Jennifer Kan Martinez

"Sailing on Light"

Welcome, writers and storytellers.  As you soar through life, wings flapping furiously, may this be a little rock for you to perch upon, rest for a while and maybe find some inspiration.

Friday
Jun032016

character work

More from the Iowa MOOC:

An excerpt from Chitra Divakaruni 's article in the New York Times' Writers on Writing series, "New Insights Into the Novel? Try Reading 300."

The successful novel, on the other hand, has a shape much like a bell. We begin at the top of the bell, its tight curve. Every detail has purpose here: the way a woman tilts her head, the slant of light as one exits the subway, the repetition of a phrase. As soon as we have gained our bearings, we notice things beginning to open up, flaring outward the way a bell does.

John Gardner rightly insisted that a good novel must be a "vivid, continuous dream." To this I would add that there must be in it a sense of expansion. This may be through the development of new and layered narrative voices; it may be through a fuller realization of a stylistic device introduced earlier; through metaphor or symbol or a series of ironic juxtapositions; or through methods as yet unthought of.

The characters are layered, too. At any moment an incident might tug the top layer from person and reveal an astonishment of traits below. Lists, recipes, letters, e-mail, found poetry, excerpts from other writers, real and imaginary: any or all of these begin to add depth and texture, to create a pattern. The pattern may not be obvious or conventionally symmetrical. It may be held in tense balance, aesthetics battling with a desire to push the boundaries of the acceptable. It stirs us, maybe even disturbs us.

Still, we feel confident that the author has an overall design in mind, a large and generous design, the way the first bell maker must have had: a three-dimensional design, with enough space inside it to create resonance and allow its melody (perhaps a cacophonic melody) to echo in the reader the way, it is said, that the tolling of a perfectly made bell creates a corresponding vibration inside the chest of each listener.

It is this resonance, finally, that separates the successful novel from the others. The cast of major characters may be small or large, clowns or kings. The backdrop may be modest (a room) or ambitious (a continent). The vocabulary may be simple or flamboyant, literary or colloquial. The melody may be created by a single flute, or performed by an entire orchestra. But through it all, there's a sense that what we're seeing is not all that this is about.

How Writers Write Fiction MOOC food for thought:

After reading Divakaruni's excerpt, look back at her discussion of characters in a successful novel:

The characters are layered, too. At any moment an incident might tug the top layer from person and reveal an astonishment of traits below. Lists, recipes, letters, e-mail, found poetry, excerpts from other writers, real and imaginary: any or all of these begin to add depth and texture, to create a pattern. The pattern may not be obvious or conventionally symmetrical. It may be held in tense balance, aesthetics battling with a desire to push the boundaries of the acceptable. It stirs us, maybe even disturbs us.

Begin thinking about characters you might like to include in your writing for this class, especially as we inch closer to the opening class session on character! Take one of the forms Divakaruni mentions--lists, recipes, emails, excerpts from other writers--and, in your notebook that you started (or continued) on WW Day 1, write a scene where your character interacts with one of these written modes. Perhaps write a few lists from your character's perspective. Write an email from your character to another. Perhaps your character searches through a recipe catalog--which recipes catch his eye?

Friday
Mar182016

terribleminds

If you are a writer, you should read Chuck Wendig's blog. He uses "salty language," as my friend, Heather, says, and it's definitely not safe for work, but he is hilarious and his posts are always chock-full of useful advice.

Here is his take on how to unstick a stuck story, for example:

25 WAYS TO UNSTICK A STUCK STORY

You’re teats-deep in a story. And it feels like instead of swimming forward, your boots are stuck in the wet mud below. You need something to churn the waters. Loosen the mud. You need to unstick the stuck story.

Here, then — a list of 25 ways to help you do that. Most of these are plot- or story-focused — meaning, practical efforts to open that pickle jar. If you’re looking for solutions that lie beyond that focus and, say, land on you as a writer, maybe check out “25 Ways to Defeat Dread Writer’s Block.”

Now, let’s do this.

1. FORM OF: FLOPSWEAT! FORM OF: RETROACTIVE OUTLINE!

Sometimes, being stuck is the same thing as being caught at the crossroads of indecision — you don’t know which way the story should jump. Will Bob kiss Mary? Will Mary stab Bob? When does the Ancient Demonlord Humira-Adalimumab reveal himself? You ever open a refrigerator and stare into its depths for like, 15 minutes, completely paralyzed by your inability to decide what to eat? (“Chicken noodle soup? Old ham? New cheese? Daikon radish? AAAAGHH.”) This is like that. So: take the pressure off. Pull yourself out of the word-treacle. Do an outline. If you’ve done one already: re-do it, because this one hit a wall. Outlining cantake whatever form you choose: chapter-by-chapter, index cards, mind-map, human centipede.

