"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, March 31, 2010

Writing Prompt:
More gloomy skies and rain in valley, and there has been piles of new snow in the mountains so the skiers and snow boarders are happy.

If you’re trying to get a novel or memoir published, you’ll likely spend the most time fine-tuning your first fifty pages because you’ll be showing these pages to editors and agents, and your story lives and dies on their strengths and weaknesses. So let’s talk a bit about openings---since your beginning must lure readers into lives and into a world that is as palpable as the real world.

The key to writing openings is to focus on immediacy and to reveal at least one character stressed out by some change of circumstances. Generally backstory is a minimum; because you need to get the story moving thus police blotter descriptions of characters; backward glances at the protagonist’s childhood and musings about the history of the place slow the opening . So jump in and get the story firmly rolling along, employing backstory after the story question is raised and the protagonist has established his first goal.

The first fifty pages are densely packed, introduce people and a world, and are where the first intricate pieces of a puzzle are set in place and the first plot point occurs. Every element must establish the writer’s credibility, push the story forward, introduce conflict, and propel the reader into a complicated and believable world. So with all this going on, there is often room for large amounts of backstory, because the onward progression demands most of the words be lavished on it.
Here’s a brief checklist of what the first fifty pages contain:
  • language that entices the reader to keep turning pages
  • establish the main characters
  • depict at least one character under stress 
  • ground the readers in time and place 
  • introduce the story question introduce 
  • set in motion the central conflict 
  • establish the cauldron, meaning that the place or situation for gluing the characters together as the conflict boils over
  • insert the first plot point
Once you have all those elements nailed down, then you can allocate space for backstory. Now, some days it seems that there are as many story structures as there are stones in the Great Wall of China. You can walk to your own bookshelves and find books written by best-selling authors that sneak in backstory fairly early. But if you look closely, you’ll note that some device has created a hook, a question, a hint of conflict, or a twinge of sympathy or worry for the protagonist in the opening pages. Some stories will open with a whopping dose of tension and unease as in Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth, others, particularly mainstream novels, will start off in a more low-key manner. But don’t use another author’s structure as an excuse or justification to use unnecessary backstory.

This can be accomplished by making it a kind of ultra-condensed piece of information. Take the beginning of Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: None of them knew the color of the sky.

Jhumpa Lahiri's A Temporary Matter starts like this: The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight p.m. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three years. "It's good of them to warn us," Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar's. She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with files, slip from her shoulder and left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen. She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she'd once claimed she would never resemble.

Isn't that last sentence a clincher? Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep fixing those first pages.

Monday, March 29, 2010

David Mamet
The sky is many shades of gray and it's been raining on and off, the whole place sopping and strewn with puddles. It reminds me of how when Lewis and Clark spent a winter at the Oregon coast that members of the group developed toe rot and all the rain drove them round the bend.

Here's a link to an interesting memo sent by David Mamet to the writers who worked for a canceled show called The Unit. It includes this:

Not sure why Mamet is writing in all caps, but the information is great . Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

TIP of the day:
Plots don't typically happen to normal people. Or, if you plan on basing your story around an Everyman or Everywoman character, then extraordinary events must make them vulnerable. And, of course, your character is fascinating. Writing is about the writer moving out of his or her comfort zone, and in the case of writing fiction, moving characters out of their comfort zones also. Take risks, plunge your poor protagonists into vats of trouble.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“Writing a novel is like opening up an imaginary hotel for the phantoms of your subconscious. You cannot be guaranteed that guests will turn up on any given night, but you need to have the light on and the door open just in case.” ~ Dermot Bolger

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Let us think of the still nameless poets, still nameless writers, who should be brought together and kept together. I am sure it is our duty to help these future benefactors to attain that final discovery of themselves which makes for great literature. Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines. Were it not for this deep inner feeling, literature would be no more than a game, and we all know that it can be much more than that." ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blue skies this morning and the neighborhood is filled with noisy trucks and crews lopping off the tops of trees so they don't interfere with utility lines. A big congratulations to Sherman Alexie for winning the 2010 Pen Faulkner Award for War Dances. War Dances has short stories interspersed with poems. It seems to me that Alexie serves as a good model for taking risks as a writer (his most recent book was a novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian ) and for staying true to his voice and roots. Also, if you haven't seen the film Smoke Signals based on one of Alexie's novels, you're missing out. Keep writing, keep dreaming, stay true to your vision.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Sit in a room and read—and read and read. And read the right books by the right people….When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-andso did”—and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such a poem—but he hasn’t said anything to you."~ Joseph Campbell,  The Power of Myth

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tell Me a Story

Storytelling often begins with a life closely observed, and might relate experiences known or understood by ordinary people or the storyteller might weave a tale of fantastical happenings. As in storytelling of old, there is a ritual for beginning—the “once upon a time” or “a long, long time ago” when the world was full of wonders. The opening of a story is a moment of change and it signals the listener that we are entering into dreamtime, or a place where anything, including magic, might happen.

As when storytelling was an oral tradition, pay attention to the role of your listener, your active participant in the story. The listener’s or reader’s mind is the canvas on which the story is painted. Understand the parts of storytelling such as how themes connect the parts of a story and use a style that includes vivid word pictures and pleasing sounds and rhythms. Find moments where you can draw readers close into a moment for the dramatic appeal and always, always make your listeners or readers worry about the outcome.

But mostly remember that you’re a storyteller foremost.

Remember that storytelling is a need for connection and understanding so deep even whales partake. It is a fundamental communication like lullabies. In stories we try to understand the human heart.

