"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.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Pale pewter clouds are scattered across the morning sky. I’m back at my desk after a weekend at the Oregon coast teaching a workshop on The Writer Within. I taught it with Elizabeth Tyler who demonstrated a short qigong routine that we can do every day to stay calm and energized. Every time I'm at the coast I entertain fantasies of living there, despite the fact that most real estate costs in the millions. But on Saturday most of the people in the workshop were coastal residents and they explained that they had not seen the sun in three and half months. Now living here in Portland, I've come to love the ever-changing sky and the many shades of grey, but that's way too long without sun.

But back to the writer within. Years ago my first book Writing Out the Storm was dropped by the publisher after it had only been out about a year. I was broken hearted. Only recently I learned that the publisher had lost their distributor and that was the reason they quit publishing and distributing my book. At the time I bought many boxes of the books and have since been selling them in my workshop and on Amazon. But distraught, I called someone with a publishing background for advice and solace. She told, “I think that we don’t so much choose writing as writing chooses us.”

Her words struck a deep chord because I have always written, have always needed to make sense of things by writing. And clearly writing chooses many of us. Now, I don’t mean slimebags like George Tenant who write books to cover their ass and somehow refurbish their deservedly tarnished reputations. I mean those of us who somehow must tell stories, who must witness all the bad and ugly, beautiful and sublime of life on this planet. And place their witnessing onto the page for a reader.

When a person sits down to write all sorts of things happen. First, there is often anxiety that is part excitement, part uncertainty and part worry that you don’t quite have what it takes to say what needs to be said. Sometimes there is a firm plowing ahead as when a skier takes off down a steep slope, the first blasts of cold and wind rushing past. Sometimes it’s more like taking off and plopping over in a heap. You struggle to your feet, skis at an awkward angle, brush yourself off. Or, nothing much happens, and sometimes despair sets in or the writing that comes out seens feeble or weak or half baked.

So beginnings can be difficult, as can settling into the writing routine, making choices about what to work on, and crafting brilliant endings. Some days you gotta wonder why you’ve signed up for so much torment. The reasons are that we’re called to this task, and that when writing we can also feel joy and power and connection that doesn’t exist in other parts of our day.

But I also believe that when we sit down to write, or at any point in the writing process, there is a writer within. This writer within is a helper, a guide, a mentor, a genie. A part of us that can be understood, accessed, and cherished. A part of us that is free and easy as a bird that sings in response to being totally alive. A part of us that is fearless and courageous and wise.

The writer within is a place of stories, knowledge, power and intuition. It can be accessed in the same way that you slip a key in the ignition to start your car. There are tools that work as this key and we’re going to talk about them today.

Everyone who somehow is called to write has a writer within and it’s an inner place of magic and solace and boundless words. The writer within is a storehouse of memories, emotions and sensory data and includes distant dawns, tender caresses, jokes, funerals, campfires, misunderstandings, Sunday school classes, mountain streams, break-ups, teachers, childhood friends, and spring flower bouquets.

The writer within has seen it all—the majestic and the senseless and the silence of a star-filled midnight. It stores a landscape of sensory elements—bruised and cobalt skies, mountain trails and waterfalls, a sleeping child, a lover’s skin, an ocean’s shore, a snowfall, a blazing flower bed.

The writer within is linked to all our senses and knows the tumult of ocean waves, the scents of cinnamon and cedar and lilac and fresh-mown grass. It knows how hailstones feel against the skin and sound on the roof. In the store of senses are ice and wind and stones plopping into a summer pond. It knows how a horse hoof’s sound on an old road, the heat of asphalt in August, and the rituals tied to childhood such as the first day of school with its smell of new clothes and chalk.

The best news of all is that the writer within is always available. It’s never on vacation, never cranky or sad or too tired, too wired or too depressed to work. It’s an endless source of words and wit and wisdom. Really.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

So I just got in from an evening walk. The sky was soft with clouds arriving, but seeming not to be pushed by the ocean. Here in Portland we have “marine air” meaning that the ocean often arrives at our doorsteps each evening and then lingers through the early morning hours. In the years that I’ve lived in Portland I can count the number of impossibly hot or sultry nights on one hand because of this marine air. Our nights are generally cool and you always keep a blanket on your bed, even in August.

But tonight was soft and thick with smells, the magnolia blossoms really taking over the neighborhood with heavy perfume, and now poppies joining the parade of blooms. There was a pick-up baseball game at the middle school down the block and a kid who joined in announced to the adults that he’d be right back after he grabbed his glove and raced off on his bicycle.