2. ROADBLOCKS, SPEEDBUMPS, STOP SIGNS, AND ANGRY DRAGON CROSSINGS

Obstacles. Conflict. Pain and suffering. Sometimes, being stuck on a story is just because things are too easy. And “too easy” translates to *poop noise* BOOO-RING. Tease out your inner sadist. Tickle the taint of your own psychic Marquis de Sade. You need to start making life harder for the protagonist. Disrupt his quest. Set him back. Put everything you can in his way — and then even more as the story tumbles forward. Hurt him. Move the goalposts. Demand sacrifices. Complicate the journey. Remember, the worst business advice happens to be very good storytelling advice: elevate costs and eliminate convenience.

3. DIVERSIFY YOUR CHARACTER PORTFOLIO, MOTHERFUCKER

You’ve got all these characters and yet, you’re hovering over one character like a fly over a stinky diaper. Realize that you’ve got a kickass superpower: you can possess and take-over anybody inside the story. With the power of Point-of-View, you can drag us along for the ride. You can shove us into their eyes, their minds, you can force us to piggyback on their experiences past and present. Sometimes untangling a knotted-up tale means looking at it from different eyes: what better eyes than those of the other characters inside the story?

4. RECALIBRATE THE MOTIVATION MATRIX

You might be stuck because your characters are strangers to you. And that won’t do: you need to use this time to get to know them. Likes. Dislikes. Favorite ice cream flavor. Panty size. Sexual peccadilloes. And most important of all: motivation. These crazy assholes want something! So, what is it? It’s more than just a base level survival instinct — they need something. The desire, gnawing at them like rabid hamsters. Find out what that is. Once you know that, their path becomes clearer, their decisions certain. The story will move because they will carry it that way — and often straight into the thorny maw of conflict.

5. JOCK-STRAPS AND UNDER-WIRE BRAS

Your story needs more support. One of the ways we do that is to beef up the supporting cast. A strong and active supporting cast is powerful stuff — all those B-tier players who want to be A-tier. They have their own motivations, their own fears. Let loose a cabal of free-thinking characters into your story, it’s like dumping a sack of coffee-guzzling cats in your living room:shit will start to happen. Motivations cross! Agendas clash! CATS ASPLODE. Plot and story is really just a chain reaction of character motives put into action.

6. PARTYGOERS COME AND GO

You’re at a party, old guests exit, new ones enter. Two folks bail to go fuck each other on the fire escape. Two more arrive bringing an eight-ball of coke and a circus bear. Treat your story like just such a party: re-energize the narrative by pulling away from some characters and introducing new ones. A mysterious assassin! A prostitute with dubious motivations! An untrustworthy circus bear named “Mister Tickles!”

7. SEQUINS OF THE VENTS!

PLOT IS MADE OF SEQUINS WHICH ARE MADE OF VENTS OOOOH SO SHINY. *receives note* Oh. Okay. Sequence of events. I swear, my life is plagued by homophone problems. Someone says, “Meet me at Starbucks,” I show up at Starbucks and pelt them with ground beef. Anyway. Sometimes, a story trips itself on a snarled-up sequence-of-events, AKA, “plot.” The wordplothole is not precisely accurate in describing what’s really happening: a plothole is really a gap in the sequence of events, where that gap would and should feature the proper information that would bridge Point A to Point Z. You say, “I don’t know how Dave gets to the moon, he’s just… there.” You’ve failed to provide the proper connection, to bridge that gap with the necessary narrative data. Simply put: the bridge is out. Which means the journey cannot continue. Find these gaps. You probably already know where and what they are. Fix them now. Writing needn’t be linear. Go back. Add content and context. Fill the holes. Mind the gap. SHINY SEQUINS.