So tell stories because you love Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Jane Austen or Edgar Alan Poe or Margaret Atwood. Tell stories because you cannot hum the tunes of your heart and lullabies are not always appropriate and you’re not yet able to dance a tale.
Tell stories because silence affords only so much comfort. Tell stories because it is the opposite of war. Tell stories because your cat doesn’t understand English and your dog has a limited vocabulary. Tell stories because you don’t own a movie camera.  Tell stories because it’s the only way you know to contain whimsy. Tell stories because you remember the way things used to be. Tell stories because you cannot know the future. Tell a story because you can only stare off into space so long before you need to talk about the ideas that alight, struggling toward some kind of meaning. Tell a story because your heart has been broken or because you’ve wept for joy. Tell stories because childhood was such a huge place. Tell stories because you have stood at a river’s bank, an ocean shore, a quiet lake at dawn. Tell stories because you’ll never again experience your first kiss or taste of champagne. Tell stories because you love casting metaphors. Tell stories because you’ll likely never get a chance to name a species in Latin. Tell stories because the particular slant of light slipping in the window right now will soon disappear. Tell stories because in real life you’ll rarely hear “Encore!” or enough whispered endearments.

Tell stories because they are like a match to kindling on a winter night.Tell stories remembering that a reader wants to be swept away into a world far from his own. As you settle back, about to begin imagine that the moon has taken up residence in your heart. Imagine your reader as hungry for meaning and intricacy and searing truth. Or imagine your reader in a windowless place small as a prison. He wants mischief, humor, and a deeply emphatic understanding of humankind.Tell stories like he or she is a tired traveler arriving at your door at dusk, needing a place near the fire, the solace of a story. The rain is drumming on the roof and the shadows are violet and black. “Come in,” you say reaching for the teapot or brandy. “I’ve got a story for you.”
Winner of 3 Minute Fiction
Sky is mixed hues with blue coming through and the rains have stopped.
The winner of NPR's third 3-Minute Fiction is Please Read by Rhonda Strickland. When you connect to the link you can also view the picture that inspired the story. Next week they'll be announcing round four of the contest and the judge is Ann Patchett. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

To get published you have to do what every writer in history has done. You have to sit for thousands of hours and hundreds of days in solitude. You have to read and write on a daily basis. You have to be utterly vulnerable on the page, and utterly ruthless in revision. To something you have to want it so bad nothing else matters. ~ Chris Offutt
Dusty-looking skies this morning and rain is predicted. I’m sipping my first cup of Early Grey tea, such a lovely morning ritual, and reviewing at my to-do list to clarify what needs to be accomplished first.

Awhile ago I was working on an editing project for a client—I don’t want to mention any details about the project because I want to protect her identity. As I read her manuscript it was clear that she was a beginning writer. She’d paid little attention to the basics of forming beautiful sentences such as using the active voice or vivid verbs or figurative language. But the story didn’t simply have a language problem, it revealed that she didn’t have a firm understanding of many techniques needed to write a book. Such as story comes first. Voice is your signature. Write for a reader, not yourself. Leave out the boring parts. Don’t repeat. Create layers in your writing.

Yet this person had quit her job intending to become a full-time writer. And this is when I became worried about her. Now, there are no magic formulas for the writing life, no road maps that will transport you from the Land of No to the Land of Published Author. Man, I wish there was because I’d sit on a corner outside of Powells in Portland and sell these maps, the way hawkers sell the map to the stars’ homes in Hollywood. Or maybe it’s Brentwood and Beverly Hills,

But if you plan on being a published writer plan on investing in your career with more ferocity and logic than you apply to other parts of life. And plan in putting in a long, unpaid apprenticeship. During this apprenticeship you’ll be experimenting, learning forms such as the novel and short story form, creating snappy, believable dialogue, and finding perfect details that bring a scene to life. You’ll study published authors, you’ll learn the basics of the publishing industry, but mostly you’ll sit at your computer day after day, getting it right.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Happy Spring!

More blue skies in Portland along with warm temperatures. Here's a photo from local photographer William Burge. It was snapped on the Waihee Ridge Trail in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Friday, March 19, 2010

So you want to study writing? What should you do? Write. Read the masters. Read the poets. Be patient; time is nothing. Study. Listen. Allow yourself to fail and to learn the lessons your own failure affords you. ~ Thomas Kennedy
I See You Everywhere

Pale blue skies again today and spring is rioting in the streets here--flowers popping up everywhere, soft temperatures, and a sweet sense of newness. In the past week I had a cold that morphed into a bad cough and bronchial infection so I spent a lot of time in bed reading. I finished Mait Haig's book (and lost faith with him along the way) and then turned to Julia Glass' I See You Everywhere and The Whole World Over. And by the time I finished reading her books, I was sort of wishing I wasn't an editor. I just wanted to sit back and read uncritically, without noticing slip ups and inconsistencies. Because, of course, I spotted some. But mostly I can recommend these books and I find that Glass has an intriguing take on life and creates vivid casts of characters in her stories.

