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Can I still do it? Shake off the frost and post here knowing who reads, and who doesn’t, and what expectations I have set? I share this as an opening to relate the vulnerable, very human feeling of being faced with the great canvas.

I’ve been writing, sure. Things are moving along.

I’ve learned much in the year I’ve been absent. Adventuring not to different countries this time but different worlds, geo-politically in a sense. It doesn’t feel like a year, but then I haven’t been able to say much. The irony of gaining access to the more venerable doors is that you lose the ability to talk about much of what is going on. When the purpose is to share rather than promote yourself, anonymity is your friend. At least, by the bar I’ve set here. Not that I haven’t been called out already. In nice ways. Which brings me to my point. How do you sustain?

I don’t mean in the “How am I going to face the NY Times Bestseller list for yet another week? Ennui! Privileged people problems! Calgon!” way.

Even then you still feel the same visceral self-ness you’ve been shouldering all this time thinking there would be some rightness in the end game. Heavy stuff, but hang on. That’s actually a good thing. That’s better than good. That’s brilliant. That’s where the shiniest truths emerge.

Being a writer isn’t a reinvention, it’s an expansion. You. The universe. Hang on. The sugar plumbs dancing in our heads aren’t the reward. Rule one of writer club: don’t confuse the fat lady for the scenery. The reward of keeping the inner aspects of yourself that you once found (or still find) squirmy is knowing you live in a zeitgeist with people who can share with you the same little signal moments of lightning you bow over first to them. Surprising, glowing little moments of shared wonder or pain, or company. Shooting stars of illumination. Flares of path light in the distance. Near heartbeats to slow our own panic.

We are all here for such a short period of time. What stirred this post was not only the need to re-connect with this experiment – and you – whoever you are who keeps twitching my statistics to make me smile knowing this may help salt your path, or who knows what you are doing with it. Have fun. What motivates me is the understanding of someone who gets that even if you have a shrine of awards, or a shrine of bulk-purchased, single-ply you hope makes it past Thursday so you don’t have to liberate the bar bathroom nano-ply next door (again) – that you are still suffering the same, unavoidable fact of your writer existence.

I love every doe-eyed, sad, angry, elated, arms out on the balcony or cliff’s edge to the sunset one of you. I can say that completely sober and mean it because I’ve had a year to go off and see how many people who’ve made it still suffer from the same unavoidable reality. Whatever you were secretly nervous about at fourteen, or twenty-four, or forty, or eighty, sticks to your ribs, and yes you can go to therapy and become one of the West Side, card-carrying, made creative elite, but you will still wake up on a cold sweat on occasion whether you remember it or not, and those things will motivate you to pick up a pen or miss your stop thinking about them from time to time.

Yes, I live in New York. Yes, I clawed my way up the drapes one handful of organza at a time. Great floss, that. Yes, it’s changed me dramatically and clearly marks a difference when I see where everyone’s path diverged. Though how much I can’t yet say. I’ve reconnected with friends who literally landed on the four corners of the earth. Turns out there was something to our little clique after all. Plotters. Every one. And even though I got what I was after (be careful what you wish for) I’m arriving at many truths my doubles found in the heat of the tropics, the arctic north, far east, and lastly sitting in a plastic lawn chair in our old back yard, trading our exotic baubles for early kids and early retirement. Who gets the last laugh I wonder?

I will never retire. This used to terrify me. Now the idea of retiring terrifies me. Not because I can’t think of a million things to do with an afternoon, and lust heavily at times for the opportunity, but because retiring in this sense means throwing in the towel. We can’t get back what we lost.

In exchange for living in interesting times, I’ve tasted a lot of what I always wondered about. Last week I finally discovered the secret to the answer 42.

Go on, ask. There really is one. It’s pretty inspiring and worth finding. And you do absolutely know it’s exactly what Adams meant. Like everything in my life, I discovered this little gem in the course of a completely unrelated research project, and didn’t even seen the synchronicity until the final finish line moments, like this glowing reward for gritting through. As far as longstanding authorial Easter eggs go, that one turned out to be truly nod worthy. Call it luck if you like. But you know, he died at 41, so circle back to this post.

What is the difference between writing, a medium intended to stay around long after we are gone, versus just sitting around a fire being a performer and living what might be a truer source of the craft: bringing the fire to the night, kissing the watchful faces of everyone in the circle with that glow.

The difference is how history is created.

Look at it this way: of all the brilliant performances and works ever written, only a tiny grain of them have ever survived. Not just the good ones, a wide array, almost a completely random assortment.