8. THE PLOT BENEATH THE FLOORBOARDS

Sometimes our stories get constipated because of a too-samey, unvaried diet. You live off of Eggo waffles and buttermilk for a couple weeks, your personal plumbing is going to get boggy. A story is like that: we have one major plotline and it chugs along without any time for anything else, and somehow it seems to grow enervated, slowing down before eventually miring itself in grave ennui. ENTER THE SUBPLOT. One or several subplots perform a powerful task: they create alternate related stories that distract from the larger plot while also making us pine for it. Further, when done correctly, they prove energy and narrative information to the larger plot. The big plot feeds off the little ones. The little stories contribute to the larger.

9. DROP ACID, HAVE FLASHBACKS

Consider the reported therapeutic value of LSD, wherein psychologists used to use it to jar loose those mental boulders that are jamming up our brain-canyon. Now, consider the value of running your story through the same gauntlet — meaning, maybe it’s time for your tale to trip balls. Flashbacks. Hallucinations. Dream sequences. Cryptic visuals. Foreshadowing events. All of these force the story to take a (temporary) left turn. Deviations from the expected course, as with subplots above, do a lot to give extra impetus and urgency (and a booster shot of valuableuncertainty) to the narrative. Give your story a little acid. Let it run naked through Wal-Mart, fighting invisible goblins with a soup ladle.

10. THE MYSTERIOUS MYSTERY OF THE QUESTIONING QUEST

Introduce a new mystery. Something that just doesn’t add up. The story seems to be going one way, and then suddenly the protagonist gets a package: a steamer trunk full of severed heads, a strange journal written by a long-dead reanimator, or — *crash of thunder* — A FRUIT-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB DELIVERY THREE MONTHS AFTER THE DELIVERIES ENDED. Okay, maybe not that last one. Point is, jamming a big fucking shiny-ass question mark into the ground like you’re planting the flag on Iwo Jima is powerful: question marks have gravity. They draw us toward them. (If you’re really brave, introduce a mystery to which you do not yet have the answer. That can give you major juice — but it can also sink you further into the mire.)

11. STEAL YOUR PROTAGONIST’S SHOES THEN MAKE HIM WALK ON GLASS

Storytelling is an act of cruelty. We are cruel to our characters because to be kind is to invite boredom, and boredom in storytelling is synonymous with big doomy death-shaped death. So: be cruel to your protagonist. Rob him of something. Something important. Something he needs. A weapon. An asset. A piece of knowledge. A loved one. A DELICIOUS PIE. Take it away! Force him to operate without it. Conflict reinvigorates stale stories. New conflict, or old conflict that has evolved and grown teeth.

12. SOMEONE ISN’T WHO THEY SAY THEY ARE

Consider the value of the midpoint twist. No, it’s not a new dance. It’s a bit of narrative stuntery. Stuntery isn’t a word? IT’S MY BLOG YOU SHUT UP OR I’LL THROW YOU OUT AN AIRLOCK. I’m sure I have airlocks around here somewhere. Point is: there comes a time in the narrative when you have an opportunity to take pre-existing elements and twist them sharply. (The next several items on this list actually lend themselves toward that notion.) One option is that someone in the story is not who they say they are. A criminal is actually a cop. A loved one is a secret monster. A parent is a butthole-sucking tapeworm alien from space. Someone’s mask comes off. Someone’s true face is revealed.

13. THE KNIFE IN THE BACK

A dread betrayal! A turn of friend to enemy! Someone betrays the protagonist. Or more than that: betrays the plan, betrays the town, the Earth, the Omniverse. At the last second, he sabotages the MacGuffin Machine! He urinates in the water supply! He steals the protagonist’s keys and throws them in a storm drain! HE EATS THE LAST OF THE LUCKY CHARMS. I’m sure you can think of far better betrayals (murrrderrrr). Any impactful event in a story — particularly one that pivots the tale in an unexpected direction — takes that story and shakes it like a baby. Er, metaphorically speaking. Please don’t shake babies.

14. “NO, FATHER, I DID NOT POOP IN YOUR TOOLBOX. IT WAS. . . A GHOST. IT’S GHOST POOP. TOTALLY FROM A GHOST. PLEASE DO NOT INVESTIGATE THIS FURTHER.”

Someone has a secret. And they’re forced to lie about it. That there is a kick-ass one-two punch combination to give some oomph to an ass-dragging story. Secrets and lies are a simple and surprisingly effective way to introduce fresh conflict born from pre-existing characters and plotlines. Someone is fucking someone they’re not supposed to be. Someone makes a mistake. Someone has a part of a dark past that threatens to be revealed. Lies aim to cover up, but lies beget more lies: deception is a gremlin you get wet and then feed after midnight. It multiplies and turns into an uncontainable monster.

