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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Words and Music

     Music has the power to move us in ways that border the astonishing. With just a few notes it can change our mood in ways dramatic. A fanfare can make us smile, while a musical joke may bring a chuckle. Music can invoke the power of the raging sea or transport us to the tranquil moments leading to sleep. And it can do that all without words.
     Couple speech to that power and the possibilities are limitless. That combination of lyric and melody can inspire us to love, patriotism, and even despair. We whistle a happy song when we pass a graveyard, and celebrate the anniversary of our birth with a little ditty. It permeates our lives. Words bring the thought and music the emotion. Together they can accomplish miracles.
     So how, you ask, does that relate to writing fiction? That’s easy. Most of us have a voice, our instrument, that’s less than impressive. There are few, a very few, who were born with an intuition of song that makes them a natural fit to some aspect of music. The rest of us, should we pursue a singing career, must develop those skills through practice and study. And because the instrument we’re given as a birthright does not usually embody perfection, most of the most successful popular singers make do with something less than that. Even Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of jazz, and someone blessed with a voice that only a precious few possess, had to be guided into the best use of her talents. And so it is with writing.
     The problem is that as we grow through our teen years we learn to present the emotional part of our stories through the physical techniques that are also useful when performing music. As we present the facts of the story with our words, we present the melody—the emotional aspect—though sweeping hand gestures, changing expression, intonation, modulation, body-language, hesitation, and the many tricks of delivery in the storyteller’s bag of tricks. We stop and shake our heads as if in sorrow, and our audience is given important emotional information. We lean toward the audience and speak softly, and they know we’re about to relate a secret.
     But then we turn to recording our stories in print. We can record the words, yes, but what about the music? What happens to the melody played by that marvelously expressive instrument, the human voice? Where is that interpretive dance we do to tell our audience, visually, the things they absolutely need to know if they’re to understand the character’s motivation?
     Gone. All gone.
     On the page lie our words, the lyrics of our song, lifeless, devoid of all emotion.
     And the reader, the one we’ve appointed to sing our song? What of them?
     Hand me the song lyrics to, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the melody begins to play on the iPod of my mind before my eyes read more then the title. That’s true for almost any song we already know. But what about the song we don’t know? We’re handed the lyrics and told to sing to ourselves. But how can we do that? We don’t know what a line we’re about to sing says, factually or emotionally, until after we read it.
     How do we solve that problem when we give someone our brand new song? If we’re with them we sing it. If not, we may hand them a recording. But if neither are available? We supply the musical notation and the lyrics, the sheet music. The singer now has both, the words and music, the facts and the emotion. And in writing we have exactly the same situation. We need to present the reader with the facts of the story, while, at the same time, making them feel the emotion the character does.
     Over time, writers have developed the tricks of presentation that will give our reader what’s necessary to know our story as we do, from the inside, so to speak. Properly presented, we can make the audience feel is if time is passing, and can motivate the reader to speak the dialog as we would—as the actual character would. We can pass them the emotional part of the story by making them experience it, not just hear about it. It’s one thing to tell the reader that Sam was glad to see Ella when she enters the room, but quite another to make the reader say, “Damn, I’m glad she’s back. I like Ella.”
     The thing to remember: you’re not telling your reader a story. Your reader is a musical instrument—your musical instrument. They are both amazingly powerful and flexible, and certainly worth learning how to play. So don’t tell them a story. Take the time to learn to make them live it.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Show and Tell


 

     Hello, it’s me, the grumpy old writing coach. Today I thought I might crush a cherished belief or two. One I particularly like says that you need to show everything your character senses. That, you’ll be told, will keep you off the stage and place the reader inside the character’s head.
     Will it? Sure. Just like sitting inside a robot. You’ll be watching the world through view-screens and reading status reports from the other senses: “S/he saw… s/he smelled… s/he felt…” And how much like the character will that make you feel?
     But suppose you could be a phantom presence, instead, standing right where the character is, seeing for yourself everything the character sees—as the character perceives it—knowing everything the character knows, thinks and wants, yet still able to be yourself and make your own evaluation of the situation? And suppose that’s happening in a way that gives the feeling that time is passing? Suddenly you’re not only able to be the character, you can do better, and advise the character on what to do next. True, they’re not going to listen. They never do. But that doesn’t matter, any more then it did when you shouted advice at the TV screen last week when you thought no one was listening. In fact, if you handle it well enough, as the writer, when the reader gives that advice it will be exactly what the character wants to do, giving the reader the feeling that their advice is being acted on.
     Cherished belief number two: Tell the reader everything the character sees, senses, smells, touches, and hears, and the reader will become the character.
     But they don’t. You can’t really become the people in the book you’re reading. You can only become a character, yourself. But isn’t that what we really want to be? You don’t want to be agent James Bond, you want his job and his life for yourself.
     So what does that mean? It means you don’t tell the reader what your character sees, you tell what, of all the things they’re sensing in that instant, they will pay attention to next. Little change. Big difference.
     Then, as a reader, you experience what the character does—from the character’s perspective in time and space—and do that before the character does, so you can begin making your own decision as to the importance of events and how to respond to them. The character, and his or her reaction, will be the yardstick by which you measure your own. As a participant you’re doing something that can’t happen when you’re in that robot’s control room: You begin to create alternate, and possible solutions to the problems being posed, just as you do in your own life. Now and then you may even stop, close your eyes and daydream how the scene would go if you were living it and in control of the situation. If you can make a reader do that they’re participants, not readers. And if you do it just right they won’t have time to stop and daydream because they’re too busy experiencing the story.
     One final cherished belief to demolish today: There is no tooth fairy. Sorry.
 
