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All this death business relates to my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. In this personal essay I suggest that “paying the price” is precisely what proves the fictional hero’s heroics.
The Writer in Love concerns itself exclusively with this “death” that takes place at the heart of a story. This is the scene where die-hard protagonists undergo a radical change of heart. They find themselves in such a deep dead-end that they have no choice but to surrender. Everything. Especially who they think they are.
We writers should be clear about our responsibilities to the protagonists we create—the hero must die. While most writing manuals mention this “Act II crisis,” I seem to be alone in suggesting that here is the reason readers read and writers write.
It’s worth a book!
But how do you write about something as amorphous as death? I’m trying to write about death as a station on the hero’s journey, but how to sound convincing? Death is without dimension or language. It has no shape.
A book needs shape. It needs limits and dimension. Otherwise, what are we spending $4.99 on?
Anyway, I badly needed to step away from the keyboard and spend the day processing new insights about how death makes life worthwhile.
I must have been in a trance when I took this pic—why else would anyone snap a shot of their foot? I was probably musing over another quote from Death, theLast God:
“Ideas of finding happiness and serenity away from the inevitable suffering of death are the superficial desires of spiritual materialism. We have to find happiness and serenity in the inevitable suffering of death. And that is a very different journey from seeking happiness by getting what we want.” ~ Anne Geraghty
I love it. Happiness in death. Talk about a tough sell. It’s killing me!
Here I am having a heart attack. Just kidding. The shutter caught me bending down to examine what appeared to be my doppelgänger lying in the surf—a dead jellyfish.
I know what you’re thinking, that PJ is all spoof and superficial happiness on this Mexican beach, but the truth is I’m in agony. I’m stuck. And it’s not writer’s block, it’s worse. I’ve written myself into an existential crisis.
I didn’t plan it, but my essay morphed into fiction and I became the protagonist trying to write a book. (Yes, very meta, I know.) It’s a book that takes the shape of a journey to the story heart. I only wanted to be the narrator, but I have become a fully-fledged protagonist.
You see, if I’m a protagonist, I can’t permit myself to escape the facts of fiction. Starting with, the price of freedom is death. As in, I’m going to fail so miserably at this book project that I lose all faith in myself. As in, this book is going to be the death of me.
Well, folks, it’s happening!
I’m proving the existence of the story heart by my despair at failing to finish this book. Fantastic! Of course, now there might not be a book. Which might have explained why I’m on the beach, had I not been refreshed by these latest musings on death.
Here’s a friend I met farther along the beach. He was plucking out that Nat King Cole classic… Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking…
What’s Nat saying here?—even though you’re dying, be happy, don’t worry, smile.
Ms. Chödrön has calculated how long a person is required to “die” in order to disable the matrix of habits we mistakenly identify as “me.” Astonishingly, Chödrön has calculated it to the tenth of a second…
One point six seconds!
Is she being facetious? Who cares? This is something I can run with. One point six seconds, that’s how long the hero is required to keep his eyes open in the blinding light of utter annihilation. (Sounds like no time at all, but consider that the mystic Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “supreme human achievement.”)
One point six seconds—suddenly I have the framework for my book.
My whole book concerns 1.6 seconds of time.
Now, that’s shape!
The price of freedom is death, and in 1.6 seconds you’re paid in full. And the price of my book will be only $4.99. That might be the best five bucks a writer will ever spend.
For an opening line I think it works. What do you think?
See what coming? Exactly!
The reader is going keep reading to find out, and isn’t that the overarching purpose of the first sentence—to compel the reader to read the second sentence. Etc.
I was going to write a blog piece on “openings.” By examining the first paragraphs of my upcoming book, The Writer in Love, I would assess the effectiveness of my beginning, see if it…
Established a Central Question
Made a promise
Set a trajectory
But that opening line got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It wanted this blog post all to itself.
I sure didn’t see that coming.
Then it hit me—that line echoed far beyond Page One. So innocently tossed onto the page many months ago, it infected the entire manuscript, becoming a major motif throughout the book.
The cheetah is the first and most obvious thing I didn’t see coming. It approached me from behind and grabbed my hand in its mouth and wouldn’t let to. True story. I didn’t see it coming was the perfect way to establish an essential fact of fiction:
Protagonists never see it coming.
Drama depends on it.
