Ordinary People: a writing exercise to capture characterization

Try writing Flash Fiction vignettes from different viewpoints and moments in the character's life

Try writing Flash Fiction vignettes from different viewpoints and moments in the character’s life

Writer and teach Margot Case offered a brilliant workshop at he Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama workshop entitled Ordinary People. We read excerpts from “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” by Donald Bartheleme, Sixty Stories.

I’d tried The Dead Father by Bartheleme, but found it at the wrong time and had never tried Donald Bartheleme again. What a mistake! I’m hot footing it to the book store to find more of his short stories.

Essentially, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” is written as a series of vignettes supposedly from Robert Kennedy’s life by various people’s viewpoints. It’s similar to a collection of Flash Fiction.

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Memory Babe: a writing exercise inspired by Jack Kerouac

Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Try finding the Resonant Detail in your descriptions by using evocative sense memories.

Wow! The beat goes on! Molten meltdown of mental memes send me searching shelves for slender volumes.

I’ve tried reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac three times in my life. I forced myself to finish it last time. But apparently I was reading the wrong Kerouac or the wrong format.

My 1st choice for second period of the Richard Hugo House Write-O-Rama was overflowing. So continuing the medieval mind theme for the day (still taking things a signs and portents), I’m at the Jack Kerouac class — Memory Babe with Deborah Woodard as our instructor.

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Pare It Down: a workshop on strong writing

Try using single syllable words to focus your writing. It can make it stronger and more dynamic.

Try using single syllable words to focus your writing. It can make it stronger and more dynamic.

My first Write-O-Rama workshop was “Pare It Down” with Anne Leigh Parrish. A workshop to get us to write simply and therefore strongly. Think Hemingway. Not one of my favorites. Not as pathetically macho as Mailer, but too focused so-called “masculine” values for me.

The idea was to choose strong words;  words of one syllable. If we couldn’t write with monosyllables, we were to go back and edit replacing polysyllabic words with monosyllabic ones.

Exercise: Pretend to write a letter using words of only one syllable.

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Write-O-Rama at Richard Hugo House Begins

The Write-O-Rama is a full-day smorgsbord of 1-hour workshops run as fundraiser for the Richard Hugo House. I arrived early. You never know about traffic and ferries coming from the Olympic Peninsula. Whenever I’m confident I’ll make a specific ferry that’s when I end up behind a caravan of RVs driven by near-sighted 80-year old sightseers. There’s a great group of volunteers at the Richard Hugo but couldn’t help but notice they were all female ranging from young teen to Baby Boomer but mostly 20’s & 30’s under the auspices of Chris & Kate. Registration went smoothly and people kept poring in.

For your minimum $45US donation, food is included. Vast quantities of food.  Lots of Costco food for breakfast which meant muffins the size of melons. If you ever get a chance to participate in a Write-O-Rama, it’s well worth it. If this is any example of their regular writer’s workshops, they are worth every penny and I signing up as soon as my husband gets a new job. They’re a writing non-profit that gives a lot back to the creative community.

I’d worn  jeans and boutique designer, black-brown,  sweater with a black coat. I should have worn the black, urban hiking boots. Black is still the new black in Seattle, apparently. There were lots of NaNoWriMo alumni in attendance. NaNoWriMo was a more popular topic than local real estate or the economic meltdown. I’m amazed that there are writers who still Don‘t know about NaNoWriMo.

My first workshop choice on Nature Writing was canceled when the teacher was stuck in traffic. So keeping with my “Medieval in P.A.” theme (see Being Medieval in P.A. About Write-O-Rama), I decided to try a literary workshop that hadn’t initially appealed.

Next up “Pare It Down” with Anne Leigh Parrish — a workshop on choosing strong words!

Being Medievel in P.A. About Write-O-Rama

In one of those “Be Careful What You Wish For” parables, I’ve spent most of this year being terribly useful. Shortly after I started working on my NaNoWriMo revisions in February, I was hired to fill-in as Interim Executive Director for an area Chamber of Commerce during a particularly nasty internal dust-up. (Bit like the The War of the Roses except with local business people and the local newspaper acting as the bad lawyer who eggs everyone on with a touch of Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics.) What was suppose to be part-time proved full-time (although not all the time was paid) and on top of that I spent time with an area design firm (where I discovered I couldn’t work in a fishbowl with my boss bellowing into phones next to me and the only view a sliver of sky and branch through a slit window near the ceiling).

