchcock had told him to create a place where Grant could run but could not hide.

In this blog I’ve talked before about the role of production design in film and cited the PBS Hollywood Presents series that explored the importance of this aspect of movie making. If the director is responsible for what the actors are doing, the designer is responsible for what the scene looks like and how the setting suggests mood and creates emotions in the viewer. Production design creates the overall look, atmosphere and emotion that moves story material from the printed page to the screen.

So here’s what I think. When you watch a movie, you’re not only absorbing the story and noticing the actors’ skills and lines, but you’re noting too the art direction. Why has the production designer or art director used shadows in a scene? Why is it raining? How does the story world appear so seamless? For more on Boyle, you might want to check out the documentary The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The morning sky is a dusky gray and NPR is running a story about the slaves and African Americans that cooked for presidents in the early days of the republic. Hercules was George Washington’s chef who had eight assistants working under him. It is from their “Hidden Kitchen” series and to read more about these cooks you can go to www.npr.org. And Castro has resigned….interesting turn of events since our next president will be the first in decades who won’t be dealing with him.

A few days ago I was talking about the essentials of fiction and wanted to return to that discussion. I had mentioned that good fiction is balanced, intimate, and unified. The opening of a novel or short story portrays a dynamic, simmering world that is upset by the inciting incident so that the balance of the story world is turned topsy-turvy and the story starts. The inciting incident tosses the protagonist into a situation he likely would not have entered willingly, and then the story progresses with an urgent need to reinstate that equilibrium. This second aspect of balance depicts the fictional world and its characters always straining toward stability, after the first incident throws the protagonist’s world off-kilter.

Since fictional characters are more consistent than real life people, you need to understand the why of your story. Motivation, the why factor of fiction, has more than one purpose and meaning. Motivation refers to the specific and often complicated reasons that your characters act as they do. It is typically connected to your character’s desire for something or to achieve goals. But it’s also typically your character’s past intersecting with events in the now, or the front story.

Thus, motivation is entwined with backstory. Motivation is at the heart of every scene, fueling your character’s desires and driving him to accomplish goals. It provides a solid foundation for the often complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development or character arc. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits and realistically linked to goals so that readers can take on these goals as their own.

Thus desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, they want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, desperately struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays for it.

You can bestow on your character flaming red hair, an endearing, crooked grin and a penchant for chocolate and noir movies, but if she doesn’t want something badly, she’s merely a prop in your story, not a driving force. But if she wants to win the Miss Florida contest, take over her boss’ job, or become the first female shortstop for the Atlanta Braves, then you’ve got a character who will make things happen and a story that will be propelled by desire.

Effective fiction is causally related. Fiction is the opposite of life in many ways. Events in fiction are never random or unconnected. They are always linked by causality with one event causing more events later in the story, which in turn causes complications, which cause more events, which cause bad decisions, etc. Fictional characters act out of their own sense of logic, based on believable motivations that stem from their pasts. But also, while life can be unpredictable and chaotic, fiction, even when interspersed with surprises and reversals, is not chaotic, but is instead realistic based on the storyline and the conventions of the story.

Compelling fiction is based on a single, powerful question around which your story is based. This question will be dramatized chiefly via action in a series of events or scenes. If you are writing a romance, the question always involves whether the couple will resolve their differences and declare their love. In a mystery the dramatic question might be will Detective Smith find the serial killer in time to prevent another senseless death? In The Old Man and Sea the dramatic question is will Santiago catch the big fish and thus restore his pride and reputation?

Threat and adversity. Fiction is based on a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action and conflict. More to come….

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I didn’t sleep well last night so instead of tossing around in bed, listening to the radio, here I am again, writing as dawn arrives, the sky the palest of blues. I wanted to say something in this blog about Friday night when I went Powells to join the throng listening to Natalie Goldberg read from her new book Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice Of Writing Memoir and answer questions from the crowd. Her new book is based on the idea that in order to write a memoir we must first know how to remember. It’s filled with writing exercises that prod the memory, short chapters, and Zen wisdom. If you’re not familiar with Goldberg, she wrote Writing Down the Bones, one of the first books that talked about writing practice and Zen and the book sold over a million copies. Goldberg and Peter Elbow first encouraged people to use writing practice, simply sitting and writing quickly without judging the outcome, as the way into writing. The thing with Goldberg is that she makes writing seem possible and deepening and exhilarating.