So now on to grading your homework assignment.
     A while ago I asked you to look through your own writing and see that every single action was motivated by some stimulis. For those of you whose dog ate the homework. I’ll give you a minute to recheck.
     Here’s why it matters. Would you buy a story that said:

*

     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times.

*

     It’s a series of physical world happenings unreferenced to any human reaction other than to look, and then pay no attention. It’s motivation with no reaction. It’s reporting. Lots of people trying to be writers do exactly that.
     So let’s turn that around and show reaction with no motivation. Does it work any better?

*

     Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.

*

     This, by the way, is also typical of what we see from the new writer. So what’s wrong? We don’t know why he thinks it’s spring. The dog comes toward him but as far as we know he didn’t see or hear it before it’s reported in motion at his feet. And he thinks of days past, but why? Because of the dog? A flower? The season? No, he just does it because it’s pretty, and poetic. A reader would understand, but not be drawn in because they participated not at all.
     Of course you’ve guessed where I’m going with this, because in your life everything you do or think has its basis in some motivating event. You sense, and in response you react on a gut level. You then internalize the event, you think about it, and finally you take action. It may take an instant, or it could take an hour to complete.
     That next motivating act might be the result of your last reaction—a response to your heaving a brick into the wet cement, perhaps. It might be pang of hunger that pulls you away from what you’re doing. It can be anything, but in unbroken chain, cause and effect march through your life, as it must through the lives of every character in your story. And that’s the true difference between show and tell.

*

     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many.
     Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend.
     An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.

*

     In completion there is beauty

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Deconstructing Samantha


 

     Many people seem convinced that to learn to write, all you need do is read, and there on the pages lie the secrets of the masters, ripe for plucking. But can it be that easy? Can you learn to be a good bowler by watching an expert? Can we learn to cook by eating good foods? We all read, so it seems strange that so few of us achieve success of that level, if it’s that easy.
     Certainly, by reading we can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And we can generate benchmarks for ourselves, with which to measure the success of our own work. But any profession has trade secrets. And any profession has a body of knowledge that must be studied and mastered by practicing until it’s automatic, because those things aren’t obvious—or intuitive.
     Reading, or even closely examining any finished product tells you little about the process—unless you know that process so well, yourself, you “recognize the tool marks.” And the whys—the necessities—of a line being stated as it is, instead of another way, aren’t obvious.
     Wouldn’t you love to have a marked up copy of your favorite favorite author’s first draft, to see what was changed in editing? How about a conversation with that author on what he or she was attempting to do, and what the role of every line is, in contributing to that goal?
     I’m not your favorite writer, and I make no claim to be a writer of great skill, but none-the-less, I’m going to take the opening scene of Samanta And The Bear and deconstruct it for you, so you can see why I did certain things. I chose Samantha for this because it sold, which means I was doing at least some things right. Plus, it’s been republished, and could use a bit of shameless promotion.
     A suggestion and a challenge: Read the scene first, without referring to the notes, to get your reaction and see if the situation becomes at all real to you. Then go to the comments to learn why I did a given thing. See how often you nod and say, “I knew that.”
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Samantha and the Bear – opening scene:
 