Protagonists don’t see what coming? That which will destroy them. For their own good! It’s amazing how many times we can hear the poets and the mystics say something like this…
“Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!”
And still we complain, “I didn’t see it coming.”
Neither do writers see it coming.
We get in over our heads, trust me. We get excited about creating the kinds of payoffs that give readers their money’s worth. We find ourselves writing about characters whose only way out of Act II is to surrender to the storm, and by that I mean forsake who they’ve always thought they were.
I didn’t see that I was laying a trap for myself by trying to write in depth about such sacred story mechanics. I was in way over my head. I was drowning, myself. I almost quit. I didn’t see that coming, either.
I wrote a scene in which I drown. (That was fun.) I didn’t see that coming, either.
I never expected to take almost two years to write The Writer in Love.
To be honest, I never anticipated becoming a writer. I was going to be a mapmaker.
I never thought I’d have children until I tended my grandfather on his deathbed.
Nor did I imagine my children having children!
I didn’t foresee my website vanishing a few weeks ago. I thought I’d lost everything. I was resigned to starting over, but most of it is resurrected, and with a new design. Look, I’m blogging again!
The cool thing about blogging is you can start with a line like, I didn’t see it coming, and see where it goes. Because we don’t write to explain, we write to find out.
We might equally say that we live to find out.
I’ve found out a lot while writing The Writer in Love. And it all started with this opening scene:
I didn’t hear it coming.
It hadn’t finished devouring the bait when my Bolex ran out of film, so I retreated but slowly, walking away through the elephant grass when it surprised me from behind by clamping down on my hand hard enough to hold me but not break the skin. The growl in its guts, I could feel the vibration in my arm if you can imagine that. And then in my own belly. It’s a funny thing when your life stops suddenly dead in its tracks, it’s not funny at all because there you are for the first time without a future. As for the past, well, it’s your fault—myfault!—I had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.
This dispatch comes to you from the hour of the wolf.
Not that I can’t sleep, no, the last thing I want to do is fall back to sleep. My brilliant idea would vanish. It came to me as I emerged from dreamland. You know, “when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.”
When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.*
The Holy Grail of altered states.
Here it is, pre-dawn, black bear still foraging for garbage in the alley below my office window, while my fingers prance around the keyboard as if they’ve broken out of jail.
The mind is too weak to tell itself lies! Write quick, PJ!
Conventional wisdom would appear to have no traction in the crepuscular hours. My principles aren’t up and running yet, they can’t obscure the truth. You might say that, having not yet showered or checked my email, I’m not quite me.
Trust me, I’m writing as fast as I can.
If this is an ode to early-morning drowsiness, we should hear from more writers. Novelist Nicholson Baker likes to arise with the birds because he finds “the mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled.” He discovered that he “wrote differently then.”
Joy Williams—I’ve quoted her before—she says,“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” She reminds me of artists who say they see better in the dark.
Marcel Proust took opium to induce the desired effect. Charles Bukowski drank. Some writers practice “morning pages,” streams of bafflegab becoming ever more truthful. At least that’s the idea. You shovel hard with great faith—and doubt!—endless shovelfuls of gravel, superficial overburden, tons of it. Somewhere down there lies the bedrock of meaning. Maybe.
What about monks? Every night at three a.m. the search begins anew for…what? Meaning? God? Freedom? A monk’s life is a Zen koan, a cosmic question. Never mind an answer—beware the answer!—just show up. Faithfully. Doubt keeps us coming back for more.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk-poet-existentialist. Here’s what he says about faith and doubt:
“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.”
That’s it, that’s the truth. We have to push through. At dawn, my mind is too weak to warn me away.
Ah! The eastern sky is lightening. I gotta go.
An hour from now my best interests will be hijacked by appearances and the everyday mind, and I will be buried under gravel, again.
“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”
Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?
I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?
The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.
I wanted what he had.
His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide. Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.
Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.
You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?
Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.
Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be. Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.
If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!
The answer infects my entire life.
From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:
“Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.”
That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.
To be free of the way he was built to see the world.
“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.
Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…
My writing process.
I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:
Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.
What am I working on?
Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced inStory Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.” The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.
Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.
Why do I write what I do?
I wish it was over.
How does my writing process work?
Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.
I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.
As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.
Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.
There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write. #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.
Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle.If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.
Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.
Someone should make a movie of my life.
Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”
I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.
“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.
So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.
Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.
Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.
I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.
I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.
One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”
Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.
I entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.
Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.
I was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.
I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.
Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?
At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.
At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.
To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.
Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.
My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.
Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.
But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.
If you missed my publishing news from my December post, it goes something like this:
Squeeeee! I have a book deal!!*
In the interim between the initial excitement and the editorial letter, there's a kind of a "did that really just happen" limbo. Luckily, I spent some of that time with family and friends but the following is a smattering of the (sometimes) bizarre reactions to my book news. 1. OMG! That's incredible! You've worked so hard for this!
The best reaction! Usually from the people who know how long I've been at this writing thing. My response: Thanks! I know, pretty wild? Still wrapping my head around it.
2. How much is your nice, fat advance check?
Yes, people really do ask this question! My response:
I get it, I do. Humans are curious creatures but um, really?!
3. You sneaky little devil! I didn't know you liked to write!
This was at a family dinner with a cousin I rarely see so I'll cut her some slack but for some reason this made me feel odd. As if I sit at my computer, twirling my moustache and laughing maniacally while I write. My response: Giggle. Blush. Mwahahahahaha... 4. What's the book about? Okay, totally legit question. My response:
5. Will it be a movie?
This question is asked with more frequency than I ever imagined, sometimes with genuine enthusiasm. My response: Um, well, no. It's a book. And I'm pretty stoked about that!
The funny thing is, all these reactions brought up a few unexpected feelings of my own. The most heinous and surprising one being: sheer terror. What had I done? Why not just perform naked karaoke to "Call Me Maybe" instead? My characters are my babies, and they will be "out there"...under scrutiny...possibly on Goodreads. Yikes.
And this got me thinking about #4. I think the real reason I don't have an elevator pitch is because I don't want a face-to-face snap judgement. What if the person replies, "oh, um, sounds good, please pass the blue sangria", or worse...no reaction at all.
Writing is such a fragile endeavor and mostly it's just you and the page with some idea of a phantom audience. It took a long time for me to share with others that I was even a writer in the first place (hence #3), I'm not sure why I thought I'd feel differently when I could finally say "My book comes out next year." Each new step brings its own set of fears.
So how about you Paper Waiters? How do you deal with bizarre reactions to your writing endeavors?
Editorial rejection has infected me like a demotivating virus. I have let it drive me from my office, until I rummaged in cupboards for Tylenol, tea bags and re-organization projects.
My ‘giraffe’ manuscript has languished for a few months. I know I should send out the manuscript to several new and different editors. Yet, I have had trouble pulling it out of the file drawer. It’s like my giraffe has entwined itself among the hanging files and is holding the drawer shut. I know if I coax him out, we may be able to find him a home. If he stays in the drawer, well...
that’s a sad way for a giraffe to go.
Optimism Search and Recovery?? (Photo by EPO: Wikimedia)
This is a notoriously subjective business. I have not tried hard enough and I will keep at it. Options include: smaller, independent publishers, agents, conference opportunities. I'm simply looking for ways to recover my optimism. I take heart in the success of other writers, especially my fellow Paper Waiters -- well done Robin and Brianna!
Anybody have ‘resurrection after rejection’ stories they want to share? How do you manage rejection? How quickly do you come back at it?
Most writers yearn to publish a book. No surprise! Writing conferences, blogs and professional journals are mostly aimed at book publication. Five years ago, I wrote about magazine publication as an option. Since then, the traditional book market (especially for picture books) is even tighter. And the digital/app market for picture books? Unless you are an author/illustrator, or your work is already illustrated, you're pretty much out of luck. Apps are expensive to make and developers usually look for established authors or a branded series.
So why not write for magazines? You'll get some rejection letters, but aren't they're always a part of the writing life? For non-fiction articles, you may have to write the dreaded query letter, but don't we all need practice with them? The only other disadvantages are smaller checks than a book advance and your moment of glory only lasts a month.
But consider the advantages:
1. You don't need an agent to submit. 2. Most magazine pieces are short - not as time consuming as producing a novel or picture book. 3. Using a different slant, you can often reuse your research for another piece. 4. You might see your name in print without waiting for years. 5. Often a wide audience sees your writing and you needn't spend hours on promotion. 6. You don't get wacky book reviews in professional journals. 7. Your magazine piece could earn additional money through reprint rights. 8. There are a bundle of contests and prizes to be won in the magazine world.