The new research on why we die is illuminating. Supposedly in virtual models, a society that never dies of old age eventually dies due to lack of adaptation. How long did dinosaurs live? Depends on how you see them: collectively as fossils, or individual as very large and successful moving rocks. That died. And never came back. We know nothing of what they could have become.

The species that died, or dies continuously to force room for the next generation created us. Now that we have the insane problems of our family dysfunction as a species firmly established, we can see how totally unavoidable it was that we all ended up frothing, volatile beakers, largely unattended until someone noticed the magnetic phone interference and electrical problems thirty floors down. We are dangerous because we are in an experiment we created.

The first little amoeba said to the second: “I’ll wait here. You have the crumb. I’ve had my life, and I love you more than dessert.”

Some say the whole construct we’re applying is simply our own coping mechanism against the chaos. I say, yes! Both! Neither! Open the box and find out! Open another box and find out if it happens again! I am a writer.

So are you.

The bad news: you will lose your life and there is no cake. So you get even less than the lone romantic amoeba who had an actual hand in all this.

(As it turns out, romanticism in amoebas wasn’t a success for evolution purposes in the amoeba per se but the decision still turned out to be a good one.)

The better news: you are the sum total of a million-trillion molecular, astrophysical, bio-revolutionary mistaken paths that worked.

Welcome to your existence, the intersection of a trillion-trillion-trillion lucky breaks. You’re a fractal that pulsed awake and stayed together instead of breaking apart within three weeks. 18,144,000 seconds to convince your mother before she noticed. You are Christmas cake made of stardust. Lick your lips when you taste the cold. You are sunshine.

I can be a million-trillion molecular, astrophysical, bio-revolutionary illusions. I am a writer. I can be anything. Anything. And so can you, because the thing about being a totally unmonitored experiment is all the beta features we’re passing along to the next generation. Because the harder it is to fit in at that dull day job, or gazing out the window on those family vacations you have to just remember are material, the more James Bond top secret gadgets you’re going to light your shoes on fire with as soon as you find them – attached to your own inherent existence. This is the secret of what makes life so obscenely compelling. This is the mystery and sheer, utter joy of it.

You either take the pledge to test them out or let them die with you, and if they die with you, it’s highly possible no one will ever seen what you could have uncovered. The uncomfortable parts that aren’t fully releasable yet will have no author to master them. But wait, you are a writer. You don’t even have to read the manual to become the fiery spectacle you are. The task of being interesting all on your own comes in exchange for the things you wouldn’t have had anyway. Because let’s face it, a trillion-trillion-trillion combinations later, you still wouldn’t be whoever you think you’d rather be.

But…

There is a cost. For every one of us still chasing shadows and bringing the light forward as best as we’re able, given the circumstances of our experimental nature, the result of which absolutely requires our free will, some have fallen. Our speed race is against the death of our ability to carry forward all the other success that will be lost. Loving the mechanics of being together circling the fire is loving the beating heart of being human. If we don’t love the collective, we cannot sustain. That doesn’t have to mean agreeing with it, in fact most times loving something and agreeing to let it fail are completely opposite impulses. Take our love struck, hypothetical amoeba, for instance.

People, some at least, are natural performance artists. We do it because we do. Art of the early primordial variety is the stuff that we were programmed with to guarantee the pilot light comes on when it’s time. That happens to spark the same cascade of future art spilling ahead like a line of gasoline to light the spectacle for the next. Sometimes the light gets lit too early, and that has other implications. Sometimes it gets lit too late. Both require a lot of strength to get through if you found the wrong forest or saw the reflection of a past or future forest lit before you were able.

But if we don’t test out all these glorious, terrifying experiments we call ourselves, we leave nothing. We lose all the beautiful joys we ourselves experienced as a result of the previous tenants.

Case in point. You likely do not know Lesley Harpold.

But her writing lives still. Hers was either an incredible life, or a performance pulled off to the fullest degree of any performance stunt known to me. Her life would be unbelievable to me if I hadn’t said the same several times over the course of many others. People have presumed me gone or in danger of being gone before, which is a bit unsettling the first time it happens. Actually, this is a pretty strong reoccurring theme in the lives of writers, either those scattered into hiding from the repercussions of particularly effective alter-egos, or those who really are what we might call “off being dedicated.”

In my usual skeptic sense on the uncertain things in life, I can only say bravo to what I read of Lesley’s that turned into a two-hour exploration of what it means to touch lives anonymously. Whoever or where ever she is, or whether you believe or not, this is the legacy she left, starting with the piece I read.

http://workbench.cadenhead.org/leslie-harpold/possible-scenarios-for-heaven.html

I’d say this is another case of a forest clearing I came upon too late.