     It was the kind of cold that bit at her face like tiny rodent teeth—so intense that the moisture in her nostrils froze each time she inhaled[1].
     As the night deepened [2] Samantha worked her way deeper and deeper into the blankets, but there was no place left to go. She woke to find herself huddled into a heat conserving ball, shivering[3].
     The breeze that huffed around the building at dusk was now the angry hiss of wind overlaid with ice crystals[4]. The cold, unbearable then, was now beyond anything she could have imagined.
     Until tonight it was an annoyance to spend her time bundled up in layer after layer of clothing. Now, as she gathered her courage to leave the bedding she was afraid.[5]
     The van? The road was impassible, but its heater could still provide warmth[6].
     But she had no confidence in its ancient battery, and if she made the attempt and was unable to start the engine there was little chance she would survive the trip back to the house.
     Bracing herself, Samantha pulled the covers from her face, opening her eyes to near darkness. The lantern had gone out so the only light came from the burners of the stove, their flames reduced to half their normal length by the chill[7]. A glance at the windows showed new snow had drifted against the wall and was covering half the glass[8]. Sometime during the night a storm-front must have passed through the area, bringing new snow and an arctic cold.
     With an effort, she slid from the table and limped toward the stove, to warm her hands enough to change the tank on the lantern[9]. The house had no functioning heater so she was forced to sleep in the kitchen, where the stove burned constantly. It helped only a little.
     She tried to read the thermometer mounted just outside the window but there was not enough light. It didn’t matter, though. It was cold enough to kill her. Nearly fifteen below when she had crawled into the blankets, it was well beyond that, now[10].
     Ten minutes later she was trying to hold back tears. She had changed the lantern’s cylinder, but the cold was so great that she was unable to get the lantern to light[11]. Back at the stove once more, she huddled herself as close to the burners as she could without setting her clothing alight, listening to the wind and assessing her chances of survival. They weren’t good. Unless she found a way to warm her feet she would soon be unable to stand, and if she fell she would die. She estimated that she had less than a half hour before that occurred[12].
     If I could curl up in a frying pan like a strip of bacon, that would be heaven. She blinked, then, as something tickled at her cold-fogged brain. It was a stupid idea—a desperate solution to a problem that had no solution.
     But, if it works…[13]…
     Praying that she was not simply hurrying her death, she extinguished all but one of the burners. Then, on legs that were numb, and as responsive as stilts, she hobbled to the table for a chair, one with arms [14] that would support her in sleep.
     It took much of her remaining strength to lift the chair to the stove-top and center it over the burner[15]. Most of the rest was spent in wrapping aluminum foil around the periphery of the chair’s legs to keep her blankets from the flame.
     The rest of the job, moving her blankets and the dragging a second chair to use as a step-stool, were tasks she could never quite recall, but in the end she was enthroned high over the kitchen floor, the burner beneath her and warming her tented bedding.
     It took nearly fifteen minutes, but it finally came: first the jangling pain that heralded a resumption of feeling in her fingers and toes, then blessed, life-restoring heat. Not just warmth, but true heat, spreading through her like a balm, thawing her bones and restoring her soul[16].
     It was an uncomfortable place to sit and a worse place to sleep, but she didn’t care, she was warm, and nothing else mattered. Slowly, her chattering jaw unclenched, and slowly the shivering of her body subsided. Slowly, she came back to life.
     Just before she drifted off to sleep she imagined a snow sprite peering in through the window, its whiskers quivering in surprise to see the queen of winter holding court in a frozen Oregon kitchen[17]. The thought pleased her very much. I may look like an idiot, Mr. Sprite, but I won for a change. This time I won!
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     The why of it:
 
1. The first line is the single most important one in the story, because you only get one chance at a first impression. I added this scene as a prologue to the novel, because the original first chapter, while it ends with excitement and what I think is a really good hook, began with: “Don’t forget the newspaper, Miss Hanover.” That’s hardly impressive enough to make you say, “I have to read more.” I also wanted the readers to know that Samantha is a stronger person than she appears to be in the following few chapters, so I inserted a prologue and began with a sensation that combines the cold most people have felt—cold that bites the cheeks—with the hair freezing in their nostrils, something most haven’t, to make them feel what she’s feeling. There was also a tiny hope that if they’ve never been out in –12 or lower, they would say, “Your nostril hair freezes? That’s gross… but interesting.”
 
2. I used this term, rather then something simple, like “passed” to take advantage of the connection between “deep in the night” and depth, as in the temperature being as low as it can get.
 
3. Everyone’s been there, at least so far as huddling under the covers. Again, I’m trying to draw the reader in via shared experience.
 
4. A simple line, but I rephrased it endlessly, trying to say it in an interesting way while giving a picture of the current—and past—situation, outside.
 
5. This paragraph both sets up for the shock of cold and gives tiny bit of backstory. Note that I framed it as information on the current situation, so the reader doesn’t realize they’re being fed a bit of backstory on what happened before they arrived.
 
6. I’ve coupled her actual thought with the meaning of that thought. It’s a part of my personal writing style, to show the thought and give its meaning, as if to herself. I can’t tell if it works, it just feels right to me. Others use different techniques, and there is no right or wrong way.
 
7. I placed her action before I filled in the details on the room so they could be her observations as she sat up. Note that doing it that way removes the need for the author to give the information or even put in “she observed,” etc. A little thing like “opened her eyes to near darkness,” tells us that Samantha noted darkness. Saying it as, “It was pitch black in the cabin when Samantha opened her eyes,” puts the author into the role of reporter rather then being a kind of translator.
 
8. Again, I use her action as a way to put in more of the scene-setting detail. The trick is that she now knows of what I described, and will react to it, which pulls me further from the picture. Even though I’m telling about the storm front, she’s the one seemingly observing it, so we’re inside her head, not mine. That matters.
 