Next month I'll interview a senior editor at Highlights. Stay tuned.
We dined at one of the most respected French restaurants in New York City last week. After the main course, a woman pushing a two-tiered cart laden with cheeses arrived. “I am the commis de trancheur. Which cheeses would you care for?”
The ‘commis de what?’ We decided not to ask.
“A Brie, a Cheddar and a Blue, thank you.” My mother-in-law pointed as she spoke.
“We do not have a Brie. That is a Boursault, produced by Grathdale Valley Farm in Vermont. It is made from cows milk. The Guernsey cows are milked only once per day, and fed organic Bahiagrass laced with millet, sorghum, and clover. They add a touch of oat grain and rye. It is produced in small batches and procured only by the finest establishments. The farm is renowned for...” And on it went, for each new cheese we tried to select.
She lost me at Bahiagrass. And she never described the taste.
This pronouncement of facts by a waitress with a fancy French label supplanted our status as ‘welcome guests’ or even ‘diners who want cheese.’ We became ‘ignorant peasants in need of education.’
Is this what research-happy authors do to readers sometimes? Condescend, prove ourselves, or slip in one more fact, while ignoring the central plot point?
Just because you’re enjoying a meal, does not mean you want a lecture on the entire recipe. Research details, like herbs, should be carefully plucked, washed and chopped to support the plot.
Our cheese waitress left a bad taste in my mouth, like a spoiled sauce. With a similar feel from other servers, my emotional connection was fractured. I wouldn’t return, or recommend it. It was a reminder to me not to treat readers this way. Like restaurants, authors can depend on ‘word of mouth’ marketing as a key to success.
How to do it is another question. How do you keep the details in check? Have you ever found an author who put you off so much that you wouldn’t read them again, or you actively recommend against them? If so, why?
After a week's vacation in the "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico), I have come home inspired and ready to write.
My only challenge... How do I recreate the diverse and magical spirit of this environment as a setting for a story?
Literature has long been inspired by place. The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird- each of these transports us to a very specific time and environment.
Much is involved in scene setting. To give a true sense of place, one must incorporate the following: physical environment, people, culture, language, and history. It is challenging to not let your setting interfere with (or upstage) your plot. It must be seamlessly woven in between your characters' actions and dialogue.
As I sort through my photos, maps, and free brochures, I think of the people I met, the cultures I experienced, the landscapes I hiked through. I'm not ready to resign my memories to a scrapbook or picasa gallery just yet.
But I am ready to share this adventure through storytelling.
What are some of the ways you incorporate a sense of place into your writing?
This week, Buzzfeed was one of several websites to focus on lists for writers. I have to admit, I got sucked in - I clicked on each one. So, for this week's reading pleasure, I give you my favorite lists of the week:
The ragged ribbon of moonlight you see down there—that’s a rough and tumble highway known affectionately in south-central Africa as the Hell Run.
And that 5-ton truck—look closer—it’s a load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel is a hungry looking Tanzanian and riding shotgun is a large Sikh. Up ahead, three boys stand on the road, forming a roadblock. What are children doing up at midnight?
And who’s that mzungu with them?
The mzungu is me. I’m the white boy making my way back to Zambia after steaming my way up Lake Victoria and then hitchhiking through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to resume my duties as a hydrological field officer in the Zambezi River basin. My last lift dropped me at the edge of this sleeping village, and I decided, what with a full moon and all, to keep going.
I was confidently vanishing into a valley when these kids called after me. I yelled back, “What?” and they said, “Simba!” and I said to myself, “Simba-schmimba.” So much talk about simba, but how many people have actually seen a lion with their own two eyes?
“Simba eat man yesterday!” the oldest kid shouted.
So, there we are as the tire truck approaches. The boys, bless them, are going to commandeer this vehicle. The truckers have no choice but to let me climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which the big man locks, and off we go.
Oh, what a magical moonlight ride! I’m not sure I’ll live to see the dawn. Seriously, what’s wrong with me?
When the truck stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure they’re going to kill me, but, no, they’ve stopped to strip an abandoned car of its tires. The cage door opens long enough for the highwaymen to toss in the tires and lock the gate and here we go again.