15. KILL SOME POOR SUMBITCH

Storytelling feels like an act of magic, and some magic is ritualized, and a great deal of ritual magic requires a sacrifice upon its altar. Your story is full of precious lambs — I mean, “characters.” Take one. Preferably one that matters (not, say, “Tom the Cab Driver who shows up for one paragraph in Chapter Four”). Then: off them. As a part of the plot, of course; I don’t mean like, drop a fucking anvil on their heads. But just the same: kill them. Death is a boulder dropped into a lake: it doesn’t just create ripples. It creates waves. It splashes on everybody. It gets still waters moving.

16. ILL-ADVISED ROMANTIC PAIRING

Take two characters who should not be making kissy-kissy (or, fucky-sucky, or, bondagey-wondagey) and make them do exactly that. It works because we know it should not work. Forgive the deviation, but here’s a valuable note: suspense and tension is created when characters we love perform actions we hate. They make mistakes. They choose poorly. They open doors they’re not supposed to open, they steal something we know they shouldn’t steal, they smoosh their genitals up against someone whose genitals should be caution, cuidado, verboten. This works because we, the audience, know to fear certain acts as we (wisely) suspect the outcome will be bad. We love our protagonists. We want them safe! We want them to choose wisely! Which is why we, as writers, work often (and work hard!) to punish the audience through the characters on the page. The “ill-advised romantic pairing” is just one example of a particular path of storytelling which goes like this: “Identify the thing that the audience fears will happen, then engineer that very thing so that it happens in a way that’s worse than they ever imagined.”

17. KEEP THROWING THE STORY OFF THE CLIFF

Dickens knew it. The old pulp serials knew it. Sometimes, you have to keep the audience’s attention by throwing your entire storyworld (plot, characters, ideals) into perilous imperiled peril. And, since you might be considered Audience Zero for your own story, this works when writing, too — constantly drop-kick your story off the cliff’s edge. Make that poor fucker hang there by his fingernails. Create interesting problems. Invoke certain danger. Write your way out of the trap. The challenge may engage all your creative synapses.

18. RAISE THE STAKES

I like to raise the steaks to my mouth and EAT THEM YUM YUM NOM NOM wait I’m doing it again. Goddamn you, homophones! Ahem. Raising the stakes, narratively speaking, means that the consequences of failure get worse. It means that the task becomes harder. It means that new information makes everything more complicated. You are, in storytelling parlance, “stickying the wicket.” Fine, whatever, nobody says that. (But it makes a charming euphemism for masturbation!) Suddenly the protagonist’s goal isn’t just about saving the love of her life — it’s about saving the world. Or it’s about making a choice: save that love or save the world orfind the needle-threading third option that saves everybody. Amp the conflict. Make it harder. Make it cost more. Make it even more important. Boom.

19. HERO GRABS THE STORY BY THE YAM-BAG

This one’s simple: a story will suffer log-jam if the hero has been passive. So much relies then on external events it grows tiresome and, in some cases, narratively prohibitive in terms of the effort you have to put into the way the world constantly acts upon him. Reverse that. Time for the hero to grab the story by its story-balls and take control. This isn’t the same thing as making the hero successful — it’s just about making the protagonist active and complicit in the narrative.

20. THREAT LEVEL: PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, PHILOSOPHICAL

Your story might be firing on one cylinder, when really, it needs to fire on three: the goals of the protagonist and the conflicts that work against him must cross three axes: physical, emotional, philosophical. Physical: “I am in danger of being eaten alive by a starving were-badger.” Emotional: “But the starving were-badger is my true love, Betty McGoohan.” Philosophical: “If I cannot reconcile this and the story demands I slay my true love, then love cannot succeed in the face of evil and I am forced to accede to a cynical worldview in which monstrousness is ascendant and all my victories are Pyrrhic and were-badgers are neither cuddly nor sexy.” Harness all three axes for powerful story-combo power-up extra-life ding.

21. SIT DOWN, RIGHT NOW, AND FIGURE OUT YOUR ENDING

Sometimes, it’s nice to just get in the car and go. Enjoy the scenery. No destination. But other times, you end up just driving in circles and seeing nothing of value. A story is a journey with a very specific function. A story is a journey that has a destination at its culmination — it is not a disconnected series of pretty pastoral vignettes. (“Look, honey, cows. For 300 pages. Cows. Just standing around. Chewing cud. Pooping. Goddamn cows.”) Your journey needs an end point. It needs a thumb-tack in a map that says, “THIS IS WHERE I AM FUCKING GOING.” Sit down. Right now. Figure out your ending. It may not be the ending you use, but you’d be amaze at how unstuck you’ll get when you know what direction you should be going.