9. Seemingly a straightforward action, but in reality a setup for disappointment. The next line is pure backstory, but I could see no way out of slipping it in, so I kept it as short and as related to her present condition as possible.
 
10. Adding in cause for her state of mind, here, and placing the reader there with her, as her hope has reason to ebb further. As a minor point, it’s bad form to start a story with only one actor on stage, for any length of time. Faced with the challenge of a single person on stage I created a second one—her enemy—the weather.
 
11. I’ve been there, too, as a scoutmaster to a troop waking up in a cabin in which the temperature was –12°f. The obvious solution is to hold the tank over the stove to warm it, but I wanted the reader to shout that to her, and realize that she was too cold to think straight. And if they didn’t think of the solution they see that she’s in trouble and say, “Oh shit,” along with her, so it still works. You need to be aware of the state of mind of your readers, both those who know less then you do about a given subject and those who know more.
 
12. The problem has been stated, and now we add in a deadline and penalty, to make it acute.
 
13. Strangely, I was painted into in a corner till she mentioned curling up in a frying pan. Samanta thought of the way out, not me—which is why you want to know your characters, and let the action flow from the way they would behave, not the way your plot seems to indicate.
 
14. A friend pointed out that she would tumble out of any chair that had no arms, so I mentioned arms on the chair to reflect that. You need readers to catch what you miss, and there will be a lot of that, because you see the scene in your mind, and know what’s supposed to happen. Unfortunately, what you typed may not be what you see.
 
15. My wife nearly killed me when I put a kitchen chair on our stove, to see if what I was having her do was possible. Pointing out that I’d put cardboard under the legs to keep from scratching the stove didn’t help much. I didn’t sit on the chair, though. A modern stove would support me but be damaged. An old time stove would handle the load easily. In any case, Samantha was past caring, at that point. Note that I didn’t dwell on the actual job of readying the chair because it has no importance to the story. It’s the result, a place to sit, that counts. I put in the aluminum foil business, though, because without it her blankets might burn—or at least some people might think so and would question that.
 
16. The pain was added because people who had been that cold complained that I didn’t mention it. And of course, it’s told from her point of view so you can feel her triumph.
 
17. This was added later, as a foreshadowing. The man is real, a neighbor, though she’s still too fogged with hypothermia to realize that.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Batman Is My Role Model


 

     People sometimes ask me what books they might read to learn the craft of fiction writing, and I usually suggest, Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, or perhaps Debra Dixon’s, GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict. But lately, I’ve been telling them to read a comic book, because everything that matters can be found there. Batman can teach you how to write.
     People often look down on comic books, and those who write them as unworthy, but many of them are master writers, who know their craft, and know what really matters, so far as getting a story told.
     So let’s look at a typical comic book and see what makes it tick:
 