What a moon! The earth seems unearthly. I have never felt so far from home.
I’m in God’s hands, now, although I can’t say I believe in what passes so conveniently as God. And yet…and yet I would appear to have faith in something. This brilliant night seems to hold something of value for me, but what? Truly, is there something wrong with me?
Years later, I discover the words of a writer who speaks about “faith in the joyous tragedy,” and I think, yes, that’s it! At the edge of the abyss—an inexplicable trust.
“Whoever was born with faith in the joyous tragedy, with enthusiasm for the ironic mystery; whoever sings YES; whoever risks disharmony because he desires beauty…”
According to Nikos Kazantzakis, a Christian mystic, this counter-intuition is “the supreme human achievement.” If he’s correct, then our everyday minds have things utterly ass-backwards.
“The Muse most worthy of the real man is Difficulty. She chases the easy victory away from life and art: the kind of victories that humiliate the victor.”
Does that explain why I was hitchhiking the Hell Run? A test of some kind.
“Life should not be comfortable; it isn’t to a person’s advantage to have it so. Nor should art. Never have the masterpieces of life or art been pleasant or easy. They are always rugged peaks to be ascended by the few.”
Kazantzakis, my brother! He says that contentment—even the absolute perfection thereof—only perfects our “little selves.” Easy victories don’t begin to serve our greater needs.
“If you respect your own soul, you have to spend yourself… be willing at every moment to gamble all you have, so that you may practice your strength. So that you may never lose the assured feeling that you can do even without victory and are ready to begin again.”
To hell with victory! Does the conventional mind even know what winning means? I mean winning in the larger sense? My everyday mind, what would it know about what Kazantzakis calls “the brave and hopeless YES!”
The brave and hopeless ‘Yes’
My first novel, , fictionalizes my Hell Run adventure. It was written before I had ever wrapped my wee brain around “the brave and hopeless YES.” And yet it perfectly defines my young protagonist as he negotiates his own Act II dilemma.
The essence of my novel—that’s it!—the brave and hopeless YES.
Look again, PJ—hasn’t it become your main article of faith as a writer? Perhaps it’s every writer’s act of faith. Is it? I’d like to know.
That dim landscape down there—it’s the writer’s life—and there we are hitchhiking the Hell Run of our imaginations, making our way along that ragged ribbon of moonlight by the grace of the brave and hopeless Yes!
(Quotes are from “England: A Travel Journal” by Nikos Kazantzakis.)
50 Book Pledge | Book #35: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Like reading, writing has always been a huge part of my life. And not far behind has been the dream of one day being published. Recently, this dream, which has laid dormant for so long, bubbled to the surface. With its resurfacing, came a renewed focus to see it through. Why did it take so long you? Because only now am I ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
For the past year, everyone around me has been urging me to start writing a book. But time and again I told them I will once an idea comes along. After saying this for what felt like the hundredth time I began to wonder why I didn’t have any ideas. I was doing everything right: I was devouring book after book and I was attuned to the world around. However, I wasn’t attuned to myself.
There was a crowd of voices in my head and mine was lost in the echoes. It’s only when I actually stopped to sift through the chaos that I found my own. Listening to it I learned that I’m not a writer. Not really. I’m a poet. I always have been and I always will be. Once I acknowledged this truth about myself did the floodgates open and release the ideas I started to fear would never come. Now when I’m writing I listen to my voice and let the words take me where they will.
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was knock on my son’s door. I knew he would have a hard time getting up for work. Last night he and a friend had gone to the midnight show of Batman.
I went downstairs. My husband had the TV on. And I saw what had happened at another theater halfway across the country. What had happened to other kids who just wanted to enjoy a movie. Like everyone else in this county, I’ve been thinking about this tragedy all day. How unexpected it was. How incredibly, terribly sad and senseless. But, I still had to work. And work, for me, meant revising my novel.
As I sat at my keyboard, I thought about my characters, their problems and their emotions. While my plot lines don’t involve tragedies like those in Aurora, Colorado, my main goal as a writer is to connect with emotional truths. I think fiction is important like that. As a writer, it’s my job to create characters that allow my readers to feel emotions in deep and meaningful ways.
