Tag Archives: craft

Sunshine Superman

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Image credit: 123RF / Marianne Oliva

Hello from the Dogpatch! This image would exemplify our new motto, assuming love still retains potential for sufficient rising dramatic tension. We’re pretty sure it does. Not that we’re battle happy, but it is time for another so-called dogfight. This time, it’s Dogpatcher Wes in the hot seat, with his novel-in-process Sunshine Superman getting scrutinized as he writes into the homestretch. Here’s an excerpt from this darkly hilarious story:

Shoes are not allowed inside the yurt. Gerda can see her mother’s white Keds set neatly beside the door. Next to them she sees Chad’s big black motorcycle boots leaning against each other like two drunks. There also appear to be at least two other pairs of men’s shoes that Gerda doesn’t recognize. She and her father stand outside the door a moment, listening. But they don’t hear any sounds coming from inside. Her father says, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you wait over there for a moment?’ pointing off toward the sunny side of the clearing.

Gerda is caught between the twin, dueling notions of wanting to see what is about to happen and not wanting to cause her father any more grief and humiliation, but she does as he asks. From the other side of the clearing she watches while her father knocks on the door, then she watches as he seems to prepare himself for whatever it is he is about to see inside the yurt. His hands drop to his sides, and his knees bend slightly like he is preparing to take a punch.

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Laurel Leigh

Hey, Wes: This might be one of the most complex stories of yours I’ve read, where we meet the characters in a present that is entirely collapsing around them and then also meet them in their past, where a bizarrely self-engineered world seems to put them at risk, emotional and physical, from the get go. Yet that earlier world speaks to a bygone era of yurt-dwelling free spirits that we can tend to look upon with some nostalgia. One of the things I appreciate about this story is that it reveals some of the grime in the underbelly of that seemingly idyllic society, such as the realities of nearly starving in the woods or the existence of un-pretty human relationships. And you manage it in a scene that motivates the reader to thoughtfulness without feeling as if the commentary has been delivered by the narrative in heavy-handed fashion. It’s like there’s a bee hidden in the flower waiting to come out and sting you, and I sort of want to get stung. I’m left with a sense of characters placed in continual risk—early in the book—so when the adult Gerda launches her quest, I feel that she’s not only risking material things, her job, her home, her belongings, but she’s also risking losing (or finding?) who she is at the core, a core in part defined by the childhood to which she was subjected by her parents whims. My only complaint about the backstory is that the narrator might riff too long on the later outcome of life in the commune, when perhaps the focus of the flashback should remain on the day Gerda and her father go to seek her wayward mother.

At times the child Gerda appears wise beyond her years, able to suss out the layered meanings in what the adults say. At times she appears relatively naive. Of course a youngster demonstrates both qualities, but in this case, compressed into a single chapter, it might be useful to aim for a slightly more consistent level of awareness in the character. That is, Gerda grasps the subtle reference to the shovel, but she seems clueless about sex. Those two levels of awareness residing in one character could certainly be true, but what is the intended takeaway for the reader in terms of how we are guided to perceive adult Gerda? Is adult Gerda equally inconsistent in her levels of development and perception? From what we see in this chapter excerpt, I can’t say, so am just asking the question. You’ve cast her as an anthropologist, which inclines me to want to see more of the child Gerda who is able to interpret subtext and might be equally precocious in other realms of human relations. In the excerpt above, we see what for me is the most compelling part of this character in her youth, one who witnesses adult interactions and interprets evidence, right down to the physical stance of her father. It’s a compelling and heartbreaking moment on the page, and that’s far more satisfying than a kid who wonders what “deep breathing” means. Mainly, we get the wiser child Gerda, and that’s the one I vote for in this scene. Gerda herself tells us that at times she feels like the oldest person in the commune, which, by the way, might be the spot to break this chapter and leave us in the past before reinstating the present in the next chapter. I know, I know, you have an overall structure in mind, but just saying . . .