22. PLAY THE “WHAT IF?” GAME

Being stuck in the story often means hovering at a single point and saying, “I don’t know what happens next.” The simplest game to play to get you out of that is to ask “What If?” like, several dozen times, answering differently each time. Write each what if down, even if unanswered. What if he kills the antagonist now? What if he fails and gets captured? What if he snaps and goes nuts? WHAT IF HE BECOMES A MAGICAL OWL-MAN WHO RIDES A STEED MADE OF CLANKING TIN-CANS AND CARRIES A SWORD MADE OF SQUIRRELS? Don’t worry. It’ll get crazy. It’s supposed to. But it’ll set the pot to boil. Somewhere in there, you’ll find the answer presents itself. Like a flower to a bee desiring sweet pollination.

23. DETERMINE THE MOST INSANELY UNEXPECTED COURSE OF ACTION, THEN DO THAT SHIT

True fact: storytelling isn’t always an act of precision. Time comes, a story’s gotta get messy. Untamed. Unhindered. Sometimes, a story just gets fucking weird, which means you, the storyteller, gotta get weird with it. You say you’re stuck? Fine. Take your story and drop anuclear narrative event upon it. Change everything. Go crazy. Ruin the world. Make the antagonist the protagonist. Blow things up. Whatever the audience expects would not — could not — happen? Do it. It’ll unseat that stuck story right quick.

24. KILL THE LAST TEN THOUSAND WORDS

Another rather extreme assertion, one that will surely turn your gut sour: go back five thousand — maybe ten thousand — words, highlight, then click delete. You’ll gasp. You’ll gape. You’ll pee five, maybe ten, drops of anxiety-urine. But then: ahhh. A sudden sigh. A giddy elation. Whatever was jamming you up is now gone. You are free to move forward. This seems extreme but consider: storytelling is sometimes walking a maze and walking a maze means hitting dead-ends. When you hit a dead-end, the only solution is to backtrack until you can find the proper path. It is hard. But you will move forward, unfettered.

25. PUNCH, KICK, THINK, THEN WRITE YOUR WAY THROUGH IT

You’re stuck? Poor you. Fuck it. It’s a mental thing. Don’t give in. Think through it. Karate-punch the story. Kick it in the teeth until it yields. You’re the boss. Worse comes to worse: write around the gap. Got a section where you don’t know what happens? Write in 144-point font: WHO THE FUCK KNOWS? FIGURE THIS FIDGETY SHIT OUT LATER and then write the next section. A stuck story might be you feeling stuck when really, the story’s zipping along just fine. And even if there really is a problem, you can’t always identify the problem until you’re done the whole damn thing. So: you’re stuck? Fuck it. Fuck you. You’re not the horse.You’re the rider. The one with the spurs, the buggy whip, the carrot at the end of a stick. Make it move. Get it done. Your words are a battering ram: knock the door down and walk on through.

Now, go write your masterpiece. And let me know when I can read it. I'm always looking for great stories to read.

Friday
Jan292016

powerful objects (iowa fiction mooc i)

The first lesson from the University of Iowa MOOC, "How Writers Write Fiction," was actually a surprise bonus to the eight-week course. The week before the MOOC officially started, they offered us a Welcome Week, complete with lessons, writing exercises, and peer review. It was an awesome way to kick off the course, and it gave us a taste of the gems coming our way.

Welcome Week's focus was on objects. There was a three-day writing assignment that was written in parts and then assembled at the end, which was also a neat exercise.

1st reading:

Read the following excerpt from Annie Dillard's essay "Write Till You Drop."

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, discovered that ''the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.' Who but an artist fierce to know - not fierce to seem to know - would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe any way but with the instruments' faint tracks.

Admire the world for never ending on you as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes off him, or walking away.

1st exercise:

An Object of Wonder ...

After reading Dillard's essay under Launchpad: Reading, find an ordinary object in your home that you like looking at. This could be a sugar bowl, a crooked lampshade, a spoon with a bent handle, a tiled coffee table with a matador theme, a remote control ... the choice is yours, but choose something that stirs your wonder. Write a description that brings it to life: show it to us as if it were the main character in a new story.

