Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fun Things to Do over the Holiday Break

Whether you're taking a break from teaching, studying, or your sanity because your grade-school-age kids are home for sixteen solid days, the Bermuda Triangle of Hanukkah-Christmas-New Year's can be a good time to lose yourself in some writing and reading projects. Here are a couple of ideas.

An Exercise in Suspense: Read some great advice from suspense expert Lee Child, author of very many Jack Reacher novels; see his techniques in action in a short-short story; and do a fun writing exercise inspired by John Gardner, Charlie Chaplin, and "cat scares" in horror movies.

A Very Dark Poem for the Season: Hear "the most frightening American poet ever" read his poem "December."

A Christmas Classic: Read and listen to the beloved prose poem "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas, and do a writing exercise inspired by it.

Go Spelunking in the Website of No Return: Make your own writing exercise by mining this amazing site, or just read it for fun. Maybe let a friend know where you're going and when you plan to be back; or better yet, tie a rope around your waist and give the other end to your friend with instructions to pull you out after a certain number of hours. Otherwise you could start reading and emerge twenty years later to find your eyes no longer able to tolerate light and your clothes rotted to rags.



Josef Lada, from Detem, 1953, via 50watts







Monday, December 8, 2014

Get Unblocked at Hudson Valley Writers' Center


Saturday May 2, 12—4 p.m.

Hudson Valley Writers' Center Master Class: Get Unblocked
A one-afternoon, four-hour Saturday course
at the wonderful Hudson Valley Writers' Center

In this fiction-writing course, we'll explore what writer's block is and where it comes from—briefly—and then we'll get writing! We'll start with short, fun, low-key exercises to get your pen moving across the page, then build towards more focused experiments in character, plot, and other story elements. By the end of the class, you'll have the seeds of a new piece of fiction, and a road map for the next stages of your writing journey.




"Then I will," said the little red hen. And she did. : Andy Warhol, illus. for The Little Red Hen, 1958




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Read This: David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster"

This well-known essay was originally published in Gourmet magazine in 2004, and was the title essay in the author's 2005 collection.

I'm primarily a fiction writer, but every writer should know what a really great essay looks like. We discussed this one in our Tuesday workshop.

What draws you into this essay? Where does it take you? Do you end up somewhere different from where you began?

I think one of the things that makes this essay so compelling is that the author takes us on a journey—intellectual, emotional—along with him, as he has the experiences he describes, as he researches and wrestles with the questions they bring up.

He starts out with an assignment to write a very specific kind of article: one praising the Maine Lobster Festival, for a food magazine. But instead of forcing the piece to stay within that framework, he instead follows his natural trains of thought, his honest lines of reasoning, and winds up in a very uncomfortable place, so that the essay turns out to be, in some ways, exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to be.

He does this not through any fancy conscious manipulation of style or structure, but really simply by being baldly honest about what he thinks, feels and sees—rather than by writing about what he is expected (by his editor, e.g.) to think, feel and see.

David Foster Wallace was, I think, a writer who had a big and obsessively curious mind, who loved language and enjoyed using a word like "apothegm" when "saying" would do. It might be easy to assume that his intellect and handiness with obscure words are what made him a great writer. But that isn't what makes this essay work.

Towards the end of it, he writes of the attempts of lobsters to escape being boiled alive: "There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider. One is . . . whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain. And it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior."

Intellectual gymnastics is precisely what David Foster Wallace would have had to do to twist his experience into the essay he was assigned to write. And it's precisely what he refuses to do. Instead, he goes for honesty—telling us exactly what he experiences and perceives—and in doing that produces a surprising and powerful piece of writing.




Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1797—1861, Lobster





Friday, November 14, 2014

Read This: Two Incredible Stories with Simple Plots


(The first in an occasional series, "Read This," about things you should read.)

If you're still hesitant to streamline your plot (see my last post here) because you think literary sophistication = complexity, here are two incredible stories to help you see the power of a strong, simple structure.

These are both very short, and if you are by any chance doing NaNoWriMo this month, they'll give you a good shot of inspiration while fitting in with your busy writing schedule. Read them on the subway or in a waiting room—sometime when you can't be writing and would otherwise be looking at facebook.

Alice Munro, "A Red Dress—1946"

Ernest Hemingway, "Indian Camp"

Before you read them, I'll briefly give you another useful way of looking at plot. I call it the Hegel/Snyder model. You have the familiar old three acts, and you think of them this way: Act I: Thesis; Act II: Antithesis; Act III: Synthesis. Your character moves from the familiar, known world into an unfamiliar, upside-down world where everything is weird and different, and then in the end everything comes together. (Sounds so easy, right?)