At powells.com Glass described her second book:
"The Whole World Over is, like so many other novels (certainly the ones I love best), about the search for true love among people old enough to know just how hard and devilish a journey it is — yet human enough to fall victim to their vanities, passions, and tenacious longings for the one true soul mate, the perfect family, the happy home. From a less lofty angle, it's the story of four characters and their intertwining lives: Greenie, a pastry chef and devoted mother; her husband, Alan, a psychotherapist facing midlife reckonings; Walter, a gregarious restaurateur in love with an unattainable man; and Saga, a young woman whose life was derailed by a severe injury and who, for the time being, finds her purpose in rescuing and caring for animals. What happens? Well, I like to say that The Whole World Over is a variation on that classic set-up, "A stranger comes to town." In this case the stranger — the governor of New Mexico — comes to town and orders dessert: a piece of cake made by Greenie, in Walter's Greenwich Village pub. He meets Greenie and offers her a job out west; impulsively, she accepts it, taking along her young son and setting in motion a series of events, encounters, and decisions that ultimately bring the four characters together in a moment of common crisis. And the rumor is true: Fenno McLeod, the hero of my novel Three Junes, is back, on the sidelines, yet his quiet presence also plays a crucial role in the fate of more than one of these people. I was surprised when he showed up; such surprises, I find, are one of the greatest rewards of writing fiction. Another is hearing what readers see in the lives I've created: there, too, I am often delightfully surprised."

And here is the opening paragraph of I See You Everywhere---it's just the sort of tease that invites a reader into a story: "I avoid reunions. I'm not a rebel, a recluse, or a sociopath, and I'm too young to qualify as a crank, even if it's true that I just spent the evening of my twenty-fifth birthday not carousing with friends or drinking champagne at a candlelit table for two but resolutely alone and working, glazing a large ovoid porcelain blow while listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing songs by the Gershwin brothers. (A crank would never love Gershwin.) My one real boyfriend in college, just before we broke up, told me I'm nostalgic to a fault. He professed contempt for what he called "the delusional sound track to our parents' deluded lives." He informed me that you can't be nostalgic for things that had their heydey before you were so much as born. Just about any  member of my family would have laughed him out the door and down the garden path. " 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiction critique opening....
Folks I have an opening in my upcoming fiction critique group.
The session begins on April 7th, and runs for 8 weeks in northwest Portland. Times are 12:30-4.  Cost is $270, and group is limited to five writers. This group is for people serious about writing and becoming published,  and able to participate in collaborative sessions. Contact me at jessicapage at spiritone dot com.
Power Writing, a workshop with Jessica Morrell

Date: Saturday, April 3
Location: 1241 N. W. Johnson (Pacific Northwest College of Art room 138)
Hours: 9:30-4:30
Cost: $75
Powerful writing simmers, brims, sweats on the page and slips into the reader’s brain, senses and emotions with a compelling vibrancy. Yet, writers often incorrectly assume that editors make decisions about buying or not buying a writer’s work based on the concept or subject. In truth many editors decide if writing is marketable based on the precision and specificity of language and descriptions, on voice, and overall writing style. In fact, your skill level is often broadcast within your first few sentences. With this in mind, Power Writing is a workshop that gives you an advantage in the increasingly competitive marketplace. This session explains how to create writing that is sensory and grounded while using sounds and specific language to communicate meaning. By using precise images and information and working with sounds and rhythms of language, we impart force, and leave a lasting impression. The session will include writing exercises, examples and extensive materials.
Session topics include:
 How to write descriptions based on sensory data.
 How voice is used and enhanced in fiction and nonfiction.
 How high-energy verbs are the engine that powers sentences.
 How to murder your darlings, especially excess modifiers.
 How figurative devices deepen prose and add music to writing.
 How to use word grenades, sound bursts, and wake up images for punchier prose.
 When to employ subtlety and subtext and when not to.
 Why and how we use alliteration, onomatopoeic, sentence fragments and run-ons, and parallelism.

Could I put those starry deeps and lamplighted elms into words that sang like the night wind now rinsing my senses and shivering the spring leaves?” Donald Newlove 50

Jessica Morrell is the author of Writing Out the Storm; Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing; Voices From the Street, The Writer’s I Ching and Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction and Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected. She has been teaching writers since 1991 and you’ll learn more than you thought possible in her workshops and sessions.

To reserve your place: Please send a check for $75 to Jessica Morrell, P.O. Box 820141, Portland, OR 97282-1141. A confirmation e-mail will be sent so please include email address and phone number. For more information: contact Jessica at jessicapage@spiritone.com
"Perhaps the questioner is more than just curious, yearning for a jealously kept prescription on how to be a writer. There is none. Writing is the one "profession" for which there is no professional training: Creative writing courses can teach the aspirant only to look at her or his writing critically, not how to create. The only school for a writer is the library - reading, reading. A journey through realms of how far, wide and deep writing can venture in the endless perspectives of human life. Learning from other writers' perceptions that you have to find your way to yours, at the urge of the most powerful sense of yourself - creativity. Apart from that, you're on your own." ~ Nadine Gordimer