In this version, I think there’s a little too much exposition woven into the dialogue between grown-up Gerda and her mom. It’s tempting to use the conversation to fill in the reader, but if you strip out the expository lines, you’ll be left with an incredibly fascinating conversation. Let them say what they authentically would say to each other, without restating history that they both fully know. If the reader truly needs a few more details, I think the narrative can just state it. Momma is a whopper of a momma, by the way. Hoo boy, she gives me delicious nightmares! Momma is a piece of work among pieces of work, although as I read through the scene again, I also wonder slightly how to reconcile present-day Momma, who seems awfully bent on justifying herself, with past-day Momma, who flitted around and did what she wanted to without seeming to have a need to justify. I don’t think we get a story on the transformation of the mother character, so perhaps compare her in the yurt scene to the later scene with Gerda and look for ways that we can recognize the woman from the past in the woman in the living room. I think she should be recognizable to the reader, especially when met right on the heels of the past scene.

Looking over the chapter again, I find myself really wanting dad to be onstage for the Gerda-Momma encounter. He seems deftly tucked away, and I wonder if bringing a third party into the room, even if he’s cast in the role of frozen, broken observer, will ratchet up the tension in the scene even further. The image of him readying himself to take a punch will stick with the reader—in the present-day scene, why not let us see what so many punches have turned this man into. I really want to see it rather than hear about it.

The writing itself is your usual gorgeous, image-laden lines that make me jealous and want to poke holes in your backyard yurt with my fishing knife that I carved from a bamboo branch. Seriously, the writing is beautiful and one thing that’s tricky about evaluating this scene is that the writing can tend to mask places where the focus of the scene or dialogue might not fully deliver. So in revision, work to set aside how well the lines flow and look closely at what is happening alongside that flow, for example, sneaking exposition into dialogue just because you can do it pretty gracefully. I’m excited for this story and since you told us a little more about where Gerda’s quest will read, I’m excited to find out whether she succeeds or fails, lives or dies—hurry up and finish so we can read the rest!

XO Laurel Leigh

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Jilanne Hoffmann

 

Well, now, Laurel said all the good stuff. That’s the last time I let her go first! Hmmmm, what to say? I love your boldly drawn characters and want to see the entire novel unfold. I’m thinking it’s going to be a doozy!

I love how you weave humor into drama. It’s a very effective and entertaining way of presenting the story. Like I said, Laurel gave you the kudos I was going to give you. If you had given us more than an excerpt, I would have kept reading and reading until long past my bedtime.

Now for the nitty gritty: Gerda’s mother is hilarious, but I don’t want her to be so hilarious that I don’t sympathize with her concerns. Don’t get so involved with entertaining yourself (and I am guilty of doing this every time I sit down to write) that you create a character that turns into someone so funny the reader has a hard time seeing them as something other than a character. I’m thinking that the exposition issue Laurel mentioned could be solved by letting the reader “hear” the television news that Gerda and her mother have both seen. That way, you can cut through the “reader needs to know” parts and give Gerda and her mother only juicy things to say. The way people tend to talk at or past one another.

Along those lines, I’ve marked instances where you’ve tended to over-explain, not trust the reader to get the crux of what’s going on without belaboring a point. Trust. Trust. We must trust the reader to “get it.”

A note about presenting characters as children/youthful and then as older adults: The seeds of the current character should be contained in the earlier version of the character—or if there is some type of dissonance, it should be there for a purpose that the reader will come to understand. Perhaps the passing years have provided an experience or two or ten that may have sent them in another direction. But in any case, those seeds should be there. And right now, I’m having trouble reconciling Gerda the “more adult” resourceful child who feeds the “tribe” with the seemingly less adult and less resourceful Gerda of the present. Similarly, Gerda’s father who appears to be the “resigned” type who searches for his wife in his younger years completely locks himself away in his older years. That’s too convenient. I want him to be present in some way, not just hiding in his bedroom offstage.