     When we enter the story things are going well. Our hero, Atomic Wedgie-Man, has a nice supply of criminals to thwart, who never seem to wise up to the fact that they can’t win. So, life is good. This is pretty much what you can expect at the beginning of any novel. We meet and get to know the characters. They have dreams and plans for a predictable future, but we know that’s not to be. Things will go to hell pretty rapidly, because it’s the nature of stories to have that happen.
     And sure enough, on a routine patrol Wedgie-Man encounters a problem, the foe who refuses to be classified. Our hero tries the usual things, but they prove ineffective, and because of some unexpected ability or device, the criminal escapes. It’s more annoying than troublesome. But still, our protagonist seems to have lost the skirmish. He needs to treat his wounds, salve his damaged pride, and decide what to do next.
     In a novel, we often call that the inciting incident. Your protagonist’s comfortable and stable world has been knocked over. Perhaps he’s just met the woman who makes him say “wow!” and she seems uninterested. Perhaps the pilot of an airliner has just learned that one of his passengers is a madman. Whatever it is, uncertainty has just entered the story and a new long-term goal has been introduced. It might be revenge, survival, or a date for the prom. But no matter what it is, it’s something the protagonist both wants and needs. And, it’s something with just a bit of urgency to it, which brings with it what the reader feeds on: tension.
     So, with a new plan and renewed dedication, Wedgie-Man reenters the fray. But, victory is not his, and his nemesis not only wins again, our hero must retire from the field or lose everything. Things have just gotten a whole lot more serious. Our protagonist may be wounded. He may escape thru some “just in case,” contingency he carried into battle. But make no mistake, he has lost the battle, and knows it.
     As in our novel, despite everything our hero has done, the girl he favors still thinks him a fool. Worse, she’s showing interest in the man who wants her only to thwart our hero.
     And that sequence continues: regroup and rethink, try the new plan and fail again—in scene after scene, as the stakes are raised and the focus inexorably narrows. One by one the options fall away. In fact, things become so serious, and so personal, that Wedgie-man questions his own dedication, and the need to continue—as do we. As readers, we may even suggest he say to hell with it. Yet, what choice does he have? One by one, as we watch, his options disappear, till all that’s left is to run or risk all in a hopeless final confrontation. But flight, while it may be attractive, isn’t one of his options. Perhaps the city is held hostage, endangering many lives. Perhaps a woman who Wedgie-man loves or respects will be harmed if he fails to act. Whatever the reason, he has no choice but to continue, though the situation appears hopeless.
     And so we have the black moment, when the climactic battle has been joined, and our hero is on the threshold of defeat. In that moment, in desperation, our hero looks around seeking something, anything, that might be used to turn the tables. And there it is, the lucky break that poetic justice says must be there. It may be a piece of discarded chain lying within reach. It might be a handful of dust snatched from the floor. It could be the admission or compromise the protagonist swore never to make, thus changing his definition of what he will and will not permit himself to do. For Wedgie-man, it might be a chance glimpse of the antagonist’s waistband protruding at the back of his pants as he bends over to administer the death-blow. But whatever it is, we take advantage of the hero’s one true and reliable weapon, dumb luck, in order to snatch victory away from the antagonist. A reach, a grab, a quick pull and Atomic Wedgie-Man is once again victorious.
     And that climactic moment, as always, brings us to our feet, cheering. Our hero has prevailed, and all that remains is the denouement, where the hero learns what the prize is, for having been steadfast and heroic.
     Okay, laugh if you will, but that sequence encapsulates humanity’s hopes and dreams, and has been bringing cheers from listeners, viewers, and readers for thousands of years. It’s what made the movie Rocky so memorable, and it fueled every Batman film. It played out in The Devil Wears Prada, and in every Nora Roberts novel.
     But is it simply a formula? Is it, “Do this,” followed by “Next, do that,” with no talent or creativity involved?” Does it reduce our writing to a sheeplike, “me too,” status? Of course not. Godzilla and Changeling both follow that same path, as did, Lord of the Rings, and, Harry Potter. Does that mean there’s no creativity that went in their creation? No. A great deal of creativity is required to convince the reader that this story is unique, and not at all like those they’ve already read.
     Are they simply different tellings of the same story? Yes, they are, in the respect that there is constantly rising tension, interrupted by places where a reader can “catch their breath,” followed by the climax and the denouement, playing out as they always have. But are they lifeless retellings because of that? Of course not. They’re a recognition of human nature, and desire. They’re what has often been called the hero’s journey.
