As a writer I consider words and reading important. But I was also trained in the visual and graphic arts and have longed been attuned to the type and fonts that create the words and make them legible — or not, that can enhance the meaning of the text — or undermine it, that can influence whether we even read a single word — or all of them. I’ve also been keenly aware for some time that we are moving from text to verbal and visual communication. Oral traditions and pictographs gave way to literacy which will eventually give way to voices (mostly computer generated) and images.
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.
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.
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!
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.
John Truby’s screenwriting courses and software are a staple of screenwriting classes worldwide. His book,The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
, presents his “Twenty-Two Building Blocks” plot structure is a classic. I purchased one of his first video writing courses mumblety-mumblety years ago when I was writing comedy and spent a lot of time in L.A. Truby combines the mythic story structure of Joseph Campbell (used for such blockbusters as “Star Wars”) with some original expansion to create his twenty-two building blocks. The overall structure is loosely follows the three-act format.
A key concept of Truby’s technique is that plot is what the Character does while the Character is defined by his actions. Essentially, the plotline is the result of the Hero’s (Protagonist’s) actions movtivated by his internal need and an external desire or goal. It’s the classic story structure and in his works, Truby applies his structure to a number of successful classic films (keep in mind Truby has always focused on screenwriting, however, his techniques are the same ones used by blockbuster and enduring novelist as well).
The Twenty-Two Building Blocks
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!
I’ve seen dozens of variations on story plot arcs through the years (and I’ll be posting at least 3). I read writing books and went to classes and workshops to avoid facing the muddle that was my middle, but somehow Janice MacDonald’s version clicked. I then joined NaNoWriMo in 2007 followed by a friend asking me to review her first draft. At that point, the mist parted and I decided to compile my notes into a storyboard format à la Apple Pages template. My template can be found here: Traditional Plot Development Storyboard
The basic structure is as follows: Continue reading
Made it! It’s official. I got my 50,000 words (actually, 53,000+ words) at 11:35 p.m. tonight. Must now sleep.
The novel’s not quite done, but the end is in sight and I feel confident I’ll actually make it.
I’ll write more tomorrow.
I only got a couple of hundred words today because I’m desperately working on writing some training materials for a presentation on Monday. I’m taking a bit of extra effort on the materials because I hope to recycle them on my web site and with other clients, but it’s proving an enormous time and energy drain. And the irony is that it’s on using WordPress.
I have made a ton of notes for scenes I want to write and I’ve committed to being at the Itty-bitty Buzz coffeehouse from 9 – 11 a.m. on Sunday in case any of the other NaNoWriMo participants in the area want to meet. So I’m planning on making Sunday a NaNoWriMo catch-up marathon day. (Although, I think my husband would appreciate my getting to the litter boxes more often.)
I’m thinking I should have my character want to get back together with her significant other, but I’m not certain I want her to be that weak. On the other hand, I’ve seen far to many people, male and female, be strong in other areas of their life and incredibly stupid in their relationships. And this is definitely a character that craves consistency in her home life. People talk about characters taking over, but this one seems to be waiting to be told what to do.
Well, I’m too tired to write on either the technical material or the novel, so I’m curling up with Ngaio Marsh and tackling the keyboards early tomorrow. Brrr! There’s going to be a hard frost tonight. I’m glad I made up a box in the shed for MaoMao (the neighbor’s cat who sleeps in our shed and begs food from us — and yes, I have sucker written on my forehead).