And while I’ve followed her career, listening to her on Friday night I discovered that I’d missed some key happenings and knowledge. First, I hadn’t realized that she was a poet for 15 years before she wrote Bones, and for those 15 years she couldn’t get her poems published. I’d read her first memoir Long Quiet Highway years ago but hadn’t read The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to the Truth where she came to terms with her relationships with her father and her Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri Roshi. Friday night she talked about how the truths she wrote about Roshi has caused her to lose the Zen community that has been her home for many years.

So she talked about being okay with pain and loss, to feel your way through it, to be gentle with yourself, and admitted that she spent months recovering from this sharp grief. Afterward I stood in a long line to have a book signed for a friend because she’s afraid to write and I’m giving it to her later today as a birthday gift. And I greeted Goldberg because we’d met ten years ago at a smaller bookstore signing here in Portland and because she was a guest author when I taught on-line at iVillage.com when I interviewed her twice. During that on-line visit she offered three of Roshi’s teachings that have been posted on my desk since: Continue under all circumstances. Make positive efforts to the good. Don’t be tossed away.

Also during that on-line visit one of my writing students asked her what to do about fear and she answered. “I just let it be. I keep my hand moving.”

So I was thinking about her life and her beliefs about fear, failure, and grief when I was teaching a workshop yesterday. It was one of those days when getting my ideas to my students seemed especially difficult and it kept feeling like we couldn’t connect. Then we spent the final hours making collages together with music playing in the background. The idea of the collage was to represent a vision for the life we want to live along with core values. And in the final minutes of the class we lined them up along a wall and walked around looking at them like paintings in a gallery. And they were so beautiful and alive and rich that something inside me shifted and the difficult day seemed not so hard.

I arrived home, planning on spending a quiet night because I’m still getting over a cold and started cooking dinner. I checked my phone messages and discovered that one of my friends had died. I called the woman delivering this news and we talked for a long time about our mutual friend, Cathy and the past. About six years ago after going through several crises and losing her father, she had become increasingly paranoid, delusional, and was suffering from serious health problems. The last time I saw her she looked like she was dying. I tried to talk to her about getting medical help, but she wasn’t one to take advice.

So I called the medical professionals in her life and her old friends and reported to them about her seriously elevated heart rate and some other facts, trying to stage an intervention, trying to save her life. I sent her an email explaining what I’d done and she cut off our friendship and I hadn’t seen her since. Now, six years later she is dead from these health problems including heart disease.

After absorbing this news, I ate dinner and was reading on my couch when Toni, another of her old friends called and we talked for about an hour about all that had gone down, about times past and our memories of Cathy, and I learned that in the past few years she’d suffered horribly. And that as I feared, her health problems and early death were unnecessary. I spent more time on the phone with my daughter and then with music in the background curled on my couch and followed the pain like I was hobbling down an old, familiar road, one that carried me to my childhood. I just let it wash over me, surrendering. I recalled how that morning before my workshop I had been thinking about Cathy and Toni and now Cathy was dead. I thought about another friend Barbara who had died too young about a year ago, about my aunts, both dead in their fifties.

My eyes kept wandering to the collage I’d just made and all the images and words, messages to my subconscious. I believe that what writing and life can teach us is that pain doesn’t need to be avoided. That you can nestle there with it and really feel and let it enter you. Because when you avoid it, or block it, or push it away, it just returns. And festers. During the question and answer session on Friday night a man asked Goldberg what she loved about Zen. And in an odd voice with hands pressed together, she intoned “Awaken. Awaken. Do not waste your precious life.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes if hard to plan the day. E. B. White

Dawn has arrived and before it broke, the giant fir trees in the neighborhood looked ghostly in the gloom, but now they’re standing out in sharp relief. Meanwhile on the side street I can hear trucks arriving with shrill beeps and thumps as they park. They’re replacing sewer pipes in the next block and I fear that they’re going to work on this block also.