     Can we vary from the formula? Sure, if we do it knowingly and with purpose. But would you want to invest hours in following a protagonist who, in the end, turns out to be unworthy of the time you’ve spent with him/her? Do you want the story to end, after the hero has been steadfast and resourceful, in defeat with no hope of redemption, and the hero unchanged from when we met him/her? Maybe, as a change of pace, and if the author can deliver an exciting and satisfying reading experience. But, read that as a steady diet? Absolutely not.
     So what should you be looking at to learn how to write? I’ll still go with the two I usually recommend, first, but for a good overview of how and why it works, go read a comic book.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Addiction

Addiction
     The meeting room was small, with that seedy drab sameness possessed by service organizations the world over. The graffiti flecked walls were a dirty pastel green and mildly in need of paint, while the flickering fluorescent lights had long lost their reflective grillwork to the ravages of mid-city air—the once white paint coated to a greasy tan that absorbed rather than reflected what light remained in the old bulbs.
     The audience numbered less than twenty, and were scattered among the rickety chairs, whose battered desk flaps attested to the multiple uses to which the room was subjected.
     As a group, the people gathered there were unexceptional, a cross section of American culture, though something, perhaps a slight tenseness around the eyes, and a reluctance to indulge in close conversation, indicated that this was not another Monday night literary association or religious group. These people were gathered for more serious purpose.
     In the front portion of the room the inevitable rickety podium, and the also inevitable row of chairs for the comfort of those conducting the meeting, gathered. In the rear, the coffee pot burbled to itself as it prepared for the onslaught of the social period at the meeting’s end.
     The ritual of opening the meeting and reading the minutes was completed, as was the equally dull invocation of God’s blessing on those gathered there. It was finally time for the introduction of the newest member.
     The chairman glanced behind him, to verify that the man had not fled before the time of his presentation. In spite of a mental bet that the man would not be able to go through with his ordeal—a common occurrence among those who came to that room for help—he remained. It was a good sign. Those who stood to testify could not be coerced or cajoled into speech. When it was the right time for them they would know it. Until then, nothing on earth could drive them to stay. In this case, surprisingly, the man remained, although the tension lines on his face overshadowed the pain the chairman had seen there earlier, when the little man had quietly slipped into the room.
     He could not long remain unnoticed, however. His dress alone gave him away: torn and patched pants below a shirt that displayed a veritable menu of his encounters with life. He wore shoes of a sort—cast off sneakers with gaping holes through which his toes peered—but socks were a luxury he obviously could not afford. In the life he had probably been living, even removing his shoes to sleep was not allowed, lest he wake to find those meager symbols of status gone.
     His eyes, too, gave him away, the shifting distrustful eyes of the street-person, overlaid with the driving urgency of his need. He had hit bottom, and in his despair had finally admitted to himself that he could not go it alone. At last, he was ready to turn to others for help. It was his time.
     The chairman turned back to the podium. His voice, as he began, was deliberately calm and matter of fact, and his words chosen with care. The man sitting behind him needed reassurance. He needed to know that he was not unusual, simply another in a long line of those seeking the support the people in that room could provide. There was warmth in the chairman’s voice when he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new brother with us tonight, a man who needs us, and the help we can give him. I’ve spoken with him, and have explained that each of us here in this room have, at one time, stood in his shoes. Each of us has taken the step of unburdening their souls to those who understand their suffering.”
     He turned, motioning the little man forward; urging him, when his resolve seemed in danger of giving way. “Please, even I took my turn here,” he said, gently. “It’s easier than you think.” He smiled reassuringly. “Believe me, only the first few words are hard.”
     The man finally sighed, and, seeming to steel himself against what was to come, stood and moved to join the chairman at the podium. That man smiled and patted his guest on the shoulder, whispering reassurance as he stepped to one side, motioning toward those seated and waiting. “Go on, Sam, you’ll do fine. I’ll be right here.”