Can you see that form in these stories? Where would you draw the act boundaries? How would you describe, in one sentence each, the thesis, antithesis and synthesis in each story?

And also think about them this way: In each story, what is the main character's journey from A to B? Notice how that well-defined emotional journey is the backbone of the story.




Antonio Rubino, illus. for Pippo Sizza Aviatore by Giuseppe Fanciulli (1910), via 50watts



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Advice for NaNoWriMo: Make a Plan


It's almost time for NaNoWriMo! The basic idea is to write a full draft of a novel, of 50,000 words or more, during the month of November.

Some people get grouchy about this phenomenon. The argument usually goes something like: These people have some nerve thinking it's worthwhile sitting down and pounding out a full-length, crappy first draft of a novel in a short amount of time. As if that will make them real writers!

Do I have to refute this? All right. Pounding out a full-length crappy first draft is in fact the only way to start on the journey to becoming a real writer. Can it replace reading widely, revising and editing your work, practicing craft? No. And nobody is claiming it does. Also, these NaNoWriMo-ers sitting alone in their kitchens at their computers, writing words? They are not hurting you. So shut up.

Okay.

So, according to the NaNoWriMo guidelines, you're not supposed to start writing Chapter One before November 1, but it will help you a lot to have a rough plan sketched out before that. If you're starting from scratch and want some inspiration, you can check out the first five of these Nine Exercises.

If you already have a lot of ideas about your novel-to-be, that's great. You don't really have to do anything but sit down and type out words every day to participate in NaNoWriMo. But if you want some structure to help, check out just Exercise 4. Plug in your current characters and situations and use it to sketch out your plot.

Two other great planning resources come from those plot experts, screenwriters: the classic books Save the Cat and How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Try using Save the Cat's Beat Sheet, or the planning section of 21 Days, to lay down some plot points. Remember these are provisional. Everything will change in the writing, and that's fine. But they will give you something to start with.

If these don't seem to help—maybe the idea of having an "A Story" and a "B Story" and a strong-willed hero and an incredibly evil villain and a plot laid out on forty index cards just doesn't resonate with you—then try this very basic exercise:

You have one main character. The story is going to take your character on a journey, from Point A to Point B. Set a timer for five minutes and brainstorm about what this journey could be. Include the concrete (she'll learn how to fly a plane) and also the emotional (she'll learn she's brave  enough and good enough to fly a plane and that will give her confidence dealing with her boss, her annoying neighbor, and her family).

That might sound simplistic. If you've been thinking about your novel for a while, it might seem maddeningly so. First of all, it may be you have six main characters, not one. And there's no way to reduce your story to anything as simpleminded as having one of them gain self-confidence by learning to fly a plane. That may be why the screenwriting exercises didn't work for you: you're not constructing some dumb blockbuster designed to appeal to the lowest common human denominator. Your novel-to-be is literary, nuanced, and complex: It's about the way people in societies help blind one another to dangerous truths and to their own evil, and it's also about Ancient Greece (which you've been researching so you have a lot to say about it), and the technology of self-driving cars (""), and the ethics of the ways humans relate to other species, and there's also a very complex thing that has to happen that involves interweaving flashbacks and premonitions with the present time, and you might also have a few other ideas but those are the ones that have to be in there.

Well, you may have to go ahead and write that novel, or part of it, before the advice above makes any sense to you. But if you find you've run aground somewhere in the middle of the month, come back here and look at it again.



Are you back?

Remember this saying from the 70s?

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” 

You know that stuff you really want to put in your novel, but somehow you can't quite figure out how; you can't quite get it to work? Set it free. Take a deep breath, and let it go. Easier said than done, I know. But you have to try. If it belongs in your novel, it will come back. Without your even asking it to. But if it doesn't, you just have to wish it well out there in the ether. Maybe it belongs in someone else's book. Or in your next one. You can't know right now.

So let's start again. The backbone of a story is one character's journey from A to B. Choose one of your characters to be the main one. It doesn't matter which. There are no fatal mistakes to be made here. You can change your mind later. But you probably do have a good hunch about which one it should be.

Now, choose a Point A. Keep it simple, measurable, concrete. Make sure there are ways we can know, when you get to the end, that your character has actually advanced and has ended up at Point B. Don't spend more than five minutes brainstorming about all this.