But before all this, I walked out of the door and headed down the block and a bus was turning down my street. Although a block away is a semi-business district with a cafĂ©, espresso cart, and dog supply store on the corner, my street is not a bus route. So the bus was honking, honking trying to stop traffic and then maneuver itself for the turn. I kept walking as it passed me and then it stopped at the corner, in front of my place and let out two young men. One of these guys seemed to be carrying on a dialogue with the bus from the street. And I was wondering—was this an argument, a showdown? I stopped, vacillating, wanting to go back and eavesdrop. The bus wasn’t moving, the dialogue continued. And then it moved on and so did I, in the opposite direction toward the sunset.

But in that moment of hesitation I asked myself why I didn’t turn around and the answer came clear as could be: because of my grandmother. Her name was Adeline and she was French-Irish and always lived in small towns or in the country of northern Wisconsin. In her fifties and sixties she spent a great deal of her time peering out her front windows at the parade that was her neighborhood. Her across the street neighbors were a scandal worthy of a book, but she was equally content to watch the widow Maude Shocke plow along on some errand or various people driving by heading toward a nearby park and the Wisconsin River.

A lot of people walked back then and my grandmother had Venetian blinds in her living room and would perch on the arm of a chair or her couch and watch, peering through the blinds. And with the memory of her nosiness and perhaps her aloneness, I kept walking.

I’ve been spending the evening getting ready for a workshop I’m teaching on Saturday in Manzanita with Elizabeth Tyler. I cannot wait to hear the ocean and our workshop is called The Writer Within. I’m going to talk about awareness and noticing and collecting sensory data, all integral to the writing life.

In my book Between the Lines I wrote a chapter called Sensory Surround. It begins: “Good writing haunts us. The best stories resonate and are spun of layers that linger in our mind the way the final notes of a symphony linger in the air like a whisper or a dream. When the story slips within a reader, it does so because a variety of techniques are employed such as vivid characterization, action that creates worry, and then that more ephemeris layer, the connections that lie beneath the track of words. Sensory details are part of that layer creating a deep reservoir of meaning.”

In the first segment of this chapter I advise: “Writers need to live with a keen awareness, noticing the complexity and nuances of the world around them with every sense activated. And the best fiction writers develop a poet’s eye for detail, noticing every object, shifting cloud patterns or bird song.”

Awareness and noticing. There’s an old story about an elderly woman who is dying. On her deathbed, with her family gathered, she declares, “If I’d known it would go by so fast, I would have noticed more.” The gifts of awareness don’t need to arrive on our death bed. Instead, they are all around us, like diamonds, jewels, wonders waiting to be plucked. But they require that we hone our senses, pay attention to the ordinary, the extraordinary, and the routine. The bus heading down the street where it doesn’t belong.

Creative people notice everything, but also spend time musing about what they see. Nolan Bushnell who invented video games imagined his invention from a simple observation. He noticed that people liked to watch television and they also liked to play games. Most of us have also noted these facts, but unlike Nolan, don’t take our visions to the next level. He decided to combine the two activities and became a millionaire.

Awareness is so simple, yet so difficult. We’ve all heard the clichĂ© about how we should take time to smell the roses. Then there’s the question posed: if we learned we had an incurable illness and only six months left to live, how would be spend our last days? What would matter? Would we live in the glow of appreciation, noticing always the smallest miracles and the grander schemes? How would we be changed if we moved through our days tuned in to beauty?

