Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Character Relationships 1 - Story value and priming questions

Creating character bios, descriptions, and studies is classic work for storytellers. Lots of forms exist that can be used to delve into looks, heritage, backstory, flaws, goals, powers, and vulnerabilities. My method is to let a character who is fit for a story problem bloom on the page, and then interview the character and do other developmental work.

But I have put an emphasis in my work in having a strong grasp of the relationships between characters. I think this is because I’m always trying to identify the conflict within a scene. Of the standard series man vs. man, man vs. Nature, and man vs. himself (with the appropriate variations of gender and fantasy species), I tend to focus on “man vs. man.”

That naturally inclines me toward exploring the contrasts in skills, desires, needs, and powers of characters who are facing off in a scene. Which is a great foundation for understanding and establishing the relationships between characters, whether they are lovers, enemies, friends, victims, or bound together by obligations. Since I work toward three to five beats in a scene (which usually are shifts in power), I can learn a lot about the relationship between a pair of characters in just a few pages of a story.

Relationships are essential to engaging an audience. When we experience a story, we are interested in the relationships between characters because we have relationships in our own lives — and they are vital to us. We ALL exist in community. When a child to grow up in isolation or feral, something fundamental about his or her humanity is lost, often forever. If you think about it, most characters from literature, film, TV, and history are memorable because of the relationships they have. This is most obvious with team stories, from Ocean’s Eleven to The Magnificent Seven, to Stagecoach to Friends to Cheers. The differences in the characters and the way the interact with each other — in many cases — is more important than the intricate plots.

Analyzing your favorite stories to learn about the relationships — and why they appeal to you — is a great step in building better relationships among your characters. It’s also valuable to dig into real life. If you list ten people who are important to you — relatives, coworkers, friends, enemies, bosses, and maybe even the UPS man — you can become a scientist of relationships, gaining insights about what is obvious, what is hidden, what is valuable, and what might lead to sleepless nights.

To help you along (in fiction and real life), here’s a starter set of questions to ask:
  • What is the level of attachment (especially affection) between each character and the other? Or repulsion?
  • Do obsessions or addictions shape the relationship?
  • How would you assess fear/trust between the characters? Is it asymmetric? Are there specific issues?
  • Do the characters have obligations toward one another imposed by the outside (cultural, familial, legal)? How do they feel about these obligations?
  • Has one character fulfilled a need of another, creating a debt? (This is more powerful if sacrifice is figured in, if the character who helped paid a big price.)
  • Do the characters depend on each other in some way now? Or is there a history of shared experience/interdependence (such as military service)?
I could go on with more questions, but creating your own might be of more value. (I’d love it if some were shared in comments.)

Describing relationships is just one way to understand and present them. Dialogue (including subtext), character reflection, action, and revealing shared history can also bring out why and how characters matter to each other and how is changes through experience — both for you as the writer and for readers/audiences. I’ll take a closer look next week.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 3 -- Working backward to complete the story

The rest of the story doesn’t just happen… usually. Yes, there are times when, after you have your pivotal scene set (or written à la John Irving), you may have all the other scenes pop into your head. Or, after some tuning, some of the main scenes you need to insert may come to you. But you’ll probably need to take more direct action to develop a good sense of what comes before the pivotal scene, no matter how perfect it is.

I had to do this for two stories in the last week, so let me suggest some ideas to explore. (These are not the only ideas that might be useful — go ahead and make your own list — but they were of value for me, so I’m sharing them.)

A key question: What does the pivotal scene tell me about the theme of the story (or scene or sequence or act)? In one story, it seemed to me the theme was appreciated the different talents/gifts of others, and that guided revision of the rest of the work. In the other case, the importance of following through on obligations to others actually led to new scenes and especially revised dialogue earlier in the story.

Paddy Chayefsky cites the value of exploring characters in pivotal scenes. In particular, when the flaws and motivations of the protagonist are revealed in the pivotal scene, these need to be set up with authenticity. What is learned suggests decision points, opposition, and misunderstandings that shape the pivotal scene.

Chayefsky also uses the pivotal scene to tell him who needs to be in the story. Along the way, protagonists get pushed around a lot by others characters, but you can’t populate a work with a character for each shove. Who is necessary? Can characters be combined?

I like to look at what could happen, as suggested by the pivotal scene, and what must happen. The former creates a lot of options, and I may make a long list. The latter helps me to choose what must be included from that list. Before you do this, it’s a good idea to think about whether your pivotal scene is in someway ironic. This can have a big impact on options and choices.

It can be invaluable, if you have an antagonist in the story, to look at the ending from his or her perspective, too. Imagining possible scenes or actions from the antagonist’s point of view, and selecting those that must be included can enrich the story and add needed twists and turns.

Clarity is important. What are the things a reader/audience must know? Sometimes this is clues that set up a revelation. Sometimes it’s facts that add up. Paddy Chayefsky warns not to get too cute about this. A character might just need to say, “I love you.” As a writer, you may hate that, but it has to be done now and then.

Of course, being clear means being clear to you, too. Too often, writers fail to think through what they don’t know. Sometimes, this opens the door to surprises during composition. But too often it represents a lack of sufficient attention to the story and what needs to be investigated and answered. Before you complete a manuscript, ask, “What don’t I know?”

For a long time, I’ve worked with the rule of thumb of including 3-5 beats (or turns) in a scene.These always move a scene in a different direction and often provide surprises. As I worked on my two stories, it came to me that, in each case, a beat was associated with a shift in power. This could be putting as subservient position into a dominant position, with characters switching places. Or it could be putting a powerful character into an even more dominant position, knocking the other character off balance. (I tend to just let a scene play out, then analyze for these dynamics, rather than plan all the beats ahead of time.)

Of course, story logic can reveal needed (and unneeded) scenes as well as I mentions backward writing guru Kitchen in an earlier post, but you might want to go right to the source.

Interestingly, Paddy Chayefsky, a big advocate of working from a powerful scene backward, said he never did it for smaller parts of a story. He said any scene he wanted to write was there in its entirety for him. Instead, he used working backward as a way to create an overall structure for the story, something he struggled with. I’ve struggled on individual scenes and even beats within scenes, so I think the answer is, as always, do what works for you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Pivotal Scenes 2 - Tuning for power

Last time, I suggested an exercise, choosing three questions to pose about a pivotal scene in your own work. This time, as promised, I’ll explore how the power of the scene might be magnified. Four ways to achieve this are emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity.

Let’s start with authenticity. If you looked at the questions in terms of pivotal moments in your own life, you’ve already set the bar for your fiction. The closer you can get to the importance of those moments as you experienced them and the more they feel as true to you as what shaped your life, the more authentic they are likely to be for your readers/audience.

This does not mean you need to use or create analogies of your real-life experiences (though many writers do). You can imagine a completely different event in terms of your characters, and it can measure up to your personal answers. In fact, I find that direct transfers, like dreams, tend to lose context when you relate them to others. And without providing the context for a scene, you may not create the connection with others that’s necessary. You may be able test the authenticity of scenes you’ve produced that are not real-life events by checking to see if they are revealing. Do they expose your insights, including those that make you feel vulnerable? Would the judgment of others concern you? If so, you may be on the right track.

By the way, if you did not answer any of the questions based on your own experience, it is valid to look at the answers in terms of novels or films that moved you. If the ones I mentioned mean a lot to you, use those. If not, answer the questions for works that are important to you personally. And use these answers as your measure for authenticity.

Irony is not for everyone, but it can add zest to your pivotal scenes. The ending of The Graduate, where the hero has rescued the woman he loves (bridal gown and all) and escorted her onto their escape bus, the camera refuses to turn away from the happy ending. It is the brilliance of Mike Nichols, not the script, at work as the actors stay in character and the audience is given time to realize a happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.

This ironic dimension trusts the audience and rewards them for being smart. It also engages the audience, encouraging them to participate. To speculate about about what the situation is and what might happen next. So, irony provides both the literal, expected result in a scene AND a compliment and invitation to the audience. To achieve this, the writer must challenge a pat ending to a scene and offer a different viewpoint, which is almost certainly not apparent to the characters.

The price gap is vital to the power of pivotal scenes. As I stated last time:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.
I looked at scenes in a number of my stories to prepare for this article (and to make those scenes better). Over and over again, characters expected easy approaches to work. Ask and you shall receive. Learn the answers and people will welcome them. Develop your craft and you’ll get gigs.

What gets ignored by characters in stories (and people in real life) is usually the social aspects of prices. If you have a good product, I’ll buy it from you if I like you. You can do the job, but others can, too. What’s in it for me if I hire you? Sure, I’ll give you access. But you’ll owe me.

Most of these have a level of fairness. But what about when characters get a “yes” from someone who has a hidden agenda? Or when the “yes” is a trap (now, you’re mine)? Or the “yes” is really a “no”? Or some sort of a betrayal is involved?

Often, the gap becomes evident when the first attempts are met with “no.”

Usually, the gap gets wider and more interesting when the answer is “yes, but.” With these, what is unknown, secret, and underhanded twists the story in a new way. The shape of the world changes and the map to success fills with obstacles, tormenting characters and delighting readers and audiences.