Challenge yourself by trying any (or all) of the following:

Imagine its birth. How did it come into the world? What did it think of the world it was born into?

Write a few lines that imagine an older version of the object -- what would it have looked like a hundred years ago? If the object had parents and grandparents, what would they look like? 

Write a line that asks the object a question. For example, what is its deepest desire? What does it fear? Is it lonely, or overworked, or bored? Does it love you?

Write a few lines that imagine a new purpose for or new version of the object.

Write a few lines that look at the object from the perspective of a child or an animal.

Write a few lines that look at the object from the perspective of its friends -- if it has any. What other objects, or even living things, would be its friends? Are there objects it resents, or competes with for attention or prominence in the world?

Word limit: we suggest 500 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact limit. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work around the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

2nd reading:

Read the following excerpt from Matthew Fogarty's essay from Passages North: "Writers on Writing #82."

It's hard to explain without sounding pretentious and/or ridiculous. But I rarely start with a story in mind. More often, I start with an idea or a moment or a line or a premise or a character or whatever provides the seed for the story, whatever photosynthesis. Some people plot everything out in advance. I don't. I can't. I'm not that smart. Stories exist in a world, characters are real people in that world with real agency in that world. There's no way I can know what a person would do until I get to it. Create a character that's a real person, put him/her/it in a situation, and let him/her/it surprise. If I'm not surprised by anything in the story when I'm writing it, there's no chance the reader will be surprised and surprise is the thing. Surprise means interest and emotional investment which equals a story that exists in more than just the pages or plot that I've written, that resonates beyond the page.

2nd exercise:

An Object of Desire and Conflict ...

Yesterday, for your Welcome Wagon Day 2 Writing Practice assignment, you invested an object with a history, desires, relationships: you began the process of making an object into a character.

Today, for your Welcome Wagon Day 3 Writing Practice assignment, try introducing desire and conflict.

Step into the room where your object lives. Bring someone with you: your significant other, your parent or child, your friend or roommate or neighbor or coworker. This person is your opponent. Each of you wants to do something with this object, something that creates a conflict:

Maybe you want to keep the object, and your opponent wants to throw it away.

Maybe you want to take the object with you to a new house, a foreign country, your dorm room, your office, and your opponent wants the object to stay right where it is.

Maybe you want to replace the object, and your opponent thinks that would be 

As you and your opponent argue, take the object's history, emotions, desires, and fears and make them part of the argument:

Maybe you want to throw the object away because you know that it hates living in your house.

Maybe you want to take it with you because you know that it loves you, or because you know that it has always wanted to live in France, or because you know that it hates the way your opponent always treats it, or because you know that in your office, it will make friends with other objects there.

See what happens. When two characters (you and your opponent) argue about the fate, and the feelings, of a third character (your object), how do those two characters look at that third character differently? Which one of them is right about what the object wants? What happens in that conflict to show the reader what kind of person you are, and what kind of person your opponent is?

See what happens. You don't have to settle the argument if you don't want to or aren't sure how it should end. You and your opponent can reach an agreement, or one of you can win the argument by force, or you can leave it hanging. If you reach a conclusion, on Monday your fellow writers can tell you what they think of that conclusion. And if you don't, on Monday your fellow writers can tell you what they think the ending should be.

Word limit: we suggest 500-600 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact range. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work within the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

3rd reading:

Read the following excerpt from Neil Gaiman's essay "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term - but you didn't know who?)

Another important question is, If Only…

(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I Wonder... ('I wonder what she does when she's alone...') and If This Goes On... ('If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman...') and Wouldn't it be interesting if... ('Wouldn't it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?')…

Those questions, and others like them, and the questions they, in their turn, pose ('Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don't they any more? And how do they feel about that?') are one of the places ideas come from.

3rd exercise:

An Object of Agency …

In Welcome Wagon Day 2, you invested an object with a history, desires, and relationships: you began the process of making an object into a character. Then, in Welcome Wagon Day 3, you introduced conflict by bringing another person into the relationship between you and your object: you took the object's history, emotions, desires, and fears, and you made them part of an argument between you and that person.

Today, for your Welcome Wagon Day 4 Writing Practice assignment, let your object settle the argument.

Imagine that your object has the ability to move, or speak, or both. Think back to the argument you wrote yesterday. Imagine your object listening to that argument, waiting for its turn to act.

