Sunday, January 31, 2010

Simple But Helpful

My editor of choice (Scrivener on the Mac) has a full-screen editing mode that I just started using. It's a godsend for the easily distracted. Somehow, it prevents me from constantly glancing at my e-mail inbox, keeps my eyes from wandering over to the Facebook status tray to look for pointless new updates.

Many editors have this full-screen feature (though Scrivener is by far my favorite). I suggest giving it a try if you have a need to improve your focus.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Values vs. Moods

It's easy in life to be driven by moods.

Even someone who typically runs on level ground can defer to moods more often than he should.

Without a plan that's been crafted to align behavior to values, the values will lose to moods more often than not. And the specific outcome will be unpredictable but predictably bad.

Most of the goals worth having represent some sort of ambition requiring a long-term commitment. Moods, even among the most even-tempered people, are sadly far too variable to bank on them guiding you in any sort of consistent direction.

I feel this dilemma acutely now as I'm being challenged personally more than I ever have and am, at the same time, fighting to reach several new meaningful goals.

I am desperate to chase my bigger goals, even as moods too-often try to direct me places I don't want to go.

This kind of thinking, aligning actions to values rather than moods, applies to many areas of life, but it fits particularly well with the notion of writing and inspiration.

Waiting for inspiration means, in essence, waiting for the right mood. I'm working hard not to do that and suggest that you do the same. The value, to me, is finishing a novel that makes me proud. In order to do that, I have to produce consistently, irrespective of my moods.

Basic Dialog Mechanics

Dialog seems to have a particular reliance on a sensible rhythm for its power. This is true of all writing, but especially true, I think, for dialog.

I can't generate a useful definition for good rhythm, but like the supreme court justice said about defining pornography, I know it when I see it.

There are certain very low-level mechanic aspects of writing dialog that can make a good difference, though.

Attribution Styles

How do you attach a given piece of dialog to a given character?

There are, mechanically, a handful of methods.

Basic Tag

"I know," he said.

He said, "I know." This one seems to have fallen into disfavor. It feels anachronistic.

"I have no idea," Danny said. "But I'll let you know when I find out."

"I have no idea, but I'll let you know when I find out," Danny said.

I prefer the first of the two above. It's a common mistake to push the tag too late into the character's dialog. We need to know quickly, for both rhythm and understanding, who's speaking.

If you're going to use this style of tag, you are, for the most part, best off sticking to 'said' and 'asked.' There are obvious times, liked a shouted sentence, that you should say they shouted. But don't get much more creative than that. Said and asked have the added benefit of being essentially invisible to most readers.

Action Tag

Here's an action tag--rather than the basic he-said, she-said approach. It tends to be closer to invisible (a very good thing) than those tags are.

Danny winced and shook his head. "I have no idea, but I'll let you know when I find out."

"I have no idea." Danny shook his head. "But I'll let you know when I find out."

No Tag

There's currently a strong preference for tagless runs of dialog. Readers like for pages to move, and it works, as a sort of artificial trick, to make the story feel like it's moving along, as well.

Carla stood nearby, simply staring. "Why?"

"I like glue."

"Again, I'll ask you, Why?"

"Curls my toes. And my nose hairs."

The risk, in long runs of this kind of dialog, is that it can feel very thin. It's also easy to write scenes that have no rhythm save an unchecked gallop.


* End with a comma if the tag is a continuation of the sentence, a period otherwise.
  • "I hate it when you do that," Janey said.
  • "I hate it when you do that." Janey turned an angry look his way.

* Get the rhythm of the tag's placement right:

"Why in God's name are you sniffing glue?" Carla asked.

"I like glue, because of the way it curls my toes and my nose hairs," Nick said.

In the previous sentence, the tag comes too late (though this is not a terrible example).

Instead, something like the following would work better.

"I like glue," Nick said. "Because of the way it curls my toes and my nose hairs."

This is an improvement because, most often, it's best to finish with dialog, rather than a tag. And, in this case, the tag is in the best place rhythmically.

* Forget the editorial

"I love you with all my heart," she said lovingly.

This is obviously intentionally bad. But the point is, either the dialog carries the tone or it doesn't. Your editorial only gets in the way. If the dialog hasn't carried the intended tone, it's too late for your editorial to help. I've already read it and, if I'm paying attention, had it ring in my ears in my own way.

