Portrait of dignity


“Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”  ~ Richard Adams, Watership Down

Preparation for writing my own Damn Fine Story

So I’ve decided to do NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) this year and am spending my time before November 1st figuring out characters and outline. It’s intimidating to think about 50k words in 30 days and I’m fully aware my success depends on the very best road map I can create.

I had a cold shock the other day with the realization that my outline was a series of “and then” scenes (one event following another, without an increase in tension). As written, my outline was worthless. I’m not gonna have the luxury of taking breaks to noodle on how to increase conflict in the NaNo draft. I must have built-in conflict before I begin which means I need to link my scenes with “but” and “therefore.” Note: there are many links out there regarding Trey Parker’s explanation regarding “but, therefore”).

Last night I couldn’t sleep and spent hours in the dark thinking about my protagonist and what he’ll be up against in my new book. Tons of ideas bounced around my head (none of which I wrote down) and then I remembered what I’d read in Damn Fine Story (written by Chuck Wendig, profane and big-hearted gift to the writing world). To paraphrase: it doesn’t work to cram a plot onto a character; the characters drive the story.

This morning I reread Damn Fine Story’s chapter two: “Soylent Story: It’s Made Out of People.” And guess what? I’m feeling much better about my upcoming NaNo experience.

Thank you, Chuck!

Revision tip: bind that manuscript

As I wait to hear back from my agent on the middle-grade manuscript I sent her way, I want to document a new approach in my revision process. For the first time ever in the history of me writing books, I paid to have a manuscript bound. Here it is:

I was inspired by this tweet from author-extraordinaire Laurel Snyder:

Intrigued by the idea of revising in that tidy format, I asked Laurel if she printed single or double-sided and she responded that she did single sides because then she could write on the backs of pages. She also said she requested extra blank pages bound in the back for notes. Genius!

Before having my manuscript printed I switched it from the manuscript default (Times New Roman 12-point) to Garamond 12-point. I did that so my brain would see and read the pages differently. It came out to about 200 pages and cost me $22.

I applied my usual revision approach of reading the entire manuscript in one sitting. I always set the goal of reading without revising or making notes, but this time around was not at all successful. I tweaked sentences here and there early on and then forced myself to merely mark troublesome passages with CLUNKY. I made other general notes in the margins and then after finishing the manuscript wrote out big-picture thoughts/questions on a blank page in back.

Verdict? I loved working with a bound manuscript. All my notes and thoughts were in one place. I transferred my edits to my Word doc that was also color-coded with revision threads (green for anything dealing with X and yellow for Y and blue for Z and fuschia for wording still in need of tweaking). It was so easy to follow a plot/characterization thread from beginning to end.

I can’t wait to use this process again.

Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!

Apparently, today is #WinnieThePoohDay. I just pulled my Winnie-the-Pooh collection off the shelf in search of a passage to quote. After getting lost in the pages/memories, I chose the following:

Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
I don’t much mind if it rains or snows,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice new nose,
I don’t much care if it snows or thaws,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
Sing Ho! for a Bear!
Sing Ho! for a Pooh!
And I’ll have a little something in an hour or two!
(from In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole)

I can’t help but feel a kinship with Winnie-the-Pooh. He finds great happiness in composing silly little songs, and the next smackeral is always on his radar.

Thank you, A. A. Milne for all the smiles and fun-to-sing songs.
Happy Birthday to you.
Tiddly pom.

The shape of one-dimensional characters

Zippy and I just returned from our weekly date. It was his turn to choose and he chose Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER. I would not recommend the film. However, Sally Hawkins’s performance was lovely and the movie was so visually pleasing that I debated whether to recommend watching it without sound. Alas, I believe the heavy-handed characterization and plot line would still sledgehammer their way into your consciousness even without audio.

As a writer, I’m kinda pissed. The characters were lazy stereotypes, including Michael Shannon’s character who was so  over-the-top I nearly burst out laughing. That character didn’t have one shred of decency. Not one. Plus, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance in the film and absolutely zero question as to justice vs injustice. Zero question.

And you know that quote from Chekhov about the gun? (“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”)  Yep, THE SHAPE OF WATER committed that sin when a hard-boiled egg didn’t go off.

 

 

 

 

I’m out.