Don’t blind yourself to the smallest miracles all around you or the smallest things you take for granted like driving a car, listening to music, or witnessing a spangled night sky. Creativity is birthed in awareness. Look around you, and keep noticing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Clouds have rumbled across the sky all day and as night is falling, the promised rain still hasn’t arrived. Another tragic day in the Iraqi occupation with 9 paratroopers killed today along with 80 Iraqis. This brings the total of Americans killed this month to 86 and a total of 3,333 dead.
A shining and distinguished light in the world of writing and truth was diminished on Monday when author and journalist David Halberstam, 73, died in a car accident. Halberstam was probably the best war reporter of his generation and a dying breed of writers who believed that the truth could change the world. He covered civil wars in the Congo, and the civil rights movement in the states, but most importantly was one of the first journalists who exposed the lies and our disastrous involvement in Vietnam for The New York Times.
Combining a historian’s curiosity with impeccable research, in over a 50-year career, he wrote 20 books, including The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Summer of 49, and Firehouse. His current book about the Korean War will be published this fall. His friend Gay Talese recalled that he had a healthy skepticism and besides Talese, perhaps no other writer so accurately chronicled the changes that swept the country in the second half of the twentieth century.
When asked in an interview where he got his guts to speak out he said, “I think it is what we're paid to do. I think we are, as grown men, probably what we were as boys. It's a product of your home, the product of your value system, being raised to speak out for what you believe in, to trust in your own instincts, not to be afraid. ….Whatever else, when I talk to kids, I try to say, "It is not about popularity. It is about being true to yourself and doing an honest job, going out and working hard."
Fellow writer Peter Arnett said of him: “He was the institutional memory of the Vietnam War. I think he understood it better than any other journalist.”
In a forward in a book about photographers killed in war he wrote, “It is really about doing something, for all the veneer of ego, that is larger than self. People who may have thought themselves weak and fragile and unsure of themselves when young, are surprised to find that covering something so important gives them not merely purpose and focus, but courage as well.” Despite the tremendous pressure to give the Vietnam debacle a happy spin, Halberstam never caved, even when he became an enemy of the government for the honesty of his reporting.
In this day when an ancient country is being destroyed bomb by bomb, we need reporters like Halberstam to tell the real story. I hope our journalism schools produce them soon. And this last note by this great and important writer: “ For all of the difficulties, I am somewhat optimistic about the future. In my lifetime I have seen the resiliency of American democracy....What I’ve come to admire is the muscularity and flexibility of this society. What I trust is its common sense.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"May there only be peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Space ship Earth continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life." U Thant

The sky has an uncertain cast as if making up its mind whether to dump more rain down on us. Today another bombing in Iraq at a police station and the bodies and wounded keep piling up in that ravaged country. Today is also Earth Day. Begun in 1970 by activists and after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 inspiring generations of environmentalists, warning that the price paid for chemicals and pesticides, DDT in particular, comes at too high. Carson, a scientist, also wrote three books about the sea, always wanting to tell her readers about the wonders of the natural world and how everything is interconnected. DDT was eventually banned and her work led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I’m wondering if Carson, who was widely criticized for taking on the chemical industry during her lifetime, would be disappointed if she were alive to today to witness the warming oceans, the melting ice caps, and how the Bush administration has been trying to destroy or turn back the clock on environmental protections.

But this is a good day to remember how writers are important in protecting the earth and all its species and children. Here is an excerpt from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder:

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature -- why, I don't even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused -- a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love -- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

From The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel L. Carson, copyright 1956.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The morning sky is a washed gray and the forecast calls for more rain. Last night I wore my winter jacket while out walking, strolling past the lilacs and dogwoods and new blooms. For the past few days I’ve been listening to the news about the shootings at Virginia Tech. It certainly is an unthinkable tragedy, losses so absurd and unnecessary and cruel, the whole event shakes you to your core.

I heard some of the students talking about what has happened to their sense of safety. How they thought the small college town of Blacksburg was one of the safest places in the world. As writers we know that disturbing our reader’s sense of safety is often necessary to tell a riveting story. In the real world, however, it makes us too vulnerable and frightened. But think about how this tragedy has shaken you, then transport yourself to Baghdad where every day there are dead bodies, most of them mutilated, many of them tortured before they mercifully died. Or else killed in senseless bombings in markets and buses and even in the Green Zone. Today more than 115 people were killed in a series of bombings. More than 6,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers have died in the past four years and the numbers vary of how many Iraqi civilians are dead—the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. So, yes, these deaths at Virginia Tech break our hearts, but imagine this as a daily occurrence. Imagine living in a country with no safe places.

Yesterday I was listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation show and Walter Mosley was a guest talking about his new book, This Year You Write Your Novel. Mosley is the author of the Easy Rawlin series and other books and says it covers "everything I know about novel writing in less than 25,000 words." I haven’t read the book yet, but was warmly surprised at Mosley’s insights and his answers to the writers who called into the show. I agreed with his comments about making some of the dialogue and actions pedestrian, because readers are looking for themselves in fiction. Mosley also talked about writing in scenes, how fiction must be physical and how the psyche is more emotional than intellectual. But I especially liked his advice to write every day, and how he repeated it again and again. Here is an excerpt from his book:

writing every day

The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day—every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time when you do your best work.

There are two reasons for this rule: getting the work done and connecting with your unconscious mind.