In bold above, I did not quote my full statement. The rest of what I said last time was this:

The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
Which brings this analysis to the last element of power, emotion. There may be an intellectual element to the conclusion of a pivotal scene, an insight or a lesson learned. But it will remain abstract unless it engages readers or the audience emotionally. Bertolt Brecht argued for at theater of ideas, focused by an intentional rejection of emotion. To the point where a narrator might undercut feelings developed by the plot. Arthur Miller championed this idea. Maybe.

Popular films today are often overwhelmed by spectacle. Strong emotions are created in the moment, but these tend to be on the surface. With little in the way of ideas (or fully developed characters).

As a writer, you get to decide which extreme works best for you. My opinion is that the work most likely to touch audiences and readers and to be remembered and to bring new meaning with each encounter is that work that has ideas and characters in stories that are emotionally involving.

So say something that matters to you. Make it true to your characters. Provide a big gap between the characters’ expectations and the price they must pay —and make the currency of the transaction deep emotions. Love. Hate. Loss. Wonder. Find the tragedy or the comedy and go there.

Next time, with pivotal scenes tuned for power and the price gap made explicit, I’ll look at how this preparation can be used to work backward to unify sequences, scenes, acts, chapters, and stories.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1 - Finding the best candidates for reader delight

One scene can tell a story. Or make it memorable. You want to have a scene like that. If you can find those scenes and tune them so they sing, they’ll delight readers and audiences. But, more than that, they’ll guide you through a rewrite that will make your novel, screenplay, or short story as powerful as it can be. And you can use a version of this approach to sharpen an act or a chapter or a sequence of scenes.

So… this is the first of three posts exploring what I’ll call pivotal scenes: Finding the best candidates, Tuning for power, and Working backward for unity.

Spoiler alert - I’ll be mentioning key scenes from several movies. I’ll head of each of these as Example (Spartacus) “I’m Spartacus” in bold so you can skip those you’d prefer to keep as surprises.

My starting point in understanding pivotal scenes was reviewing 24 of my favorite films. I simply wrote down those moments when these stories got a strong reaction from me. Then I analyzed each to determine what the essence was in each case. From this analysis, I created a list of ten questions (which led to twenty — as I tried to find another spin on each). Here are the pairs I came up with:

1) Was there a secret revealed that matters to your protagonist (or another key character)? Was there an important discovery, even the answer to the story question? Example (The Empire Strikes Back) Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father.

2) Was a key character humiliated? Or recognized (honored)? Example (Singin’ in the Rain) The curtain is pulled open on Lina Lamont as she lip-syncs to Kathy Selden’s singing.

3) Did a serious threat emerge, terrifying and dangerous? Was safety and rest attained? Example (Alien) An alien bursts from Kane’s chest and escapes into the ship.

4) Did the character fall into a trap? Or escape? Example (2001: A Space Odyssey) Bowman is caught outside the spacecraft without his helmet.

5) Was life narrowed in some way by a serious, irreversible loss? Did life’s potential broaden through wonder? Example (Ghost) Sam, mugged and killed, discovers he is now a ghost, separated from the woman he loves.

6) Was a character betrayed by someone trusted or loved? Did the character behave with cowardice or seriously fail someone? Example (Chinatown) Gittes fails to save Evelyn and to protect Katherine from Cross.

7) Was a vital relationship permanently severed (at least apparently)? Did two or more characters bond? Example (The Shawshank Redemption) Andy offers to show a guard how to shelter his inheritance from taxes and becomes the financial manager for prison employees.

8) Did a character get blamed or held to account? Was a character forgiven or did characters reconcile? Example (Big Fish) Will tells his father the story of the daring escape from the hospital to the lake.

9) Did a character become separated from society or come to learn he or she was weird? Did a character connect with others or find out how he or she fit in? Example (Amadeus) Salieri (ironically) presents himself as the patron saint of all mediocrities. (“Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you.”)

10) Was the true power of the character revealed? Was the character’s vulnerability, flaw, or powerlessness revealed? Example (The Wizard of Oz) The Wizard is revealed as a humbug by Toto.

There is nothing canonical about this list. You can come up with your own. In fact, I found that these might be sorted into connections with basic needs, following the Maslow hierarchy. All that is pretty left brain and dry, but I had a critical filter - my gut. And I found that a good way to interrogate my answers was to take a closer look at what each scene cost the viewpoint character. In fact, this led me to an interesting observation:

The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story. The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
It’s not a rule. It’s not perfect. But I found it to be a highly useful tool as I looked at the movie scenes.

I did something else before I turned to my story. I went through pivotal moments in my own life, actually listing out 16 that easily came to mind as both emotional and transformational. Then I tried to match them up with the questions, looking for where they landed and filling in more pivotal moments prompted by the questions. These added a level of authenticity to my analysis and raised the bar for scoring potential pivotal scenes in my stories. (This is not an easy exercise, but you may find it valuable.)

Here’s how I recommend you use the questions: 1) Choose a story of yours to analyze. This is easiest if you have a finished draft, but you may find you can do it for one that isn’t completed. 2) Pick out three questions that your intuition tells you might be related to your ending or pivotal scene (known or unknown). 3) See if asking the questions gives you more insight about your ending or pivotal scene. 4) If the essence of your ending or pivotal scene does not fit any of these questions, try more questions (or develop your own).

By the time you’re done, you should have discovered a scene that has the potential for power and you probably will have some fresh insights about how it fits in with the rest of the story. Your next step will be to make it all that it can be. I’ve already hinted at what that might entail (emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity), but that will be the subject of next week’s post. 

Related: Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Killing Beguiling Beginnings - How to give your story a fresh start

Beginnings are treacherous. The requirements are high (introduce characters, present the setting, put forth a story question, hook the reader, engage with a distinct voice). After the first 20 pages, for many unpublished works that I’ve read, the author settles into a groove where the story is working. And often just cutting those early pages allows readers to connect with the story in the best place.

The problem — what makes things treacherous — is finding the exact right place to cut, making the revisions that keep the amputation from being obvious, and (most importantly) the author reconciling him/herself to saying goodbye to those first pages.

It is often the first pages that charmed the writer into working on the story to begin with. They often are the most familiar, most worked-over pages in the whole manuscript. And, somehow, they feel necessary.

I have been reading Val McDermid’s Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, there’s a crime scene investigator featured who gathers the information, sits with it, and then generates a narrative on what might have happened. What follows for her is analysis and a set of test questions. When she has gone through these steps, what she has may fit the intuitive leap. But, when the pieces don’t come together, she abandons that narrative. There’s no revision, no force-fitting, no fixes. I was captivated by that. What if you could have evidence that your beginning wasn’t working and then have no hesitation in making cuts and coming up with something new?

This is pertinent to me since I have a beginning that has gotten the same criticisms from two readers, and it is difficult for me to abandon it. But something tells me, it’s time to see where trying something new might lead me, so I’ll take a fresh approach.

It’s painful, but less hard for me than many writers because I can put together a new beginning in a day or two. And I know I can always go back to the beginning I have now. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

So, if you have a completed story and have doubts about a beginning that has charmed you, try this:
  1. Find the climax or the story’s point of highest emotion or the thematic scene of your story. You should be able to fall in love with it so that the beginning can be bent to make it better. This is your reason for trying something new.
  2. Assume the evidence doesn’t fit the beginning, and drop it (at least for the moment) the way the crime scene investigator drops her intuitive narratives, without regrets.
  3. Brainstorm alternative beginnings until you find one that you connect with viscerally. If one doesn’t pop out, think toward reflecting as aspect of your big scene in step one or toward an image that might communicate your story.
  4. Write the scene without worrying about what readers need to know or hooks or introductions or any other required elements.
If you end up with something that mostly works and gets you started on a better beginning, congratulations. Now it’s a matter of gently fitting it into place with the rest of the story. Sometimes, the most important thing is to avoid too many changes (especially adding in material). Sometimes, that means a complete revision. Sometimes, it leads to combining the new beginning with the old one. Sometimes, it takes you in a new direction. But it’s worth it because you’ll be led toward the beginning the story needs and away from the weaker one that infatuates you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stories People Need - Creating the [interesting] narrative

Stories are used to encourage us. To warn us. To make sense of the world. To unsettle us. To comfort us. We are a species that shapes reality with narrative.

One explanation of cave paintings is that they provided support for hunting. Here’s what a successful hunt looks like. Here’s what it means. This story gives you power that elevates the hunt. It provides useful information and assures its success.

Are we different from cave dwellers? Don’t we tell ourselves stories to guide us through uncertainty? If you were going into a dangerous situation, like surgery, you would probably look to people who had experience and listen to their stories. Or you’d gather the facts and create your own narrative with a beginning, middle, and ending. This would help you with preparations and provide a sense of control.

When I’m driving and the person in front of me begins to weave, I drop back. I assess the situation — oncoming traffic. Escape routes. Pedestrians. I draw upon my experience and knowledge, I consider the possibilities. Is the driver drunk? Ill? On the phone? My mind projects forward with a number of negative narratives — sudden stops, collisions, police activity. And I generate options from changing my route to calling the police to honking my horn to zipping around the situation and getting gone. These stories are explorations that provide guidance.