Writers like Jodi Picoult and Richard Russo have dealt with difficult subjects like school shootings. Patrick Ness left me in a big puddle when I finished A Monster Calls. These are works of fiction, but the emotional truths within the writer’s words lead us as readers to deeper human connections.
That is one reason why this writing job is hard. And why it is so important.
Every writer, without exception, is forced to confront their own insecurity. An internal fear that takes the form of a single debilitating statement: I’m not good enough. Like poison, these four words creep up every time you put pen to paper and make you question the merit of your words. If not dealt with, insecurity can not only sap your confidence but also kill your creativity. So, what do you do? You silence it.
Be warned that this does not happen overnight. Instead, you have to tackle it each and every day. The method you use is entirely up to you. Some writers like to read a quote, others write a phrase and, still others, like myself, recite a statement. The key here is repetition because the more you do this the stronger your belief will become. Slowly the fear will lose its strength leaving you with just your words. Yes, reaching this place of belief is difficult but once you do you’ll have conquered the greatest obstacle of all: Yourself.
In our village in Ireland this summer, a 58 foot fin whale swam into our harbor, settled in to a corner where shore meets pier and rested in shallow water. The chest-high cement wall along the pier overflowed with villagers craning their necks to see over and down towards the water below.
With her nose into the apex of cement walls, able to submerge just inches beneath the surface, she rose and blew, spraying seawater from her blowhole and puffing every few minutes. It was a fascinating spectacle. How often can you watch a whale, and see its face, with protruding gray balls for eyes, and a white horseshoe mouth bigger than my kitchen, up close, for hours on end?
Sadly, it was soon apparent that our whale friend was not well. Muddy red water let everyone know that Fineena, (Irish for ‘beautiful child’, the name dubbed her by locals) was bleeding internally. No one, not the veterinarian, the whale specialist, nor the fishermen could help. This was real life, not a children’s story. Fineena lay ill for three days before dying, enduring tidal shifts which left her slick black skin half exposed above the water, scratched ragged from a gale-force storm which tossed her helplessly against the cement pier and rocky bottom.
Simultaneously macabre and inspirational, from a writer’s point of view, I wonder where I should take this story. Children’s reactions were as varied as their accents. One teenage boy broke into tears. Others watched wide-eyed with obvious questions. Some just accepted it, with “That’s nature.”
Can I use this emotive experience to write a happy picture book ending for Fineena? Can I use the powerful death scene I witnessed in a middle grade novel and how? Her behavior brings up so many questions and infinite story possibilities. Why did she choose our village as her final resting place? Why not the shallow creek where the seal colony lives, or another of the limitless, uninhabited coves nearby? Fineena swam past hundreds of boats with low keels, their thick-roped moorings stretching from the water’s surface to the bay floor, creating an underwater maze. How did she manage to cause no damage? Why was she so determined – was it something about the echo of human voices across the water?
I wrote my initial impressions as the story unfolded. When I look back at that draft, I am struck by the richness of detail and emotion, and authenticity. The voice, using the point of view of the whale, is much more powerful than my remote efforts. So writers, you’ve heard it before: write it down, right away! Take copious notes. It matters. Readers will feel it.
I don’t yet know what my final choice will be for the story, but it feels like a story worth sharing.
I just got back from my local SCBWI meeting. It was wonderful!
Two local authors presented inspiring workshops. (Thanks Lisa L. Owens and Ben Clanton!) Before that there were fun and funny announcements from our wonderful regional advisors, and good news announcements. Always such a pleasure to hear!
Usually, people don't think of writing as something social. But, when this social component is there, it is such fun. Now that I live across the country from my amazing Paper Wait critique group, these wider community connections are essential. Of course, there are many ways to find community. Like many writers, I find such wonderful community online. Especially at Verla Kay's Blueboards!
And in November there are even more opportunities for online community. Good luck to all those who are doing NaNoWriMo!
My writing challenge of choice is Picture Book Idea Month. It is such fun to read the blog posts Tara Lazar has been posting each day from a wonderfully talented group of authors and illustrators. (If you read only one (and I definitely advise reading more than one), you must read Day 9's post by Kelly Light. Incredible.)
I am definitely inspired from all this wonderful community! Must get back to writing!
What writing communities have you found? Do they leave you feeling inspired too?