I’m also wondering about how the mother is presented. It appears that she’s slept with everyone in her youth, but only one of them (not her husband) was the love of her life. Right now, I’m having difficulty resolving this “love of her life” with the orgy-atmosphere of the commune. Maybe I could be persuaded of this if she hopped from bed to bed until she hopped into bed with Chad. Then she would sleep only with him—unless, she wasn’t the love of his life and he wanted to be with her AND others. And maybe those others were women in addition to men? Just a thought.

And finally, Gerda’s mother ends her diatribe by saying “no one ever has sympathy for the family of the killer.” I’m thinking the word “family” should be changed to “mother.” Because, yes, it’s all about her.

I’m thinking that I’ve forgotten to mention something else that we discussed during our Skype chat. Something at the heart of the story, but my memory is failing me…and I gave you my notes before I put this post into writing. Bad me. Bad brain….Laurel and Wes, please let me know if either of you recall what I’m talking about.

Cheers! Looking forward to reading more, Wes!!  Jilanne

 

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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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Writing and the “Personal Brand”

I found some photos while cleaning my office the other day, photos from a l-o-n-g time ago. They were taken during a hike through Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the north side of Tucson, Arizona. The canyon contains some spectacular rock formations and a dessert ecosystem where water runs freely during the rains of winter/spring. And it was a fairly secluded place when I lived there. That’s an important detail.

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Sabino Canyon in the Sonoran Dessert

I’d show you some of my photos, but they’re not digital, they’re not appropriate for a PG website, and I’m not sure they’re meant for anyone’s eyes but my own.

The photos were taken by a boyfriend, and they were “artistic.” Skin and stone and water and light and shadow.

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No skin, but you get the idea

What could be more beautiful? And while they have meaning for me, I’m not sure they would have value for anyone else.

An aside: The top of Sabino Canyon did have the nickname “nipple peak.”

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I’m not a photographer, and I do not have the ability to step outside myself while viewing the person I once was in the photos that I’m NOT going to show you. In other words, I cannot judge them with any objectivity, so I’m going to stop talking about them now.

But I am a writer, and when I find old work from my youth stuffed in folders or boxes, my editor steps in. Does this piece strike a chord solely with me, or will others find value in it? Is it purely for the confessional, or can it be shaped to create some sort of universal experience?

Can I now step aside and write about an event as if it had happened to someone else? By removing my ego, can I go more deeply into the story or the character and find things I wouldn’t have been able to see had I not stripped my “self” from the work?

Is stripping the “self” from any work really possible? Is “self” stamped all over everything that I have ever written? Does a writer’s work bear a lasting imprint that can never be washed away? Do we want to wash the imprint away? Do the best pieces of writing contain that indelible imprint?

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Is the idea to strip the writing of self when writing while at the same time making sure the writing contains the self that becomes the lasting imprint? And does any of this happen consciously?

I guess I’m just one half of a pair of crows today, the question woman. The answer woman has gone missing. Maybe she flew south for the winter.

That’s it for today, folks. I used up all my energy writing not-so-pithy sayings to fill 600 fortune cookies for our school’s auction tomorrow. “Good fortune comes to those who support the library fund-a-need. Give generously.” Uninspired, and not really a fortune, but to the point, yes? If you’ve got any better suggestions for fortunes—or questions, or answers to questions, I’m all ears.

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I’m listening

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Thoughtful Readers/Reviewers

I’ve been reading Fiction Fan’s book review blog for quite some time, but a recent post piqued my curiosity about why she found a particular novel wanting. For those only interested in writing “literary fiction,” I believe the discussion here is instructive for all writers despite the genre.

I asked in my comment:

Since it didn’t work this time (sounds like the subplots detracted from the tension), I’m curious to hear about when you think it does work for a book to reveal the “what” or “who” and then discover the “why” or “how” throughout the rest? Would it have worked without the subplots/length? Are there other flaws (you mentioned implausibility, but sometimes a little of that can be overlooked if the rest of the book receive high marks, yes?) that kept it from being engrossing? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately since I’m struggling with this issue in my own work.