If you want to finish this novel of yours within a year, you have to get to work! There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no time to wait for inspiration. Getting your words down on the page takes time. How much? I write three hours every morning. It’s the first thing I do, Monday through Sunday, fifty-two weeks a year. Some days I miss but rarely does this happen more than once a month. Writing is a serious enterprise that takes a certain amount of constancy and rigor.

But will and regularity are only the beginnings of the discipline and rewards that daily writing will mean for you.

The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity. What do I mean by this? I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, moods, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist’s ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some deep place within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write to begin with.

The way you get to this unconscious place is by writing every day. Or not even writing. Some days you may be rewriting, rereading, or just sitting there scrolling back and forth through the text. This is enough to bring you back into the dream of your story.

What, you ask, is the dream of a story? This is a mood and a continent of thought below your conscious mind—a place that you get closer to with each foray into the words and worlds of your novel.

You may have spent only an hour and a half working on the book, but the rest of the day will be rife with motive moments in your unconsciousness—moments in your mind, which will be mulling over the places your words have touched. While you sleep, mountains are moving deep within your psyche. When you wake up and return to the book, you will be amazed by the realization that you are further along than when you left off yesterday.

If you skip a day or more between your writing sessions, your mind will drift away from these deep moments of your story. You will find that you’ll have to slog back to a place that would have been easily attained if only you wrote every day.

Some days you will sit down and nothing will come—that’s all right. Some days you’ll wish you had given yourself more time—that’s okay too. You can always pick up tomorrow where you left off today.

In order to be a writer, you have to set up a daily routine. Put aside an amount of time (not less than an hour and a half) to sit with your computer or notebook. I know that this is difficult. Some of you live in tight spaces with loved ones. Some of you work so hard that you can’t see straight half the time. Some of you have little ones who might need your attention at any time of the day or night.

I wish I had the answers to these problems. I don’t. All I can tell you is that if you want to finish your novel this year, you have to write each and every day.© 2007 Walter Mosley

Monday, April 16, 2007

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closest but unused.
Ernest Hemmingway

The sky looks like a Renaissance painting this morning with sunlight diffusing the clouds as if a great being might appear or a magical creature might swoop down from the heavens, offering miracles. Protestors have dumped red dye into the Willamette River today –they’re carrying “no more blood for oil” signs and explaining that a quarter of every tax dollar we pay goes to fund the occupation in Iraq. Not to mention that we’re borrowing $1 billion a day to keep the government afloat. Today there was a moment of silence in Israel to pay respect to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Perhaps some day we can have a moment of silence to honor all the soldiers and Iraqi civilians, the women the children and shopkeepers and policemen who have been killed in this catastrophic and greed-based power grab.

On Saturday I taught a workshop on narrative nonfiction and wanted to pass along some of the narrative techniques we talked about. First, the terms creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction and narrative nonfiction are used interchangeably these days. Whatever you call it, this hybrid form of nonfiction, as opposed to reports or journalism, doesn’t just report facts, it delivers facts in ways that move the reader to a deeper understanding of a topic, often evoking emotions in the reader. Creative or narrative nonfiction might be a single essay or compilations of articles and essays and book-length memoirs. Narrative nonfiction goes beyond the expression of the self, it is a thoughtful search for truth, and is based on themes. The personal experiences should connect with readers, and usually include some kind of research. Narrative nonfiction also includes such fiction techniques as dialogue, description, viewpoint and character development to tell the story.

In writing narrative nonfiction a writer employs the analysis and diligence of a reporter, the voice and viewpoints of a novelist, and the imagery and wordplay of a poet The best narrative nonfiction embraces a larger audience and strikes a universal chord.

So here are techniques for making nonfiction as dynamic, involving and suspenseful as fiction.

1. Open with a hook and if possible open with some sort of motion if possible. While summary openings can work, remember that readers prefer to be witnesses, watch an action unfold in front of them. The beginning's job is to lure—you want to entice the reader into the story and then deliver on that enticement. At the same time you have some logistics to deal with, like introducing people, setting and possibly conflict.

2. Show, don’t tell by dramatizing whenever possible and summarizing and reporting only as necessary. The creative nonfiction writer aims to be an eyewitness on the scene. Writing in scenes in the cinematographer’s close up shot, summary, in contrast, summary is like a long shot or wide angle. Readers trust the close up more than the long shot.

Because scenes happen in the moment and unfold in front of the reader, they create worry and involvement. Scenes are the building blocks of stories, including nonfiction. A scene makes the past present and engages the senses, particularly when it includes conversation because sound focuses the reader’s attention. Scenes are involving because as in fiction they are built on a pattern of conflict and often include some form of emotional reversal. Scenes involve the reader’s emotions and he accepts the narrative information as true when it’s embedded in a scene. You can also slip in descriptions of people and setting amid conversations and actions.