Reading the daily PiBoIdMo posts during November inspired me to do a little writing each day. Now I didn't say good writing. I do have hope that the act of writing each day will eventually lead to good writing. Or even really good writing. Or one day (gasp!) a published book!
How do you enter the magical world of your young readers?
To get into the right mindset, I think back to how I felt as a child. I also get lots of ideas from my students (I teach elementary art).
But how do you tap into that world if you don’t interact with children on a daily basis?
One resource is Edutopic’s list of winning student blogs by children ages 6-13. It’s a great way to research how today’s kids spend their time, what they care about, and what they find funny. (Notice how many of the blog titles include the word, ‘Awesome’.)
Another resource I love is the New York Times’ blog, “Kids Draw the News.” On this site, children submit illustrations to accompany articles on current events. It’s a great way to discover how children view the world. Plus, their illustrations are a hoot!
What resources help you enter the world of young readers?
If you’ve read my eBook, Story Structure to Die for, you’ll remember how my near-miss in Hollywood launched me on a quest to discover…
How fiction REALLY works.
I was privileged to hear from Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint (yes, this was a few years ago) that a screenplay of mine they had applauded nevertheless, unfortunately, devolved into melodrama.
[Melodrama: n. a drama characterized by extravagant action and emotion.]
It took me a while to understand that my “big finish” had distracted me. My protagonist lost track of his own story. Instead, he ran around trying to save everyone else. I thought it was a great Hollywood ending, extravagant, excessive, tearful, and indeed it bamboozled many judges on its way to emerging as one of eight finalists in a competition with over 4000 entries from 14 different countries.
But it didn’t fool judges Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.
Why? I failed to keep the focus on the protagonist when it was needed most. I rushed into Act III without nailing my hero to the cross. Sure, he was on his knees, but I let him get back on his feet because I was anxious to shove him headlong into a melodramatic conclusion.
I didn’t hold my protagonist back; I didn’t ride him all the way down to the kind of self-doubt where a change of worldview becomes the hero’s only option.
Where good becomes great.
Think of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Or better yet, Paul Giamatti in Sideways. The writer took that wine connoisseur to such depths of self-loathing that he chugalugs the contents of a winery’s wine-tasting spit-bucket.
There’s a man on the verge of freedom.
As for my protagonist, I released him into Act III too soon. He wasn’t yet a free man. He hadn’t yet turned his back on “who he was”. Act III is all about the new man.
Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint must have been unconvinced that my protagonist had struggled sufficiently with the heroics of transformation.
As a result, they could agree that my story was “good”, but in the final analysis, it was a few essential beats short of “great”.
We’ve all watched films which, while “good”, were not memorable. When I’m deeply moved by a story, I’m often not immediately aware of how the writer did it. It takes some reflection. Almost always, I find the answer in the degree to which the hero takes care of business.
I’d created a Word document, which, after closing, I couldn’t reopen. The file extension was beyond the ability of my Word program to open. How the heck does that happen?
Two hour’s work down the e-drain.
With a debilitating feeling of being hard-done-by, I donned my trenchcoat and went for a walk in the fog.
A speech about “The Advantages of Adversity”, that’s what I’d lost. How ironic! All my first thoughts, my raw material, memories, facts, connections, a web of meaning—all vanished in the e-ether.
Fresh air usually revives me, but on this especially funky day, every step marched me deeper into despair. I’m going on a retreat, I thought. Deep country, unplugged, that’s what I need. Since I’m a digital idiot, this kind of funk overtakes me not infrequently. Uphill I trudged under a canopy of spruce into the foothills of Mordor, trudge, trudge, trudge…
I enjoy climbing. Peaked cap pulled down so that I can’t see the slope, I perceive the road as level. It’s a little mental trick that never fails to thrill me.
Unable to reference the incline, there is no hill, no hill working against me. My organizm is working harder to walk, yes, but there is no hill trying to defeat me, no antagonism, no psychology of struggle, just the indisputable facts of physics. It never fails, I feel quite unlike myself, as if I were on Jupiter under the influence of a more powerful gravity field.
Moving about on strange planets takes me out of myself.
Suddenly, a thought out of nowhere: “The rewrite will be better.”
Rewrites are always better.