I know that many parts of the country are buried under snow and heard yesterday Wisconsin has had a record snowfall and I can imagine a world of white back there. Well, actually, in the cities the snow gets dirty and littered with piles of dog poop and they run out of room to stash the mountains of snow, but it’s still a world of white. While here in Portland yesterday when I was out walking I spotted buds and crocuses poking up and signs of spring all over the place as my eyes teared from allergies. And our weather forecast is calling for temperatures in the 50s in the coming days.

And so much is happening in the world as the writers in Hollywood are going back to work, Barack Obama has won eight primary elections or caucuses in a row and is still packing in thousands of people wherever he goes giving his stump speech about hope, while Hillary is rearranging her staff. Meanwhile, Republicans are laying down the gauntlet so that the debate in the summer and fall can be about 9-1-1 and fear and terrorism, not the fact that this country is sinking under debt and despair. Why are these guys so much better at strategy than the progressives? And isn’t it time for Harry Reid to resign after yesterday the vote in the Senate to give immunity to phone companies for warrantless wiretapping/snooping against Americans? Now the bill goes to the House—so we should also call our Congressman and tell them not to vote for it.

On Saturday I was in Olympia teaching a class on fiction and Monday I drove down to Albany to give a talk on the essentials of fiction. When I begin this talk I start by saying that compelling fiction haunts us and touches the deep layers in us. The best stories resonate and are created from elements that cause them to linger in the reader’s imagination, senses, emotions, and memory with a lasting clarity. When a story stays with a reader it does so because the writer employed dozens of techniques. These techniques are often invisible and are sometimes embedded in into the underpinnings or structure. All are needed to bring a story to life. They include: vivid character development, tension that crackles on the page, suspense that keeps us turning pages, conflict that creates worry in the reader and a fictional world that is so intimate, layered, and substantial that it breathes.

But this haunting isn’t easy and the process begins when the reader encounters the first word on the first page. This opening separates the reader from his everyday life and wrests him into the reality and simmering problems of the story. These first pages might open quietly or thunder, there might be a single character or dazzling, funny cast; it might depict an enchanted kingdom or a police precinct in the Bronx. Reading fiction is a physical, emotional, and intellectual experience, a way to live vicariously and to explore psychological issues

I talk about how the opening in fiction is a doorway through which the reader enters separating him from the real world. And in this world, the best stories are balanced, unified, and intimate.

Unity creates coherence and flow in a story -- everything in the story working together for a profound overall effect. Unity also refers to the notion that your story cannot read like it was created by a committee, but instead crafted by a single author with a compelling vision and design. Just as in a symphony or any musical composition, each note is designed to create a profound, overall effect.

Another aspect of unity is that all the aspects from the style choices to scene details to characterization push the reader to understand the themes of the story. Themes and controlling concepts connect the story and deepen the reader’s experience.

An intimate world isn’t created by merely piling on details. It means your story world has the resonance of childhood memories, the vividness of a dream, and the power of a movie. It’s filled in with shadows and corners and dogs and ice cubes and the sounds and smells of a dryer humming on washday and a car blaring past, rap music shaking the windows. These details lend it authority, potency, and a palpable physical existence.

An intimate story takes us to a specific place and coaxes us to remain there. An intimate story is lifelike and feels as real and complicated as the world the reader inhabits. When he finishes the final pages, and leaves the story world, he should feel the satisfaction of the ending, but also a huge sense of loss. Like a friend has moved to another town just when the friendship had reached a level of closeness and trust.

In a balanced story every element exists in proper proportion. The cast size is just right for the kind of story you’re telling and subplots don’t dominate the main story line. Each scene is orchestrated for potency, and backstory illustrates the front, yet the front story is the driving force. Secondary characters are quirky and add to the whole but never overshadow the main players. Description and details are also used in proper proportion because the amount of details you use telegraphs meaning. Also pacing marches past the less important moments and slows down for the most emotional scenes.
More to come….