And to anyone wondering how to keep going…

So what if all these crazy experimental aspects of being human were landed upon us in a flourish of cold mathematical beauty? So what if there is or isn’t someone watching. We have ourselves. You can blame teacups in space and still come to the same conclusion. There were beautiful people out there years before now, the best of which make us who we are today, and in order for that to have any meaning moving forward, we do our part. We go forth.

And when we are done, we can just know, remembering the fireworks lit at the coldest moments around us, that the ship does not go down with the crew.

Spark your flares and send some memories ahead. You know they’re watching. Remind them it was worth waiting for.

It’s a boastful assertion, but some comfort to the many writers I see struggle to come to grips with the reason why good writing takes so long. You know you have a good story. You just need to know how to get it to the completed draft. There are ways to make it through when nothing else works.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few hard and fast rules to keep in mind, but typically the alternative process goes like this: you can pool from direct experiences to get something solid very quickly that is unpolished and in the rough, or you can wait a while, delicately approaching a subject repeatedly in different lights and moods, and like da Vinci use thin layers over long periods to produce something highly structured and refined. There’s no one way, or right way, or better way to do it. But frequently for dedicated writers the problem is not a lack of writing ability, because let’s face it, that part isn’t impossible, but rather the weight of the writing itself. Part of making it to the finish line is daring to believe you have something good to offer the world. The other part is realizing when you are in a small dingy with a lasso roped around the tip of an iceberg, with only a tiny paddle to make your way home with your inspiration, because that’s what it is. What you see or think you see is not what you are dealing with. Not really. Not if you’re here, still reading, and any of this rings true.

The point is to keep approaching the darkest doors you have yet to open with the deepest textures ingrained in them, because those are the same doors no one opens, and they stay closed for difficult reasons. You have them, they are there, and they are beckoning.

Plenty of times a story sags or goes brittle and falls apart or we lose interest simply because the structure underneath was not strong enough to hold it, or the little bits of fluff we intended to tack onto it simply weren’t interesting and full enough to cover what we wished. But nothing much compares to the difficulty most genuine and earnest writers face. You can see and feel the anguish from them at coffee or over dinner, or in their holiday updates, and you know something is stuck by the way they avoid that most awful of questions. When will it be done?

Of course, this is like asking God, when will the universe be done? If it hadn’t been such a pain to create, there wouldn’t have been so much about productivity once it was finished. Or is it? But that’s a question for another story.

What I humbly offer people who are writing good work, talented friends and struggling acquaintances I want to comfort, is simply this. You must lock eyes on the thing that makes you squirm. You must write all the harder when your cursor hovers over any possible distraction to get you out of the red zone, that uncomfortable on the nose place you must invent and uncover and lay bare about yourself so that others can dance around it and be safely distanced and comfortable confronting it after you’ve built the cage to hold it.

Whenever you get the need to reach out and send the signal to eject, sit on your hands and think. This is not genius advice by any stretch, but it is the most successful for getting done the project you really have in you, that you really want to complete, and the one that will ultimately be the most fulfilling as a creator, instead of skirting around all the little amusements that so many writers fall into while they are waiting to get the courage to say the thing that made them writers in the first place.

The shortest distance between two points is a direct line. It will be hard to write this way, but if you are reading this journal you have probably tired of the other advice anyway. Here’s my best shot to help you, because we are in the same line of work.

Write what scares the hell out of you. Write the thing you won’t share face to face or even think about for fear of ruining your day. Write the thing you cannot speak any other way. Sit there refusing to give in to the part of you that is scared off and instead make sense of the world you have found to build past all the fantastic mind palaces that were already so easily conquered in the past.

Go to the place you cannot go and open the door colored the blackest of night you cannot touch and find out what’s there. Something good happens afterward. You’ll have something that’s yours, that you believe in. The fight to leave what compels you will take over for the blank page you cannot fill. It is a reversal just as hard, but you will never wonder what to write again. You’ll always have something powerful and rich and compelling to write once you start from that place.

I have never felt what other people call writer’s block. I’ll even wager that what most people casually dismiss as a lack of discipline or procrastination due to lack of direction is really only this: the real truth, the one knocking about and asking for you by name, the thing they don’t tell you in pastel-covered writing self-help books is that real writing, like real living, or real anything is terrifying. Writing isn’t make believe. It’s pure fear, dipped in caramel. When you find yourself turning as far away from a word or subject or whisper as you can, that is exactly where you should be heading for your next line. Realize when you’re doing this, why you’re pulling away, and how that procrastination actually means you have exactly found the point at which you will write best and truest and most like your own voice. Consciously go after it, daily building up a tolerance for that thing waiting that you cannot face, and the block will go away.