What just happened? I knew immediately what had happened because I’ve been exploring it on this blog for years—our belief systems. Good things happen when our “B.S.” outlives its usefulness. My belief system (victim mentality) had been left behind at the bottom of the hill.
I didn’t need it on Jupiter.
Wow—self-pity was weighing on me like an evil spell, which is what belief systems are. They are strategies, structures, rules, biases, attitudes, fears, all the necessary limits by which we negotiate this gloriously superficial life on planet Earth. When I shed the B.S., I became available to the truth:
My rewrite will be better.
Fictional protagonists, same thing.
The best fictional characters are cursed with belief systems that are not so easily jettisoned. The degree to which they hold fast determines the intensity of the drama. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Listen to him: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s the screenwriter telling us what every reader needs to know at the outset of a story—what’s the hero’s belief system?
With that pitiful attitude, Bogey’s trajectory is set. Events will conspire to undo his belief system. Bogey will eat his words or we’ll demand our money back.
Sure enough, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman) shows up and ushers Bogey to the depths of self-loathing. Remember the scene where she pulls a gun on him to get the letters of transit to America. He says, “Go ahead, shoot. You’ll be doing me a favour.”
He doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Now he can jettison his belief system. What good is a belief system if you’re on death’s doormat? Ilsa notices him waking up, lightening up. Now she’s in his arms. Look at Bogey, he looks a little lost, but now it’s all flooding back, the noble guy he was at the start of the war. You can see it in his eyes. He’s catching a glimpse of the truth, who he really is.
He’s rewriting his script.
The rewrite will be better!
As we know, Bogey sticks his neck out as far as a neck can go. He shoots Major Strasser, sacrifices his one true love, orders her to escape Casablanca with her husband so together they might bolster the Resistance against Hitler.
And, look… there goes Bogart in his trenchcoat, walking into the fog, a living martyr.
Time for me now to man-up and rewrite this speech.
(Btw… what the heck is a “docx” file? Is it, like, some kind of curse?)
“By believing passionately in something which still does not exist, we create it.”
You know, I just can’t quite get my head around that kind of mumbo-jumbo.
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Who am I to refute such optimism? Neither am I able to promote it.
That said, just last week I began a talk by telling a personal story that seemed to prove the truth of that aphorism. I was speaking to an audience of writers and readers at our local library:
“Years ago, while I was living in an alternative community in Oregon, my girlfriend dumped me. Heartbroken, I begged off work, parked my sorry ass at a café and picked up a periodical that featured a commentary on a Buddhist sutra about “Loving Yourself”.
“‘Love Yourself: this can become the foundation of a radical transformation…’
“Under the circumstances, I was willing to consider the thesis. Love yourself. Hmm… I read on:
“‘Don’t be afraid of loving yourself. Love totally and you will be surprised: the day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespect…will be a day of great blessing.’
“The more I read, the more I liked it. It seemed so do-able. Just, ‘love yourself’. I read it again and again. The day went by quickly with this dictum reverberating in my cranium like a mantra. ‘Love yourself, love yourself, love…’ My spirits lifted.
“By evening this sutra is circulating in my blood stream. Love yourself, of course! When I love myself to overflowing, there’s some for others. I am finally able to love others.
“Who can love others, who hates himself?
“Love yourself, love yourself, love yourself, love…
“I’m walking home in the dark feeling fine, as you can imagine. On any other night I would have detoured into the disco for an hour, but on this night I just looked in the window, careful not to disturb these insights about ‘loving yourself’. A woman appeared at my side and took my hand. I didn’t know her from Eve.
“‘What’s your name?’ she asked. I told her. ‘What’s yours?’ I said. She replied with one of those Sanskrit names everybody seemed to have back then.
“‘What’s it mean?” I asked.
“She said, ‘It means Love Yourself.’”
End of story.
I won’t speculate upon how I conjured Ms. LoveYourself out of thin air. Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis is right when he says it’s a function of desire. Here’s the rest of what the author of Zorba the Greek had to say about manifesting what you want:
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired—whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”
Desire “irrigated with our blood”, I hadn’t thought of that. Desire figures strongly in my story theory. Only the strongest desire takes the protagonist all the way. All the way to her own undoing. Which is her awakening.
By building a protagonist with such a fatal desire, that’s how a writer loves his hero. That’s the writer’s obligation.
That’s what I wanted to talk to the audience about.