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

  • Writing Prompts
  •    Write about a wedding where the attendees are unhappy with the union.
  •    Write about a wedding where the attendees are thrilled about the marriage.
  •    Write a scene or story about someone who is emotionally needy or clingy.
  •    Write a story or scene where a third party tries to break up a relationship.
  •    Write a scene where trees, plants or flowers play a prominent role.
  •    Write about a person or character who has problems sleeping.
  •    Write about a character or person who seems to have lousy luck.
  •    Write about a person or character who has terrible personal grooming.
  •    Write about how the heady scent of night-blooming jasmine causes a woman  to lose her self control.
  • Write about an elderly man or woman bitter with life’s regrets.
  • Write about a picnic for people on an extremely restricted diet.
  • Describe a crime scene, teeming with experts and a corpse as it centerpiece.
  • Create a story about a newlywed caught committing adultery.
  • Create a story when a performance is interrupted by an audience member’s h   heart attack. Write about a nuclear plant with mechanical problems.
  •  Base a story on invitation to a high school reunion.
  • Shape a story around a mountain climbing team that is running out of supplies a and realizes that they cannot make it down the mountain before nightfall.
  • Create a scene where an athlete denies a drug scandal.
  • Create a scene in a crowded elevator that comes to a sudden halt.
  • S Shape a story around a woman who carries home eight romance novels from  h her local library.
  • Write about a group of bird watchers in the rain making an unusual discovery.
  • Write about what happens when a foot of rain falls in 24 hours.
  • Write about a child discovers that there is no Santa Claus.
  • Write about a person obsessed about uncovering the truth.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Another Blueprint for the Writing Life
Cirrus clouds wispy across the sky this morning and I've got a pile of email correspondence to catch up on. I want to pass along a blueprint for the writing life that I wrote in in 2005. My blueprint changes from year to year, but I’m always striving to not be tossed away by churning emotions or the events of life so that the writing comes first. I work to settle at my desk every morning feeling rested and clear. What I know is this: I am writing and learning more at this point in my life than I ever imagined, and daily add to my knowledge about storytelling in all its forms. So here is my blueprint—it’s not particularly original, but it works for me, so I’ll pass it along.
Face your fears. Most people are afraid of some aspect of writing. Fear is okay, it’s how you face it that shapes your life.
Pay attention to the words and joys of small children.
Walk through your days and nights with deep awareness, noticing, always noticing.
Take a writer’s notebook with you everywhere and use it to collect all you see and hear and smell and taste.
Take risks with projects, characters, sentences.
Have two or three projects in the works at all times, so if one bogs down you can slip into another project.
Read like a writer, always analyzing how an author has worked his or her magic on the page.
Tap into your dream life for images, metaphors, drama, the hidden aspects of self, and proof that you have a limitless imagination. Dreams are best captured by keeping a dream journal. Linda Seger, author and Hollywood guru suggests that you open your dream journal each night and date it for the next morning.
Use your writing to bring meaning into your life, introspection into your days, and to leave your footprints in the world.
Write your first draft as fast as you can and as soon as you can after the inspiration strikes.
Create a system for editing and rewriting.
Find other writers for camaraderie, inspiration and support. If they don’t provide this, dump them and find other writers who do.
Use potent verbs.
Use mostly words of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Write for all the senses.
Avoid adverbs and be able to justify every modifier on your pages. 
If you have a blueprint that works for you, please pass it along. Meanwhile, good writing and don’t be tossed away.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Henry Miller's Blueprint

Then there is Henry Miller, another Beat Generation author of Tropic of Cancer and other daring tombs, some considered scandalous. He once said: “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, to discover what is already there.”
Miller composed a work schedule for 1932-1933 from Henry Miller Miscellanea found in Henry Miller On Writing.
Work on one thing at a time until it is finished.
Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
When you can’t create you can work.
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
Don’t be a drought-horse! Work with pleasure only.
Discard the Program if you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come after.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The morning sky has blue appearing. My allergies have been so severe lately I'm not feeling tempted to venture outdoors, but I just might change my mind if the sky keeps changing. When I write books or teach workshops I like to use terms that convey the practical, working parts of the writing life. I like to dissect stories of all kinds and reveal the skeleton and innards to writers. And I love the term blueprint. It has such a solid ring since it is a map of an architectural or engineering design. So I'm going to run some blueprints from authors and myself that can reveal ideas that just might make writing easier.

I meet lots of writers and have noticed how often that they appear bedeviled by all the rules that confront them, how they’re looking for definitive answers. It’s so easy to become confused and be thrown off course in the writing life. It’s so easy to give up or not even begin at all. One answer is to create a blueprint for writing and living that keeps you balanced and steady, like the captain at the helm of boat on stormy seas.
Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.
Submissive to everything, open, listening
Believe in the holy center of life
Be in love with your life
The jewel center of life interest is the eye within the eye
Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
Blow as deep as you want to blow
Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
The unspeakable visions of the individual
Something that you feel will find its own form
Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
Write what you want from bottom of the mind
Write for the world to read and see yr exact picture of it
Accept loss forever

Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wish I'd Written That
I woke this morning to the sounds of rain and wind lashing the roof and windows and the world is a burnished silver. I've only got the final pages of Matt Haig's The Possession of Mr. Cave to read and I've been musing about the book and Haig's themes. Like The Dead Father's Club, this book is about grief and a ghost has a role in this story and the shaky line that separates madness and delusion, concern and obsession is being portrayed. And as I read along, I kept finding words, phrases, and paragraphs that I was just plain envious of. Now, I love to pause while reading to admire beautiful prose as long as the writer doesn't get carried away.  When a writer goes overboard it feels like I'm on a museum tour, or that the author has decorated the house of his novel with frescoed ceilings and way too many trappings and I'm tiptoeing along since I don't want to topple rare 16h century statuary. So no, don't give me overdone, but give me beauty along the way.

In a scene Terrence Cave follows his daughter into a raucous nightclub: "It was like walking into a panic attack. No, that makes it sound too cosy. It was like walking into someone else's panic attack, someone I didn't know and didn't want to. Someone closing their eyes on a railway platform at a quarter past midnight, debating whether to end it all under the next freight train that passes through."