Now go and write. In each chapter, each section, remind yourself: the character (the main character! don't get distracted) is moving along a path from A to B. Of course there will be false turns, setbacks, and zigzags. That's fine; it's good. And it may be that although she wants to end up at Point B, and you want her to, she will eventually wind up somewhere else, like Point C. That will be good too. When it starts to happen, you'll know it has to happen. (It may relate to the distinction between want vs. need discussed here under "Act I.")

It may also be that you find yourself going off into tangents and subplots and side paths, and that's actually also completely fine, as long as you have that A-to-B journey somewhere in the back of your mind. (See Moby-Dick, e.g.)

And as long as you keep writing.

Good luck.





If your character's path from A to B is strewn with dragons, and he's on crutches, and his candle has gone out, all the better. Antonio Rubino, from I tre talismani, 1914. Via 50watts.





Friday, October 24, 2014

One-Time Sunday Workshop

Plot and plan your novel

This class is a perfect way to prepare for National Novel Writing Month, coming up in a few days. Also a great reason to dust off all those interesting ideas you've been meaning to turn into a book.

You'll be amazed at how much you get done in this short class.* You'll leave inspired and challenged, with a road map for your writing journey and a little encouragement to light the way.

Use the CONTACT ME form on the right to sign up.
(I need to know who's coming in advance)

This Sunday, October 26
3 to 4:30 p.m. 
at the Ajna Center, 75 S. Riverside in Croton
$40 ~ Come with a notebook

*Money back if not amazed :)



Eugen Osswald, from Ball der Tiere (The Animals' Ball, Germany, 1917), via 50watts.





Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ongoing Fiction Workshop in Dobbs Ferry


Our wonderful Dobbs Ferry workshop has moved to a private home and is now full. But if you're interested in attending a workshop in that general area, please use the "CONTACT ME" form on the right to let me know. I would be happy to start another one and know of a lovely classroom space in Tarrytown where we can meet. We can start with just three people, so tell your friends!



What does a wolf with a magical casserole dish floating over his head have to do with fiction writing? Maybe you'll find out if you sign up! :) — Vello Vinn, from How Does it Feel to Feel?, 1971, via 50watts






Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nine Exercises #9: Snapshots from Your Subconscious


Welcome to the last installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story!


Exercise #9: Snapshots from Your Subconscious

Time: 13 minutes and 45 seconds (or a little more)

If you've done Exercises #6, #7 and #8, you have a fast and messy draft of an entire story.

I hope I didn't make you feel too discouraged at the end of Exercise #8 with all that talk of endless rewriting and how you'll have to get used to the feeling of hating your first (and possibly second, third, and fourth) drafts.

It's true writing is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Maybe not in those moments when you look at the drafts and hate them. But that happens because you compare them with the wonderful thing you want them to be and sense they could be, and see they're not there yet. Truly, that isn't the worst feeling in the world. It's how you learn and grow.

If writing ever starts to feel horrible and hopeless, not only do you have the right to step back and try a different approach, you must. If you feel dead inside when you're writing something, that will show on the page. You have to love what you're doing in order for it to work.

In that way, writing forces you to be honest about what it is that you love, see, feel, and know to be true. That is difficult, but it's also freeing and exhilarating. It's one of the main reasons to write.

Anyway, forget all that for now. And don't look at your draft. Just think about your story and answer these questions off the top of your head:


1.  Take five minutes to answer to this: What would you like to be different about your story?

Think with your heart and your subconscious. Don't think about the story—e.g. I want it to sound cleverer, or I think people would like it more if it had more explosions in it. Instead keep pulling yourself back into the place where you feel the story—e.g., I feel like this character should be angrier; I'm bored writing the part where they fight about X; I get tense when I think about writing section Y; I wish it could all be about character Z because she's the most fun to write about.

2.  Now take five minutes to write down some concrete images related to your story. Snapshots from your subconscious. Pick up little scraps of images that pop into your head: a gesture, a slant of light, an expression on someone's face. Don't ask where these come from or whether they fit into the story. Just write them down.

Do you see your character sitting in a dark room, dressed as a superhero, hugging herself? Don't censor the odd details that pop into your head. Don't ask "Why a superhero costume??" Just write it down. The more odd details like that, the better.

Notice the colors and forms and sounds. Greenish light, a footfall, a cry of frustration, the hum of a refrigerator. Get all those concrete sensory details in there. Write them all down without censoring or questioning them.