If the dialog doesn't say what you'd intended, in the way you'd intended, the editorial aspect of the tag is unlikely to fix the problem.

I'll paraphrase John Gardner here--though I think he was quoting someone else--and say that writing should create a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind. When you're dealing with the mechanics of dialog, do your best to make those mechanics invisible, to avoid interruption of that vivid and continuous dream.

I'll refine this article and add a few thoughts soon, but I thought there was enough here to be worth putting out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sandpiper Stroll

Newsy Bits

I've just started pulling together the short stories I've written that I don't look back on with scorn. I'm planning to publish them as a Smashwords book and link it from the main page of this blog.

Smashwords is a free platform for publishing e-books to multiple platforms (including Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook).

It should be a fun exercise, and it will give any readers of this blog a chance to figure out if they'd be smart to ignore every piece of advice I have about writing. I'm planning to have this book together in the next few weeks. It will be woefully short, but, on the bright side, free.

I've also started working on a series that I wish I'd had when I was a true neophyte writer. It's a bunch of short posts about the mechanics of writing and possible solutions to story-telling problems. I'll cover things like, How do I decide how much physical description to give in a scene?, How do I deal with the attribution of dialog to characters?, and How do I figure out where to begin and end a scene?

I don't pretend to have the 'right' answer to any of these questions. But I do have an answer. And when you're new to story-telling--and you're struggling--any help seems . . . well . . . helpful.

These articles will start trickling in by the end of the week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Big Writing Day

For the first time in a few weeks, I had a writing day that makes me proud.

Working on a big dramatic scene that pretty well summarizes the whole point of the novel to me, I wrote like the wind. Well over a thousand words.

It feels, as I re-read it, dramatic and reasonably balanced. It's incomplete still and will need re-writing. But the core of it is there and seems--with my admittedly very little distance--to be working pretty well.

As I wrote, I actually felt some of what I would hope a reader might feel reading it.

It's amazing to me how powerful a thing it is, how great it feels and how complete, when the writing goes well. All manner of sins get erased in that rush.

Very nice, indeed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Seeking Grace

In October last year, several big events in my life conspired to knock me convincingly on my heels. There were moments when I felt like I was incapable of handling what came next, unable to make a sensible decision in any given moment.

Considering that I've slogged through some pretty deep, fast-moving water in the past, this state of affairs shook me.

That feeling convinced me to go seek help in the form of therapy.

Though there were (and are) unpleasant situations over which I have no control, I have, for the most part managed to take control of the things that seemed reasonably graspable. And that achievement has made all the difference.

In the last couple weeks, however, with the help of a few taxing events, I've felt myself slipping a bit, felt the breathless panic of powerlessness creeping in.

In talking with my therapist, his goal is that, in the heat of battle--talking about one particular interpersonal struggle here--I get to a place that I handle things with a sort of emotionless equanimity. That's not how he put it, exactly. He said to find my own sort of Zen place to help me fend off the fury with the least possible bleeding.

But he knows what should be obvious; it ain't easy.

The best you can hope for in situations like this, I think--the Holy Grail of responses--is to handle the moments with humor and grace. And, historically, before the toughest of this struggle, I think I've done a reasonable job with this. Second comes my therapist's recommendation, a steady sort of equanimity. Third is the head-in-hands, hair-on-fire survival mode.

Today, in the heat of battle, I fell back on the last. Almost immediately, I was annoyed with myself for it, for being incapable of even approximating what my therapist was recommending. I let the situation, in essence, own me. Let it tear me up. And I know I must do better.

It's hard, after all, to chase goals when your hair's on fire. And goal-chasing--in one form or another--is, in the end, what 2010 is about for me.

But sometimes the lowest form of survival is the best I can manage.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Perfect Moment, Perfect Place

look close at the bigger version for loons (on the right side)

A few years back, on a brisk August night, my cousin and I sat in chaises on this New Hampshire beach chatting and watching falling stars over the lake. One star, in particular, made our evening.

At first, it appeared as a nearly stationary light in the sky. The only visible difference was a sort of vibration. Eventually, after perhaps a minute, its movement became more visible. Slowly, we figured out that it was, indeed, a falling star and that it was falling right toward us.

The whole show, the time from original spotting to fading away, took perhaps two minutes. Sounds impossible, I'm sure, but it happened.