Listen up

Tonight Zippy, Wildebeest, Zebu, and I are going to watch the Nuggets play the 76ers. I’m excited because one of my favorite former Michigan State players, Gary Harris, plays for the Nuggets. Also, I love basketball.

However, that excitement doesn’t mean I won’t be packing a pen and notebook. Yes, I’m a basketball fan. But I’m also a writer who likes to be prepared, and as Tom Waits says: Any place is good for eavesdropping, if you know how to eavesdrop.

Even a basketball arena.

Me and Theda Bara

It was a productive day in the revision cave
and I’m feeling a bit like this:

Theda Bara in “Cleopatra,” 1917

Focused and just a wee bit crazed.
(Hey, it’s a better look than pasty-faced Tom Wolfe in his white suit.)

Souvenir of the day

My writing often contains souvenirs of the day
– a song I heard, a bird I saw –
which I then put into the novel.
~ Amy Tan

Thinking back on my writing day, I didn’t include a snippet of song or any bird images. Instead, I referenced a heartbreaking news item about a ten-year-old girl with serious health issues who has been caught up in this administration’s xenophobia-on-steroids policies. Tomorrow, I’ll try hard for a bird.

I am me and you are you

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you.
Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.
So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
~ Neil Gaiman

Started my day with some hoop dancing, and now it’s off to write.
Today feels like a wonderful day to be me.

Thanks for reading this. Now go be you.

Artist or criminal?

I’m sifting through the feedback I received from my critique group. Most everything offered either resonated with me right away (YES! That change is a must!) or fell flat on delivery (NOPE! That misses the point and/or is unnecesssary and/or etc). Those are the easy critique points. However, I’ve also got some tough calls to make, and those are now simmering in my middle mind.  Should I expand the mystery element of the story? Does X, Y, Z happen?  I’m hoping my middle mind has answers for me in the very near future.

In the meanwhile, I’m reveling in some of the truly messed-up things that happen in this book. Lest you think I’m alone in this kind of thinking:

Personally, I see little distinction between an artistic mentality and criminality.
You couldn’t possibly create a compelling story without some wickedness
or some fascination with the disgusting.
Being good is a hindrance to a writer.
~ Russell Smith

cremation ashes

Can I get an amen?

An ode to “Rectify”

Last night, Zippy and I watched the final episode of the four-season series “Rectify.” (Logline: A former death row inmate named Daniel Holden, who may have been wrongly convicted as a teen, comes home after nearly 20 years away.)

Zippy and I discovered the show on Netflix last year and were blown away by the first three seasons. At the time, the fourth was still in production and then it eventually became available. For months, I put off watching it because I knew that the story and characters deserved my absolute emotional attention. The show is quietly, beautifully, stunningly intense. There isn’t an empty calorie in those 30 episodes. Each episode must be savored and slowly digested, and I needed to be ready.

Today, I’m digesting. I’m thinking about all those characters and their stories. I’m ruminating on the complexities of justice and the legal system, and the horrors faced by people in prison and the dificulties ex-cons face once they get out. I’m missing Daniel’s sister, Amantha, and wishing we could be friends.

I can’t stop thinking about “Rectify.”

It’s the real deal. The writing is magnificent (and taught me much about storytelling and the power of character arcs), and the performances are extraordinary. Many scenes had me laughing and crying, and always, always thinking and feeling. The show is so damned good and creator Ray McKinnon deserves to have a star or tree or satellite dish named after him.

I’ll stop here. Please, if you haven’t yet seen it, make time in your life for “Rectify.”

So much more to a book

This photo hangs on the wall at my brother’s house. Here he is with the smiling Wildebeest and Zebu, many years ago. I’m not sure any of them remember the exact moment the picture was taken, but love and happiness are written all over this image. It’s no coincidence that a book’s involved.

There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.
~  Maurice Sendak

The male muse: an unaccountably rare thing

The male muse is an unaccountably rare thing in art.
Where does that leave female artists looking for inspiration?

~ Kate Christensen

Well, I’m a female artist currently working in close proximity to my male muse who is apparently lost in thoughts inspired by his whiteboard-muse. Inspiration comes in many forms.

Gotta respect the process.