3.  Take two minutes to write something dark about your character, and something light about your character. If you have more than one character, do this for each.

4. Take 45 seconds to tell me who your character loves most in the world. (Not who she should love most.) Do this for each character if you have more than one.

5. Take one minute to put your character in an awkward place. Where she's out of her element, uncomfortable. Give me a snapshot. Do this for each character if there are more than one.

+ + +

Here's why I asked you to do these: When you're writing, you constantly have to switch back and forth between your editing brain and your writing brain. Left and right. Conscious and subconscious. Head and heart. Whatever you want to call them. I know you know what I mean.

Some people say the rough draft can or should be written entirely with the writing brain, the subconscious, the heart. But I don't think that's really true. When you're pushing yourself to lay a story down, follow a certain plan, and wind up at a satisfying endpoint (even if you know you're allowed to change it as you go), you have to rely an awful lot on your editing brain, on the conscious, logical part of your mind.

Sometimes, as you try to make the plot work out, try to make the story hang together in any kind of way, you can lose track of your characters' souls, just as you can lose track of your own soul when you're in heated pursuit of some material goal.

The exercises above are to help you get back in touch with your characters' souls briefly before you set the story aside for a couple of weeks. This is so that, while the plot settles and transforms in the fertile compost heap of your subconscious way at the back of your mind, thoughts about who your characters really are will also be fermenting back there. Just leave all that stuff for a while. Let it mix all together in the dark.

Maybe it sounds a little silly, all this talk of compost and fermenting, but this isn't accounting, it's art, and there really isn't any way to talk about it without resorting to some mystical language and wacky metaphors. It's a dirty, messy, miraculous process. Smelly, fertile, and full of worms. Sticky and garbagey and life-giving. Just let it be for a while.

In a few weeks I'll post some exercises to help with rewriting and revising.




Richard Teschner, Fraternity of the Unborn, 1914—18, via 50watts




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nine Exercises #8: A Draft: Act III


Welcome to the eighth installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.

Exercise #8: A Draft: Act III

Time: 30 minutes

If you've done Exercise #6 and Exercise #7, you now have a fast and messy draft of Acts I and II of your story. Today you'll write Act III.

You've launched into your story now, and really, you can wind it up any way you like. Just sit down and do it for half an hour at a minimum, three hours max. Push through to the end—some kind of ending—in one sitting.

If you want guidelines, see below. We first sketched the plot using Billy Wilder's "get your hero up a tree" analogy, and we're still following a screenwriting(-ish) model. The guidelines may sound formulaic. They are. But there is a lot of room for interpretation, and if you stay true to your character and the story as you've written it so far, you'll come up with something that is not cliched, feels real, and is yours.

As always, if you find yourself pushing your character to do something she doesn't want to for the sake of plot, and it feels wrong, then stop. Ask what she, the real, living character, actually wants to do. And go with that. Even if it doesn't fully make sense to you yet, go with it. Honoring your character is more important than sticking to your outline; you can tidy up the structure when you rewrite. We'll tackle re-reading and rewriting in later exercises.

Guidelines (if you want them):

In ten minutes, write a passage in which your character does the following:
-Thinks about what she wants—the thing she has been wanting since the beginning
-Understands her old plan to get it can't work anymore

In the next ten minutes, write how your character:
-Finds, or finally recognizes, a strength (which could come from accepting that the "problem" is actually part of her and confers its own strange blessings)
-Uses her new knowledge to make a new plan to get what she wants. Perhaps what she wants has changed as she has changed as she's moved through the story. So maybe her goal is different now. Maybe she's now able to see that what she needs has been there all along, only she didn't recognize it before. (Remember this?)

In your final ten minutes of writing, you character follows her new plan to the end of the story.

+ + +

You now have a full, very rough draft of a story!

What, you don't think it's perfect? You maybe don't even think it's good at all? That's normal.

But it's worse than that, isn't it? You're actually wondering, how the hell am ever I going to turn this piece of crap into a story? I'm not. I knew I wasn't a writer, and this proves it.

The hard truth is, that's often what writing is like. You're probably always going to feel that way after your first draft. And maybe after your second, third and fourth drafts. You might not—but you might. (See the Ann Patchett quote in this essay if you don't believe me.)

Here's John Gardner again from The Art of Fiction:

"The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees."

Notice he said "endless revising." Endless!

It won't be endless in reality. You'll have to stop sometime, either because you've decided the story is as done as it's ever going to be, or because you give up. But you will have to revise, a lot. That is where a lot of writing happens.