It is so much easier to soften what is too true or too on the nose than to invent what is false. You will be happier with the outcome, I think.

Procrastination in writers is deathly not because it takes time, but because it teaches us to keep missing the obvious talents in ourselves that are waiting for us to make use of our personal truths we are secretly chasing without knowing that is exactly why we write.

Follow those dim lights down those dark corridors. Be willing to let the candle go out where you walk. Let your eyes adjust.

That’s my ghost story for the season.

Bisous

I just read Plot to Punctuation’s Top 9 Character Tips for 2009 for additional tips for character development not just in the scope of avoiding stereotypes. These are great tips by Jason Black.

As a follow-up Elements of a Novel writes:
“All stories are about people, even when they’re about rabbits. And the stories that move us most, the ones that stick inside years later, are those inhabited by characters we can connect with and admire. And no characters resonate more than those who in the course of a story learned how to transcend their own flaws and weaknesses to do something great—this is known as a Character Arc…”

I’m sure there are many other good resources on this topic and I’ll add them here as I find them. I’m discovering Twitter to be an incredibly invaluable resource for all sorts of amazing links.

Some of my new favorite blogs are:

InkyGirl.com A wonderful resource from Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who regularly posts great links on just about anything new writers might encounter. Her comics are great and her icon makes me smile. Hey, what can I say. She’s doing a ton to help the writing community. I don’t think people get enough credit considering how much time it takes to blog, write, etc.

Teresa Gomes runs quotes for writers, with plenty of inspiration. One of the great advantages to writing is that you have the thoughts of your predecessors already written down. I say, use it. Amazing people referenced daily.

Screenwriter John August keeps an insightful blog up on screenwriting, and it’s great to read multidisciplinary material. Screenwriting is very structured as a necessity of production. Thinking like a screenwriter can help with plays, novels, story boarding, and outlines to cut down on development time from inspiration to draft.

Nathan Bransford keeps a blog as a writer and literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. He’s written Jacob Wonderbar and The Cosmic Space Kapow and offers interactive contests with perspectives on the entries. This is a great learning tool.

Cheryl Klein is listed as a Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and an editor at Scholastic. I find her posts really helpful and thought-provoking. She’s already helped my writing style since I’ve been reading her posts and I’m sure has influenced large swaths of re-writes in the right direction for many people. I highly suggest her to anyone interested in creating relevant manuscripts. Be warned she posts query letters.

I’m one of those people who respects being given the tools for self improvement, and then going off and working on it with minimal harassment on my part. Agents like Janet Reid create a persona I think to warn of their standards, but even this is done with best intentions in mind for the author. If you read her blog, she gives useful information and her honest thoughts on what makes for successful writing.

10 Traits of a Good Writing

1. Relevance. Stories that are timeless today were all relevant back then.
There’s an intriguing glimpse at the hopes and fears of the past which highlight our own.
2. Dialogue. The ability to communicate effectively and minimally.
3. Character. Character like good dialog is the creation of an insider world with the tools of subtext, linking each scene to the next for payoffs and paybacks to keep the readership or audience paying attention to the clues along the way.
4. Story. Story is the reflecting basic human archetypes, no matter how we may scramble them up like a rubik’s cube.
5. Clarity. The ability to write actions and activity which externalize characterization is essential for stage.
6. Metaphor. Externalization of action creates easier visualization for readers as well as audiences, often in the form of a unique symbolism that lives on after the work is finished.
7. Complexity. Modern and ancient readers never went for Dick and Jane. We misunderstand and oversimplify rich and forgotten subtexts from cultures we’ve moved too far away from to recognize in earlier works. B-plots have always been around, and were used correctly to balance the more difficult material encountered in the main message.
8. Structure. You can be the brightest literary genius of all time, but if you don’t understand how to frame your work, your reel will never play through at a scale your readers or audience can watch. It will always be stuck in your head until you discipline your work not to exceed the limits of human endurance.
9. Brevity.
10. Stealth. Never let them see it coming. Use externalization to create vivid visualization for unique metaphors your story can call your own. A unique metaphor means the connection is not overused and will be less likely to give your surprises away.

