Category Archives: Craft

The Maypole Effect

Image from watercolourflorals.blogspot.com

 

Now and then an awesome-o writer shares one of their projects with us, and this time it was the amazing Wendy Scheir, who introduced us to her stellar historical fiction. We invited Wendy to tell our readers about her experience working with an editing strategy dubbed the “Maypole Effect.” Here’s what she had to say:

 

Long story short, in 2012 I decided to write something fictional based on a real situation that took place during the winter of 1939-40, documented in materials I’d come across while working as an archivist on the records of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.

For two and a half years, I wrote five characters’ stories. They didn’t have a lot to do with one another, present-action-wise, but each occurred over that winter at the end of the Depression and on the cusp of World War II, and each circled around the same endeavor. I had a vague plan to weave them together, at some point. That would be easy. First, though, I needed to figure each character out independently of the others.

By mid-2015, it was time to weave. I broke each character’s story up into logical sections, interspersed them, and read it beginning to end. The result was a hot mess. The thing as a whole was utterly incomprehensible. There was no thing as a whole. The parts didn’t even add up to their sum. There was no book.

Thank goodness for computers. After a period of wallowing, I cut and pasted my fractured people back together again and placed the stories back to back. The interweaving disaster had exposed internal issues within each story, so I put the Big Structural Question out of mind and went back to work on those for awhile. But this wasn’t the book I’d envisioned. It wasn’t finished.

Trouble was, I had no idea what to do next.

My Squaw Valley pal Jilanne Hoffmann to the rescue! Jil led me to Laurel Leigh, a skilled editor who, Jil said, had a brilliant eye for Big Structural Questions. I dropped the manuscript onto Laurel’s e-doorstep and took a blessed break from writing.

November 2015. Just after Thanksgiving, Laurel came back with an idea. Actually she came with a ton, but I want to tell you about just one of them. She called it the Maypole. Continue reading

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Literary Fiction – Are You Still Awake?

Just returned from my writing retreat at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

The first panel (How Plot Works) discussed why literary fiction bores readers. Who wants to spend all that time in a character’s head if nothing’s going to happen? Say what?! Maybe they have a point.

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So the panel chatted about how to keep readers turning the pages:

  • Christina Meldrum, a former lawyer, creates tension through structure. She builds the first half of a story bell curve where the clues get more important to the story the closer she gets to the top. Something life-changing then happens at the apex.
  • Christian Kiefer does not outline or have any idea about what’s going to happen in his stories. But a writer can’t expect the reader to care more about the MC’s life than the MC does, so he does make sure his characters are on fire for something. It’s even better if there are multiple fires to complicate the story.
  • Janet Fitch said “you’ve gotta tie the girl to the tracks.” Don’t play the reader out so much that they lose interest. In scene, show character traits and then put pressure on those traits. The MC must let go of one or more traits while acquiring others to make a necessary life change.
  • Michael Jaime-Becerra uses positive tension (information that is doled out to the reader logically) instead of negative tension (information that is withheld from the reader unfairly). “The Swimmer” by John Cheever is an example of brilliantly withheld information.
  • Fitch added that suspense is fair, surprise is a trick. Build suspense.
  • Meldrum observed that the power of perspective allows the writer to give limited information. Humans are fallible, so the narrator can’t know everything, especially about themselves.

They finished by discussing magic: how endings must be both inevitable and surprising. Sadly, writers can’t force that Eureka!” So keep your butt in the chair, keep plottin’ away, and run with it when inspiration strikes. Oh, and don’t let your readers fall asleep.

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Christina Meldrum is the author of Amaryllis in Blueberry and Madapple.

Christian Kiefer is the author of The Infinite Tides.

Janet Fitch is the author of Paint It Black and White Oleander.

Michael Jaime-Becerra is the author of This Time Tomorrow and Every Night is Ladies’ Night.

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They Probably Have a Very Long Word for It in German

Scientists in Germany recently have discovered that creative writing involves using various parts of our brains, your correspondents at the Dogpatch are not the first to report.

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Researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany strapped willing participants into MRI scanners to track their brain activity while writing creatively. And this new research into the neuroscience of creative writing discovered that a broad network of regions in the brain all worked together when people are turning out a piece of fiction, which may not be news to discerning readers of the Dogpatch.

But what may come as news is that the inner workings of professionally trained writers showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions like music or sports.

 

Magnetic Fields 

The researchers at the University of Greifswald could not let their subjects use a laptop to write with because the magnetic field generated by an MRI scanner would have hurled it across the room. So subjects had to lie flat on their backs, while their writing arm rested on a desk nearby, as they scribbled on a piece of paper clipped to a board set at an incline beside them. A system of mirrors let them see what they were writing while their heads remained cocooned inside the scanner.

Some of you may be asking how creatively a person can be expected to write while lying flat on her back, her head strapped into an enormous, humming metal tube, but what perhaps cannot be in question is the elaborate nature of the protocols employed by the scientists at the University of Greifswald.

Before having their subjects attempt creative fiction, the researchers first had them simply copy out some text, giving them a baseline reading of the subjects’ brain activity during writing.