He muses about grief: "My experience of grief has never been that of intense sadness, as people often claim to feel. Sadness slows things down, presses you into the sofa and drags out the day. Grief doesn't do that. Grief throws you out of a plane. Grief is terror, in its most undiluted form. The moment in the fall when you realize the parachute is not on your back. You pull the cord, but there is nothing. You keep pulling and pulling, and you know it is no good, but you can't stop because that would mean accepting the rather appalling fact of the ground, a fact that is moving at an impossible speed towards you, and that will smash you to pieces. And you want to stay whole, unbroken. But there you are, falling, and there is nothing you can do except keep believing in that parachute."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

If not in hope of beauty laid bare

"Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed ? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show."
~ Annie Dillard

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"So you think that you're a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? In the first place, if you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free." ~ Tom Robbins

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Open Water
I received an email from a writer yesterday. Last year she'd been diagnosed with cancer and was successfully treated. But lately she's finding herself both blocked in her writing and feeling weepy --the emotional fallout from all she went through in the previous months. She discovered that she needed to give herself permission to NOT write for awhile. Thinking about her situation, I told her I'd post this column I wrote in September of 2005. I'd been working on three books, usually writing two at the same time, plus teaching and editing. I was burned out, I was toast. And then I headed to the Oregon coast for my annual week of downtime. And this is the column that resulted:

In the middle of August I headed to the Oregon coast for a week’s vacation. By the time I left town I was stressed and exhausted from too much work, too little sleep, and impending deadlines. My body ached, my brain ached, and I had been whining to any poor soul who listened to me.

Portland was sweltering as I packed up the car and every trip in and out of the house and up and down the stairs and while soaking plants and flower beds made me feel like I’d never cool off. Finally we drove west, the air conditioning blasting and my nerves like taut steel, the curves and switchbacks of the Coastal Range seeming like I was biking on the Tour de France. Then, finally as we approached the Pacific and with the comforting sight of mist rolling off the ocean among cliffs on 101, something inside of me started to melt. We arrived a the beach house, a place called Honeysuckle Cottage, and after a simple dinner and wine on the deck and a walk along the cooling waves, I tumbled into bed by nine with the windows open and the roar of the surf a soothing lullaby.

I woke that morning from a long sleep and a long dream and sat at the old kitchen table covered in blue and white checked oilcloth, and sipped cinnamon tea while I wrote down my dream, the Pacific wide and blue and endless before me. Then I wrote some more. It felt so good to simply be playing with words, jotting down pieces not associated with any of the books I’m currently working on. And for the first time in weeks I felt calm and hopeful.

Here’s the outline of the dream I wrote down. But first a caveat: for years now I’ve been warning students and clients about using dreams in their novels and stories. Explaining that while the world of the dream seems so magical and fascinating to the dreamer, it is rarely so to the person reading about the dream. So please bear with me, because this dream is about writing and how we need to spend time doing nothing so that we can hear the words amid our lives, and how I wasn’t following my own advice; but the dream gave me the message I needed to hear, and makes me wonder what your dreams are telling you.

In my dream I was seated in a room interviewing Oprah Winfrey who was divulging secrets and scoops that would translate into screaming tabloid headlines. She had just adopted five (5!) babies and toddlers, had bought another house in and was in the process of transforming her life and priorities. In my dream Oprah was wearing a purple, sleeveless, knit dress and it revealed that she had become bony and dangerously anorexic, her arms spindly, her shoulders and collarbone protruding knobs—a disturbing sight.

But here’s the rub: as I was chatting away with Oprah [in a beautiful, opulent hotel suite], I began to realize that I was completely unprepared for the interview since I had no pen, paper, or tape recorder. I started worrying how I was going to remember her words, but we kept talking, my mind working at a furious pace, trying to figure out how to capture the scoops I was hearing.

Then, as dreams do, it shifted to a new scenario and I’m visiting again with Oprah. This time we’re seated in my not-so-opulent Grand Am and one of her adopted babies, a boy about 9 months old is seated on her lap. The baby is lively, fussy and wiggly and she’s unsure of how to comfort and calm him. Then she mentions wistfully about how her time is so overscheduled now, how there is none left over for her.

And I sigh and commiserate, “I call that open water. And what’s worse, I write a monthly newsletter and column for writers and I always advise writers to keep a writer’s notebook, to take time for random thoughts. But these days, I don’t follow my own advice and I have no open water.” And while trying to calm the baby who was becoming progressively vocal, she nodded in sad-eyed understanding.

The dream went on with more scenarios and diversions, including my stalking Oprah. {I won’t go into details except to say that often in my dreams I try to be a smarty-pants, but as in real-life, I failed.} In the days after my dream I kept returning to the words ‘open water.’ During that week at the coast, I’d look up from a book I was reading or a sandcastle project and whisper to myself ‘open water’ as my gaze swept to the ocean. It was a phrase I’d used in a column I wrote several years ago about downtime, and it  became my new prayer,  my way out of my weariness and release for shoulders so tight I’d give the Tin Man a run for his money. It means time for your imagination to roam free. For inspiration and unfettered thoughts. To capture subtleties and sweetness and the everyday things that feed your soul and imagination.

All that week I gave myself a talking to and acknowledged how I was letting worry and pressure take over my attitude and steal my happiness. How the joy of writing had been replaced with drudgery and stress. And I got up every morning and wrote, but I wrote without feeling the pressure that had been nagging me, and watched the surf and drank tea and thought about my life, and my worries began shrinking and my future began growing and the Pacific was every shade of blue you could imagine. I walked a lot and cooked fabulous seafood dishes and built fires and roasted marshmallows and started feeling like myself again. Or at least a calmer version of myself.