In the narratives of my youth — at school, on TV, and in church — the points seemed to be comfort and moral instruction. History was about a series of successes that proved my forebears, society, and leaders had great ideas that kept me safe and free. Situation comedies proved that errors were trivial and balance would be restored in 30 minutes. I think most church readings got immediate interpretations supporting the status quo and emphasizing obedience and punishment for disobedience. (Since I was an avid reader, I often had read the stories by myself, within a larger context. Even in the ten-year-old me, this created a level of dissonance.) So narratives can have a stabilizing, social aspect, reducing conflict.

I often found the opposite of the endorsed stories of my youth in science fiction — a genre my parents abhorred. While there were plenty of status quo stories, the best raised questions and challenged authority. “What if?" It’s a powerful question that presumes the world could be different. And SF used known and projected facts to support new visions. An ending could be great for an SF protagonist (but leave me unsettled). Or formally happy without being happy. (“[Winston Smith]  had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” - 1984) Or thoroughly bleak. Or charged with wonder.

Wish fulfillment is big for a lot of readers. By the time I was seven, I’d put even the gee whiz wishes of Tom Swift aside, and I never identified much with macho heroes like James Kirk, James Bond, or Matt Dillon. But, for plenty of people, the exercise of power and getting rewards is a part of the value of narrative. It provides relief and perhaps hope.

So we need stories for:

Guidance - which means the writing must be clear, take great care with ambiguity, and persuade.

Sense - Think of the wonderful tales of why mosquitoes buzz or how the elephant got its trunk. Whimsical stories can help us make sense of the world as much as books on science or math. The greatest tools: taking on the best questions, knowing your audience and using story logic.

Comfort - Which means introducing something that may worry readers in a way that does not overwhelm them (often with humor) and showing that everything turns out all right.

Challenges - Understand people want and don’t want this. I’ve found stories that deviate from the status quo or unsettle people or provide warnings need to be compelling. Creating worlds worth exploring, exploiting curiosity, distracting with wish fulfillment (see below) or poetry or empathetic character can make people welcome opening doors marked “Do Not Enter.” Humor helps, too.

Wish fulfillment - which means the talents of the heroes must be on full display. They need to make all the decisions, never take orders, and enjoy enviable payoffs. Description is a big deal. Challenges must escalate. Increasing tension by withholding fulfillment of wishes (but not too much) is vital. Power scenes are tinged with sex, and sex scenes are tinged with power. The best relationship is usually with the villain.

This list could be extended, but I hope it provides a useful starting point to adding power to your stories through a better understanding of the will toward narration and how to work with it.

Narrative doesn’t always matter. It may be jettisoned in the case where the art is abstract. Like music, poetic works may be more about sounds and silences. Perhaps with the addition of wordplay. It’s possible to touch the spirit and the soul without a narrative, and this can shape lives as surely as a tale. Or the senses can be appealed to without narrative. Porn famously cuts most of the story elements to showcase sex. A big film may be more about spectacle than story.

Narrative isn’t present with every book or film or video, and that may be intentional. But if you choose to tell a story in the medium of your choice, it’s helpful to, at some point, determine which need you are working to fulfill and to choose your tools carefully.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 4 - Inspirational characters

Sometimes the character who makes a mark on your soul isn’t the hero. It’s someone talked about or on the periphery. The character may act heroically and even be the protagonist, but something needs to be withheld or it becomes too easy to put the character into a box.

I could argue that humanized characters (in both fiction and nonfiction) are easier to emulate, but truly inspirational characters, those who fire us to go beyond imitation, have a mystery about them. If you seek to put wonder in your stories, knowing how to create these characters can be valuable. I’ve been putting together some ideas on what might work, and I thought I’d share them:

Mystery - The easiest way the character can break out of frame is if he or she has elements (usually in the backstory) that aren’t revealed. These are often hinted at. Think of the gossip about Gatsby’s war record and how he acquired his wealth.

Accomplishments - It can’t all be rumor. There needs to be evidence of capability and achievement. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s legal skills are on display. But a moment of action that creates wonder is when he shoots the rabid dog. Here’s a talent that was hidden to Scout but implies worlds of possibilities.

Courage - I love characters, like Dorothy, who can face down a wicked witch. But the ones you never see sweat provoke a different response. When I was a kid, this was the typical silent cowboy hero. (Clint Eastwood played this character a lot.) And, for an eleven-year-old, James Bond could do the job. Many historical heroes (Lincoln, Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt) fit this model before revisionist histories became a thing. I’m still in awe of Hannibal because he brought elephants across the Alps to take on the Roman Empire. And I know nothing about this foibles.

Contradictions - As long as the story still feels authentic and classically heroic, it’s fine to have moments that are difficult to explain. The point is to open doors, not close them. Like a koan, two pieces that don’t quite fit can imply something bigger.  As Whitman said…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Most importantly, an inspirational character needs to be larger than life. Something about him or her must reach beyond normal talent, behavior, or capability. And this must be demonstrated.

There is a sideways approach, where the character is humanized, then made inspirational. These are creation stories that end with the character with new, untested powers. Lots of comic hero origin stories have this coming of age aspect that adds to their power. As long as they end before too much is revealed, there can be wonder. I’ll note that many of these creation myths begin with something humble or miraculous  — born in a log cabin or of a virgin. Somehow, setting the character apart or spared (the one who lived) suggests greatness. Elvis Presley, a man from humble beginnings and also the twin who lived, got off to a fine start.

Mythmaking is ripped apart in our culture… and also indulged in. Don’t be afraid to have an anecdote about your inspirational character chopping down a cherry tree or splitting rails. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to include fate or a prediction.

Some things to avoid…

Don’t make the inspirational character the viewpoint character. Both Gatsby and Finch have their stories told by someone else.

Be careful about showing doubt or internal struggle. Inspirational characters may evoke complex emotions, but they tend to be simple. Feet of clay will only limit the possibilities.

Resist the urge to use humor in a way that could undercut the greatness of the character. Humor is a great leveler, so it is dangerous to these characters. Go ahead and put humor in the draft, but be ready to cut it.

The ending for an inspirational character eliminates possibilities. There is a temptation to make these character into martyrs. Generally a bad idea. Unless they come back to life.

Overall, lean more toward Greek Mythology than toward Christianity. Men becoming gods (or demi-gods) beats a God becoming a man for THIS purpose. Again, not in terms of moral guidance or identification. (I’m not trying to make a statement on how to live. I’m just presenting a writing choice.) Wonder transcends the ordinary, and an inspirational character may be just what you need to tell your story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What’s holding back your writing career? - An unscientific test

Some writers imagine themselves with multi-book, mega-buck contracts. Other see themselves holding an Oscar for best original screenplay. And many would be happy to sell a short story or get a memoir finished for the family. Coming up short isn’t in itself a problem. As Browning said, “"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" But I think being deeply frustrated because of fixable problems is tragic.

With that in mind, I present another one of my completely unscientific diagnostic tests. I won’t be checking your answers, so you get to decide if it illuminates barriers, delusions, or distractions that are holding you back from achieving your goals. The imagined goal for the test-taker is a person who wants to be a novelist who makes a little money on writing. Transpose your conclusions to fit your actual ambitions.

For each pair, choose a score from one to ten, giving yourself nearer one if the first statement feels more like the truth and and nearer to ten if the second statement feels more like the truth.

1 Other priorities - Most writers claim they don’t have enough time to write. The truth is that few writers have the time to write and revise all the stories they wish to tell. What they do have is a dedication to the work that carves out time for it. In my experience, working with hundreds of writers, the minimum required is 15 minutes a day, five days a week, committed to moving one Work in Progress (WIP) to completion.

Several times a year, I spend a week without writing. / I rarely go through a week where I don’t write five days on my WIP.

2 Poor choices - What you write matters. Some people pursue what they believe is the easiest course, but if that means working in a genre that doesn’t interest you or telling a story you’re not invested in just because it has a great concept, that’s unlikely to lead to success. Routinely beginning new projects before finishing a WIP (and not having any criteria for selecting a WIP) means delays in finishing works or not finishing them at all. Having difficulty deciding which project to work on demonstrates a lack of focus. Chasing every new opportunity (contests, markets, gigs) without at least a general career plan and selection process only leads to confusion.

I have several active projects and could not articulate how each of them move me toward success. / I am committed to a WIP that fits criteria that move me closer to achieving my writing ambitions.
3 Fear - Whether you call it the doubt monster or the critic in your head, it is a part of you that challenges or dismisses what you do. All writers have this. In fact, it’s necessary. If you are delighted with your first drafts, it’s unlikely you’ll do the work required to suitably revise your stories for real audiences. A successful writer can manage these negative voices during the drafting stages (and, as needed, during rewrites).

Useless fears are along the lines of “what would my mom say about this?” No one sees the work unless you put it out there. “I have nothing to say” is another fear that is baseless. We all have stories others are interested in. If you don’t believe that, sit down now and write your most embarrassing moment. Fear of failure? It’s really fear of trying, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to worry about failure or success in the absence of a completed work. There also may be an over-focussing on weaknesses, from lack of experience (guess how you get experience) to shortcomings in craft (character development, plotting, grammar, etc.).