Her response, as I should have expected, was insightful: Continue reading

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Scribbles from Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – part three

So we’ve been wandering through the wilds of Squaw Valley with a variety of writers in my two previous posts and now arrive at a brief conversation about:

Writing from Life

Here lie a few morsels I gleaned from the likes of Alan Cheuse, Lynn Freed, and Greg Spatz:

“Life is a maze. Fiction is orderly.” (Don’t have an attribution for this, but it was one of the three.) The point being that your fiction (based on real life) shouldn’t be a maze for your reader to wander through even if your experience was confusing to you. The process of writing should turn confusion into structured understanding of the mystery that is life. 

“There’s a very narrow path one treads between saints and sinners.” (Cheuse)

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Two sides of the same coin?

I think Cheuse’s point resonates with another post about villains by fellow Dogpatcher, Wes Pierce.

“Write about what obsesses you.” (Freed)  If you don’t do this, it will be tough to hang in there for the long haul that is the writing life.  

Freed quoted Anais Nin: “The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say. It’s to say what we cannot say, otherwise.” Yes! Say what cannot be said in the family or at the family reunion. Say what co-workers cannot say to each other. Say what everyone wants to say but can’t. And say it in a way that makes your readers’ toes curl. (in a good way)

I think the most helpful thought from this discussion was uttered by Spatz:

“Write about what has happened to someone else as if it has happened to you, and write about what has happened to you as if it has happened to someone else.”

So often writers are too close to their material because they’ve lived it and can’t write about the experience with enough distance. But the opposite is just as true. Too often writers can’t get far enough inside the experience of someone else to make it feel real. So writers must put on the mask of distance or the skin of proximity when necessary.

I took an intense afternoon workshop called Finding the Story each day with screenwriter Gill Dennis, so I missed some of the panel discussions. But the benefits of taking Gill’s class far outweighed the detriments. I’ll post about his class at a later time. It was transformational. Thank you, Gill!!

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You’re welcome, Jil!

Now we move on to the daily afternoon open reading workshop with Sands Hall, where I scribbled down a couple of notes about POV:

Make sure your narrators are of the right place/age/experience to say and know what they know.

When in scene, the reader should only see what the character’s consciousness sees or hears, especially if the narrator is a child. Then during exposition, you may pull away from the character, perhaps becoming the older, wiser narrator looking back. This allows the reader to see and understand more than what the character/narrator currently sees and understands.

I often think it’s a good idea for the reader to know more than the character does, unless we’re talking about an unreliable narrator. In this situation, the reader often doesn’t know the “real truth” until it’s revealed through other action/character insights later in the story. 

From the morning workshop with Gail Tsukiyama:

When in scene, a character must act, react or be seen suppressing a reaction.

Your protagonist doesn’t have to change in a story, but he/she must be given the opportunity to change.

Know what the specific issues are for each of your characters, but keep the roots below the surface. “Issues” are often related to things like heritage, family background and expectations. Issues often provide conflict that shows the reader just what the character has lost or could lose.

Gail’s awesome quote: “My mother always said, ‘Don’t draw legs on a snake,’

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otherwise it becomes a dragon…

meaning: Don’t overwrite. Make one line mean all the world.”

Don’t give the reader the “to-ing and fro-ing.” Readers don’t want to watch your character go from one room to another unless it’s important. Give only the significant details through the eyes of the characters. Manipulate your sentences so they do three things at once.

And finally, so much of a story is “seeding.”

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You will often write your way into a story before you really get to know your characters. Then you will need to go back and “seed” the earlier pages with what must happen to make it all work, foreshadowing specific details that reveal more and more about the characters and plot.

Th-th-th-that’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned for the next installment of Scribbles from Squaw!!

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Notes From Squaw Valley Writers Workshop – Day 1

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View of Lake Tahoe from Squaw Valley in Winter

As promised, I’m sharing a few notes from this summer’s Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Continue reading

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