Here's Raymond Carver: "I write the first draft quickly, as I said. . . . The real work comes later, after I've done three or four drafts of the story."

The real work comes after he's done three or four drafts.

Okay. So this is where a lot of writers drop out of the race. It's hard writing even the first draft. I know! Harder still to keep the faith and stick with it through three or four, and only then begin "the real work."

It's both good news and bad news. The good news is that if you can keep it at, you can make it to the finish line. You really can. The bad news is that it could be a long haul. There's no guarantee it will be with the story that you're working on now. It may be with the next one, or the next. At some point you'll have to get feedback from others: friends, writing group members, teachers, classmates, editors. It might be harsh, and you'll have to absorb it and learn from it. But perseverance will pay off. If you want to get there badly enough, you'll get there.

In other words, it's no different from learning to be good at anything: Archery, carpentry, karate, swimming. In order to be able to stand doing as much work as it requires to become good at it, you have to really, really love it.

Forget about what you've written for now. The next exercise will not require you even to look at it, and I suggest you don't. Put it away for a while. Later, in the next series of exercises, we'll talk about revision. But you'll also naturally gain perspective if you set it aside for a week or two, and you'll have many ideas about how to fix it when you go back to it. You'll also realize that some of what you wrote—maybe most of it—isn't half bad after all.

I would just like to point out, again, that you have written an entire draft of a story. You're doing it. You're writing. You had doubts, but you pushed through. That is huge. That is everything. Take some time to feel good about that, and to celebrate.

Next: Snapshots from Your Subconscious



Joachim Patinir, Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1520




Monday, September 22, 2014

Nine Exercises #7: A Draft: Act II


Welcome to the seventh installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.


Exercise #7: A Draft: Act II

Time: 25 minutes

Yesterday you wrote a fast and messy draft of Act I of your story. Your character started with a problem and a desire. She formed a plan, and embarked on it.

Or something else happened, something you weren't expecting. Think back on it for a minute now and see if you can identify those elements—problem, desire and plan—in what you wrote, even if it's different from what you sketched in the plot outline.

You might have enjoyed the writing yesterday, or it might have felt hard, and strange, and you're not sure whether you should go on. You might think you'd better go back and re-formulate the plot, maybe using a trifold board and fifty index cards or some other technique you've been reading about in a screenwriting book. Don't. Not yet. Today you have to be writing.

Listen to E. L. Doctorow:
Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
Today you'll write Act II, in which your character's plan does not work out. Something bad happens, then something worse happens.

Write for fifteen minutes. Bring us to "something bad happens."

Write for ten more minutes. Bring us to "something worse happens."
  
If you did Exercise #1, where you wrote a scene with the tarot cards, you may find your scene fits into the story somewhere in this act (or another). You can put it in word for word if you like.

Next: A Draft: Act III





Eugen Osswald, illustration from The Valiant Little Tailor, 1925, via 50watts








Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nine Exercises #6: A Draft: Act I


Welcome to the sixth installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.


Exercise #6: A Draft: Act I

Time: 20 minutes

If you've done the first five exercises, you'll already have a character with a problem and a desire, a couple of scenes, an ending, and a sketch of your plot.

If you haven't, you'll have to come up with those things now. You can use elements from a work in progress, or any other character and plot ideas that are rattling around in your head.

We're using the Billy Wilder model of plot: Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.

Today you'll get him up a tree. He has a problem, a desire (say, to solve the problem), and a plan. He embarks on the plan.

You're going to spend twenty minutes writing out all of Act I, as fast as you can.  You can take more time, of course, but don't let anything stop you—plow straight through to the end of the act today. (Three hours is a good maximum to allow yourself. Beyond that, the likelihood increases that you won't make it to the end before your energy flags.) Yes, it's going to be incredibly messy and imperfect. But you may be surprised how much usable stuff you can actually lay down. In any case this is not the time to judge whether it's usable or not—it's time to write.

This passage from from John Gardner's classic The Art of Fiction describes what you're going for: 

In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later . . . ”
Now don't stop and worry about whether you truly are entering the dream; whether you're in "the state of inspiration." If you are then, of course, nothing will pop you out faster than worrying about it. Just try to see your "made-up people doing things." That's all.

Notice I said see them doing things—not make them do things. If they stop moving, that might be because you're trying to make them do things they don't want to. In that case, back off. Let them go where they will.

They might try to head off the edge of your map, off the edge of the known world, into monster territory. You might have to let them.