Every writer has weaknesses. And, yes, these need to be overcome enough to reach professional minimums (though, perhaps with help from an editor). The best come to understand their strengths and appreciate and develop these.

Anxiety keeps me away from writing or sabotages my work on a weekly basis. / I am able to put aside fear and negativity enough to get my work done almost all the time.
4 Lack of commitment - Even though dwelling on weakness can become a barrier, ignoring them is not a good idea. Writers should be dedicated to growing and developing through exercises, courses, and mostly attentively reading other writers. Some writers go stale by writing the same thing over and over again. Others get lazy and reduce their attention to selecting and developing concepts or going through sufficient rewrites. Good writers who get better take pride in their work (while avoiding perfectionism. They don’t abandon work when it gets difficult. They step out of their comfort zones and learn from failures.

My approach to craft and my career is ad hoc, going where the spirit leads me. / I have articulated what I have to achieve, I have specific tasks (including development work) aimed at getting me there, and my calendar includes deadlines for achieving tasks.

5 Unhelpful guidance - When you tell people you write, you will meet those who see that as an invitation to make nasty remarks. There is no way you can write stories of a high enough quality or can be prolific enough or edgy enough or responsible enough to satisfy self-appointed critics. Family and friends can get into your head — out of concern for your well-being, the need to right your wrongs, snark, jealousy, or the need to put you in your place. If your work goes out into the world, complete strangers will troll you. Sometimes, they’ll carry the title of critics. Peers and would-be mentors and teachers may also undercut your confidence, challenging your skills, talents, and choices. It can drag your writing down and even block you. The solution is compartmentalize this unhelpful guidance, which may mean removing topics of conversation or ending contact with some people.

A self-inflicted wound is comparing yourself to other writers. Often this means comparing your work to completed, edited work, which is crazy. As is jealousy of others’ success. You are not competing with anyone. Only you can tell your stories, and no one has complete control over how their stories are received.

Allied to this topic is concern about a lack of credentials, whether that means education or perspectives (as in writing from the point of view of another race or sex). This only (possibly) matters for nonfiction. For the rest, you may make mistakes, but, as long as you write with integrity, your expertise and identity will not trump the authenticity of your endeavor.

I feel every criticism and clutch the negative ones with both hands. / When I pay attention to others’ views of my work or my career, I explore the comments dispassionately and make changes in response to the very few that are important and resonate with me.
How did you do? Looking at the low scores, do any of them hint at what might need attention? Do the statements on the right suggest solutions to you? And not to make this all negative, are some of your high scores indicative of strengths that will help you reach your ambitions?

Sadly, there are clinical issues that can hold people back. Writers frequently suffer from depression, attention deficit, and obsession with perfection. Outside forces, like illness, injury, poverty, being a care provider, and legal problems can stymie a career. These do not have easy answers, and they usually require the help of an expert.

There also seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the idea of being writers or having things written, but who don’t actually have writing as part of their lives. Some have no idea what the actual job is comprised of (even if they have taken dozens of courses). They either don’t write or write only when they are inspired. If you’re one of these people, perhaps this test was entertaining, but I doubt it will motivate you to move from aspirations to actions.

But my hope is that for many writers, this test will indicate where brainstorming new approaches to writing will lead to action that leads to greater success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 3 - An approach to creating awe for readers

Go to the right place. Wait. Listen. Welcome. Develop. Tune. Set. This is one process for including wonder in your stories. It isn’t the only process. And it isn’t guaranteed. But, with enough attempts, it will succeed (on occasion) and create the potential for rich experiences in your stories. When it doesn’t succeed, even when every word of your wonder-full scene gets cut, the process will still make you a better writer.

So let’s go through these steps, one by one.

Go to the right place. In real life, this can mean experiencing great art. (Put me in front of a Vermeer.) Or Nature (Grand Canyon or backyard garden.) Or being present during a positive life event (birth, first steps, first love). Caution: If you are operating a video camera during any of these, wonder won’t show up for you.
All of the life experiences make wonder in stories possible and more probable. But, for me, wonder often happens as I’m writing. I smile for no reason. A chill goes down my back. And then?
Wait. Often, wonder is preceded by quiet, even boredom. I feel like I need to let myself synchronize with something bigger. Is there a door opening?
Listen. The Old Testament refers to “a still small voice.” (And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. ) That makes sense to me. Wonder does not seem to declare itself with cannons, though it can seem to fill the senses as it progresses. It is easy to miss. Which is why distractions are such a pain.
Welcome. Look up “amazement” in the thesaurus, and you’ll see shock, horror, and fear. Wonder is uncontained and uncontrolled. It is humbling. It is uncomfortable in a profound sense. The way to experience it is to let go.
Develop. Wonder is expressed poetically. In fiction, it chooses its own first draft. But once it is recorded, it needs to be imagined in a way that can reach an audience. The dream needs to be reshaped for others, without losing its dreamlike quality. This is delicate stuff. I see the first draft as being a poem written in a different language that I’m obliged to translate faithfully.
Tune. The expression of wonder now needs to be looked over objectively. I remove (or repair) in this order distractions, confusion, and ego. Then I test each word. Is it the right word? Does it need to be there?
Set. This consists of three things: 1) Make sure this wonder belongs in the longer story. If it is not thematic, find it another home. 2) Create a gentle segue. What comes before wonder needs to be grounded in the familiar world and quiet. In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the black and white farm house lands with a jolt. The background music stops. Dorothy says, “Oh.” Then, except the sounds a basket being picked up and a door opening, there’s quiet. Until she opens the door to Oz. What follows is music, color, and wonder. 3) End the scene (or better yet, the chapter). Let it resonate.

The goal of wonder is to open the door to uncountable, unexpected possibilities for your readers. Ideally, the theme explored in the rest of the story supports this experience without putting barriers around it.

Why not go directly to great themes of life and literature and build scenes around them? In my experience, that’s unlikely to work. Maybe wonder is contrary. Maybe it is too evanescent. My suspicion is that, like happiness, it’s best not to pursue it directly because it is the product of many good choices. But, if you must, give it a try.

Also, it’s worth learning to recognize wonder even when it comes to you without any process. Surprise is one of its features (both in writing and in life). When you experience wonder, appreciate the moment and respond. Capture and learn. Then it might be valuable to go back and explore it’s origins. You may come up with a better approach than the one I’ve laid out here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 2 - Threats to feelings of awe

When wonder is part of your story, it becomes memorable. It adds impact and builds connections with readers. If you look at the stories people take as there own, often to the point of obsession, you’ll often find scenes that create a sense of awe.

I think writers need to clear a space in their writing for wonder because there are story elements that may work against it:

Expectations - A lot of writing guidance is about setting up expectations and fulfilling these (sometimes with a twist). This is basic to much of storytelling, but it can tie things down to the mundane and reduce the range of possibilities. It also can provide a level of preparation that may be necessary at times (to avoid cheating the reader), but suggests too much. Wonder sneaks up on people. It usually shows up as a surprise. And I’ve frequently found that it is preceded not by hooks and questions being raised, but by quiet scenes that have authenticity. These scenes build trust and put readers into calmer states without boring them. I call such scenes gentle segues.

Distractions - This one goes for writing as well as reading. I don’t think wonder can be appreciated and conveyed by writers who don’t clear out the noise and commotion of life from time to time. And writing that reminds people of these or gives protagonists tasks that are too familiar works against stepping away from the commonplace.

Negativity - There is important and inspiring work that deals with negative issues. And protagonists who aren’t seriously flawed can’t have dramatic character arcs. However… wonder seems to require appreciation of the positive aspects of life. It seems to reward optimism and a focus on what is good and nurturing. When pain, betrayal, temptation, and cruelty are around, wonder seems to move out of reach. In particular, moments of loss — which have real virtue in storytelling — are the opposites of wonder. (Complementing loss and wonder in a story is powerful, but very difficult.)

Ego - Voice and perspectives enhance writing, but, when the ego is around — and especially when it is too controlling — everything gets framed and contained. Wonder and boundaries, especially those driven by ego, don’t go together.

Spoilers - Remember the point about surprise and the unexpected? It amazes me how often writers create scenes that, taken by themselves, could create wonder (and sometimes actually do in early drafts), but kill them with tips and setups that undercut the surprise. I think this is motivated in part by the intent not to cheat. But mostly, I think this dross is added because the writer or a critic/reader/editor is disturbed by the wonder experience. And needs to diminish it.

Small scope - Cramped stories don’t leave much room for wonder. On the other hand, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film has an enormous canvas for storytelling and it makes heavenly bodies part of the story. Having a larger scope doesn’t make wonder inevitable, but stories that focus on infinity, vastness, and nature are ahead of stories that are too close to daily experiences. Spectacle isn’t required. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, could find wonder in a garden. But, while being in the moment enhances most stories, stepping out of the moment allows for wonder. Any story that supports awareness of eternity is likely to find wonder.