10 Traits of a Good Writer

1. Persistence. For those tapped to write, there is no choice in the matter. Persistence is the art of refinement.
2. Insight. Writing isn’t about gaining attention, it’s about giving insight – rare and hard won experiences you don’t want to tell.
3. Daring. Throughout history the best loved minds were mostly beheaded. This isn’t a warning, it’s a call.
4. Discipline. Writing is the art of starting. It doesn’t happen without planning – an outline, a beat sheet, and coffee.
5. Forgiveness. Single note emotions prejudice the story. Layered onto the deepest, darkest emotions, a little levity must fall.
6. Wonder. Perspective refreshes an old view. The untried angle is found through wonder.
7. Memory. A good memory creates a reality in writing that outdoes the detail we take in through normal experience. Writing has a resolution much like high definition.
8. Ethics. If a writer lies, the stories go stale, and if writers tell the truth, they live by it as well, producing the greatest stories.
9. Hope. Whether it’s a rejection pile or the character rising for act four, hope really does float us all.
10. Desire. If a writer has nothing else in the whole world, let it be desire because that sparks all. We are after all, only human.

Become a Manuscript Whisperer

You’ve seen those strange shows. Reality tv aimed at getting your pet/horse/strange Japanese youtube character to follow some unspoken direction. Creating a cohesive whole – otherwise known as story design – is a lot like getting some animal to animate in convincingly human terms.

‘Writing’ is ‘what I did on my summer vacation/personal fantasy on the train’ – but ‘Story Design’ is laying the bricks of a very rugged and methodical oven. It’s so unlike initial creative instincts to ‘just write’ – because it’s practically antimatter by comparison. It’s supposed to invisibly hold everything together, creating a speed and direction that seems like magic to the outside observer.

Writer’s Myth # 1:

Writers come up with a what-if and that becomes the premise of the story, right?

You’d think, but not from what I’ve seen. New writers get zapped with what-ifs meant to drive the dialog, but they usually end up being the arc of a specific scene, which will echo by and then be recorded. The larger story design has yet to materialize.

Which brings us to the tools of Manuscript Whispering…

Manuscript Whispering Step 1: The Notebook that Never Was

Keep the smallest moleskin possible on your body at all times. You are diabetic, and that notebook is the antidote. Be subtle if you need to, make it an address book, etc. but you need that notebook more than your laptop, keys or the litany of other usual suspects in distracting devices.

When some what-if story idea appears, one you really feel strongly would be a good story, write it down. You’ll know when it’s the right kind of thought bubble. It will demand your pen immediately. But before you set your pen down afterwards, write down whatever the characters would do or say in that situation in order to…

A. PHYSICALLY and EMOTIONALLY *GET* to that scene…
B. REACT after it happens… (and with who?)

You will naturally come to the end of the scene using these before/after prompts, and what’s more, you’re creating cohesive, self-contained units of story building blocks that don’t depend on you knowing the end of the entire story arc to constructively develop on their own.

Other uses for your Whisperings:

a. character names
b. ironically juxtaposed character profiles
c. titles and unusual little symbolisms
b. your theme/pitch/unique gimmick.

This is your primordial goo of evolving ideas. No one should see it but you. Moleskins come with convenient elastic straps for this purpose. You’ll be surprised how many people feel better once their loved ones have their votes reneged.

Manuscript Whispering Step 2: The Gimmick that’s Not

Give up on the idea that you would never use a ‘gimmick’ and understand your ideas will need to be looked at with a critical marketing perspective. Something unique or starkly differentiating your story from all the others like it – that is a gimmick. That’s all it is. You can have a pure art. Finding a playful way to make it worth reading to someone other than you is unavoidable. Also, it’s easier to agree with yourself on that gimmick from the beginning. Back-peddling on this is a bear.

Writer’s Myth #2

Pitch-writing is hard and takes a certain extroversion writers don’t have.

I will challenge you to a duel on this one. Writers are excellent communicators. Most writers who find they can’t pitch will discover the problem is with their ‘gimmick’ or uniquely differentiating idea. It’s not there. Ideas which are cliche are going to sound lame because they are. A little secret? Your gimmick is your story arc. They’re like mirror twins. Don’t look!

Manuscript Whispering Step 3: The Character in the Negative

A lot of a writer’s time is spent on defining what a character IS. This isn’t bad. But what if you read the blocks of story dialog you’ve collected over, say, a six month period, realize what kinds of characteristics are being projected in these discrete expressions of your growing story DNA, and then reversed them?

Balance in a story is what conflict is made – and resolved – from. If you have a lot of blocks that are red (heated dialog) – what is their common subject? If not a subject, a motivation. Once you’ve defined the similarities, next come up with characters to defy the ones you’ve already created on these common themes. If you already have too many characters, as many detail-oriented writers tend to create, begin to consciously ‘shadow’ the negative characteristic in another character. Likewise, a villain can only be so ‘bad’ before he or she is totally inaccessible, and therefore unrealistic, un-scary, and even worse, un-problematic. People cause us problems because we care about them. Dabbing similar shades of kindness and cruelty from your villains to your catalyst gatekeeper-types and vice-versa will give you the bridge conversations to ultimately net your story blocks together.