Write a couple of lines summing up the argument, if you think you need to give the context. Then write a short set of concluding lines that describe how your object will settle this argument. If you wish to give it a voice, it could speak up to settle the argument, or to refuse the settlement you and your opponent have come to. If you wish to give it the ability to move, it could attack, or hide, or run away. Of, of course, it could do both.

Don't rewrite the whole argument -- just try to write a paragraph or two describing your object's concluding activities. If you wish, you can include your and your opponent's reaction. Or you could leave it out, allowing the object to occupy center stage. See how powerful you can make your object's decision in such a short scene.

Word limit: we suggest 200 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact range. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work within the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

And to inspire you:

The writer's "rulebook" is a coveted and yet nonexistent text. The best part about the rules of writing is that we can follow them, make up our own, break them, and revise them as we see fit. We've handpicked a few from other writers here, but take some time to browse through this list and this list, modeled after Elmore Leonard's rules that appeared in the New York Times.

Roddy Doyle: "Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–"

Helen Dunmore: "Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed 'What will survive of us is love.'"

Michael Morpugo: "Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important."

Anne Enright: "Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand."

Esther Freud: "Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess."

Andrew Motion: "Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary."

Hilary Mantel: "Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules."

Ian Rankin: "Don't give up."

I can't post the videos, but here is the transcript from the last day of our welcome week:

Hello! I'm Michelle Huneven. I'm the author of four 
novels, and I'm here today to give you tips.
A few years ago, I realized I was getting older. 
It came as a shock, and I decided that I needed 
some guidance. So I went to a therapist, but when 
she sat down, she just looked at me. She wanted 
me to start talking and to do all the talking. 
I was like, "No! I'm getting older here, and I don't 
want to be analyzed. I want to figure out how to 
deal with this enormous life transition." 
And she said to me, even sarcastically, "So what 
is it you want, Michelle? 
Tips?"
And I was like, "Yes! Tips! Tips would be nice." 
Tips were exactly what I wanted, and tips are 
something that I thought I would give you here 
today: craft tips, craft writing tips, tips that I feel 
can and will improve your writing life.
The first one is a little psychological in nature, 
and it comes from the late, great, radical feminist 
Mary Daly. She was trying to write a book, and 
she just could never quite get around to it. She'd 
have to buy groceries; she'd have to take the dog 
to the vet; she had to clean the house. Everything 
distracted her. She realized at some point that she 
was really going to have to change her priorities 
and put her creative life in the forefront and the 
rest of her life in the background. The mantra that 
she came up with for this was, "I have to turn my 
soul around." So that's my first tip: you have to 
turn your soul around, and you have to make 
writing the priority in your life. And then 
everything will fall into place. I promise.
My second tip is more practical. This is the timer 
tip. Get yourself a good timer; you actually 
probably already have one on your phone. So 
when you're feeling blocked or rushed or simply 
resistant to writing and you don't want to, just 
decide how long you can stand it. Set the timer 
for twelve minutes, seven minutes, and then 
just get to work. Or set the timer to write an 
hour or three hours. You'd be surprised what 
that little timer can drag out of you: whole 
stories, whole scenes, whole chapters. It's also 
good for cleaning the kitchen. I can stand to 
clean the kitchen for seven minutes. It's amazing 
how much you can do in seven minutes.
My third tip is join a writing group. It just helps. 
If your writing group 
meets on Thursday, and it's Tuesday, you just 
think, "If I can push this into sentences, I'll have 
another chapter to give to the writing group." 
Again, you'll be surprised at how finished that 
chapter will actually be.
My fourth tip is find a writer whom you deeply 
admire, who's maybe a little bit better than 
you are, and talk them into swapping work on 
a regular basis. You can save yourself a lot of 
time this way. It's a little hard to get used to 
seeing each other's work at a really ugly stage. 
You may think, "That writer's not very good 
after all." But if you show stuff to someone else 
at an early stage, sometimes they can save you 
a lot of heartache. They can keep you from falling 
into a lot of rabbit holes. Also, the other thing 
about having someone who's essentially a writing 
partner is it makes writing a whole lot less lonely.
Tip number five. I'm sorry. You hear this in every 
other aspect of your life, but here it is again: get 
plenty of exercise. This is really important. You 
don't want a flabby mind; you don't want a flabby 
body. And they're connected. Especially when 
you're trying to figure out a fictional problem, 
there is really nothing like walking. Walking and 
narrative are really deeply linked; they both take 
you from place to place. The unconscious is the 
hidden engine and partner in your writing life, 
and you have to give it time to work out the 
problems that only you can solve. 
My sixth tip is do something else creative. 
Cook, garden, play music, throw pots, paint--do 
something that is not word-based. 
Again, it gives the subconscious, 
the psyche, the imagination--whatever you want 
to call that thing--time to range about. It gives it 
fuel. It will sort things out for you that you 
couldn't ever sort out from a direct assault.
Number seven: the unconscious needs something 
to work on. So it's always a good idea to bang 
out a really rough draft of a story, a chapter, a 
scene, an article that you have to write--
whatever. This gives that part of the mind that 
structures and patterns something to dig into, 
something to organize. I spent many years as a 
restaurant critic. I learned over time that-- I 
always wrote my restaurant reviews on Tuesday, 
but I learned that if I sat down sometime on 
Monday--Monday night before I went to bed, 
especially--and banged out a really crappy first 
draft, that half my work was done for me overnight 
as I slept. Sometimes I wouldn't even look at the 
draft again. It was just something to get those 
organizing cogs moving.
Tip number eight: if you are a novelist, write 
something short once in a while--an essay, a 
short story, a little article. This is essential 
because you might forget how to finish something 
if you're working on a novel for a really long time. 
So this reminds you of the pleasure of finishing 
something. It keeps you in practice for finishing 
something. A novel is a really long act of faith, 
and it's just nice to know that you can dispatch 
a few smaller things in the meantime.
My ninth and last tip is remember that writing 
is a form of play. You have to be able to get into 
flow. You can struggle and work hard and get 
stuck--and you will get stuck--but you can't force 
things. Solving difficult problems is the job of 
writing: how to bring this character to life, how 
to structure this scene so that it makes sense, 
how to get this transition to work. It's infinite. 
But you have to remember to give yourself a 
little room. You have to work your way into flow. 
Flow never comes cheaply, but you can't force 
your way into flow. If you're too stuck or going 
at it too hard or trying to control too much, just 
back off. Take a walk. Cook a meal. Turn on some 
loud music. If you've been working on a story for 
a year, or a novel for ten years, and it's not 
working, step back. Try something else. There's 
only so much you can do to make it happen. And 
while you're busy forcing one issue, your 
unconscious is probably ranging about and trying 
to work on something else. What is that 
something else? Don't you want to find out?
So, here they are: my tips. Turn your soul 
around. Use a timer. Join a writing group. Find 
a good writing partner to swap pages with. Get 
plenty of exercise, and take lots of walks. Do 
something else creative that is nonverbal. Write 
a super rough, rough draft to give the 
unconscious something to work with. Write 
something short and easy that you can finish 
quickly every so often. Remember that writing 
is a form of play, and know when not to 
force it.
Tuesday
Dec082015