I had brought a fresh notebook to the beach and the pages began filling. And I vowed that when I returned home, when I was writing, I’d focus on the task at hand, but when I walked away for the day, the project could not follow me like a ghoul in a cemetery pulling me down into a grave.  And when I was walking or gardening or cooking or hanging out with friends, I didn’t need to let the latest chapter take over my thoughts or conversation. You see, I had been dutifully rising early and switching on my computer and writing away. But when I wasn’t writing I was fretting about what I hadn’t written or about how I should write faster, accomplish more, mourning any of the other impediments to my progress. It was a no-win game. Without open water I was losing my way.

This is what I think: we all need open water every day as well as scheduled breaks away from home with minimal agendas. Yes, sure we need goals and to pursue those goals full throttle. I’m all about goals because without goals we drift and the writing never gets done. But side-by-side with our aspirations, we need idling and downtime, reading for pleasure only, walks that are not necessarily aerobic or otherwise prescribed, simple pleasures that are only about the moment like fresh mint and garden tomatoes and bird song and clean sheets and naps and plucking dead blossoms off of flowers and catching up with the news of friends and family. But mostly a clear sense that life is timeless and limitless and we are just swimming the best we can, and writing because it calls us.

Summer is fading and in the seasons to come find your open water, and hear your ocean lullaby.
Sky is a pale, funereal gray and the pavements are washed from rain, while in the areas of the city above 500 feet light snow fell. Last night I wasn't feeling well, so I sat in my favorite yellow armchair with a pile of my notebooks. I love touring the years and finding all the bits and pieces of inspiration and whimsy I jotted down. Which is where this came from:
Let us remember...that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both. Christian Wiman, Editor Poetry Magazine
Why I Write: 
Writing is my solace and refuge.It makes me feel less alone in this large, rattling world and brings forth the restless lullabies I harbor within. While writing is demanding, it's also fun, engaging and engrossing. And it can be undertaken at all hours, in the loneliest hours before dawn,or after midnight. In a bathrobe, sipping tea, staring out the window, looking inward.

I write because you can never really fail when you write--you can only experiment, dabble, try; or buckle down and float away on the good days. Writing forces me to take risks I'd rather avoid. It nudges the cowardly parts into the light, it wakens the bold person inside of me. I write because even on my palest days if I sit here long enough I can usually find the vibrant colors and images stored as in an unused paint box. Why do you write?

Monday, March 08, 2010

 It's Read an E-book Week
Mostly blue skies with a fierce wind blowing through. I've been under the weather the past few days so am trying to divide my time between napping and catching up on paperwork and correspondence.... .But enough of that.... in case you've been wanting to try out an e-book, now is the time. Because you can download one for free. Yep, that's right.

Here's the scoop.

And let me just put in a shameless plug for Steve Anderson's books because he's a talented writer and deserves a plug. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Ten Commandments/Rules/Guidelines for Writing Fiction
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” Flannery O’Connor
I know there’s a big risk to naming a set of rules after the Ten Commandments. The commandments are supposedly indelible, sacred, and potent. Live this way and you’ll be a good person. Mess up and you’re immoral or doomed. Most of the commandments come easy for many of us—we joke about murdering someone, but when push comes to shove, we’ll probably just complain to our best friend instead of slipping the object of our ire some arsenic. That’s why we write.

And there are other problems in declaring that there are ten rules or guidelines for writing fiction. Some people claim rules are nonsense, some that there are too many to list, and of course, you’ll find little agreement about the so-called rules. This was in evidence in The Guardian’s recent article about the 10 Rules of Writing Fiction. In the article Elmore Leonard claims writers should never use prologues, but some of my favorite books begin with prologues and I wrote a whole chapter on the topic in Between the Lines. However, I do agree that dialogue tags should be invisible, adverbs are unnecessary, and to avoid using ‘suddenly’ and exclamation points. At the same time, I love Margaret Atwood’s advice “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.” And I dare not argue with Roddy Doyle’s sage advice: “Do not place a photograph of your ¬favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.”

With that said, I’m going to weigh in on heavier matters of fiction writing. Even though writers sometimes dislike rules, fiction requires underpinnings and archetypes to hold it together. And if you don’t understand the basics of writing fiction, while you can accomplish a lot of typing, a break-your-heart-hold-your-interest-story, the sort that makes readers weep at the wonder and mystery of it, doesn’t always result. And memoir and nonfiction writers, much of this applies to you too because STORIES LEAVE OUT THE BORING PARTS OF LIFE.
I. Always remember that your first job is to be a storyteller. Begin with a compelling hook that pulls the reader into the story, squirming with anticipation, raises questions and starts the reader worrying and wondering about the protagonist. The best hooks involve an inciting incident—an event that changes a character’s status, creates stress, and inflicts threatening changes to his or her situation. So typically you open a story by plunging into action and generally avoid writing a lot of description or background information. Now, that last bit said, plenty of great stories begin with description, but if you start this way it needs to evoke a mood and serve several purposes while introducing the story world.

II. Instill in your protagonist believable and powerful motivations. Desire is the heartbeat of fiction and typically it should be a deeply-felt need or desire that is somehow linked with the protagonist’s past. Often the best way to understand a character’s motivation is to determine what they fear most. Is it losing his marriage or job? Or harm coming to her children? Use that fear as the threat that propels him to act, sometimes recklessly or blindly.