Even with the extraordinary adventures of every-day life, I’ve slowly built up an armory of these personal blocks. Writing software brags about them, but to DIY makes you a writer and gives you a chance to come up with the illusive, so-called “unique” idea that every writer is after.

You’ll dog-ear and number those blocks – it even helps to keep different color pens to separate them, or quickly color-code the mood or character of your off-hand writing in your notes. And in a about a week of on-the-side typing, you’ll have something you’ll actually like. It will stand on its own legs and look finished, even without the sheen of buffing and editing that will finally send it out of the plant.

Now does it sell? That’s a post for another weekend. But if you’re tired of manuscripts taking forever, and shouting the story out as a one-block continual narrative doesn’t work, try a little whispering.

I read one of the best defenses of writing for social causes this morning. The old adage swords are swift but quills sharper and easier to work with when you’re eating the morning toast comes to mind. At several pages it’s a real bit of actual writing, and is a deliciously thoughtful memoir by none other than author Neil Gaiman. He gets into the gritty of why edgy writing can ultimately help speak out about the realities people face, and in allowing possibly derogatory writing to exist, we generate the potential for a society which must face and react to it.

Gaiman argues (in a rather valiant effort) that by taking charge of our own preconceptions during the reactionary process of absorbing shocking art, we are ultimately growing into our own social responsibility. We’re allowing ourselves to become accountable as a society for much more powerful human experiences we may not have ever been presented with before. These things challenge us into understanding and forming an opinion on them. They make us think and decide and draw lines and ultimately solve the problems they highlight, and that’s a very good thing. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

It’s an excellent explanation for why writers must be at the forefront of shocking ideas – it becomes the responsibility of the writer to explore and make the reader aware of that which is hidden, shied away from, and instinctively rejected due to the limits of social propriety. I’m not saying embraced, but acknowledged, and accounted for in that human realities are not always (read: mostly never) what’s on the cover of the storybooks. The pat interpretive simplicities we are raised on give us the flat terrain of early childhood to enable us to grow into adults and that’s the point – growing into adults who can feel practiced enough on the bunny slopes of ethics to finally go after a few black diamonds in our broadening horizons. They offer space to place new steps of change.

Reach out for those diamonds, kids, for they shine the longest and are worth more than all the riches of any writing that came before.

After reading an enormous amount on writing and the craft of story-making, the following are my best picks for writers who want to cut to the chase.

Boring Yet Essential (I’ll keep it a short list.)

“The Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, 1918 There’s a reason this book is still around.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” Just be aware of what punctuation is actually supposed to be used for and you’ll be ahead of the curve, I assure you.

BTW, public service note: If your local library doesn’t at least keep one spare copy of EoS on hand, feel free to make them feel they must have failed in their civic duties and leave particularly suicidal-looking, preferably muttering wide-eyed about what happens to the ducks. This is for the benefit of all the other aspiring writers in your district. Heroic things can’t be argued with. Any librarian worth their salt will get the ducks commentary immediately and not feel too bad about your crafty ruse. They will however, be reminded to stock a copy of EoS every time they see a book cover by J. D. Salinger. Your job as patron and patriot will be complete.

Useful Plot Mechanics Guides

The awful truth is that screenwriters have been generating more of the good stuff on writing technique in recent years than any other subgroup of the species. Rather than scoff that you, my dear madame, are a real writer, (etc, etc.) instead take a dark pair of sun glasses, keep them permanently dangled from your shirt collar and be willing to read the commercialized reasons for why stuff works at the production studios. Publishing houses are a lot like production studios. They like what sells. While you don’t have to write what sells it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what in fact might get published. Just an idea.

“Story” by Robert McKee: Easily one of the most essential resources on the market. Hang your canvas on a well-built frame.

“How Not To Write a Novel” – Consider it the Mystery Science Theater or RiffTrax of novel reviews.

“Save the Cat” by Blake Snider: A clinical case study that references the myth cycle in terms of modern movies that have become part of the cultural cannon – a cannon you are probably borrowing from whether you realize it or not. Face this fact head on and embrace you inner movie affection-ado. It will save you some law suits further down the road and help you revision your idea from a uniquely untried perspective.

Just kidding. Everything’s been tried.