Humor - This may seem strange, especially since I focused on The Fisher King, a film Terry Gilliam (a Python, no less), when I kicked off this series. But I think humor tends to bring things down to size, and wonder is the opposite. In addition, humor is often driven by anger, which is a negative emotion. Gilliam creates a space for his scene. It includes gentle humor (dancing nuns), but nothing broad. And it is loving and accepting, without a hint of anger.

Humor is good to end this post with because it illustrates that this list is not set in stone. As I thought about genres that discourage wonder, my mind went immediately to heist films, which are about thrills and twists and turns and, ultimately, greed. Then I remembered the ending of Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven. When the gang gathers around the fountain, it’s ethereal. I remember how I felt wonder at that moment. So anything is possible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 1 - Reader delight

Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King has a moment that opens the Universe to me. It’s the waltz in Grand Central Station. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. Or, better yet, watch the full movie.

What works for me and makes this scene magical is the sense of wonder it creates.
When I first saw it, it took me by surprise and, on an unconscious level, caused me to imagine a world bigger than myself. I sensed an uncontrollable cascade of possibilities. In Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, a Parkinson’s patient speaks of “dancing out of frame.” That’s wonder.

Wonder is often accompanied by surprise, thrills, joy and a sense of hope, but I don’t think any of these contain it. I thought about this in terms of a quote from Stephen King about three kinds of horror.

“The Gross-out: …it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: … it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”

By analogy to gross-out/horror/terror, maybe it’s recognition/insight/wonder. Recognition is making a connection that matters to us, and it is visceral. An insight crystallizes ideas to present a new conclusion (and is often intellectual). Wonder takes us out of ourselves. Its impact can’t be boxed in, exhausted, or completely intellectualized. I would say it is mostly spiritual.

Why does this matter to a writer? For me, because I want to do something as wonderful as Terry Gilliam has. I want to create this experience for readers. Wonder is part of my life, and I want to share it through my work.

More practically, I think many of the most interesting cult films and those works that attract intense fans do so because people prize the experience of wonder. Science fiction explicitly claims the sense of wonder as one of its values, and I think that explains the dedication of its fans in large part. The themes — a future that reframes the present through new powers, reimagined social rules, and the possibilities of technologies that transform our destiny — are big and have a natural claim on wonder. First contact with aliens is a persistent SF theme, as are other firsts.

And firsts may be the most common causes of wonder in real life. (Like, for instance, the first time you hold your newborn child.)

The romance genre can claim wonder, too. In fact, when done correctly, the first of love (meet cute, first kiss, etc.) open up worlds for characters and readers. (It’s less true when these first become too common tropes, but that can be true in any form of literature. There are plenty of horror stories that lean heavily on the gross-out.

I believe stories should entertain. They can do that without wonder, but the work stands out and becomes more memorable if it has a moment of wonder. Entertainment and wonder together can become art, as is the case with James Joyce’s short stories, where he consciously worked to include “epiphanies.” To my mind, those were moments of wonder that raised those stories to a higher level.

Creating wonder is more an art than a science, but there are ways potential moments of wonder get ruined. Often, these are driven by practices intended to make stories more entertaining, but I suspect, looking more closely, a writer can cut out the parts written to engage the reader without losing them. And gaining wonder will be the result. I’ll get into wonder killers in my next post.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Slaying the Doubt Monster - Another view of confidence

Is the story good enough? Are you really a good writer? Do you have the chops to tell the story that you care about? Are you working on the right story? Can this be fixed?

Every writer has doubts along the way. They may be tied to something as abstract as imposter syndrome or an inferiority complex. They may be as real as the negative voices of teachers, parents, and editors taking residence in your head. Or as specific as a line that maybe hilarious — or hackneyed.

Doubt is just fine when it spurs us to rise to our better selves, when it pushes us to better prose and storytelling. It’s less than worthless when it turns to quicksand and bring work to a halt. Or a career to a halt. It also can, insidiously, infect our work. Confidence is something that readers (including editors and agents) can sense. And long for. They want to be swept away by a writer who is confident. Who brings, not just talent and craft, but judgment and taste.

I’ve written in the past about instilling confidence. This time, I have a few notes on dispelling doubt.

Lack of experience. Stephen King famously tossed Carrie in the trash. He felt it was ridiculous for him to tell a story from the point of view of a teenaged girl, based not much more (in his view) than having cleaned restrooms in a high school. Luckily his wife was there to reassure him and provide encouragement. She had the experience of being a teenaged girl, after all.

You can look for people who have lived lives similar to your characters and bring your work to them. They might not read a novel, but they are likely to read and comment on a well-drawn scene. Or, even better, to answer specific questions about their experiences.

Even more fundamentally, by virtue of having lived your own life, you have relevant and authentic experiences to draw upon. You may not have been tortured in the Inquisition, but you probably have suffered pain and fear. The classic war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was written by a man who had never been in a battle, but who knew what failure and panic felt like. To those, he added a vivid imagination. Most children’s books are not written by children, but, somehow, they hit the mark.

Lack of credentials. We all love hierarchies, wonderful human constructs that tell us what our roles are. And assure others that we can be trusted to draw up their wills or perform open heart surgery on them. While credentials for nonfiction might be important in some cases, there are no essential certifications for storytelling. Many people in the arts, in fact, only get to join professional organizations after they have had paying gigs.

But it’s very easy to get caught up in the letters after names or accomplishments no one is born having. You have the right to write. Period. No one can tell you you can’t tell your stories. Except you. And why would you stop yourself because you don’t have an MFA or a completed script? If you write, you’re a writer.

There are some people who fret about grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. They never got what they needed in grade school or high school. Or, worse, they got lots of discouragement (because it’s easier to point to one of these errors than to respond to a story). Here’s why, though this might matter, it is not fundamentally important:

There are armies of people with impeccable credentials eager to edit you spelling and grammar to perfection.

It’s mechanical stuff. More and more of the task is being taken over by software. Great storytelling, on the other hand, is rare. And Artificial Intelligence has not provided us with masterpieces or even best sellers.

The best news is that reading and writing regularly tend to lead to fewer mechanical flaws in prose, at least in the final draft. Coincidentally, this is likely to lead to continuous improvement of the storytelling, too.

Challenges of scale. Mostly, this has to do with big projects (though I know some novelists who would shudder if asked to write a short story). It is possible to dedicate months — many months — to writing a novel or a screenplay that doesn’t turn out.

Sometimes, this has to do with concepts that are underdeveloped or inappropriate for the chosen medium. Which is one reason I believe, once, say, thirty pages of a novel are completed, it’s time to write arguments to yourself about why the work must be finished. This serves the purpose of getting you past the inevitable “this stinks” moment about 3/4 of the way through. It also provides a well-informed vetting of the project. With words on paper, you may see that the choice is not good. And you can quit without having made a substantial investment.

Sometimes, the project is full of promise, but the writer does not have the skills yet. This is not tragic, even though it won’t feel great. Almost all writers stretch and develop their craft by pushing at the limits of capabilities. That how those capabilities increase. Most first novels and first scripts (and sometimes tenth novels and tenth scripts) end up shoved in a drawer or under the bed. These are not failures. They are part of the education experience.

Criticism. This is probably the biggest source of doubt. You show your work to someone and they bury you in negativity. (Few people have the good sense to tell you what you’re doing right.) Sometimes, within the pile (or behind the one cutting remark), there is something worth learning. For these, I write down the criticism and return to it when I am calm and confident. That’s when analysis can be useful.

Sometimes, they are well-meaning, but completely wrong. There’s no food for the doubt monster in those comments. I get them most often when I look for expert opinion on facts and the person volunteers story fixes. Recognize some comments are worthless. This comes across most obviously when just one person makes that point. (Although, oral comments in a writers’ group can, unfortunately , take on a life of their own as groupthink asserts itself.)

Sometimes, the criticisms are packed with emotion. Because people can be dark. Because people have their own issues. Here’s a truth worth learning. Anyone who berates you as a person when they critique is not worth listening to. Anyone who makes a comment on a manuscript in a way that is intended to make you feel bad can be ignored. In fact, these people should, if possible, never see your work again. The trolls are out there. Avoid them.

The doubt monster (mostly) is not your friend. Are the doubts sometimes true? Of course. All of us are flawed writers just as we’re flawed human beings. You learn, over time, to be good enough in some areas so readers will appreciate it when you go with your strengths. It’s fine to work (but not obsess) on your limits in craft, emotional engagement, concepts, and storytelling. But don’t expect perfection. It is often the flaws that reveal the real treasure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First Draft Questions - Insights as a story takes its first breaths

If I can, I wait a month to six weeks before reviewing a completed first draft. As tempting as it is to get right back to work and fix things up, I benefit from the distance I get from the story. It makes me notice things I’d never notice without fresh eyes.

So, the calendar is marked, my schedule is arranged, and I move on to a short story are start a longer work while the completed manuscript ages. Once I hit the date on the calendar for review, I print the whole thing out and let the computer (via text-to-speech) read it to me. I may pause every fifteen to twenty pages or I may let it go through from beginning to end, but I never back up. My purpose it to make quick notes on the manuscript of where I get distracted or confused. I also may mark down an idea for a scene that seems to belong or add a question mark in bold red pen next to a scene that does not seem essential. I’m looking at the story, not the spelling or prose.