As you’re creating a story, look for events and incidents with the most dramatic potential, the moments that most reveal people. Here are examples of moments that you’ll want to stage:

births showdowns deaths
flashbacks arguments hardships
triumphs disasters life reversals
beginnings failures turning points
decisions choices regrets
epiphanies realizations no- turning-back moments
endings losses lies
accidents violence meetings

3. Narrative nonfiction contains artful language. This vivid language uses potent verbs, unexpected images and word combinations and figurative language to tell true stories. Here is an example from George Plimpton’s Paper Lion: “I came off the bench slowly, working my fingers up into my helmet to get at my ears. As I crossed the sidelines I was conscious then only of moving into the massive attention of the crowd, but seeing ahead out of the opening of my helmet the two teams waiting. Some of the defense were already kneeling at the line of scrimmage, their heads turned so that helmeted, sliver, with the cages protruding they were made to seem animal and impersonal--wildlife of some large species disturbed at a waterhole—watching me come toward them.”

4. Embedded with realistic and powerful details. Details nail down the abstract and help readers conjure up his or her memories, and enable readers to understand new ideas. But the writer is always selective when choosing which details to use and which to leave out. Details should effect the outcome of the piece and make readers understand meaning and themes. We embed our writing with specific details because we want our words to enter the reader’s heart and mind, invade the senses, stir memories, and creep into his or her imagination. In Painted Paragraphs Donald Newlove writes, “Good description shakes us. It fills our lungs with the life of its author. Suddenly, he sings within us. Someone has seen life as we see it! And the voice that fills us, should the writer be dead, bridges the gulf between life and death. Great description is stronger than death.” If the selection of details is accurate and potent, the writer won’t need a lot of explanations to prove what he or she means. Excessive commentary can become intrusive and is a form to telling.

6. Often narrative nonfiction is based on a specific topic (such as the sort of books written by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder) or a person under close scrutiny. No matter if the topic, it always examines the private lives and realities of individuals. If you’re writing about nature or ecological disasters, the human intersection in these topics must also be present.

7. Bring people to life and make the reader feel as he is in the room using dialogue. People are most exposed and real when they’re talking. Readers lean in when a conversation happens, especially if it’s an argument, power exchange, or if underlined with subtext—the river of emotion that flows beneath scenes but cannot be expressed outright. Always pay close attention to what people say and how they say it. Notice regional and local variations of speech and idiom. If the person is a specialist or expert, such as a detective, athlete, scientist, use his jargon to show his specialized knowledge or skill.

8. The writer’s voice simmers behind and within the words and is memorable, distinctive and authentic. Voice is the writer’s breath of life. Lewis Lapham, editor of Harpers explains his position on voice: “On first opening a book I listen for the sound of the human voice. By this device I am absolved from reading much of what is published in a given year. Most writers make use of institutional codes (academic, literary, political, bureaucratic, technical), in which they send messages already deteriorating into the half-life of yesterday’s news. Their transmissions remain largely unintelligible, and unless I must decipher them for professional reasons, I am content to let them pass by. I listen, instead, for a voice in which I can hear the music of human improvisation as performed through 5,000 years on the stage of recorded time…..As a student, and later as an editor and occasional writer of reviews, I used to feel obligated to finish every book I began to read. This I no longer do. If within the first few pages I cannot hear the author’s voice….I abandon him at the first convenient opportunity.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The sky is overcast and I’m listening to Thom Hartmann’s show on Air America as I cruise through my morning projects. Earlier, on NPRs Morning Edition show they eulogized a 20-year old soldier who was killed in Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded on March 17. I listened to his friends, teachers and football coach remember him as a kid that no one can say a bad word about and wondered how many more beautiful men and women need to die so oil companies can keep making their billion dollar profits. Just follow the money and you’ll find our foreign policy. Perhaps if everyone who attended his funeral, listened to the NPR story, or read about him in newspaper accounts would write to their representatives, that sooner or later the people in Congress would truly take steps to end this occupation.

Aside from politics, I sent my editor at Writer’s Digest another chapter this morning about the match-up between villains and heroes. It was a fun chapter to write, particularly the section on nemesis characters. In the chapter I explained that heroes and villains bring a lot of sizzle to fiction and most often are found in genre fiction such as thrillers, romance, science fiction and fantasy.