Inspiration on Learning The Craft

“The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers” by Betsy Lerner: A seasoned editor throws the writer on the couch and keeps him there until all the inner workings of why he writes are clear. Interesting analysis of not only why writers write, but how they can learn balance.

“On Writing” by Stephen King: Aliens and shape shifters may not be your thing, true. But King’s inner workings provide practical advice on how to take your fleeting ideas and apply them well to the genre of your choice. He narrates his own audio book, for the commuting inclined.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Why give you a speech when I can give you a sample? http://www.ursulakleguin.com/SteeringCraft_57B.html

Useful Writing Exercises

To be truthful, writing exercises stated as such are mostly touchy-feely research experiments by the head writer more than they are a genuine help to the young writer who is looking to gain something useful from a course.

Rather than exercise, just start treading down the miles of your marathon – as soon as possible. Even now, in fact, I’m hurrying through this god forsaken post so that I can shed the Betty Ford white robe of choice and go down stairs for some brunch and an uninterrupted afternoon with my latest project. [edit: will spellcheck ever come prepackaged with euphemism cross-reference? Otherwise all my allusions will have to be about Barry White?]

With that being said, this is the one book I’ve found as an excellent toolkit for the blank page:

“The Writer’s Book of Matches” by the fine folks at Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

Literary Journals

Since we’re bringing up literary journals, there are two good literary magazines that are worth at least a flip through at your local bookstore:

1. Fresh Boiled Peanuts (of course.) http://www.freshboiledpeanuts.com

2. Brick http://www.brickmag.com

3. And so I’ve heard: AND THEN literary magazine.

All the rest of course, are rubbish. You know one person can possibly know all the good books and magazines out there. My coffee table might fool some, but I cannot possibly know them all.

In a meeting this weekend to go over some scene construction, the discussion came around to how do you best transition a scene while keeping the present behavior of the character active and interesting? This is pretty fundamental, but often lost, and easy to add.

The key is often what’s known as a closed transition, or in the case of an introduction to a new character, a closed entrance.

In step one, you just have to define their point of reference in the scene – ie. what is their state? You can think of it almost as “what color are they wearing?” or “what emotion?” What’s their chord?

Indiana Jones has his hat and his stoic sense of watchfulness – he was always on to something, doing something and caught in the middle. In class he was already at the chalk board / interacting with students. In an action scene he was planting his whip on some tropical tree branch / yelling directions.

Multitasking has to be kept simple, but if used well it does three big things to enhance the experience of the introduction. The first is simple: It sets the character within a scene instead of awkwardly out of the ether. It closes the entrance like a camouflaged army unit strafing in an unrecognized pattern across the field. As the audience or reader, you’re never quite sure when you began to notice the character from the meaningful visual explanation of the backdrop, and that leads to a very realistic scene that doesn’t seem as contrived as it might otherwise.

The second enhancement of the closed entrance provides the needed connection with the image system. If you haven’t read or downloaded, or been to the McKee Story Seminar yet, then you really should. But if you have, you will be familiar with the metaphorical connection good films have to their mythologies – an often poetically unique substructure of meaningful metaphors that tie in external imagery to the internal motivational and emotional states of the characters.

The image system is an invisible, common bond between each character, who will react differently enough each in turn to the same symbols such that the audience is treated to a double layer of camouflage through the entrances and exits of the characters, and the meanings behind their actions. This is also the layer at which sub-plots arise, as mini-narratives that human beings will intrinsically find more narratively cohesive and will work to piece together on the sidelines as they maintain their interest to the main plot arc of the story.

Say you have a character who’s fundamental role in a manuscript will be the secret-keeper or handler of the insert-artifact-here. Having them come through a door that leads to a smoky back room in a casino, having just stuffed a large wad of bills into his or her purse or wallet is a closed entrance. Instantly the audience has a reason presented to them to be intrigued by the character. There’s never a sense that the character is waiting for their cue – they’re in action, moving props, body and expression. Readers need this entertainment, too, and what’s more it’s a lot easier to include actions and thinking in a novel, so they must be narrowed down all the more to make sure only the meaningful stuff is there to count. The rest can be swept away.

Probably the most important reason to write closed entrances though, is that as a writer you will need to know as you are writing what each of your characters represents. Each closed entrance is a checkpoint for the mechanics of how a character relates to the image system as well as how their state has changed relative to the rest of the scene.

Including a healthy dose of active dialogue and taught closed entrances and exits also leaves the energy of the scene all intact for the next scene change. Similar to come in late and leave early, the closed entry automatically creates just such an event, however minor, to incite a reason for your characters to relay the plot information you’ve intended.

On that note, it’s time for bed… yawn.

