Category Archives: Thursday Night Writes

Rx for Plot-Blindness

Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale. 

Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.

Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev

Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”

Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?

The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:

INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.

VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.

VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.

HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.

COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN

VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.

VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.

HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.

Now, about those details….

Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.

Eat Me!

The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.

Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.

So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?

I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”

I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.

Win-win.

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Why Book Hoarding is Different

Tsundoku, the Japanese word for “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books”

 

The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.

On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”

On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)

Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”

The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.

But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.

Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.

Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.

Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)

No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.

However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”

Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.

Packing Day

Packing day—to return home—is never long enough. (Packing to go to AZ should be a piece of cake. It starts as soon as I stop wearing my summer clothes. That can be any day from October 1 until the second. Of October. I am not kidding you. That’s when summer ends in New Hampshire, which gives me almost three months to fill two suitcases. Does that mean I start packing on October second? You already know the answer to that if you have been following this blog. Just search “procrastination” and you’ll have a good idea of what day I start packing.)

My largest suitcase (my LARGEST suitcase lost a wheel in Australia and is unfortunately sitting in a landfill) was packed three days ago, though I did struggle. Whittling my wardrobe down to three days worth of clothing was difficult, especially when you consider everything we packed into these last three days.

Saturday we watched a grandson play two games of a basketball tournament; they won both! (The most fun was when the grandmother from the other side of the family and I agreed to collaborate on a book together!) By seven p.m. we were at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center for a granddaughter competing in the Regional Level 7 Gymnastics competition. The other regions represented were Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Northern California. She did extremely well and brought home three medals.

Garden at the plaza

Garden at the plaza in Care Free, AZ

Yesterday the ladies of the Arizona family (two daughters, three granddaughters, and me) dressed up for lunch at the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. So much fun!! The Tea Room is in a plaza of cute shops with a gorgeous Southwestern garden area. Elephant Bluff and Skull Mesa were visible to the north.  

Last night some of the men (my husband and two grandsons) joined the ladies at San Tan Flat for a farewell dinner. Margaritas, outdoor tables, rancher tips and steak, two vicious games of Uno (my granddaughters are sharks), s’mores cooked over our own fire pit, and dancing to live music. We couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff (unless our sons-in-law were not tied up with work obligations and could have joined us)!!

See you in New Hampshire!!

 

 

 

 

 

Try doing any of those things with a novel

I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.

Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)

Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?

The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something  that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.

Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)

With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.

A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.

Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.

On the road again!

Thursday is finally here and we are on our way to another adventure–one, I’ll be honest, I’ve been dreading. What??? Dreading a twenty-five day (more or less) trip to Australia and New Zealand? How is that even possible?

First, the length is daunting. We have never been on a vacation quite this long. And it is really hard to figure out how long the trip actually is. In three hours we fly from Phoenix to Los Angeles, wait seven hours (ugh) then board the plane for Brisbane at ten tonight. The flight is fourteen hours long and they are sixteen hours ahead of us. We land in Australia two days from now. When we fly home from New Zealand, we land in Phoenix before we left Auckland. How’s that for time travel??

And then there’s the packing for this trip. (I just realized that the clothes I’m wearing right now will be the same ones I will be wearing in two days. More or less.) I bravely limited myself to one large suitcase. Everything I need to take fit into it. Unfortunately, everything I need to take weighs more than fifty pounds. I offloaded shoes and clothes to my husband’s suitcase and to our carryon and voila! My suitcase is now a svelte forty-nine pounds.

One issue with packing for this trip is the inconsistency in the weather. In Port Douglas, AU (“you better see the Great Barrier Reef while it is still here”), it’s going to be tropical weather. Sydney and Melbourne should be warm (high 70’s to low 80’s) but then we cruise to Tasmania before making our way to New Zealand. That’s when the temperatures may drop and we may have rain. Every day. And because the majority of our time will be spent on the cruise ship, I needed to pack some dressier outfits–not jeans–for evenings. So that’s a lot of clothes–that will be worn, by necessity, more than once or twice. Each.

I was told by a fellow Thursday Night Writer that my trip would provide me with twenty-three days of uninterrupted writing time. Of course, we both know that she is wrong. I did commit to developing an idea for a short story that takes place on the cruise ship. Since I told her this, two people have fallen from cruise ships and died. In one week. “It was not immediately clear if any foul play was involved in either of the incidents.” Depending on your perspective, the real world either steals our ideas for potentially great fiction or presents us with the perfect situation to write about.