Needless to say, writing time was limited. My blogging time was nil.

After doing an 8-week hell gig following the Chamber of Commerce, I desperately wanted to get back tow writing. I’d been reading a number of self-help books for some research (no, really, I’ve got a character who’s a self-help, woo-woo junkie). I’d just finished Deanna Davis’  The Law of Attraction in Action: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Transforming Your Life (No Matter Where You’re StartingFrom) — and decided “What the heck. I’m feeling good, let’s try give it a whirl!”

Now let me emphasize I’m a scientific method kind of gal. No healing mantras, aura diagnostics or just think positive and it will happen for me. But my mom always used to say, “Be careful what you think because you’ll attract it to you.” And I was ready for a bit of optimism. My husband had been laid off just the week before 12 days short of his 13th Anniversary with the company. And I’d been working with a couple of clients who were driving me a little nuts.

So I started working on my writing and focusing on how good I felt when working and how I great it felt when I was with other writers sharing stimulating ideas. I began focus all the good feelings writing to the idea of finding new writers to meet and getting a book out the door in 2009. Out of the blue an email arrived from the Richard Hugo House announcing the winter Write-O-Rama was the following Saturday!

Richard Hugo House in Seattle offers a home to writers and readers of all types through events, performances, classes, a library, residencies and more.  They have a huge zine library (they say the world’s largest at 20K publications, but it’s extremely slim in SF (let alone media fan zines) where zines were born in the 1930’s) and cafe with stage and an auditorium. And like all art non-profits, they can certainly use donations right now.

The Write-O-Rama is an entire day of 1-hour writing workshops by some notable area authors from a variety of fields that anyone can attend by getting (or making) donations of at least $45US. Of course, they’d like you to raise more if possible.

Of course, I was having some trouble justifying taking off for Seattle for a day of writer’s workshops no matter how noble the purpose and reasonable the cost.
Having just finished Ms. Davis’s book, I decided to be medieval in P.A. and take the arrival of the Write-O-Rama email as a sign. (In case you haven’t read it, there’s a terrific book called Medieval in LA by Jim Paul. The lead character has up to the start of the book had a modern mind, meaning he doesn’t believe in facts and reasoning as opposed to signs and portents of a medieval mind. But after an accident on a plane to L.A., he decides for one weekend he will being medieval and make decisions based on “signs”. Well written and it definitely makes you think about your choices.) I decided it was a sign I should go to the Write-O-Rama.

I had to either get written pledges for donations in 1 day or cough up the $45US myself. I decided to put Ms. Davis’s beliefs to the test. Now Ms. Davis doesn’t believe that the Laws of Attraction means you simply “put it out into the universe” or “want it with all your heart.” Nope. She believes that once you focus on what you want with laser-like intensity, your mind tells you what action to take next. My mind decided I should email a three friends who supported my writing efforts with the link, an explanation of the situation and asking that if they were thinking about buying me a holiday gift, they make the gift a donation pledge to Write-O-Rama in my name by 5pm PST that day.

At 4:45pm, knowing that 2 had donated but not knowing exactly how much, I pledged $20 for myself, emailed a friend in Seattle about getting together afterwards, and filled the car with gas. The friend in Seattle suggested I spend the night so I made a reservation at the Apple Genius Bar (hey, if I’m going in to the big city, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get those files transferred from my old iBook) and packed a bag.

To cut a long story short, I arrived at the Richard Hugo House to find that my total donations online were $80 in 5 hours. It proved the emotional and mental boost I needed.

Am I still skeptical of Ms. Davis’s methods? Well, one of my friends has offered to pay my tuition to a select writer’s conference in her town where editors and agents meet with writers to review proposals. And the friend is giving me crash space and carpool as well.

I’m welling over with gratitude to my friends and optimism about the New Year. (And pulling out projects to edit starting January 1st!)

How were the workshops? The short answer – Fantastic! The long answer – Keep reading. I’m going to run posts all this week about the event overall and the ones I attended.

Writing Critiques and Reading Like A Writer

The plan was to spend January completing the first draft of a memoir and then going back to work on the NaNoWriMo novel revisions. That was the plan.