III. Bestow your main characters with dominant, unforgettable traits that are the basis for their personalities and will be showcased by the events of the story.
These traits will help them achieve goals and provide consistency. Then stir in flaws, emotional needs, and weaknesses that are integral to the plot, should be overcome, transformed or acknowledged by the end of the story. Use drama, action and dialogue to expose to your character’s traits, needs, and flaws and prove that he can change or triumph. Unless you’re writing a tragedy in which you prove that your character’s flaws or a stacked deck cannot be overcome.

IV. Remember that fiction is based on cause and effect. The inciting incident starts a chain of events, which causes the characters to react, which causes more events, causing more reaction and actions. However, this doesn’t mean your protagonist is merely reactive. As the story progresses, he’s taking charge, setting goals, rising to challenges. This whole chain continues until the climax, which is of course generated by the characters’ actions.

V. Note that fiction is fueled by conflict, which in turn creates suspense and tension. Conflict, usually in the form of opposition, especially opposing agendas held by the cast of characters, should appear on every page, in every scene and keeps readers turning the pages. Your characters should confront a host of obstacles, and be in conflict with each other, themselves, and the world. Try impaling your characters on the horns of a dilemma—the “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” kind is especially involving.

VI. Dramatize your fiction and memoir. This means that you will shape most themes and character growth into scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of fiction and memoir and most scenes contain opposition, and move your protagonist closer or farther away from his or her fate. When possible, orchestrate emotional reversal in your scenes meaning that the emotions felt in the opening of the scene, should differ from those at the end of the scene. A character starts out feeling hopeful and ends up feeling dismay or hopeless. Scenes expose the emotional life and struggles of the characters. Scenes either advance the plot, provide background information, or throw obstacles at the characters. They are never used as filler or to prop up a sagging plot.

VII. Write scenes that occur in a specific time and place. Include setting that depicts weather, lighting, evidence of the time of day and season. On a large scale setting will include region, geography, towns, neighborhoods, streets, buildings, shops, schools, restaurants, parks, rivers, creeks, lakes, oceans. Setting also includes interiors including furniture, windows, clutter, dust bunnies, knickknacks and collections. Remember that these ordinary and homey details cause the reader to believe in your make-believe world, and thus make the extraordinary events of your plot more believable because the story is steeped in objects and places from everyday life.

VIII. Use plot points and a mid-point reversal to push the story forward and keep the reader engaged. I like to think of a plot point as a one-way gate through which a character passes. Each plot point is a catalyst for more action. Once through the gate, there is no turning back and the character is spun around, ending up dizzy and off balance. A plot point is always a major event, a high point or milestone, always has consequences and an emotional charge, and pushes the plot ahead.

IX. Give your plot a “dark night of the soul” moment near the climax. This is the point where the situation is bleakest—the odds are stacked against the protagonist, the dangers appear deadly, the way out non-existent. However, the way out of the dark night involves overcoming flaws or perceived weaknesses and relying on positive traits that gave the readers hope and reasons to cheer the protagonist all along. The dark night of the soul should include the character’s last-ditch and mightiest effort to solve the story problem and achieve his goals. And finally, the dark night of the soul is where the character is questioning whether this has all been worth it. Has he or she done the right thing, made the right decisions?

X. Create an ending that provides resolution, an emotional highpoint for the characters, an emotional release for readers, and a backward, illuminating glance at the previous events. Unless you’ve landed a six-book deal, avoid ‘open’ endings because they’re difficult to write and because readers long for a sense of completion. In real life we often slog through our routines and numbing jobs, and there is often not enough sense of completion, of justice served, of release. Good story endings provide that catharsis and enjoyment, so plan and orchestrate your ending with care. When you write memoir endings avoid both vagueness and trying to tidy up your story or nail down the story with broad insights. Often life doesn’t provide easy answers, but all we can do is sort through things and admit to regrets and patterns and influences.
"We fall into a story about enlightenment - about life, in fact - and we can get trapped in it for many lifetimes. I wonder more and more how well any life really fits a story. What if our life is not this, then that, in a flat and sensible way, but is equally round like a globe, like the earth itself? Maybe our life never did lie flat on the page and read from left to right, from the fifteenth to the sixteenth of the month." ~ Susan Murphy

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Possession of Mr. Cave
Clouds seem to be rolling out this morning and I've just started reading The Possession of Mr. Cave by Matt Haig. I really liked his breakout book, The Dead Father's Club and am fascinated how authors keep churning out new versions of Hamlet.
Yesterday in my critique group we were talking about structure and how helpful it can be to understand screenplay structure if you're writing a novel. So we talked about hooks and plot points, reversals, and twists. I've written about structure in my latest book, Thanks, But This Isn't For Us because it seems a lot of people write fiction without an understanding of its underpinnings, especially scene structure.

So back to hooks. I'm sure you know that in a book store readers buy books based on many factors including the back cover blurbs and synopsis, and the cannot-be-overlooked first lines, which must hook, snag, and capture the reader. Here are the first lines in Haig's book as a good example:

Of course, you know where it begins.
     It begins the way life begins, with the sound of screaming.
     I was upstairs, at my desk, balancing the books. I recall being in a rather buoyant mood, having sold that afternoon a mid-Victorian drop-leaf table for a most welcome amount. It must have been past seven. The sky outside the window was particularly beautiful, I remember thinking. One of these glorious May sunsets that crams all the beauty of the day into its dying moments.
     Now, where were you? Yes: your bedroom. You were practicing your cello, as you had been since Reuben had left to meet his friends at the tennis courts.
     At the time I heard it, the scream, I had already lowered my gaze towards the park. I think I must have been looking over at the horse chestnuts, rather than the empty climbing frame, because I hadn't notice anyone on East Mount Road. There was some kind of numerical discrepancy I was trying to solve; I can't remember what precisely.
     Oh, I could hold that scene just there. I could write ten thousand words about that sunset, about that park, about the trivial queries of my profit and loss accounts. You see, as I write I am back inside that moment, I am back there in that room, wrapped up warm in that unknowing contentment....