I am bringing a brand new journal in which I vow to record every detail of our trip!! At least for the first two days…

 

 

The score is 0 to 3

Returning to Arizona after eight months away–our fifth season of snowbirding–still feels as though we are embarking on a long vacation. You’d think we would have visited all of the tourist attractions by now. Yet we’ve hardly made a dent in everything this extraordinary state has to offer.

A few weeks ago, we spent a leisurely Sunday at Kartchner Caverns and Biosphere 2, both relatively close to Tucson though not anywhere near to each other. This thirteen-hour day was immediately followed by three (out of ten) of us sick with the flu. While my writing friends in NH struggled with severe colds over the holidays, I remained healthy, only to succumb to the foreign Arizona germs.

While in Arizona my plan is to hide out in the theater room with my laptop and work on my current project, “Anne.” (If you are confused as to which project is my current one, you are not alone. It reminds even me of a tennis match.)  The score is 0 writing sessions to 3 movies (Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, and The Zookeeper’s Wife). Writers take note: of the three movies, Dunkirk was the only one not based upon a novel.

Due to our trek to the Tucson area, we missed watching the 75th Golden Globe Awards live. The extensive news (more political than entertainment—who knows where the line is anymore) coverage has brought me up to date on what transpired. The highlights of the evening for me would have been when Big Little Lies and The Handmaids Tale won their awards. Both television shows are based on books of the same name by Liane Moriarty and Margaret Atwood, respectively. As a writer I want to believe that the success of these shows is due to the novels they are based upon. Looking for inspiration, I reread “Liars” as I recuperated from the flu.

To have someone—many someones—love your book so much that they would want to make a movie or television series based upon it would be unbelievable. (Though according to the panel of authors at the New England Crime Bake 2017 who had movies made from their books, it’s not guaranteed to be a positive experience for the author.)

Would the prospect of a movie or television series adapted from one of my (currently unfinished) novels motivate me to write? If my pinkie swear with Eleanor (to finish “Anne” over the winter) doesn’t motivate me, I doubt if anything will.

Was I lying??

After three consecutive years of winning NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to take a break this year. And I’m already missing it.

You may recall that November is the only month during the year that I produce a measureable amount of writing. Is this really a wise decision?

It’s not because I won’t have time for it–there’s never enough time for it–but I’ve always managed to squeeze it in.

The problem is that I have numerous fifty thousand word drafts of novels floating around, begging to be revised and completed. Why would I want to add one more draft to those haunting me?

In 2014 my NaNoWriMo novel was It Takes a Village Store. I couldn’t remember what it was about so I quickly scanned it. Ahhh…Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. I remember them. In 2015 my NaNoWriMo was Full Circle. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. In 1986 (I kid you not) I started Anne, which remains a work in progress. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Jeff, George, Mae.

As they are populated by the (mostly) same cast of characters, what if I eliminate all of the unnecessary stuff from each of them and create one complete novel? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all I had to do? Wouldn’t I feel like a real author if I spent November doing that instead of writing a new story with a new cast of characters?

Of course I would. But. For me, there’s something magical about NaNoWriMo. It’s more than thirty days of focusing just on word count. It’s thirty days of creating lives, places, relationships, action. Without anyone criticizing my sentence structure, my choice of words, my story arc. It’s the freedom to get swept away by my characters, to ride the wave of my story, to float back to shore at midnight on November thirtieth, fifty thousand words richer.

If you’ve been following my posts, you might be wondering what happened to the murder mystery trilogy I bragged about recently. Oh, that trilogy, using the same rough drafts listed above. And adding Gabby, my 2016 NaNo winner, and Claire, my loser.

Confused?? Yeah, me, too. Maybe the best of use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.

Finally, in a 2015 post, this is what I had to say about what I learned from NaNoWriMo that year: …I am able to write regardless of the circumstances. I don’t need the perfect chair…or to be in the mood to write. I can even write while indulging in (gulp) Hallmark holiday movies…Another lesson has been that it isn’t that hard to whip out a lot of words if I’m prepared to also whip out a lot of revising. In the future. Revising that I’m actually looking forward to doing. Not lying.

Stay tuned for the big reveal: to NaNo or not?

Patching My Pants

So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.

And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.

Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!

My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.

This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?

On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.

At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?

It’s not always what you think

Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.

As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.

Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.

Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone.  Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?

The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.

A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.

I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”

For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.

We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.

It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?

Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.

Author’s prerogative

Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”

Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.

And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.

Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.

Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.

We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?

I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.

So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.

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