But if you can, stick to the rough outline you made yesterday.

Set your timer for twenty minutes and go. Write Act I.


Next: A Draft: Act II




Takeo Takei, cover for King Ramu-ramu, 1926, via 50watts





Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nine Exercises #5: A Lump in the Throat


Welcome to the fifth installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.

Exercise #5: A Lump in the Throat

Time: 10 minutes

Stop thinking about plot for a second.

Answering today's question requires you to be willing to let go of the entire plot you just created. Most likely you won't have to; but unless you're willing to, the magic won't work. (If you do have to let it go, it won't take long to sketch another.)

Robert Frost said, "A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment."

You could say this of stories, too.

What is the "lump in the throat" for your main character?

This is where your story will begin emotionally, and it's the emotional engine that will drive the entire thing. Capturing this is more important than finding a "good" ending, more important than anything to do with the plot.

So why did I not ask you this before you came up with the plot? You weren't ready. Now you've begun the work of really thinking your way into the character and the story; now you're ready.

Take ten minutes to answer the question: What is the "lump in the throat" for your main character?


Next: A Draft: Act I



Rafael de Penagos, cover for El Judio Errante, 1912 via 50watts






Friday, September 19, 2014

Nine Exercises #4: A Plot


Welcome to the fourth installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.

Exercise #4: A Plot

Time: 30 minutes

Today's exercise is a bit longer and more involved than the previous ones, but bear with me. You'll be brainstorming, not writing prose, and it's good to get the whole plot sketched out in one sitting. If you find there's too much information here and your brain short-circuits, just skip to where it says "SUMMARY" at the bottom and do the exercise that way.

If you've done the first three exercises, you have a character, your character has a problem, and you have some rough ideas about how your story might end. Today you're going to sketch out a plot.

If you haven't done those exercises, you can click here and here to get a character and a problem. Or use any that come into your head. If you're stuck in the middle of writing a story or novel right now, try using elements from that. Take a minute to write the name of the character and his problem at the top of your page now.

Plot is a funny thing. When I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which was a long time ago, in the early nineties, there was a general feeling that it wasn't a good idea to think too much about it. Bald discussion of plot mechanics smacked of gimmickry and manipulation. This quote from E.L. Doctorow was a popular way to describe how writers got from the beginning of their books to the end: "It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." *

I love that quote, and I think it's accurate. At the same time, there are such things as maps, and that's what I want to talk about today.

First let's talk about what maps (i.e., plot outlines) can't do. A map can't tell you what the experience of being at Niagara Falls will be like. As my friend Alex Chee says, when you're writing, you're taking a journey to a place you've never been before, so there's no way to know what it will be like when you get there. (Interestingly, he's the one who invented the Amtrak Writers' Residency.) So having a map is not the same as actually knowing how your story is going to end. But it does give you a direction to go in, and it gives you a bird's-eye perspective on your story and a way to track your progress on the journey.

You're trying to chart unvisited seas, and there will be monsters. You will have to revise your map as you go. If you stubbornly insist on sticking to your first version, in spite of its not turning out to match the reality of your story, you will run aground. But, bearing all that in mind, it's time to repair to your cabin, get the parchment and the compass and the ink out, and make the best map you can. You will learn a lot from doing this.

Screenwriters are the plot experts. If you want to learn about it, don't talk to writers of literary fiction, talk to them. (You might enjoy Save the Cat, a personal favorite that consistently makes the "best books" lists of actual screenwriters; or check out these "Screenwriting Tricks for Authors" articles by Alexandra Sokoloff.)

Billy Wilder, who knew a little something about screenwriting, is often quoted describing the three-act plot as: Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.

(I'm not putting that in quotation marks as it may be apocryphal; you can find many versions online and I have yet to find an authoritative source. Apocryphal or not, it's popular because it's a useful, concise description of plot.)

Get your timer and your pen ready. Today you'll spend ten minutes brainstorming each act of your story. You're not writing prose now; you're just sketching the map.


Act I: Get your character up a tree

 1.   Ask yourself: What does your character want? This will, of course, have some connection to her problem. (E.g., she wants to solve her problem.) Write about it for five minutes.

2.  Now—after you've done that—pause and think about how, as screenwriters say, want is not the same as need. Here's an excellent short piece that illustrates the difference. Go read it.