“In the middle of the silence in a writer’s house lies an invalid: the book being worked on.”
– Richard Eder

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“Will the reader turn the page?” – Catherine Drinker Bowen

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie Gabrielle

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

Thanks to Brainy Quotes.

Film Workshops Online is offering a free seminar Saturday, May 3 from 11:00 am – 12:00 pm on how to get a fresh start on new subject matter.

For some of us the problem is never shortage of ideas, but shortage of time. Most of us, even. I have a feeling large numbers of us are lunchers. However if you ever do find yourself stuck with a story you want to do, and a mechanical quandary you don’t know how to answer, this might just be the kick you need.

I thought this might be an apt topic considering the recent news of Harry Potter authoress J.K. Rowling, who’s suit against a fanfic writer attempting to publish an alphabetized list of her imaginary characters has many wondering why a study of the mythos surrounding a series that itself heavily borrows from myth would be considered infringement, or problematic to the author.

Ah, the meed-ja, as the British say. While I’ve sniffled in the past at the inability to quote full (short) works I’ve wanted to analyze and comment on, I must say that I’ve also found myself fully capable to express what I wanted to say without the crutch of the source materials.

Here’s the rub, and this goes for fan fic of all shapes and sizes: The BEST fiction, be it allusory to other work (most works typically are) or completely unusual (often in the way an in image system with a completely new metaphorical association has been crafted) all typically bring some sort of author-specific insight to the table.

In reading the Harry Potter “Secrets” paperbacks in the line at any chain bookstore, you will find, even after the incredibly insightful high points, that most of the content is a bit on the fluff. You might say this is because the author deftly uses the hot trend of the current pop subject matter to blend the reader into a more serious academic pursuit of deconstruction, but were that true, there would be no grounds upon which to have your trousers sued forth from your bottom.

One thing I protect dearly is the age old tradition of parody. I don’t mean meanness, for which it is sadly so often mistaken, but true parody in the sense of making light of the truly disastrous in an attempt to disarm our panic and lift our dread just enough to slip in a fresh, breezy injection of perspective that brings us all just a little further off the dirt floor of modern plasticine, and out just a little closer to the garden.

If you’ve ever read Rowling’s other self-written lexicons, they’re short little pamphlets anyone who comes in contact with children should at least be familiar with. But they’re also cute, and funny, with a hint of other information about her dizzying, operatic array of characters.

There have been rumors for ages about how she’s left her children alone and unattended while she went off to write, that she’s such a horrible writer from book one that it was made a children’s story, that she’s got a carrot for a nose and two lumps of cole for eye sockets and melts in the Summer until little children go and build her up again in the Winter time. Apparently the kids aren’t dead, none of the older ones look particularly starved or traumatized, except of course by the act of paparazzi stalking after them, and somehow the machine that is Harry Potter, whether you like it or absolutely despise it, has changed the whole map of modern English literature pretty much on the level that Charles Dickens did in his day.

It’s true, the first, from what I can tell in a flip-through, is simple simon. But that’s not the point, say her target fan base. Some of her later work, be it due to more relaxation on her editor’s part, or a more developed style gained through necessity, is quite moving, strangely at odds in some ways with the earlier books, but undeniably decent writing and well on par at the adult level. It’s not surprising young adult fans who have grown accustomed to her increasingly mature content to match their own developmental needs would then form a sort of cultural icon in her name.

In the face of that knowledge, a librarian who wants to make a book sorting a website’s worth of user-contributed fan-fic comments is possibly missing the point about what “Harry Potter” actually is — at least as much as an author who cares that a lexicon being published might actually even ding her titanium-plated hull.

But of course, she does make a good point. There’s only one author who can do the best job of writing a lexicon of all her imaginative inventions. It’s more a sign of the desperation and obsessive nature of fan writers that someone astute and determined enough to research and compile an entire lexicon of source research would, after all this time, never have it occur to them to use the million and one inspirational source works cited from ancient mythology to go off and write their own version entirely.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. I do it all the time, and I’ve helped other authors let go of the bottle in joint ventures to separate their genuinely good, original source work from the sloppy rough patches where they’ve glommed on to pop lit cliché instead of really finishing what they’ve started.

I know from the gate that I will likely be despised for ratting the old chains of “originality” and “artistic integrity” at first, but I also secretly know when they’re finally plotting their own original stories, because they’ve stopped waving them about to show everybody before they’re finished.

Real work is terrifyingly personal. It should be. And we should all be allowed to write that way because that’s the difference between slaving over a content carping website versus a billion dollar franchise, one imaginary character at a time.