I also discussed how while heroes have a number of attributes that set them apart from ordinary people and protagonists, that they are chiefly known by their sacrifices and the villain in the story they go toe to toe with. And the villain must be a perfect match for the hero. In fact, often for each of the hero’s main traits the villain will often posses its counter part. Which I believe makes this dynamic duo a lot of fun to write. In fact, if you’re a visual or highly analytical type, you might want to create a chart of this match up. When you’re plotting a story you might also want to first create a villain, imagining his or her agenda, then rest of the story including the protagonist might fall into place around the villain’s goals.

A few pointers on villains: Avoid having your villain make stupid mistakes in order for the hero to win. The climax will work better if the hero wins by overcoming a series of obstacles and his own inner struggle, not because of the villain’s screw ups. A villain needs to be multi-dimensional and motivated by the same drives, passions and emotions we all possess: greed, lust, power, love, hate, worry, etc. Instead of depicting a villain who is satanic psycho, consider the potency of a villainous character who is normal, or at least appears normal. The people who walk among us, living quietly in the suburbs or working as a clerk in the video store, hospital, or hotel, are especially creepy because they blend in, because they fool us with their supposed normalcy. So forget about the black-caped, mustached creep and think about how a mild-mannered type might be especially effective. Ordinary people who fall into evil can be much more interesting than obvious types—just think about Nazi Germany and how so many people were swept up in evil.

Give your villains lots of plots and plans, especially if you’re writing a thriller. Think about how Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger was out to rob Fort Knox. In a mainstream story a villain is often after power—think Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—although mainstream villains can have other motives. Because of their plans, heroes are often reacting to them. So imagine roles for your villain such as assassin or gun for hire. With this type, his acts will always be premeditated and he’ll always dehumanizes his victims. Or a villain might be a criminal mastermind. Again this means his crimes will be premeditated and he often has minions or a syndicate to help him achieve his aims. Generally this type is after power and riches and generally has a high IQ. Many villains are killers, but unlike most people, can often justify murder. This doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is psychotic, although some are aroused by victim’s terror and vulnerability. A serial killer is usually driven by psychotic impulses and often has a history or abuse or other damaging factors in childhood. Then sometimes good people can be bent on revenge and become villains because of the murder or damage to someone near him.

I am endlessly fascinated by how the people and situations that we avoid in real life make such compelling fiction.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The morning sky is finally appearing, a dusty, pale, blue-grey. I woke at 4:30 to the sounds of rain as soothing as a far-off train whistle. Sometimes like a train whistle, the rain before dawn sounds mournful and lonely.

I’d been dreaming about my friend Barbara who died a few months ago and she was showing me a manuscript of hers that someone had worked on after her death. And then as dreams do, it seemed like she had been the one working on the manuscript and interspersed in the pages were diagrams about the characters. As the dream continued I jumped off a ship and into the ocean. There were two other people in the water and I asked them the shallowest, safest route to shore. They told me that they were illegal immigrants and weren’t taking the safe route. Beneath the water was machinery parts and perhaps the hulk of a ship and I kept trying to swim away to deeper water. And the dream kept morphing and an old boyfriend from my twenties appeared and then I was in a house and people were zipping past in red and blue kayaks and I was almost safe, but surrounded by water. I mused for the longest time on the meaning of the dream and kept trying to see Barbara’s manuscript again, but the memory was too elusive.

Because April is Poetry Month last night I had good intensions of attending a poetry reading and perhaps popping into a gallery or two. But I was waiting for a delivery from Fed Ex and needed to stick around, so I started gardening. Yesterday the temperature rose to about 75 and it felt too warm, as if the oven was turned on a summer’s day. In the afternoon I was running errands and the check-out guy at Fred Meyers complained that he hated the weather, that he always preferred the rain. And as I left the store I kept thinking about him. He was about 25 and was wearing a gray, V-necked sweater over an Oxford shirt. And I was thinking that if he likes to dress in that fashion, he might particularly dislike a warm spring day. He also told me that he collects rare punk records. Finds most of them on E-Bay, collects only vinyl, and was recently outbid for a rare edition when the price went to over $2500. And I asked him how he could afford his collection on his wages. [I tend to ask people, especially strangers questions that most people with better manners would keep to themselves] But he answered cheerfully that he saves his money and from time to time makes a killing on selling a record.

So I left the store with my groceries musing about people and their collections and eccentricities and tastes in weather. I was still thinking about this while I gardened, planting mostly fuchsias and geraniums that I bought a week ago and tidying up flower beds and planters, taking stock of where I’m going to fill in with new flowers and ferns.