3.   Did you read it? No? Read it. Here's the link again.

4.  Just let that ferment in your brain as you go through the rest of the exercise. Want vs. need.

5.  What is your character's plan to get what she wants? You now know on some level (if you didn't already) that it's not exactly the same as what she needs. But she probably doesn't know that. So kind of ignore that as you brainstorm about her plan. What is the plan, and how will she embark on it? Write for five minutes.

(Do you notice that your character is just like you—striking out into uncharted territory with a faulty, preliminary set of directions, not even really understanding where she's trying to go?)


Act II: Throw rocks at her

Now throw one or two rocks at her; put one or two wrenches in her plan.

1.  Something bad happens. Write for five minutes.

2. Then something worse happens. This could be what in screenwriting is called an "all is lost" moment. Write for five minutes.


Act III: Get her down from the tree

What happens in Act III is that your character finds her strength, and solves her problem. That's how she gets down from the tree. Or else maybe someone shoots her down. Or she finally lets go of that branch she's been clinging to and just falls. You can end your story however you want. (Of course!)

If you've already done Exercise #3, you've already come up with a few possible endings, so use your favorite of those.

One thing to consider: Her solution and her strength may come from accepting that the "problem" is part of who she is, for better and worse. And that the solution has been there all along, but she couldn't see it till she was ready. Kansas is home. She already has the ruby slippers.

1. Take five minutes to sketch  the ending.

2.  That five minutes wasn't enough, was it? You feel stuck. You still don't know how your story will end. Take a breath. Step back. Now spend five more minutes brainstorming about it.

3.  Now leave it. Everything will be different when you get there.

Great! Now you have a character, a problem, and a (monster-infested and imperfect) plot. Take a few minutes to feel good, because this is a big deal.

SUMMARY: Plot your story in three acts: I. Get your character up a tree. II. Throw rocks at her. III. Get her down. Spend ten minutes brainstorming each act.


Next: A Lump in the Throat




Minjeong An, detail of a 2007 work, via 50watts




Thursday, September 18, 2014

Nine Exercises #3: An Ending, and a Letter


Welcome to the third installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.


Exercise #3: An Ending, and a Letter

Time: 15 minutes 

If you've done the first two exercises, you have a character, and your character has a problem.

If you haven't, think of a character and a problem now. (Or get them here and here.)

1. Set your timer for nine minutes.

Brainstorm three ways your story might end. You can start by asking yourself whether the character overcomes the problem or not, and go from there.

2. Now set the timer for six minutes.

Write a letter to your character. Be honest. If you hate him because he's too difficult and weird to write about, say that. If you long to go on a picnic with her, write that. If you're afraid your character is too much like you, too different, too stupid, too accomplished; if your character already feels strangely alive, or like an old friend, say that. The only requirement is absolute honesty.


 Next: A Plot



 
illustration by Seiichi Hayashi from Gold Pollen, 1971 via 50watts







Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nine Exercises #2: A Problem


Welcome to the second installment of Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.



Exercise #2: A Problem

Time: ten minutes

If you did Exercise #1, you have a character who you've written a little bit about. If not, you can do this exercise with any character you have in mind.

Now you're going to give your character a problem. Think of a number between one and twenty-four. Write it down. Click here. There's your problem.

Character + problem. Write for ten minutes.


Next: An Ending, and a Letter



from The Cock and the Hen by Rudolf Mates





Nine Exercises #1: The Hand Fate Deals You


Welcome to Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.

These are especially nice if you're feeling stuck, only have a few minutes to write, or are just looking for a low-pressure way to get your pen moving across the page.

You don't have to do them in order, but if you do, you'll come out with a rough (very rough) draft of a new story.

I can't guarantee it will turn into a good story, and if it does, it will be through lots of revision, because that's how writing usually happens. (I'll talk about revision in later posts.) But I can promise these will get some story ideas moving around in your head, and give you some practice putting those ideas to work.


Exercise #1: The Hand Fate Deals You

Time: 15 minutes (45 minutes if you do it 3x)

Here's an exercise I like to do in class. It might look complicated, but the very specific parameters can be unexpectedly freeing.

You may not like the hand you're dealt (in class I do this by actually dealing cards), but you don't have to think about changing it. You can't! You must write what fate has assigned you.

Here's the exercise:

Write down three numbers between one and fifty.  (If you like, use this random number generator.)

Now click here. Write down the three words or phrases associated with your numbers.

Now write down one more number, this one between one and twenty-four.

Click here. That's your character.

Get your pen or word processor ready, and make sure you have a timer. After you read the directions, you'll set it for fifteen minutes.