writing lessons from the university of iowa "how writers write fiction" mooc

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I'd like to share what I learned in my University of Iowa MOOC. So, we'll go through the eight-week course with the following syllabus:

- Welcome week

- Starting with character

- Expanding on character: cast and dialogue

- Working with plot

- Using character to produce frame and arc

- Voice and setting

- Immersion in setting: description and world-building

- Embracing revision

So, we're winding down 2015, preparing for lots of holiday gatherings, and, if you're like us, buying presents for young family members. So, enjoy the last few weeks of this year, and I'll be back in January with some valuable fiction-writing tools.

Happy holidays, and I'll see you next year. 

Wednesday
Oct072015

preparing for nanowrimo

via

All right, fellow scriveners, it's almost NaNoWriMo time, and if you're like me and get itchy/a bad taste in your mouth just thinking about outlining and prefer to just wing it, check out Chuck Wendig's hilarious post on the virtues of outlining plus a variety of options to get you more organized.

He's absolutely right, by the way. The last time I did NaNoWriMo was five years ago, and I "won," but with 50,000+ words of disorganized rambling junk. So, I'd like to avoid that this time. I'm all for flying by the seat of my pants in most situations, but for my next novel, I want to actually have some solid content to edit when NaNoWriMo is over this time.

If you're visual like me, you might want to try the method that I found most intriguing: using a mind map to get your story ideas down, and Iain Broome shares this great post on how he organizes his. So, if you're gearing up for NaNoWriMo (or just have a project in mind that you'd like to sort out), I hope you find some clarity, too.

Here's to more effective writing!