     Sam stepped to the podium, regretting his decision to come and wishing he could be almost anywhere else. But it was to late. Clutching tightly to the small rail at the rear of the podium, he centered himself defensively behind its feeble protection, distancing himself from those in the room.
     He looked out over the faces gathered there, most smiling their own reassurance at him, some frowning as though in remembered pain. He took a long breath, in an attempt to steady himself for what was to come, his eyes darting toward the chairman, attempting to gain a measure of strength in his close presence. But that man had taken a step backward, making him the center of the room’s attention.
     He slumped. There was nowhere to run, and no way to deny anymore. All he could do was clamp down on emotion, to keep the despair from his voice—if that was even possible.
      But possible or not, he was committed. There was time only for a quick glance around for reassurance, a deep breath, and, “My name is Sam, and I’m…” He sighed, then bowed his head, shaking it in shame. “… I’m a writer.”
     The words were said at last, and they hung over the room, the shame in them almost like a living presence. He raised his head then, and stared at those facing him, daring someone to laugh. But there was no laughter, only the warmth of their support for his pain. Shared pain.
     He had named the devil, though, and now the words came easier.
     “I started small; letters to the editor and stories for my kids. They never published the letters, but I assumed that it was because there were many responses on the same issues. He hesitated. It was time for the brutal truth. Time to stop lying to himself. He squared his shoulders and forced himself to go on, saying, “I couldn’t see…wouldn’t see…that it was because I simply had no talent for the written word.”
     Ignoring the stir from the audience he plunged on. “I tried to improve the quality of my letters—to add humor and insight that might have been missing. It took a year, but then a disaster happened: I was published.” He leaned forward, gripping the podium. “My words had appeared in print!” His voice was strong now, as was he, filled with the self-loathing the admission brought. “No matter that the letter was heavily edited, it had been printed! My words were read by thousands! I was no longer an writer, I was an author!
     He snorted in disgust. “That simple letter was my undoing. After that it was just a matter of time. I began to carry a small pad, and, wherever I was I began to write down story ideas and thoughts for articles. I bought a word-processor and I learned to type. Slowly, the devil began to rule my life.”
     He paused, breathing hard, the chairman’s steadying hand on his shoulder helping to bring him under control. Now that he was started, the story was bursting to be freed, a catharsis of his agony.
     “You probably know the story… I began to write in the evenings, ignoring the television set and even my family, submitting my work to short-story magazines.” He laughed “I wasn’t rejected, I told myself, there were simply too many other good stories that month, and the professionals had the name that was necessary to break into the closed circle of authors. I couldn’t see!” He sighed. “I didn’t want to.
     “Then came the novels, and even more time with the keyboard. Soon evenings became entire nights, as my life began to center on my addiction.” He shook his head. “Though I could never see it as an addiction. I still thought of it as a hobby.”
     He sighed. “One by one I lost my friends. Not only did I stop returning their calls—I saw their calls as interruptions, you see…” He spread his hands. “When I did see them I saddled them with manuscripts, forcing friends to read them and then questioning them at length as to plot twists and characterization.” He laughed “They began to avoid me. I can’t say I blame them.”
     He hung his head for a moment, before continuing, in a voice devoid of emotion.
      “My regular work began to suffer as I daydreamed plots and story lines instead of paying attention to business. As time went on, and I sank deeper into addiction, I began to sneak a half-hour here and there to make story notes, finally abandoning all pretense of work.”
     He closed his eyes in remembered pain. “When I lost my job for the first time I tried to give it up. I realized what writing was doing to me, even then, but I had sunk too far…too far. By that time I was reduced to carrying my short stories with me, maneuvering conversations with strangers to the subject of writing and then forcing copies on my unsuspecting victims.” He looked at nothing for a moment, lost in memories, then snorted, adding, “The money I wasted on duplicating, alone…”
     He pressed his face into his hands as he gained strength for what had to come next. When he lowered his hands he made no effort to keep the resignation from his voice.
      “It went quickly after that. My family left me, of course. They still loved me, I think, but they really had no choice. I know it was hard for them, but I hardly noticed.
     “Without a job, and with no other source of income, I soon found myself on the street, begging for food money, but in reality, using it to buy paper and pencils to feed my addiction.
     “Even that didn’t last… It couldn’t.” He stopped for a moment, eyes focused on nothing. Then, returning to the present, he shook himself awake with a short bark of a laugh. “I woke this morning to find myself under the platform of the subway.” His voice was strong now. “I tried to make myself get up and get something to eat, but I couldn’t; I had to write something first!” His voice was a reflection of the darkness inside. “Do you know? Have you felt the soul-searing need that grips your very being?” He stepped around the podium, arms stretched forward in supplication. “I-wrote-on-a-wall! I had no paper, and still I couldn’t stop doing it!” He sank to his knees, reaching out, pain a tearing shriek in his voice. “Please…please help me before I write again.” He collapsed on himself then, a miserable figure of a man, alone in his need, sobbing, face pressed against his hands.
     But he was not to remain alone. Heedless of the stinking filth of his clothing, a woman hurried forward to gather him in her arms. Quickly, the others came forward to form a human bulwark against his pain, helping him to his seat and remaining for a moment, whispering individual words of encouragement to him before slipping back to their places.
     Once more the chairman stood at the podium. He spoke to the group, but his words were really meant for the man behind him. “We all share that affliction with Sam, and well know his pain. For so many years, the disease of writership was unknown, masked by the success of that small group of people who possess an actual talent for writing. It was assumed that those of us who suffered and starved for the written word were simply misguided. It has only been a few years since Stafford’s great discovery that writing is an addiction, one as darkly destructive as alcohol or drugs…one that destroys more lives each year than even tobacco.”
     He paused, nodding. “But now that the sickness has been identified for what it is, we can treat it, and even identify it in the young, preventing its taking hold in children; possibly the worst tragedy of all. With avoidance therapy, and the latest advance, ridicule therapy, those of us who have fallen may rise once more, to control those terrible urges and become productive members of society again.” He leaned forward, his eyes bright. “There is even hope that in time we will find a way to allow social writing by addicts without triggering a relapse in their condition.” That statement brought a stir of interest from the audience. He held up a warning hand. “Nothing definite yet, I’m afraid, but in the latest issue of Writer’s Anonymous, there was an article on just that possibility.
     The meeting slowly dragged its way to a close, the closing prayer signaling a release from the hard chairs. With a final comment of, “Don’t forget to feed the coffee kitty,” the chairman turned to Sam, only to find him gone. With the prayer he had slipped quickly through the nearby door, unable to face the group on a personal basis. The chairman shrugged, then turned to the podium to collect his things. But the podium was bare. His notebook and pencil were gone. For a moment there was a flick of anger, but he suppressed it. The book was gone, and this was not really unexpected—though he had hoped that the little man was ready. Many of those who visited this room for the first time could not stay for long. But it was a start. There always had to be that start: an admitting of the problem. When he was ready he would be back. They always came back.
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     Author’s note: Please…help me. Stop me before I write again.
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     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2011 in Short Story

