Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Using character autobiography to discover plot

My character-driven novel has resisted plotting. Experts who specialize in plotting have thrown up their hands and told me it may not be publishable. Others have suggested an infusion of gunshots or perhaps a car chase.

As I told a friend in a whining e-mail, "The other thing I learned from [unnamed experts] -- which is probably more important than anything they knew they were teaching -- is that it doesn't matter what the experts say. It's the process of telling my story that makes me qualified to tell it. And no matter what I've learned from all my teachers, there comes a time to forget the lessons and ride the wave."

Well, that wave tends to crest and trough, and even a character-driven novel needs a plot. The problem is finding it. The problem, as the unnamed expert pointed out, is to find a destination more concrete than the much-too-nebulous "comes to terms with" or "discovers."

But in a character-driven novel, that outline comes from character development, from beginning to end. Plot points will be physical manifestations of changes in the psyche.

So I've begun a long autobiography of my protagonist, and the milestones begin to emerge from the fog. It's not a plot, but it's the landscape where I'll build my road of a plot.

And the gunshots still are limited to the inciting incident.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fictional snooping

Here's something I learned from Jurgen Wolff, writing coach and author of various books on motivation, goal setting, and writing. He's also an NLP practitioner, and this little exercise is a way to bring to conscious knowledge a fuller picture of a fictional character or situation.

Get comfortable somewhere where you won't be disturbed, which could include a city bus, park bench, airport. It's not dangerous or embarrassing or anything, but you might look like you're dozing, and if you want to work on your book, you won't necessarily want to have a conversation right then.

Then close your eyes, or leave them open, and relax your extremities. Focus on your hands, feet, arms, legs, and tell the muscles to relax.

Now, think about your character's house. There's nobody home, and you've been given permission to go and browse through and explore as much as you want. You'll be looking for an object of importance to the character that will tell you something about that character.

As you walk in the front door, look around, observe the furniture, wall hangings, state of order or messiness. Go from room to room through the dwelling, seeing what you see, considering what noises you might hear, smells you might smell. Find the object. It could be a book or a photograph or anything. When you've examined the object, put it back where you found it and leave.

There are a million variations. It could be the character's cubicle at work, his car, her dorm room, her garden. What you see will tell you about these people in places where your conscious mind might be inclined to force something foreign onto them and move on, causing the characters to be shallow or unconvincing.

My husband and I were camping in a yurt at an Oregon state park last summer and I noted that there was WiFi. I thought it would be a great place to write, and as we walked around the park I surveyed the writing space of an imaginary writer using a yurt for a writing vacation. I saw books spread out on the coffee table, coffee mug, computer, printer, stack of manuscript pages. When I turned over the pages, I found a novel in progress about an eastern Oregon cowgirl who went to medical school at the University of Chicago. Sounds like an interesting story. Somebody ought to write it.

With practice it gets easier to find that state of waking dream where fictional people walk and act and make choices that surprise even their creators.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

My first audio drama

I just finished up the second draft of my first audio drama. It's been quite the project, and although it's getting closer to where I want it to be, I know it's not there yet. But it's been an incredibly fun project and a good change of pace from the novel, which is on hiatus, but not back-burnered.

Here's what I've learned about writing audio drama so far.

First, here's one handy link with everything you want to know about audio drama and then some: The Well Tempered Audio Dramatist.

Second, I needed to have a fundamental overview of the story beforehand. In writing prose, it's easier to just follow the words to see where they lead. For some reason, though, and I can think of several possibilities, I couldn't just start writing a scene and see what the people said. Maybe it was because I'm not familiar enough with the form and format to stop concentrating on that and follow the story. Maybe it's just my approach. Maybe it's this story.

This story started with a challenge from Willamette Radio Workshop to come up with a 15-minute audio drama in some way inspired by the "St. James Infirmary Blues" for a Halloween anthology production. I thought, that sounds like fun. Too bad I don't have any ideas. And then I got the idea, and that song ran through my head for a few days until I got the bones of the story. Then it disappeared.

And the story -- well, we'll see what comes of the story.