Years earlier, as youngsters, this same cousin and I had lain on the ground--she and I remember differently about exactly where--and watched falling stars for a long time. That, too, was magical.

These moments come to me occasionally--like now, when I'm struggling with loneliness--and they put a smile on my face.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


rain on windshield

colors through old-style window

I'm using my little pocketable camera (the wonderful Canon S90 IS) as a scratch-pad in preparation for making a micro-budget feature film. Look at the larger version of each to get a better idea of the real feel.

The idea is to capture the mood, in pictures, that I hope to create with the movie. When I have the mood right, in a series of a dozen or so images, I'm expecting that I'll know. And I will print those images large and hang them around my work room as I write.

My goal, as I begin, is to make a suspenseful movie with a tense sort of desperation hanging over it. To capture a star character suffering, but hopefully with a point.

I plan to make strong use of disappointments and struggles I've been through in the last couple years, to apply hard emotions to a story that really works (see What is Fiction For? and Writing Through Pain for details). This is where the challenge of harnessing difficult emotions and making powerful use of them as a storyteller comes in.

I'm hoping that I have the proper distance to make it work. I'm not, after all, doing this for therapy. I'm doing it to tell a story that will move as many people as possible.

As I go through these earliest of steps (taking stills to help divine the look and feel and mood of the movie), I will post my efforts and explain my moods. With any luck, it won't bore the hell out of anyone reading.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

People Can Surprise You

I just had a laughably petty experience--more petty, even, than anything I might have witnessed in junior high school--and it got me to thinking about characters and how they can surprise.

There are people we know who seem powerful and pulled together but who collapse under the slightest duress. Level ground is all they can handle, but they handle it well. And there are people--humble, unassuming people--who, when conditions demand, stand and deliver in shocking ways. People who don't display their greatness until serious trouble arises.

The latter is a rare breed, but it's a glorious thing to behold. It reminds me of the North Carolina state motto, To Be, Rather Than to Seem, which I love.

It's not fun to be shocked by the clay feet of someone you respected, but it is interesting.

And, more important on a writer's blog, it's valuable to think about with respect to the characters you write. I've never really taken advantage if this real human character trait. But you can bet I'll try to exercise this option in a story very soon. I imagine there's actually a great spot for it to play itself out in my current novel.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Did You Really Mean to Do That?

Today, I caught myself frittering away time in Cafe World on Facebook. For the uninitiated, it's a casual game in which you run a cafe and can recruit Facebook friends to help.

I cursed myself when I thought about the writing I could be doing with that time.

Dennis Prager, a radio host, once said that everyone should have to put the number of hours he spent watching TV on his gravestone. The thought was so striking, so horrific to me, that it actually changed my viewing habits pretty radically.

That notion could be extended, clearly, to any kind of frivolous, unplanned activity.

That's not to say that frivolity has no place. Of course we need time to vegetate, to play without serious obligation.

But the important question is, Is this what you'd actually prefer to do with these minutes?

How often do we claim to lack for time? And how much of that time is given away to unplanned--and often pointless--trivialities.

Are you forgoing valued pursuits in favor of easy, pointless diversion? For me, the answer is that too often I am. And it's time to change that.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Solitary Pursuit

Writing is an alone experience.

I don't say lonely because, I suppose, some people might be built best for time alone and might never feel a moment of loneliness.

That said, there's no denying that it's a solitary, isolating pursuit.

Novel writing, particularly, tends to isolate. So long between inception and any kind of feedback.

The novel has always been the holy grail to me. Being a writer meant being a novelist.

But in the last couple years, thanks to a friend's influence, I've occasionally written short stories targeted at contests.

The discipline of trying to tell a compelling story in a confined space, and to do it on a deadline, has been very good for me.

I have, for a long time, thought I could write, that I had a decent facility with words on paper. What I lacked was the ability to tell a compelling story (a far more important skill). Chasing the short story contests has helped with that.

The contests have also helped with the isolation. In a relatively short span, you can conceive a story--often based on a promt--complete it, and get some kind of feedback . . . even if it's only that you didn't place.

And, occasionally, you just might perform well enough to get happy feedback. This, too, is a cure for the isolation. And it is wonderful fuel for the long, silent road to a finished novel.

Try it and see if it doesn't make your writing better and make you a happier writer.