 

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Care and Feeding of Peeves – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Care and Feeding of Peeves – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Care and Feeding of Peeves


 

     At times, it seems the job of a grumpy writing coach is a lot like that of a zookeeper, because of the number of pet peeves I have to feed and care for. And lately, the biggest one, the podium peeve, has been a positive pain in the neck.
     I’ve been making the rounds of the various writing venues, and counting the stories that are told as a transcript of the storyteller at the podium, against those in which we seem to literally be with the character, as observers and participants. By my count, it’s close to ninety-five percent told as if the reader were sitting across the table from the writer.
     Now, good sense would seem to say that they’re on to something, and that if so many people write that way they must be right. Certainly, the reviews people give each other on such sites would seem to say that. Unfortunately, a look at the bookstores says that while many books are written in omniscient mode, few are written as an extended one-sided conversation between writer and reader.
     So the question arises: How can intelligent people make such a dumb mistake? Why don’t those stupid editors realize they’re wrong and embrace the majority viewpoint?
     It’s the answer to that question that’s the subject of this particular rant.
     First, I need you to perform a thought experiment. You’ll like it because we’re about to make you a famous storyteller, one who fills theaters with people anxious to hear what you have to say.
     Ready? Here we go:
     Tonight’s storytelling performance will be especially good, and the house is sold out. It’s a story that has love, betrayal, adventure, and a host of subplots that will grab the audience where they live, and bring a standing ovation at the conclusion—and it has every time you’ve performed it.
     There’s only one problem. It’s a half-hour before curtain time you’ve come down with laryngitis. You can’t even whisper. So what can you do? Cancel, and refund the ticket price? It looks like that’s the only choice, until…
     The stage manager says he has a great idea. His nephew has volunteered to take your place. The boy’s not a trained storyteller, of course, and he’s neither read nor heard the story. In fact, he’s never been on stage before. But he loves to read, though he stumbles occasionally on unfamiliar words.
     Unfortunately, because of the short time before the curtain goes up, and your uncooperative throat, you can’t even give the boy stage directions, or pointers on how to present the various characters. So it’s going to be a cold-read of the words of your presentation, by someone without a clue of how you want it done.
     
     So, here’s the question: Given that situation, what do you think the chances are that there’s going to be a standing ovation tonight? What are the odds the nephew will duplicate your expression, body-language, tone, delivery, and those little pauses you toss in for emphasis? How about where you just sigh, give the audience a long suffering look, and then spread your hands in the eloquent shrug that’s your trademark? Will he know to do that—and where?
     You had better be saying “really good,” because that is precisely the job every writer assigns their reader. And that’s exactly how much training they have for the job.
     That reader takes your words and will apply the proper voice to it as they read—but only if you make it clear exactly what that voice is. And if you don’t, they’ll have to guess, and do that before they even know what a given line will say.
     So… Would you like to know why you can’t use a transcript of you telling the story, directly, and why the techniques of the fiction writer are a lot more than just fluff? It’s because the reader can neither see nor hear you. It’s that simple—or should be. Somehow, though, no one ever seems to get it—other then those pesky editors who keep rejecting our stories.
     Since the reader can neither see nor hear you, how can you talk to them? You can’t.
     How can you let them know about your protagonist, and what their life has been like? You can’t.
     Who is there to bring the reader up to date and introduce the opening of the story? No one. You just open it. You raise the curtain, cue the actors, and you get out of their way while they perform your little play—or better yet, live it.
     Is it beginning to dawn on you that you haven’t a clue of how to do that? It should. It’s what I’ve been telling you for all along. Face it. You can’t write. Your mother can’t write, and your neighbor is even worse. Why? Because writing fiction is no more a natural skill than was learning to place words on the page in the first place.
     There you sit, ready to write your story. You’ve even diagrammed it, so you know every character, every thought, and every expression on everyone’s face. All you need do is record it. But in what medium? You have a choice. It could be told on film. It could be a play. You might tell it verbally. Or, you could turn it into a novel.
     Now, if you write it as a screenplay, do you need specialized knowledge? Of course. And if you write that film script can it be used for a stage version? Of course not, the constraints of the media differ. Having a slow motion fight on stage would be pretty silly, for example. But slow motion is an effective tool in filmed work.
     My point? Why would you believe that storytelling and novel writing use exactly the same techniques? Given that you were taught nothing about making a film in school, why would you believe you were given what you need to write a novel—or a story to be told by the campfire?
     But we all believe we know everything about the act of writing. Every single one of us, even our teachers believe that. When we sit down to write that story we’ve mapped out, we never doubt, for one second that while we would need to learn the craft-set used for what amounts to brain-to-screen translation, we already own the brain-to-novel set, and the brain-to-storyteller set. But we don’t. What we do own is the brain-to-gossip set, and the brain-to-office-writing set. And it all boils down to something I’ve already said, in quoting Mark Twain, who was an extraordinarily perceptive man: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
     So you want to be a writer? Great. I applaud you, and encourage you to go for it. The world needs more crazy people. And you want to be a published author? Fantastic. But here’s a secret: Experience is a stairway, one that leads upward. But education? That’s the Star-Trek transporter that allows you to zap past whole flights of stairs.
     If you’re looking for a shortcut to success—the magic bullet that rockets you to the top—turn to another writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
     So what can you do? Where do you turn for a writer’s education that will give you the tools you need but won’t bankrupt you? Start at your local library, there’s a wealth of information there, written by those who know from experience what works and what doesn’t. And while you’re there, look for a book titled, “Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain.” It’s the book that every writer needs to have in their library, because it covers the basics of how to approach the job—the nuts-and-bolts elements that all stories have in common. It tells how to get out from behind the podium and into the prompter’s booth, giving direction and purpose to the actors without getting in their way. And if Swain’s work isn’t there, look for Jack Bickham’s, Scene and Structure, a book almost as good.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
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Posted by on April 27, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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