In the past, I’ve marched through a multi-step rewriting process that moves from big problems (missing beats) to the smallest (spelling and grammar). Because I was doing an exercise while my current manuscript was cooling, I needed to generate a series of questions. These helped me to respond to some feedback, and made a big difference in developing a new story.

Then because of an accident of timing, I went back immediately to the completed draft of my Work-in-Progress… with those questions still in my head. Once the text-to-speech read through was done, I took on those questions before my usual next steps. I like what happened, so I thought I’d share those questions here. They may be of use to you somewhere in your process, perhaps soon after you return to a first draft.

How can I simplify this story? Here I focused especially on parts where my attention strayed. Often, I’ve noticed, the plot can become a Rube Goldberg device with cheap fixes that complicate the concept unnecessarily. Wherever the list of “what readers need to know” becomes too long, there is apt to be a problem. After reading a piece on how Paddy Chayefsky would cut down characters to the fewest required to tell the story, I decided that was a good step to include in simplification.

Is the premise (often evident in the logline) clearly featured? Can I point to a scene where it takes precedence? There are so many tasks the protagonist must accomplish, the main task can get lost. Or it can be overwhelmed by tasks for subplots. There should be an irreversible decision by the protagonist that stands out and fully engages the reader in the main story. If not, that’s important to fix.

What are the protagonist’s tasks? Do they get more difficult and more consequential as the story proceeds? The protagonist must accomplish things to succeed, and, in a draft, these might not build properly. Any leveling off risks losing the reader’s attention. Explicitly listing and ranking the tasks can help avoid this problem. (Thanks to writing guru Max Adams for directing my attention to  Tony Rossio’s excellent article on The Task.)

What are the obstacles? This actually needs a close look in relation to the task, since the degree of difficulty is a factor. One thing this always forces me to take a closer look at is the goals, motivations, and resources of any adversaries. The more clever and powerful the opposition is, the better the story. And it’s all too easy to create one-note villains. Know the plans and options of the adversaries.

Does the protagonist prepare and take reasonable precautions? What are these? Are they taken at the right time in the story? Getting the balance right between a protagonist with flaws and one who is too stupid too live is harder than it looks.

What goes wrong? As I look back in my stories, there isn’t enough failure. My protagonists tend to succeed too often. Even when the achievements come after struggles and sacrifices, that can be boring… which leads to something I value more and more…

What are the secrets and revelations? What the protagonist doesn’t know can create powerful turns in a story. Surprises and unintended consequences can fiercely (and fairly) challenge the hero/heroine and make him/her change in more dramatic ways.

Is the protagonist betrayed? If not, why not? There are few things more heartbreaking than betrayal. A protagonist who can rise above faithless acts that make trust in other seem foolish is one readers are likely to remember and love.

How does the protagonist need to change? I always think I know the answer to this before I begin writing. I rarely have a clear understanding. Asking the question after a first draft can be revelatory.

Why am I writing this story? Why do I NEED to write this story? I routinely write a note to myself early on (about 30 pages in, usually) that includes reasons for writing the story. These are intended to argue my future self into finishing when the urge to quit at about 3/4 of the way comes (as it always does). But there is a real value to asking these questions before major revision begins — both in terms of focus and in terms of personal commitment.

None of these questions were new to me. In one way or another, I’ve used them to analyze every novel or screenplay I’ve written. But I’m not sure they always have come at that right time, and I found real value in repeating them at this stage, right after fully reviewing the first draft. And, though I may tweak the order, this is not a bad to run through as listed. To me, it feels like the answers build and create a perspective on the work that deepens my understanding and appreciation of what I have, and what I COULD have if I stick with it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Digging for Story Gold - Making research pay off

I like to be taken into other worlds. Hammett’s Continental Op stories present the attitudes, people, and criminal behaviors he experienced working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Dune brings together the interplay of culture and a carefully worked-out ecosystem in a vibrant way. Among Moby Dick’s many virtues is the detailed picture it provides of the whaling world.

Experience and research make these settings (along with the characters who live in them) compelling. Sometimes, the facts are shoved in your face by circumstances, like needing a job. Sometimes, it’s all serendipity — an article your run across, the chance meeting with a talkative stranger, witnessing a dramatic moment in someone else’s life.

Most often, writers create their own luck by researching topics related to the stories they’re working on. This can take many forms:

Fun facts. The right, largely unknown fact presented clearly at the right time in a story can propel a story forward and delight readers. Bits of the Koran appearing in  Renaissance paintings. Koalas thriving on normally poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Madame Curie’s notebooks, still too radioactive to handle.

Getting it right. One key reason to do research is to avoid embarrassing yourself. When I was in grade school, I wrote a story where, instead of the last out in an inning, the clock ran out in a baseball game. Oops. When I wrote a story taking place in Singapore (this, before the Web) I collected maps, pictures and travel guides so the sense of place would come through. (I have since visited Singapore, and the scenes still feel accurate to me.) So getting it right is essential for authenticity.

Immersion. I took that research a step further and had a friend send me the local newspapers. This helped me get a feel for the culture, especially the perspectives of inhabitants. That sort of virtual tourism is easier to do nowadays. I often will read highly specific articles, flash through pictures, and watch videos to get the right feel for something in a story. (I’ll even seek out newspaper content, including the ads. Reading personal columns in foreign newspapers is a treat.) The only caveat here is not to get sucked in. I usually set a timer when I do this kind of research.

Not so fun facts. Obviously, it’s a mistake to show off by including everything learned in research. Most people get past what I call “book reporting” early in their writing careers, but there is one common slip, even among professionals. It’s easy to get sucked in by stuff that’s geeky but irrelevant. I’ve read pages (often fascinating) that took me through details of jewelry making or harvesting in the Middle Ages or the important use of car horns in New Delhi traffic. It’s great to dig into obscure areas and it’s fine write about such things in early drafts. But, ultimately, it’s best if such deep dives are used  in service of the story. It may hurt to cut these, but, when the narrative thread is interrupted, you risk losing your readers.

Premise. Sometimes, whole books can be built upon research. I explored the life of a female scientists erased from history and used that as a basis for a novel. H.G. Wells used single concepts — what if you could build a time machine? What if a person became invisible? Exploring fresh ideas can be entertaining, especially if people are pushed to change. (Ray Bradbury said the best science fiction movie ever made was Singin’ in the Rain. The premise? Sound added to movies, and how that changes everyone working in the business. That had already happened, of course, but the treatment exploited the best SF methods.)

Much of what writers do is deliberate research, with an emphasis on fact-finding. I do this, of course, but I also will give it a turn when I already have story characters in mind. I consciously try to see my findings through the eyes of specific characters. I look for emotional responses and what the ideas and concepts uncovered mean to them. (This may be a holdover from research I’ve done on speeches, w where everything explored is in terms of the individual speakers and the audiences that will be addressed.) I think that looking a research through these different perspectives makes it fresher and raises out-of-the-box questions. If yours is the only perspective in research, that can become very limiting.

And I’ll put in a word for curiosity-driven research, too. It has two obvious advantages. First, it will take you to unexpected places (and surprises are pure gold for storytelling). Second, your curiosity always connects you with things that already interest you. With luck, those interests will grow into passions you can share with readers. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Critiquing Without Bloodshed

People look for feedback, but most want compliments. Loved the characters! So imaginative. The twists and the turns kept me reading!

Uh huh. I actually do believe that positive responses are essential. There have been too many times when I’ve seen people kill the best parts of their stories because no one had TOLD them what the best parts were. Positive feedback is valuable, as long as it’s not distracting.

Equally valuable is thoughtful analysis and, yes, pointers to what doesn’t work or might be better. I recommend asking critics to tell you if they got hooked by the beginning, tell you if attention drifted at any point, tell you if anything was unclear or had to be read twice, and tell you if the ending is satisfying (which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, but it could). And, for a given genre, are the expected elements (e.g., meet cute in romances) all there.

It is a great practice when you ask for criticism if you note any specific questions you have beyond the above. You can even ask for advice to help solve a story problem (rarely, you might get a good suggestion).

When you get a crit, always say thank you with as much sincerity you can muster. Someone just read your work thoughtfully (in most cases). They deserve that. And you may need to come to them again. So thank them even if everything they said was useless and/or mean. Even if it’s stupid.

As an exercise, I chose to write thank you notes to dozens of contest judges. I had to write not just “thanks,” but something substantive about the value I received. This forced me to let many of the critiques sit until I cooled off. And I then had to look for value in each one — even the stupid ones. What happened was I discovered more value than I had imagined. Not every crit deserved this, but more did than I guessed. By being appreciative, I gave myself an important gift.

Let’s turn this around because if you get feedback, you probably need to give it. Here are the steps I use.