They then had their volunteers simply think about what they were planning to write. During these ‘brainstorming’ sessions, some vision-processing regions of the brain became active, suggesting that the subjects were, in effect, seeing the scenes they intended to write.

Finally they had their subjects write creative fiction, and here the researchers found that other regions of the brain were called into play, including the hippocampus, that part of the brain which retrieves factual information.

There was also activity noted in a region near the front of the brain that is crucial to holding several pieces of information in mind at once, suggesting that juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

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But the researchers at University of Greifswald recognized a big limit to their study: none of the participants had prior experience writing fiction.

Would the brains of full-time writers respond differently? Continue reading

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Write on Mamas – New Anthology

Hello Dogpatchers! I just read this blog post by an editor/writer from a group called Write on Mamas. They are professional writers (and those just beginning their writing journey) in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. I think the post contains some valuable insights about “beautiful writing” and what the editor learned while shepherding the group’s first anthology into publication.

So often, a piece can be beautifully written  (crafted) but feel lacking. A loooooo-n-g time ago, I took a poetry workshop and spent a great portion of the time discussing whether certain poems had “duende.” Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

Duende or tener duende (“having duende”) loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco[1] The artistic and especially musical term was derived from the duende, a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish mythology.

I think this is sometimes the missing element in what would otherwise be called “beautiful writing.” So here’s hoping you are all out there inviting that little fairy goblin into your work.

Link to the blog post:

http://writeonmamas.com/tips-on-editing/

Write on Mamas’ new anthology:

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Life and Death and Storytelling

 

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I have reached the age where friends and family members begin to fold their wings and end their buzzing against the windowpane. My parents’ deaths came in the form of old age, and while I miss them terribly, I know they were ready. 

But I don’t feel that same sense of consolation when the one who succumbs has not lived through their 70th decade. 

The other night, I found myself crying at the dinner table after learning that a woman in our neighborhood, with twin boys the age of our son, had died. I knew she had a rare form of cancer. But I also knew she was strong and fierce, maintained a positive outlook, and had been an unstoppable force for good in our community. She was young and smart and beautiful, and I hadn’t allowed myself to believe that she could die.

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But she did, and now my grief for her and her family was deepened by my own sense of mortality. I had to face the fact that I, too, could die at any moment. For she was one of US.

So how does death inform the decisions we make? What do we choose to do with the 1,440 minutes we have in the day?

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What we choose to do shows what is important to us, right?

Hmmm, not so sure. I spent the morning paying bills, but then I suppose that is tangentially important.

But what about dusting? Perhaps it’s important if you’re OCD or if you’re afraid you’ll be judged lacking by your in-laws or dinner guests. What do your characters choose to do with their time? Why do they make those choices?

Death plays a starring role in our lives, whether it’s quietly personal or a catastrophic event. How does this reality leak into your stories? Does death inform your characters’ actions? Do your characters feel immortal, on the brink of death, or somewhere in between?

How would your character choose to die? That “how” carries two meanings, both of which are usually mentioned in an obituary: cause of death, and who was with them when they died. Would your character prefer to die alone? with their dog? surrounded by family? Do they want to live fast and leave a beautiful corpse? Do they wish they could live that way, but something inside them foils those wishes?

Even if there’s nary a wisp of death blowing through your manuscript, it is still a silent partner, affecting your characters’ decisions.

And if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?

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Death to Backstory – So That My Manuscript May Live

Time is running out! April 2 is the deadline to submit your applications for the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. So finish scrubbing that manuscript and hit the “submit” button now!

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I’ve been revising two stories and trying to decide which one to submit. Laurel helped me make the decision, and for that I’m forever grateful! But before I send it, she suggested I remove almost all of the backstory.

I’d sent an earlier version to Zoetrope ages ago, and I’d received a hand written note on the form rejection letter that said something like: “You’ve created a couple of memorable characters, but you should rethink how much of this story needs to be on the page.”

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Say what?!

Ok, so it finally sank in when the news came from Laurel, my trusted colleague. I pulled out my book, The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell, and then read my story as if I were encountering it for the first time. I took out some backstory, and then read it again.

The story wasn’t missing anything. In fact, it read better, tighter. It killed me, but I cut some more. And then I read it again.

The story didn’t miss those cuts, either. In fact, it read cleaner, meaner. It killed me, but I cut some more…

Before I started this process, the story ran about 6,200 words. For the Squaw submission, I had revised it down to about 5,000 (max word count allowed) before giving it to Laurel to read . After her comments, I cut another 1,200 words. For those who love math, my story lost nearly 40% of its weight in excess fat—

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but it could probably lose a few more pounds before I ship it off.

Hemingway has famously said: “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”

photo credit: 123RF_lightwise

Um, he was right!

But it is sooooo HARD!!! I love my two main characters, because they are so weird and so misguided. I had such fun with their backstory, they just kept getting more and more interesting—to me. I read the story out loud to myself. I thought, can you believe these two? Aren’t they hysterical? How can I cut that?