Poking and prying with a purpose

The synopsis for my work-in-progress includes a plot point in which my protagonist has an accident that results in medical costs her family can’t afford. When I wrote it, I didn’t think much beyond that general idea. For the last couple days, I’ve been working on those scenes. And it’s slow-going. Why?

BECAUSE I’VE FALLEN DOWN A RABBIT HOLE.

How are federal poverty levels determined?
How much Medicaid coverage is available if the state declined federal funding?
What are hospital costs vs urgent care costs?
What happens if you miss an insurance payment?

It’s interesting (and infuriating) to do this kind of research in the shadow of the Repugnicans’ efforts to deny health care to millions of people for the sole purpose of giving the obscenely rich more tax breaks. If I’m not careful, my story could easily turn into a one-issue manifesto. (Universal health care, yo!)

I’m trying to keep this quote from Zora Neale Hurston in mind:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

I’m down this rabbit hole to better serve my plot and story.

The accumulation of detail

All fiction relies on the real world
in the sense that we all take in the world through our five senses
and we accumulate details, consciously or subconsciously.
This accumulation of detail can be drawn on when you write fiction.

~  Rohinton Mistry

So, a funny thing happened

I’m in the process of drafting a middle-grade novel, a story I started six years ago and then set aside after writing 50 pages. Those pages burst out of me with voice and vitality, from who knows where, and while it’s great fun to be reunited with those characters, my process for writing the brand new pages is very different. This time around, I’m using a synopsis as my guide.

I’ve never written a synopsis before completing a first draft. Ever.

Last spring, when I’d let my agent know about the project, she asked if I had a synopsis to send along with the newly revised 50 pages. Um, no. However, I decided to give the loathed document a whirl, with the caveat that I wouldn’t shoot for any specific length, rather, I’d include EVERYTHING. A week later, I sent her the pages plus a 10-page synopsis. And today, I did the unimaginable: I thanked her for suggesting a synopsis. I told her that it was helping me keep on track, which was, in turn, helping me keep writing.

Which is why I decided to devote today’s blog post to my newfound appreciation for knowing-what-in-the-hell-comes-next. So, I pulled THE ELEVENTH DRAFT: CRAFT AND THE WRITING LIFE FROM THE IOWA WRITERS’ WORKSHOP off the shelf in hopes of finding a passage to reinforce my synopsis love.

And wouldn’t you know, what resonated the most was an excerpt from Fred G. Leebron, a workshop student who arrived in Iowa with absolute faith in Freytag’s Triangle.

Except, the part of his essay “Not Knowing” that spoke to me was this:
One night in Iowa City, I sat and listened to our instructor recount his day of writing, how he followed a character down to the basement, where he heard a strange rustling, and the character turned and drew out his gun and shot in the dumbwaiter a rat. “And,” the instructor grinned, “I didn’t even know it was there.”

And I thought, “So you don’t have to know.”

Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!

I admit to feeling momentary panic about that blasted 10-page synopsis. But then I calmed the f*^% down. Just because I’ve charted a path for the story I’m writing does not in any way mean that I am beholden to that chart. It’s a general guide, nothing more. If a rat or gun or dumbwaiter shows up in the story, I’ll allow them time to lobby for their inclusion. I won’t automatically toss out anything that shows up to the party.

And when that panic and angst over being too structured returns, (because I know for a fact those emotions will return), I’m gonna come back to this right here. After all, I set out to write one kind of post, and quite happily ended up with another.

So. Many. Words.

Only 26 letters in the alphabet, yet so many words to choose from as I write this book. I’m not talking “damp” vs “moist.” ** I’m talking about the pressure of potentially stringing together words that inadvertently take my novel in a whole new direction. Words wield so much power.

But words are also a writer’s playground, and it can be very cool to play with them. Sometimes, though, writing a first draft reminds me what it was like to get off one of these old merry-go-rounds.

I’d be disoriented and slightly fearful about what I was about to crash into. I’m having that same feeling today.

** (Sorry, moist-haters, couldn’t resist)

A feeling of buoyancy and clarity

For me, when I ‘discover’ a story,
there is a feeling of buoyancy and clarity,
perhaps similar to early morning out on a prairie highway,
when darkness lifts and reveals
the outline of farmhouses and copses of trees in the distance.
~  David Bergen

Image from Pexels.com

 

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