In service of this little tid-bit of advice, I'll be posting links to contests now and again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Little Bit Mournful, Extremely Appropriate

Writing Through Pain

In the last post, I wrote about one part of what I think it takes to move a reader and how important I think that work is.

Now I'll talk about a related aspect of that.

How do we translate big, real-world feelings to the page in a way that is useful?

I've made it clear enough in recent posts, I think, that the last year-plus has been a struggle for me.

The details, in this case, don't particularly matter (and, No!, you can't get away with such a cop-out in your fiction). But I found myself with a life that was nauseatingly off track, broken enough that I felt utterly incapable of smart corrective action. There was much painful drama, too. Not the worst that people can suffer, for sure. But the struggles were numerous, persistent and often-surprising. Redirecting my efforts in life has proven painful, as well (it looks to people as if I'm changing the rules of the game at half-time, and they resent it).

The point here is not to garner sympathy. If I were after that, I'd have had to prove it with details, right? With simple action and dialog. All I've done here is crappy editorial. But I'm allowing myself because the next point is the one that matters.

How do you translate these kinds of struggles into something meaningful on the page?

It's great as a writer, I think, to experience just about every possible emotion, to experience it big and small. How else does your writing acquire a depth and legitimacy?

So, even suffering is useful.

The struggle, though, entails translating powerful feeling to the page in a way in which readers can feel it. This is where the rule from the previous post--prove it with action and dialog--comes in.

Your editorial voice is at its most powerful when you're buried in the throes of something real and emotional. And if you embrace that part of you during the writing, you will likely produce a whiny diary-like effect. In which everything is suffering and your characters eternally put-upon. This will not move readers.

Suffering, at its worst, feels utterly pointless. And so will your story. Readers, whether they know it or not, demand a point.

Time and distance, as best I can tell, are required. But so is a simple understanding that you will lean toward bleak and whiny. At every turn, look for a way to lift your story out of the darkness. I'm not talking happily-ever-afters, here. I am simply saying that suffering alone is not a worthy topic for a story.

Next up, in the spirit of Prove It, I'll present short samples that I hope will approximate the best of what I'm recommending.

What is Fiction For?

Writing, at least from where I sit, is best when it evokes powerful emotion. If you as an author make me laugh, if you make me cry, if you scare the hell out of me, you've done your job. And I'm glad to have given you my hard-earned cash.

Making me think is a fine thing. But it's trumped every time by making me feel. And, No, I'm not someone for whom feelings alone guide the universe. I'm talking fiction here. Why I buy it and why I read it.

So, having said that fiction that makes me feel is a good thing, how does a writer do it? How do you move a reader?

It's not even close to enough to have your characters emote all over the page. Not nearly enough to tell me they laughed and cried and pined away for lost loves.

Because, unless you've already proven it to me, I don't believe you.

And if you insist on blathering on about such things, describing in your editorial way, the big emotions your characters feel, I won't trust you, either.

So, what is the trick, then?

Prove it.

Emotion that really works in fiction comes from plainly stated actions and dialog that move a reader. It doesn't come from the editorial. It doesn't come from the author telling me what to feel about what I've just read, trying to run around behind his characters' actions and patch the holes he's left with his own incompetence.

If the action and dialog hasn't moved me, your editorial can't fix it.

Is this--proving the emotions--easy to do?

Hell no.

If it were, every romance we ever read would be tear-stained. Every suspense novel would come with a pack of Depends.

It's not easy.

But my premise--beyond that immensely un-helpful note that it isn't easy--is that you must prove it. And you must prove it in actions and dialog. Don't make me trust an author who isn't capable of proving his point.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

"Learn From This"

The last year has been loaded with painful moments, some stupid missteps, and meaningful growth.

Recently, after I had made a painful misstep, someone who chose to be a good friend in that moment, said, "Learn from this."

I will.

I wish the mistakes only came in quiet moments in a room alone. But they don't. Sometimes they come loudly in public.

I'm hoping, as I stumble through, that they will soon be fewer and farther between. And hoping even more that any pain they cause will be mine alone.


"What the hell does this have to do with writing?" You say.

I'll answer that in the next post.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Straight Shooting

He stood, dumbstruck
by her question
Her question
that shouldn’t need asking

You tell, stupid
Before the question gets asked,
You. Tell.

Pieces fell,
around his feet
as he pondered
and found nothing

words and thoughts
in the face
of a truth
he never shared

I’m sorry
he says
too late to matter