    1.    Read thoughtfully. Take the time and respect the material. Take care if you are NOT the intended audience.
    2.    Don’t critique when you are angry or feeling ungenerous. No one wrote the work and presented it to you as a cruel joke. Most people are giving you the best they can, and they are trusting you. Even when they may be wading into deep water.
    3.    Critique with their best interests in mind. Your job is to provide the most valuable feedback you can.
    4.    Find something positive to say almost immediately, if possible. You will need to include something that appreciates the work, and the earlier you identify that element, the easier it will be to frame the review in a generous manner.
    5.    Answer their questions, carefully. If they have asked for specific feedback, provide it in a way it can be heard and acted upon. You can be honest AND tactful.
    6.    Limit what you say. I rarely make more than three important points. Few people can absorb every criticism that comes to mind. Be selective. Nits are okay, but, unless you are proofing the work, don’t cite every instance where dependent clauses lack commas or lie/lay is misused.
    7.    Be sure about your “facts.” When you correct, make sure you’re right. Even if you know you are.
    8.    Your experiences aren’t universal. If a character reacts in a way you wouldn’t (or didn’t in real life), it might still be valid.
    9.    Be careful about using examples. They can become overwhelming. Try to restrict them to what will clarify.
    10.    Note where you lose attention or get confused. These observations are golden for writers.
    11.    Let it be their story. It’s great news that what you read has you so excited you could take the ideas and run with them. But respect the writer’s right to tell the story he or she intends to tell.

The great thing about being critiqued is it’s mostly about you. You, and only you, have the power to decide a criticism is valid or should be rejected.

The great thing about critiquing is you don’t have to make the changes. You DO have to protect your relationship with the writer by acting respectfully and providing your feedback in a caring way. You never know how fragile their ego is. Don’t find out the hard way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finish with Enthusiasm

Hello, all
Since this article just went up a few days ago (associated with my Savvy Authors class), I'll just point you toward it for this week's post. I hope you enjoy it.


Want more? I just sent out issue five of my newsletter, Productive Writing. Want to subscribe? Just send a note to
Put Subscribe in the subject line.  I'll add you to the mailing list. And if you want any of the published issues, just let me know. I'm happy to send you copies.

Issue 5: Good (and Bad) Examples
Issue 4: At Home with Your Story
Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Upcoming Online Classes

Please excuse the interruption in content. Since I have several courses coming up soon, I thought I'd list them all in one post.


How to Write Fast (Savvy Authors)
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE.
Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft and polish in less time without losing quality. 


Writing Flash Fiction (Southern Tier Authors of Romance)

Don’t have time to write a novel? Well, fewer people have time to read one. That’s why flash fiction is hot, with over 300 paying markets looking for well-formed stories of 1000 words or less. Learn how to write, market and sell these tiny tales.



Write Who You Are (Yosemite Romance Writers)
The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself —your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. By mining what you alone have to offer, you’ll fulfill your potential and connect deeply with your readers.

In this course, students will learn out to:
  • identify and assess what they uniquely have to offer readers,
  • put a focus on the issues that matter most to them and conveying the emotional truths that make these matter to others,
  • select projects that fit their voices, skills, and interests so they can connect more effectively with readers.


Lost in the Story-A Workshop on Reader Immersion (Northeast Ohio Chapter of Romance Writers of America)

We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending.
The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Recognizing and Crafting Small Story Moments That Matter

Most storytellers know about the big moments are are expected by readers. The climax. The black moment. The inciting incident. And, if you write in a genre, you know about common tropes and how, say, a romance writer looks forward to the “meet cute” and the “first kiss” (or its equivalent).

For those who plot, these moments are mapped out early on. And that makes perfect sense. Why write a story where you’ll grasp for a big moment and come up short? (Unless, of course, you are a daredevil pantser.) Articles, chapters, and whole books may be dedicated to taking on big moments, but smaller moments are often what sticks in a reader’s memory. So, with this post, I’ll review a few worth keeping in mind.

The Crack - What happens when a noble character makes a compromise? Apparently for the greater good, but really for a selfish reason? A high school student neglects a lifelong friend when there’s a spot open in the popular crowd. A banker makes an unsupported loan to someone who may be able to provide a personal favor later on. A boss hires the cuter, less qualified person for the job.

The character may have a great rationalization, but this moment sets up a shift in values that won’t end well. A careful reader notices such a moment and becomes intrigued — as long as the writer gives this small moment the same attention as a big one.

The Soft Heart - I love it when villains have moments of empathy. They step away from cardboard outlines, become more real, and grab my psyche with an unanswered “what if?”

The Revelation - “[Luke,] I am your father.” That one can’t be missed. (Just misquoted.) But lots of seemingly smaller revelations can become memorable. In Gone With the Wind, the conversation between Scarlett and her father is indelible for me. “That’s it. We must ask Mrs. O’Hara.” At that point, she knows he’s gone mad and will be no help to her.

Feet of Clay - Atticus Finch, unsullied hero, right? But if he were perfect, To Kill a Mockingbird would not have a story. He does not take proper care of his children, and this is clear when he goes to tell the bad news to Tom’s widow. He brings his son Jem along, and the boy is terrified by a drunk, homicidal Mr. Ewell. Maybe Atticus isn’t the perfect single parent. Maybe that’s why both his kids are put in mortal danger later on.

These are just a few small moments the best writers use to deepen stories and make them unforgettable. You can find your own by listings stories you love and thinking about the scenes that have become important to you — as reference points for your life, as ones you look forward to re-experiencing, or as ones you tell others about (often word-for-word). It’s worthwhile looking to see why they are vivid. How stakes rise in those scenes. How the actions and decisions and shifts in perspective bring characters to life.

With close inspection, you can appreciate them more and discover new ways to make your own work more memorable.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dilemmas Drive Stories - The power of tough choices

In the Old Testament, God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. That’s a heck of a dilemma. Abandon a god with whom you have a loving relationship or murder your son. Personally, intolerable. But story gold.

Writers have been using dilemmas since the very beginning. In general, it’s about having to choose between to horrible, irreversible alternatives. Sophie’s Choice includes a powerful example. She must decide who will live, her son or her daughter.

Extreme choices reveal character, both in terms of how the choice is arrived at and in terms of the aftermath, how the person deals with its consequences — especially psychologically.

Abraham chooses God, confirming his faith. He is stopped from sacrificing his son and, through his son, becomes the patriarch of a great nation. Sophie sees her daughter taken away to her death and is traumatized. She becomes an alcoholic and kills herself.

As a writer, giving characters dilemmas forces dramatic story choices because it evokes emotions — in you and your readers.Explorations that would otherwise become impossible become necessary. (That is, unless you fudge it by some device like time travel. That trope is called upon in Harry Potter and isn’t a complete failure because the mechanism is foreshadowed effectively. In Superman, where the hero gets both choices by making the world spin backward, all the drama and joy of the movie is sucked away.)

To create a dilemma, it is essential to know who the character is and what he or she values deeply. (The biggest writing failure is making the dilemma too trivial. Some writers have a difficult time making things tough for their characters.)

The dilemma should be between two bad options, not two good. I had a friend who had to choose between attending Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania’s med school. It caused her some stress, but was not the stuff of great drama.

While the main character may lack some knowledge, it’s best if the choice is not driven by the character being TSTL (too stupid to live).

The choice must be clear. There can’t be a third option or a compromise choice. It might be necessary to consult with other people to identify and close down creative opportunities.

The choice must be irreversible. This may take some thought. Many times, I’ve worked with writers who thought choices could not be reversed. But readers are very good as sniffing out ways they can be. A dilemma must put the character into a new world and make the old world inaccessible. Ideally, that new world will come with some surprises. Unintended consequences are a good thing in stories.

When the character makes the choice, it must be “in character.” While before the choice is made the readers must doubt which way the character will go, afterward it’s best to see the choice made as being inevitable. (This is very difficult to pull off, and works best if plants that point to the decision, such as an earlier decision, come earlier in the story. Another good way to make it work is by buttressing the decision after the fact. For instance, a friend saying something like “I knew you’d make the right choice” can make it easier for the reader to believe the decision.)

Ideally, the choice should do more than change the fortunes of the character. It should be tied to his or her flaws and change them as people, too.

Sometimes a dilemma only emerges after a series of small choices lead the character into a corner. Think of stories where a less than alert or willing to compromise character takes the bait and ends up beholden to a villain.

There are what I call dilemma plus stories. In most cases, these include a choice that seems awful, but has a logical bonus that makes a happy ending possible. But it is also possible to make things go very bad.

What is a dilemma for a character may not be a dilemma for readers. Irony may be in play, either because the reader has superior knowledge or, more interesting, because the reader’s values clash with those of the character.

The potential for dilemmas in a story may not be obvious. It's worth looking more closely at the important choices your characters make to see if they can be constrained in ways that force dilemmas. This takes some courage because, ultimately, it will take you, as a writer, into uncomfortable territory. But it will pay off in terms of reader engagement and deeper insights.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character Virtues Become Vices - Extremes, contexts, and differing values

When I was in my 20s, someone accused me of being so broad-minded that I was flat headed. I was reminded of this as I attended a workshop with Donald Maass, based on his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He went through a series of positive traits that, when taken too far, became questionable. One that struck me in particular was a protagonist who would go from being helpful to interfering with others recklessly.