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

File this under I wish I would have said that:
So I was walking to my car after my critique group with one of the writers in the group. We were talking about the various manuscripts in the group and the writing life and how we're going to miss one of the writers because he just landed a gig in Redmond. It's a neighborhood of beautiful old Victorian houses crowded into small lots with scatterings of spring blooms. The sky was glowering and low around us. We were feeling that sprung from the classroom feeling.

And as we stood on a corner to part ways she described how she explained writing a novel to her co-workers. She said it's like building a house, but from the inside. During the process of building you cannot venture outside of it to assess the soundness of the structure. So if a friend comes to visit while you're inside hammering away and mentions that a window is hung crooked, you look around and realize that if the window is crooked, that means the floors must be crooked too.
"A writer - and, I believe, generally all persons - must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art." ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Fiction's stock in trade is subjectivity. And all experience is subjective. In fiction, things happen only to the extent that they affect some character or characters. Subjectivity requires a nervous system and owes its existence to the fact that no two nervous systems respond to stimuli in exactly the same way. To be authentic, experiences need to pass through a kind of filter: They must be sorted and sifted either through the sensibility of a particular character or set of characters, or through the mind-set of an omniscient narrator, or through an impersonal, objective filter that edits out all subjective content (feelings and thoughts), relying on readers to supply the missing subjective element (Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" springs to mind). The filter may enhance or extract, but there must be a filter. Information conveyed to the reader with that filter missing or inconsistent is equivalent to wine served without a glace. Impossible? Precisely."  Peter Selgin

Monday, March 01, 2010

Moments of Geek
I've been a Rachel Maddow fan since she first broke into the national scene about five years ago, so I've decided I've going to borrow one of the headers from her MSNBC show.

First, if like me, you've been trying to figure out what ebooks mean to the publishing world and authors and if anyone is making real money writing and publishing them, here's the link to the article at the New York Times The Math of Publishing Meets E-books. I still haven't decided if I should write an independent e-book....what about you?

In case you like Masterpiece Theater,  PBS is now running a series of classic shows hosted by Laura Linney. Last night (February 28) they broadcast The 39 Steps which was a charming  period piece that you can now watch online. More are forthcoming such as Sharpe March 28-April 4. And speaking of PBS The Pluto Files will air on March 2.

At Robin Good's website he has posted an article on How to Create a Widget. You know, tasks like creating widgets make me feel like I've grown up in the horse-and-buggy era, which by the way, I always wished I had. But then I'd be forced to write on a typewriter, so I guess I should nix that longing. And I know I sound really snarky here, but  would someone please tell him to lose the headband....that look went out in the 80s along with leg warmers.

And in case you're still digging out from mountains of snow in your part of the world, maybe you can start dreaming of baseball. Physicist Kerry Whisnant can help you dream of summer nights because he Writes a Better Formula to Predict Baseball Success.

Imagery and Other Charms

I woke up at about 5 this morning and started working and at about 6:30 went downstairs to brew another cup of tea. I opened the blinds on the east side of the house and the sun was rising in shades of peach and rose and the colors then spread across the sky. Now the sky looks sort of fog-colored. Not white, puffy clouds, not rain clouds, but like when you pass through a cloud in an airplane.

Maybe because I ate dinner at PokPok last night with a friend and we mostly consumed protein, or maybe because I slept all through the night, but I’m having a really productive morning. Just finished a memo to an editing client and finished my column. The column is going to appear in The Willamette Writers in April and is about Beautiful Prose. It’s  a three-part column and this month I’m talking about imagery and figurative language and the sort of painterly techniques writers can use to enhance style and meaning.

Writing involves the purposeful distortion of language. Images are word pictures that grant power and richness by involving the reader’s senses.  We use imagery because a reader’s right brain has associative powers and thus imagery adds depth and resonance to story telling. An image occurs as a whole in the reader’s imagination, complete with all the sensations surrounding it, full of meaning. Images usually have a strong visual impact, but they also evoke the feel or sound or smell or taste of things. Images intensify the unspoken, often creating patterns that resonant with meaning. Images are also helpful to explain or stand in for difficult to describe concepts and emotions.
Figurative language is a way of  saying something other than the literal meaning of the words.  Typically figurative language describes something by comparing two unlike things. Simile—explicit comparison stated by using like,  as,   than, seems or as if"
Metaphor is an implied comparison between two unlike things:
Symbols are special images, usually objects or things that stand in for something else, usually more abstract. For example, during the Olympics we saw lots of flag used as the symbol of the athlete’s countries. Carl Jung defines a symbol as "a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us."
Alliteration: Repeated consonant sounds occurring at the beginning of words or within words. Alliteration is used to create melody, establish mood, call attention to important words, and point out similarities and contrasts.
Irony is the use of words that say something other than what we really mean.
Then there is hyperbole which is an exaggeration for heightened effect and personification is giving human qualities to an animal or inanimate object.