These four ideas—the three writing prompts and the character—are the hand fate has dealt you. (In class, they'd be on cards sitting in front of you.)

Here's what to do with them: The first word or phrase should be included in your first sentence, the second somewhere in the middle, and last one in the last sentence. And your character is your character.

Now write for fifteen minutes.


If you can, do this whole exercise three times, dealing yourself a different hand each time. If you can't, that's fine. You'll only need one completed exercise to move on to #2, but if you have three, you can choose your favorite one.

Next: A Problem



image by Hiromi Nishizaka




Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tormented by Regrets about the Book

Or: One Reason It's Hard to Write 

 

On a dark wintry morning I woke up early (under the banks of darkness a grim dawn shone in the depths below) and while a multitude of misty figures and signs still crowded under my eyelids, I began to dream confusedly, tormented by various regrets about the old, forgotten Book.
                              —Bruno Schulz, “The Book”

We know it's there, the Book, we know we've even seen it, but we never can quite lay our hands on it. This is true for readers and writers alike. Even if we think we've accepted that we won't find it, and put it out of our minds, sometimes, between sleeping and waking, it haunts us.

The quote above is from a collection of interconnected stories that form a novel:  The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz. I was introduced to his work too many years ago to think about, by my favorite teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Deborah Eisenberg, but I read this particular story for the first time today.

Here's more:

The Book... Somewhere in the dawn of childhood, at the very first daybreak of life, the horizon shone with its gentle light. It lay in its full glory on Father's desk, whilst he, silently engrossed in it, patiently rubbed with a licked finger its ridge of decals until the blank paper began to mist, to blur, and loom with blissful anticipation. Shreds of tissue-paper suddenly began to peel away to disclose a mascaraed, peacock-eye rim, and my swooning gaze fell into a virgin dawn of godly colours, into wonderful dampness of the purest azures.

Oh, the wearing away of that film! Oh, that invasion of splendour! Oh, blissful spring! Oh, Father!...

Father would occasionally get up from the Book and leave the room, and I was left with it, all alone. A wind moved through its pages and visions arose. And as the wind silently turned those pages over, blowing the colours and figures away, a shudder ran through the columns of its text, releasing flocks of swallows and skylarks from among the letters. It rose into the air, scattering page after page; it gently suffused the landscape, which it saturated with its colours, or it slept and the wind quietly blew it around like a cabbage rose, its leaves parting, sheet after sheet, eyelid after eyelid, each one blind, velvety and lulled to sleep, concealing deep within its azure pupil, its peacock core, a screeching nest of humming-birds.
This is the Book as it appears to us in childhood, when all possibilities seem limitless, before we understand stories are written by people as imperfect as ourselves, when it still seems as if they might be direct portals to a boundaryless paradise, and so they are.

It reminded me of Ann Patchett's description of the novel that lives inside you when you first conceive of it, and what happens when you have to write it:
During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
 And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the color, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
When I tell this story in front of an audience it tends to get a laugh. People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know.
—Ann Patchett, from "The Getaway Car" in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

I'm guessing the people who laugh at this story aren't writers. Or they haven't written enough to realize that that feeling, or some version of it, is likely to keep coming back to them forever. You'd think you might get a pass after, say, your sixth novel. (That's how many Patchett has written.) No.

It's a bleak story, but also comforting. Having that feeling doesn't mean you're not a writer. It doesn't mean you are, either—but pushing on in spite of it does.

That feeling doesn't come from incompetence but from the fundamental inadequacy of words to convey, as Schulz says, that radiant and "unnameable thing" that we all sense, but can't quite comprehend, or even touch—except briefly, every once in a while. We keep reaching for it, because what else is there to do? We know it's possible because we have glimpsed it. Maybe while reading a Bruno Schulz story.

What could the pathos of adjectives or the haughtiness of epithets avail in the face of that measureless thing, that magnificence beyond reckoning? The reader, at all events, the true reader on whom this novel relies, will surely understand when I look deep into his eyes and shine there with that same radiance. In that brief but forceful look, that fleeting grip of the hand, he will apprehend, accept, anticipate. And he will close his eyes in rapture at that profound recognition; for do not we all, under the table that separates us, hold one another secretly by the hand?
                              —Bruno Schulz, “The Book

#




 
Heorhiy Narbut, illustration for The Crane and the Heron and Bear 1907







Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writing Classes — Fall 2014

See my Upcoming Classes Page for information about Fall 2014 classes. And/or use the form at the right to contact me.