These progressions seemed natural to me, and perhaps provide alternative solutions to advice I've given about giving main characters important flaws. So I decided to explore it further.

    •    What happens when a confident protagonist becomes egotistical or narcissistic?
    •    What about a carrying character who becomes indulgent or spoils someone he or she loves?
    •    When does a trusting person become so naïve it threatens the welfare of those around him or her?

I was reminded of a man who spoke at my church about tithing. He had made this a priority for himself and his family, to the point where, despite he and his wife having jobs, the family often became dependent upon social services. His generosity had, to my mind, gone so far he put his children at risk. It's an interesting thing to think about of virtue that would be admired in a monk becoming a threat to offspring.

I know many people whose humility made them self-effacing to the point where they did not fully share their gifts and talents with society. Perhaps this is another case where what is good for the individual can get so big that society loses.

    •    Can a protector become a bully?
    •    At what point does a courageous person become foolhardy?
    •    What stops a man with an iron will from treating others with disdain?

Can someone absorb with curiosity damage others in seeking answers? Certainly there were people who worked on the atomic bomb who concluded their session with knowing had led to a turn in history that put humanity in jeopardy.

I've been fascinated for a long time – and not in a good way – by the idea that a true friend will take your call in the middle of the night and go out to bury a body, no questions asked. To me, this is loyalty taken to extremes. To others, the value of friendship trumps other values. The concept of omertà – the Mafia code of honor – does not allow for ratting on a family member, no matter what crimes have been committed. My values differ.

An empathetic person can become a busybody. A funny person can become bitingly satirical and verbally abusive. A respectful person can become a toady.

Some virtues can, when amplified or twisted, can become bad in any context. Some reflect differences in values as they are transformed (corrosive to individual morality or relationships or society or humanity or future generations). Some people become possessed by their virtues and go out of control, acting without thought, deliberation, judgment, or prudence.

Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions? For writers, virtues and good intentions can be pushed to create stories when sharper conflicts and more interesting character arcs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Working With Your Story Ideas - Connect, nurture, shape, and grow

Developing ideas is a natural step after discovery and collection (the topics of last week's post). I previewed this a bit when I mentioned "maybe withs." It's time to dig into this a little more beginning with making a fuzzy distinction between random ideas and those that seem to along with identified projects. Why a fuzzy distinction? Because, while your brain is noticing and selecting facts, insights, images, relationships, and other story fodder, its initial classifications should always be suspect. While an idea might seem to, at first blush, fit with other ideas or be matched to specific projects as it’s collected, your muse may have something — much better – in mind. This is why I recommended adding question marks as he took notes.

When your idea already has a home and you want to work with it, the easiest of idea development is fitting it into what you already have going among your story notes (e.g., efforts on your Work In Progress). But, while it's tempting to put the ideas to work immediately, many ideas will be improved if you take them to extremes. For descriptions, this may mean making them more eccentric and specific. For something that a hero or heroine might put at risk, raise the stakes if you can. Make obstacles you identify more tortuous and major protagonists less capable of meeting them (or raising the price for doing so).

You can also consider applying ideas in places they "don't belong." Be mischievous with mismatches. It's common, for instance, to adapt a great line by a villain so that it can be used by the hero or heroine. You can make a different character face and obstacle or have a surprising characteristic. For one of my stories, I took a talent that interested me and first gave it to a woman, then a middle-aged man, and finally to an adolescent boy. It only became fully alive with the last choice.

What about the fresh ideas? For these, I like to ask questions. Obviously, I look for extremes and for other ideas with which they might be matched. But I also ask how they might fit in with the zeitgeist (and sometimes that means looking at the Google Trends listings). I see if there is something within the idea that suggests conflict, especially a moral conflict. If it naturally creates a true dilemma – where both choices lead to horrible consequences – I know I really have something.

I play with ideas in different geographic settings, in different eras, and in different subcultures (such as military). I explore the possibility of using the idea in different genres. I especially work to discover the unexpected. Sometimes this means brainstorming. I love to create lists of 20 possibilities off of an idea and see which ones are the most surprising.

Two things I've added to idea development in recent years have been especially fruitful. One was to bounce ideas off of things I'm obsessed with. By definition, anything that connects in such a deep way that it causes a compulsive dedication of time and resources is an obsession. Knowing what these are (for me) makes it easier for me to put more work into using an idea, once it's attached to one of my obsessions.

The other thing I've added is examination against themes that recur in my work. I have plenty of stories completed at this point in my career, not to mind for values, situations, and questions that are important to me. As with obsessions (but at a grander scale) storytelling themes naturally drive effective and sometimes inspired use of ideas that have been discovered and collected. If you haven't written on the stories to identify themes that matter to you from your work, lists 10 or 20 of your absolute favorite stories and see if you can identify their themes… And if there are themes that show up often.

These are some hints on how to develop ideas. It's in no way exhaustive. I fill pages with questions to ask and ways to push around and connect captured ideas. I've also written blog posts (Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas and A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut) that fit into this general area that you might find useful. But analysis, pattern matching, questions, and systems will never quite do everything in terms of idea development. For one thing, the choices you make along the way will have to do with your intuition and instincts. And, there may be a little bit of magic that shows up from time to time, if you let it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ideas for Writing - Jot this down

Ideas are the lifeblood of writing — both for fiction and nonfiction. A systematic approach toward discovering, managing, and developing  ideas can make a big difference in productivity. Here are some things to consider:

Curiosity - Many people become writers because they want to know everything. By actively developing curiosity — both broad (lots of areas) and deep (digging into the details) -- a writer creates more opportunities for insights and connections.

A prepared mind - Writers need to continue to learn. This means studying the craft and reading, of course, but it also means taking courses and researching a variety of areas, including those that are not for the current work in progress. A future work in progress is likely to come from an interest in mastering a new skill, traveling, or immersion in new experiences. In my opinion, actively seeking out topics that are outside your comfort zone can be especially valuable.

Openness - None of us is immune to filtering information. We choose, judge, and categorize what comes to us. As Harry Nilsson said, “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Paying attention. Listening. Suspending attempts to interpret and create a narrative. These open you (and your stories) up to new possibilities. Give yourself the chance to be surprised.

Okay, now unexpected perceptions and facts, insights, answers, and connections begin to make themselves available. How do you respond?

Cast a wide net - Be willing to collect what’s useless. Grab anything that your intuition says is worth another look. Utility and relevance are valuable criteria, but they aren’t the only criteria for collection. Create new criteria. Include questions.

Actively search - Take time to brainstorm, to create lists of possibilities that go beyond the obvious, and to chat with people (including people outside your circle) about what you’ve discovered, the questions you have, and what you wonder about.

If all of this has become part of your routine, you’ll have a steady flow of ideas. Through much of my life, I jotted these down in journals or on stray bits of paper. For instance, lots of random notions are jotted in the margins of my college notebooks.

Much of what I noted down is now inaccessible to me, either because it is stored away or written in an incomplete way. 

It takes a lot of discipline even to collect notes for writing. Keeping them ordered is another level of seriousness (or maybe OCD). But capturing ideas in an organized way has a big payoff in terms of richness of opportunities and time saved. I've used computer notes and digital audio memos. The best solution for me is carrying around a tiny notebook of Postits.

From the time an idea is collected, it goes into a specific category. Here are some I've used:
  • Titles (This is the only category that does not require full sentences.)
  • Incomplete story concepts
  • Complete story concepts
  • Good references (always includes notes on value to me)
  • Setting descriptions (Great when I'm stuck in a place that might be used in a story)
  • Notes for stories in progress or in development (always labeled with story titles)
  • Character physical descriptions
  • Character insights
  • Character motivations
  • Character tortures
  • Story obstacles
  • Story stakes
  • Loglines
  • Fun facts to know and tell your friends
  • Physical reactions (especially to emotional experiences)
  • Descriptions of action/movement
  • Experiences that provoke
This isn't a comprehensive list, but I’ve found it to be a useful set of buckets for me. Not much falls into “miscellaneous.” And, yes, some things go into more than one category or get moved later on.

Either weekly or when I know I have a good number, I copy or just put these Postits into notebooks in under the appropriate categories. It's mindless, so I can do it while listening to an audiobook or watching television.

By the way, discovery and management can be different in cases of collaboration. A well-run brainstorming session with the right people can be productive and a lot of fun. And when I was on an innovation team, my ideas went directly onto a white board. More often than not, people on my team added their own questions, comments, and connections over time. It was like having elves at work as I slept.

The focus in this post is on managing the ideas as they’re discovered, but I’m happy to blur the task when idea development opportunities come up as I work. There are the “maybe withs” that come when my intuition says ideas might belong together. Sometimes, the reason why the idea caught my attention or its potential utility will occur to me, and I’ll write that down alongside the idea. Or there may be a suggestion that a fact or notion belongs with a specific story. I’ll include that, too.

I work to keep all of these development bits tentative. As a reminder of this, they are always followed by question marks. This keeps my options open, and it is not unusual for development bits to be put aside or radically changed (for the better) later on.

Someday, I promise myself, I'll mine the many notebooks and tiny slips of paper that have ideas written down. Someday. But, for now, I'm not adding to the chaos.