By the time the Fed Ex truck pulled up it was 6:30 and I was dirty and sweaty and decided to abandon my arty plans and kept gardening until about 8, when I went for a walk, noticing the clouds rolling in while following the songs of birds in their evening rhapsody.

In honor of Poetry Month, here is a poem copied from Poets.org—a terrific site and another from Ted Kooser’s site at AmericanLifeinPoetry.org a site he started about poetry to make it more accessible. Kooser is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and you might also want to check out

American Life in Poetry: Column 106

By describing the relocation of the moles which ravaged her yard, Washington poet Judith Kitchen presents an experience that resonates beyond the simple details, and suggests that children can learn important lessons through observation of the natural world.

Catching the Moles

First we tamp down the ridges
that criss-cross the yard

then wait for the ground
to move again.

I hold the shoe box,
you, the trowel.

When I give you the signal
you dig in behind

and flip forward.
Out he pops into daylight,

blind velvet.

We nudge him into the box,
carry him down the hill.

Four times we've done it.
The children worry.

Have we let them all go
at the very same spot?

Will they find each other?
We can't be sure ourselves,

only just beginning to learn
the fragile rules of uprooting.

Poem copyright © 1986 by Judith Kitchen, whose most recent book is the novel, "The House on Eccles Road," Graywolf Press, 2004. Reprinted from "Perennials," Anhinga Press, 1986, with permission of the author. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.


by Ted Kooser

Slap of the screen door, flat knock
of my grandmother's boxy black shoes
on the wooden stoop, the hush and sweep 
of her knob-kneed, cotton-aproned stride
out to the edge and then, toed in
with a furious twist and heave, 
a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands
and hangs there shining for fifty years
over the mystified chickens, 
over the swaying nettles, the ragweed,
the clay slope down to the creek, 
over the redwing blackbirds in the tops
of the willows, a glorious rainbow
with an empty dishpan swinging at one end.

From Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser. Copyright 2004 Ted Kooser

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The morning sky is pale as baby blanket, and the weather prognosticators are promising balmy temperatures and soft blooming spring glories. It’s my brother’s birthday and since he’s living in South Korea I sent long-distance wishes and memories from our childhood.

Yesterday, I was out of sorts—not feeling well, my sinuses aching, allergies making me bleary-eyed and bitchy, ready to ditch my life for just about any career that didn’t involve riding a horse, not making great strides in my writing and fretting about editing projects. So after stops and starts and another long and pitiful gaze at my to-do list, I took off on a field trip in the neighborhood. A downtown bookstore that has been around 30 years has reopened nearby in a charming red caboose—yes, it’s a real caboose—and I spent a lovely time forgetting my little dramas and aches and pains and browsed to my heart’s content. Almost bought a Pete Dexter or two, since I’ve never read him, but set them aside (my book expenditures have been steep lately as I keep searching for examples for my bad guys book) and came away with the book my book group is reading next, The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s been in print and translated into English for awhile and the accolades in the front run on for several pages and are printed in tiny font but the gist is that Spanish-born Zafon is Gabriel Garcia Maquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges. Critics are using words like dazzling and magical and wondrous….

It’s a nice thick novel, about 500 pages in paperback and includes a walking map of places in Barcelona mentioned in the book. So because I’m hoping this book is going to be delicious, I checked out the publisher’s web site and here is what Penguin, the American publisher describes the story: “Barcelona, 1945—just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly…..”

What I love about these opening pages is that I’m immediately transported to another time, another place, Barcelona, more than 60 years ago. And here is the opening, a prologue of sorts that I found enticing: “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.
“Daniel, you musn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see today,” my father warned. “Not even your friend Tomas. No one.”
“Not even Mommy?"
My father sighed, hiding behind the sad smile that followed him like a shadow through life.
“Of course you can tell her,” he answered, heavy hearted. “We keep no secrets from her. You can tell her everything.”
Shortly after the Civil War, an outbreak of cholera had taken my mother away. We buried her in Montjuci on my fourth birthday. I can only recall that it rained all day and all night, and that when I asked my father whether heaven was crying, he couldn’t bring himself to reply. Six years later my mother’s absence remained in the air around us, a deafening silence that I had not yet learned to stifle with words. My father and I lived in a modest apartment on Calle Santa Ana, a stone’s throw from the church square. The apartment was directly about the bookshop, a legacy from my grandfather that specialized in rare collector’s editions and secondhand books—an enchanted bazaar, which my father hoped would one day be mine. I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dist and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. As a child I learned to fall asleep talking to my mother in the darkness of my bedroom, telling her about the day’s events, my adventures at school, and the things I had been taught. I couldn’t hear her voice or feel her touch, but her radiance and her warmth haunted every corner of our home, and I believed, with the innocence of those who can still count their age on their ten fingers, that if I closed my eyes and spoke to her, she would be able to hear me wherever she was. Sometimes my father would listen to me from the dining room, crying in silence.”