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I would say that there exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.” Mary Oliver, Winter Hours

Dawn is breaking and the day is supposed to bring showers with snow in the mountains and apparently in towns in the higher elevations there is danger of collapsing roofs. I’m reminded of a particularly snowy winter in northern Wisconsin where my parents live and my mother reporting that my father was up on roof on snow removal duty and that particular winter “your father’s spending more time on the roof than on the ground.”

Well, I was planning on going out tonight to hear local writers, but I woke up with a cold so think I’m about done celebrating my birthday, since it’s been going on since Friday night. On Friday night I started the celebration with a friend at a small concert at Music Millennium, a local independent music store. I hadn’t been in there in a while and there was a good crowd gathered to hear Steve Poltz, but also I was so gratified to see the bustle of people coming in and out of the store to buy CDs. In these days of music downloads and IPods and YouTube, it feels like stepping back in time to be in an independent music store replete with Rolling Stone posters and old album covers of Jimi Hendrix. And I’m grateful just as when I walk into a crowded bookstore. Because let’s pay the writer- performers for their creativity. Also, the story has little signs all over that lists the top 100 albums of all time. While I was watching Poltz perform I was standing near the B section and the Blind Faith CD was so categorized. Since I didn’t buy the CD that night I’m going to return to the store, just to wander among all the music and remember.

Anyway, although Poltz has a world wide and cult following I didn’t know much about him but was soon captivated by his writing and zaniness and heart. Well, to tell the truth, I was at first a bit worried that I wasn’t going to like him because he tends to rhyme and has recorded kids’ albums. I soon learned he was born in Halifax Nova Scotia and when he was a kid his family moved to Palm Springs which brought on a case of culture shock, go figure. He trick-or-treated at Liberace’s house, met Elvis who hugged his singer longer than necessary and was an altar boy. He moved to San Diego to attend college and formed the Rugburns an indi-rock band which began the cult following.

Apparently he is also the first person that beckoned Jewel Kilcher onto the stage at the Innerchange Coffee House in San Diego where Jewel was waitressing and Steve was playing his tunes. Together on a beach in Mexico in they wrote You Were Meant for Me which became the longest-running song on the Billboard Top 100. Poltz has performed and written other songs with her and toured as her opening act and playing in her band, and has appeared in her videos. He’s traveled all over the world performing including as a street musician and is the sort of singer-writer with a CD called Answering Machine that contains 56 songs all 45 seconds long that are outgoing messages from his home machine.

As I was listening to his lyrics I kept thinking about the poetry of songwriting and then he introduced one of his songs, The Light in Your Eyes which is about being homesick and returning home to watch the birth of his niece and breaking down crying during it. I hope this isn’t copyright infringement, but here is the chorus that wrung out my heart:

Now I’ve seen a lot of things
Huge shiny diamond rings
And I’ve seen two grown men cry
But I never saw the light
Like I did in your eyes
The light in your eyes

You can find out more about Steve at www.poltz.com.

Then last night after a dinner at Higgins I heard the poet Mary Oliver as part of Portland’s Arts & Lecture series. And it was a packed house, as in people sitting all the way up to the rafters of the bejeweled and historic Arelene Schnitzer Hall. She is now in her 70s and I was sitting above her, listening and taking in the lovely architecture of the Schnitzer with it’s filigreed walls and gorgeous lamps, with winking turquoise glass. And although Oliver looked a bit frail, her voice was strong and her wit keen, especially during the question and answer session after the reading.

Oliver is best known as a nature poet following in the footsteps of Thoreau and Whitman since her daily walks and birds, dogs, flowers and all aspects of nature appear in her poems. She brings a Zen awareness to daily life and writing and said, “looking at the world is the important part of my life,” and “every day I step out into the world to be dazzled,” and “my work is loving the world.” Her poetry seems filled with talismans and she poses questions about what this all adds up to as when she asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Her poems reflect the serious questions of faith, as in "When Death Comes:"

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

Oliver’s twelfth book of poems Red Bird will be published in April. And I was thinking about how great it is to be a writer or songwriter in old age. How you can carry your gifts forth into all your years, how like Oliver, we can always be paying attention.