I did, however, get to work tangentially on writing. A friend asked me to be a beta reader on the first draft of her first novel. She’s published some short things but this was her first complete, 90K word novel. I was honored.

Unfortunately, it’s in a genre I don’t often read outside of a small, narrow group of authors. So this required some research. I firmly believe that you have review things in context. Each genre or category has certain unique needs beyond the basics of good writing. Seriously, would you complain that “King Lear” didn’t have enough jokes? Or that there wasn’t enough romance in Carrie?

So in the course of a couple of weeks I re-read a half dozen titles that were successful financially and/or I considered some of the best of the genre as well as alternating between skimming and scanning about a dozen that were typical. I even plowed through as much as I could stand of the book that had sent me fleeing the fantasy aisle many years ago. (It didn’t get better with age — its or mine.)

I spent the better part of an hour randomly opening paperbacks from the rack at the grocery store. After the first six, I was about to write to my friend apologizing that I was totally unsuited to critique her book because I simply could not read more than a few paragraphs of the standard titles in her genre, when I picked up one last title, opened it at random — and found a delightful bit of good writing. I’m at the library right now, where I found the first of the author’s titles to check out and try. (Sorry, but unless a title or author is recommended by someone I completely trust or has multiple reviews that make it compelling, I always try new authors via the library first. This way I can keep affording to buy new releases, including hard copies, by the good authors.)

The point of all of this, is that I’ve spent the better part of the two months reading as a writer instead of a reader. When I read like a writer, I focus on things like the structure of the plot, how the characterization is handled, the development of tone and style. There are many times I’ve read something as a reader, completely lost in the story and characters, swept along by the pros; and then, I read the story again, this time as a writer noting how the author managed to capture me.

Some writers can write a plot that’s intrigues so completely, I ignore the less than perfect prose (My “potato chip” reads are mysteries). Others create characters that are such lively, fascinating companions, I myopically overlook plot holes — unless I fall in one. Then there are writers who voices are so witty and charming, I’m completely seduced. Often awaking to find a note on my beside table and my wallet emptied. And finally, there are the writers whose prose is so beautiful and graceful, I feel as if my own efforts resemble the first steps of a gawky teenager amongst the corps de ballet.

Periodically, when I feel I need a refresher course in how to read as a writer, I pull out my copy of Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them. While Ms. Prose (Isn’t that a wonderful name for a writer? I wonder if it’s too late to have mine legally changed?) targets the future M.F.A. candidate and completely eschews anything so plebian as “genre” authors, she does teach me how to read, both my own work and others, critically. And by “critically,” I mean objectively with a discerning eye and ear.

Here’s how she opens her book:

Can creative writing be taught?
…I answer by recalling my own valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took… Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical and sharp.

Here’s an example from her chapter on “Narration”:

… this device enabled me to overcome one of the obstacles confronting the novice writer. This hurdle disguises itself as the question of voice and of who is telling the story (should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?) when in fact the truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?

I had always assumed that I was alone in having discerned that the identity of the listener was a more vexing problem than the voice of the storyteller until I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.

Ms. Prose goes on to examine and dissect successful examples of narration ranging from Wuthering Heights to Anna Karenina, from Philip Carver to Isabel Walker to Mark Twain to Diane Johnson (Le Divorce, a book alas I didn’t finish because I was simply in the wrong mood. My mood is something else I have to keep in mind when critiquing my own or someone else’s work). I got more out of one trip through Reading Like A Writer than I did from an entire semester of writing class. If nothing else, I learned how a master writes a compound, complex sentence.

After a couple of months of reading like a writer, I’m ready to start writing for myself again. I’m encouraged by how badly some published authors write, humbled by how well some do and greatly inspired by the realization that I can improve my own initial drafts by applying some firm, disciplined manuscript critique.

To the keyboards! Tally Ho!

Working On a Working Site

Just a quick note about what’s coming now that NaNoWriMo 2007 is almost finished. (Okay, so I haven’t quite finished my novel rough draft — 4 more chapters –but I broke the 50K and have a few paragraphs roughing the last 4 chapters.)