My iceberg was sitting on top of the water.

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Here’s a sample outtake:

Her anger at Charlie had been cubby-holed in that part of her mind where she kept unpleasant thoughts such as her dissatisfaction with her marriage, gruesome murders she’d read about in the Daily Picayune, and repentance for her own sinful acts such as dancing in the living room, her occasional nip of sherry and whatever weakness in her character kept her from successfully reforming her husband. The Lord knew about Elvis’s power over her, and Elvis and the Lord were long acquainted. Whenever she listened to Elvis sing “How Great Thou Art,” she pictured him in heaven, sitting with Jesus at God’s feet. His songs always helped her put things into perspective—or the cubbyhole. All these years, he had been her one true savior—not that he had replaced the Good Lord in her prayers. Like Mary to Catholics, Elvis was an additional comfort to the soul.

But as it turns out, the pain was worth it. The more I cut, the more the cuts were “contained” in what remained.

It's a miracle!!

It’s a miracle!!

 

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Information Management: It’s a Little Like Goldilocks

Hi doggies, I’m so thrilled to be back in the Dogpatch!

As I’ve been entering my revisions for Dream of a City of Ruin (Book II of the Dreams of QaiMaj series), I’ve been thinking a lot about managing information in a novel.

Information is broad word so I’ll define it here as anything that the reader might need to know in order to follow your story. It might be backstory about a character, technical details about how something works, or the description of a setting. Lately I’m thinking the single most difficult part about writing, and the thing that ultimately separates “a book I’d like to read” from “a book I’d like to hurl across the room” is information management.

It’s a little like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too much, not too little. You have to include just the right amount of information for the reader to follow the story, without dumping in too much information, and you have to reveal the information so that the reader isn’t taken out of the story, so that your book doesn’t read like a technical manual, and so that your characters don’t sound like infomercials. It’s easy to fall into the trap of either including rambling, disruptive dumps, or trying to hide important information in a misguided attempt to create suspense, resulting in a lost and confused reader.

While there is no simple answer, I’ve picked up a few tools over the decades, from teachers, mentors, editors, peers and books on writing. For what it’s worth:

1. Kill your darlings, ruthlessly

It’s tempting to get carried away with including information. Chances are you’ve written pages and pages of backstory, world-building, research and character profiles. But just because you are in love with a particular bit of information doesn’t mean that it serves the story. Always ask yourself, does the reader absolutely need to know this particular information right now in order to follow and enjoy the story? If not, omit it. If a piece of information doesn’t either develop character or push the plot forward, we don’t need it.

Readers read fiction when they want a story, not a college textbook. If the reader isn’t already invested in the characters and plot, they aren’t going to care about how the hero’s gamma-ray gun works.

2. Prioritize information in order to determine how to reveal it

In order to understand how and when to reveal information, you have to have a sense of how important the information is to the story as a whole. You’ve likely heard the caveat that a gun on the mantle in Act I must be fired in Act 3. Well, the reverse is true. If something significant happens later in your story, you want to be leading up to it so that your reader is not so surprised by it that the story loses credibility. For example, if the villain is killed in the end by a gamma-ray gun, the reader should know both of the existence of such guns in your story world, and at least a little bit about how they function and how dangerous they are. Obviously, the presence of a weapon is a much more important piece of information than the details about how the fabric of the villain’s cloak was made. (Unless the fabric can teleport the villain, in which case we’d like to know something about it.) But the importance of some details isn’t as clear. So, how do you know what information in your story is going to be important?

3. Tell the story first

Whether you’re discovery drafting, outlining or summarizing, when you’re constructing your story, I’d advise you not to include any information you don’t absolutely need to craft a scene. That paragraph of backstory you think you need in Chapter 1—skip it. Chances are your information priorities will change by the end of your draft. When you tell the story first, you begin to get a sense of what is important and therefore what the reader will need to know, and when.

4. Choose key details: take cues from visual artists

It’s all well and good to wait and add in backstory and technical information later, you say, but what about the details I need to include now in order to build a scene? Character descriptions, setting, etc? I can’t very well wait and add everything in later.

As with backstory, description often falls into the too much or too little categories.  To avoid either pitfall, take a cue from visual artists: when artists paint a picture, they don’t include every single thing their eye actually sees on the canvas. Of course, there are a wide variety of artistic styles, just as there are many different writing voices. A comic artist can tell a whole story with a few squiggly lines. But even the most photo-real painting is an illusion; the artist did not paint, grain for grain, what they saw in the real world. Instead they use lines and contrast to trick the eye into thinking what they are seeing is like the real thing.

In writing, you want to do the same thing. A lot of writers start to describe a character by listing every detail about a person, their height, eye-color, hair color, girth, etc. While it is important for you to know this information about your character, this doesn’t translate in the readers mind to a picture of the character. Instead, pick key details that leave the reader with a solid impression. Visualize what you are about to describe, and then ask yourself, what are three specific images that would best convey this setting or character? Limit yourself to those three impressions, and you won’t overwhelm the reader with information. And speaking of description . . . Continue reading

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