The third thing I learned is that you use sounds to reinforce mood. Well, duh, you say. You're writing audio drama. But my approach was to start with dialogue -- which I suppose is as good a place as any. But when a perceptive critiquer pointed out a two-word phrase that summarized each scene, it gave me the ambient mood of each scene, and then I knew what might happen to build that mood aside from the dialogue.

So happy, victorious, on-top-of-the-world (and the whole play is set in a bar over a period of several weeks) is a baseball game with the home team winning in the bottom of the ninth. And the music I listened to as I wrote the scenes becomes suggestions for the kind of music backing them in the production. Oddly, St. James Infirmary Blues wasn't one of them, but mostly Duke Ellington with a little bit of Django Reinhold and Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane thrown in.

Basic, yeah. But it's a start.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Visit from an old acquaintance

So I'm walking along, minding my own business, and here comes this novel I gave up on.

"How're you doing?" it says.

"Been a long time," says I.

"You'll never guess what I found," says the novel. "A plot."

"You mean you want to be buried in the garden?"

"No. Beginning, middle, end, plot points, conflict, all that stuff. What you had before wasn't all bad, but there was way too much of it, all over the place. Why don't you sit down and let me tell you about it?"

"But you were dead. Everybody said so. I said so. The experts --"

"Experts schmexperts. What do they know about what's in your head. I had problems, issues. I had to take some time to get to know myself."

"But I'm working on this other one now."

"Yeah. Quiet, thoughtful. Deep if you can pull it off. Listen. I kick butt."

And I think maybe it does.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A song for our Dear Leader

Here's a little something to teach the kiddies at bedtime.

Obama loves me, this I know,
For his website tells me so.
Little ones to the State belong.
They are weak, but Barak is strong.

Yes, Obama loves me.
Yes, Obama loves me.
Yes, Obama loves me.
His website tells me so.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Paperless writer

A little ditty of mine published in the March 2009 issue of the National Court Reporters Association Journal.

Paperless Writer
(with apologies to the Beatles)

Dear Stenograph, buy back my machine
I've seen the latest, and they're sleek and mean,
With seven backups, give or take a few,
And the latest software, student version, too --
Paperless writer.

I'm tired of ink getting on my hands
And shadowed notes I can't understand.
My teachers tell me it's a bad idea,
But I don't care, because I want to use a paperless writer,
Paperless writer, paperless writer.

I write 120, give or take a few,
And I'll pass 180 in a week or two.
I'll take my first depo by tomorrow week,
I want to look the part, so I need to have a paperless writer,
Paperless writer.

You can find a buyer for my old machine,
I've oiled it up, so it's nice and clean.
If you must return it, you can send it here,
But I need a break, and I want to use a paperless writer,
Paperless writer, paperless writer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Secular Case for Christmas

My friend forwarded this from the New York Times, in which self-described secularist Laura Miller explains why she enjoys The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe every Christmas, and by extension, Christmas itself.

My friend was saddened and disappointed by the writer's wrong understanding of the source of Christmas. For my part, I'm more or less with Flannery O'Connor -- If Christmas is not the beyond-strange act of a Creator breaking and entering His creation, passing as a weak and helpless creature beset by enemies, but instead is only a sort of Hallmark special, a cosmological Thomas Kincaide painting, then to hell with it.

For me, it's the breaking and entering that makes the rest of it -- Father Christmas, the Yule log, even our funny little Chinese-made whirligig Nativity scene, which this year we're powering with Hannukah candles -- make sense. As we all know from history, weather, and science fiction, when one world breaks into another, there's a lot of swirling and mixing, and surprising things attach to each other. No wonder, then, that everywhere Christmas goes, local reminders that winter doesn't last forever get attached to it (and I'm not entering the argument over whether the Roman solar feast arose before or after the arrival of the Christians, because it makes no difference).

But if the writer likes the Hallmark-Kincaide-Picadilly smorgasbord aspect of the Holiday Season, then she's welcome to her enjoyment. To me, it's like eating the paper wrapped around the chocolate truffles, but if someone doesn't believe that the truffles are edible or even exist, what can you say to prove otherwise?