I’ve published the first of many resource and writer’s tools postings to come. I figured at least a few NaNoWriMo participants would be starting to think about agents, so I pushed through the excellent information provided by Lisa Preston. I’ve also got some excellent information on queries collected at Edmond’s Write on the Sound Conference in October. I’ll try to get that up by next week.

I have several wonderful guidelines from author Janice MacDonald on the structure of a commercial fiction plot as seen from many different angles and approaches. I’ll be working that up and posting the information throughout December.

Additionally, I’ve been developing and collecting some worksheets for various elements of a novel that might be useful in both planning and editing. And not so finally, I’m going to start a category for Washington State writer’s groups. There are a number of people in Seattle looking to form ongoing writing groups to help them get their editing done on their NaNoWriMo projects. If you have or no of a writing group in Washington state, please drop me a line or leave a comment and I’ll add them to the listing.

I've Reached Half Way!

It’s late and I’ve got tons of writing to do tomorrow to catch up on the NaNoWriMo schedule, but I had to take the time to celebrate — 27,890 words! I’m well into Chapter 9 and I know I’ll make Chapter 10 tomorrow. That’s the big plot point 2 in standard genre fiction story arcs and I know what mine is.

A lot has been going on, not the least of which was a huge storm last Monday. I’d plan to spend last Monday catching up and getting ahead on the NaNoWriMo schedule, but a storm came through and knocked out the power on Monday morning. The power came back on at dawn and I’d gone out as soon as it got light enough to check on the our little PVC-pipe greenhouse and the storage tent. Everything was fine. But the sky was very eerie; dead calm with an ominous band to the north and west with patches of clearing in the south and east. The birds were silent and the extremely tall trees across the field were no longer waggling their tops let alone bending almost double. I came in, told my husband about everything surviving the storm but that if we were back in Texas or Michigan or Florida, I’d be grabbing cats and looking for shelter, and then I started breakfast. Not more than two minutes later, my husband is running in grabbing his shoes and saying that the storage tent had blown away.

It turns out he was looking outside his window at the clouds I’d mentioned when the storage tent — and keep in mind this is a tent large enough to house a full-size truck or power boat — shot 40 feet straight up and then blew towards the west over the tree tops and then started blowing end over end towards the north. It came down in a lane between two patches of trees with it’s legs in the air like a dead dog. It was far too heavy for us to lift and carry home, so we had to dismantle it where it lay and carry the pieces home and use the sliced and diced canopy and sides to cover the stuff from inside it to protect it all from the rain and wind that had started again. Meanwhile, the power went out again and stayed out for most of the day.

I’ll have photos up later this week. As best I can tell, we had some kind of inversion with a brief moment like the eye of a hurricane.

Well, I’m off to get some sleep and then back to work. I confess I’ll be very glad when I break 30,000 words. It seems a long time coming.

Frustration over work delays

I literally spent all day (18 hours) yesterday working on client web development projects and got no NaNoWriMo done — although I did do some plotting in my head. Do not get me started on tech support. It would be nice if just once tech support would admit there’s a genuine problem.

I made the mistake of letting my main character (MC) finally go to bed and finally fall asleep and I’m having trouble waking her up. I may need to skep ahead to another scene. I really think she needs to meet some people. Or this could be the depressed scene, a funny depressed scene,

I’m having no problem writing the cat scenes. As I try writing this, I’m acting as referee for a pair on my bed. One is determined to retake the throne, so to speak, after the death of the psychotic Abyssinian rescue who lived in my room for 7 years and the other is a former feral foster feline (and try repeating that phrase 5 times fast) who wants to usurp the position.

Big Boy & Carpet/MomKatI should at this point mention Big Boy and Carpet (aka MomKat), the last of our feral colony rescues in need of a good home. To find out more about them, check out the write up at A Mingled Yarn. They really are charming, but now even Carpet is getting into skirmishes with our three rescue girls (the Power Puff Girls — yes, I have seen animé). Originally, we thought they would make good barn cats after surviving behind an holistic grocers for 3-4 years, but they’ve become so domesticated and are so grateful for an indoor life, we can’t bring ourselves to return them to the cold and lonely. But do drop me a line if you know of a potential permanent home (today is my day for alliteration).

Meanwhile, they are making guest appearances in my novel. Hmmm, that would be one way to wake my slumbering MC.

Oh, and I should mention my word count is over 11,000.