I’ll keep you posted—if you’ve read it, write to me.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Fog has rolled in blanketing this place so it looks like the backdrop for a Halloween movie. Some of the trees are still bare so they especially look ghostly and stark and lonely.

Last year when I was at the B.E.A. I picked up a copy of Charlie Huston’s second book, Six Bad Things. I’ve been combing through my personal library for examples of characters I can use in a chapter on Dark Heroes. They are a subset of anti-heroes and I’m especially looking for characters whose lives took a dramatic turn that changed their morality. And Huston’s character, Hank Thompson fits the bill. Also, it was just so much fun to read, I ordered his first book Caught Stealing. If you like Hitchcock movies, especially movies like North by Northwest where an innocent man is plucked out of his ordinary life and thrust into a mystery or crime, you’ll love the storyline. And if you liked The Departed and Pulp Fiction, you’ll love Huston’s bad ass, perfect pitch writing.

The protagonist, Hank Thompson falls into a mess of trouble when his across-the-hall neighbor asks him to watch his cat while he goes out of town. Next thing you know two thugs walk into the bar where Hank works and beat him so badly he loses a kidney. Thinks rapidly heat up and he’s soon chased by a crooked cop, a pair of thieves, and the Russian mob. By the end of the first book bodies are littered everywhere and there is a huge price on his head. Trouble is, he was a decent guy before it all happened, even though he’s had bad luck in the past. And all though the books are spare, and are as violent and gritty as they come, I believed every word, heard every dialogue exchange in my head, saw every scene unfold on the inner cinema inside my head.

Which brings me to a television show I watched on Friday night—PBS’ Hollywood Presents. The show described the work of production designers and their role in film. Essentially they are artists responsible for the overall look and emotion of the film (or television show, or theater production). The designer who created American Beauty was interviewed, describing the effects she was going after using the color red. Notable designers such as William Cameron Menzies, of Gone With the Wind, Van Nest Polglase, of Citizen Kane and Dean Tavoulavis of The Godfather were also introduced. Other film examples that were used were Chinatown, North by Northwest and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

The PD is involved with a film in all phases of production, working in close collaboration with the director and director of photography to create the film’s look and feel by choosing the colors, shapes, and compositions for each shot. And it seems to me that they contribute to the overall effectiveness of the story more than any other person involved in the film. Because they create the icons of our culture and are the architects of our dreams.

Here is the blurb from PBS Hollywood Presents series: “A good production designer is a builder of worlds, part architect, part model maker, part painter. He or she is responsible for pretty much everything (apart from the actors) that is placed in front of the camera during the production of a feature film, for the color, size, texture and shape of anything the camera sees. He is generally one of the first major collaborators hired by the director, and in early production meetings with the director of photography he begins to get a sense of the props, furniture, and background architecture called for in each scene, and of how each sequence will be photographed. The models and concept drawings created by the production designer can be enormously helpful to the director and the DP when they are drawing up lists of shots. The craftsmen who report directly to the production designer include the set decorator, the head carpenter, and the property master, but his overall visual concept also guides the contributions of nominally independent department heads such as the costume designer, the location manager, and the makeup artist.”

When I work with authors or teach workshops, I’m always talking about using setting to convey mood and emotion. To use setting in the way that films do. Production designers use color, texture, and line. In the program they showed the famous scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s a flat landscape, dissected by a road and fence and the flatness and emptiness emphasize his vulnerability. In Chinatown the PD was not only striving to create an authentic world of L.A. in the 1930s but he’s also conveying the draught that’s going on. So the colors of the interiors and exteriors are pale and shades of burned grass, dead leaves and umber. The Godfather has beautiful sepia tints that have become iconic.

So when you write fiction you’re a storyteller, but you’re also a production designer. You write your observations of human behavior and the frailties of the human heart. But in each scene you’re also convincing the reader of a reality, a place of light and shadow, mystery or emptiness or grandeur. You’re creating the emotional surfaces of the story and tension of the moment.