Posts Tagged ‘Patton’

The Post – How Do You Take Three Picture Books and Make a Novel?

February 22, 2008

In writing this post I feel the same amount of confusion and struggle as I did when I was trying to get my head around how to set up the novel. Where do I start? There’s too many thoughts and ideas, too much to wade through or convey. My brain feels overwhelmed and I want to give up and go have hot chocolate at Starbucks instead.

Back then, I was surrounded by papers…drowning actually. I had a binder full of hermit crab story versions from all the different submissions I’d sent out, as well as their rejection letters. I even filed each rejection letter neatly alongside the particular story version sent to that publisher, and the binder was organized in chronological order. That way I could see the not only the history of all the submissions, to whom, and the result, but also, the evolution of the story itself as it changed for each new submission. So in reality, for that one picture book, I had about 20 versions of that story as I tweaked, changed, revised, and resubmitted it.

I had another binder with the multitude of revisions (and rejection letters) for the Max and Jamie un-picture book. Then there was that third short story whose revisions and versions filled, first a folder, then a box. Climbing Mount Everest would have been easier. That journey of a thousand miles seemed shorter than whatever it was going to take to wade through all that stuff and find the story that needed telling. And worst of all, here I was, this very goal-oriented person who lived to finish things fast and cross them off the to-do list. The thought of what this job was going to take to start it, never mind finish it, seemed too daunting to face.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to find the exact perfect place to start or the exact perfect way to work. In fact, I don’t think either exists. As far as getting started, you just have to pick a nipple and get going. It’s like Billy Joel said about the songs in his dreams never matching what he created. Nothing will be as perfect as our dreams and visions. So you can either give up right then because you can’t have perfection, or you swallow your ego and create the best you can. Even the imperfect can move souls. But you still have to write it. Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, noted in an interview in Writer’s Digest magazine that, “…fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. Your expectations are never gonna jive. …But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success.” So you put your butt in the chair and start somewhere, working through it all, somehow.

This is where going through Stage 2 helped – you have to know yourself. If you do, you have at least 2 things going for you: 1) you have at least some idea of the questions in your heart that might need to be answered in a book; 2) you have a pretty good idea of how you work best.

How you work defines what your processes and tasks will be. Some writers just sit down and start writing. They write several hundred pages until they finally discover their story and characters. Then they throw away those pages and write the story. A few, like Isaac Asimov, can sit down and organically know where they’re going and just get it right the first time out. And then there’s us plodders. We think, percolate, plan, research ….plod.

Tabitha King said that she likes to research “the living crap out it” before entering the story. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of 14 novels, said that often she spends more time on research than writing. Why? In her June 2007 column, “This Writer’s Life,” for Writer’s Digest magazine, she said, “…fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research.” She said that research allows you to write with authority so readers can trust you to get the facts straight, and it gives you the “chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own.”

I knew I wasn’t Asimov. I also know that to meander aimlessly through hundreds of pages before knowing where I was going, would drive me crazy. I need order, organization, planning, research. You should see how I plan a road trip. After all, my natural tendency was to be General Patton. Generals assess what they’ve got, research their enemy, plan their strategy, then execute the battle. That’s me.

So, first I assessed what I had:

1) I knew now what kind of book it should be – novel.

2) I had LOTS of raw material. I knew the setting, the time of the story-current day – and had some ideas about characters and plot points because I had MANY versions of each story to choose from.

3) I finally knew about what age my own child was inside, 11 or 12. That sort of tells you what age the reader of your book might be. Also, knowing about what ages you and your readers are points you toward what kinds of story questions you can tackle.

At least for me, writing is all about questions and choices. As you ask, you learn something. As you learn, you make a choice about something in the story. Another question comes up, another choice. Before you know it, characters appear, setting, time, places, problems. Others are excluded. The story evolves. So at this point, the question for me became: What is my story about?

I came out of childhood with scars and resentments and issues. So has everyone else. If my own life has depth and there’s more to ME than meets the eye, the same is true of everyone else out there. This means there’s lots of potential for conflict and issues and depth of characters, quirks, oddities, and unexpected twists and turns. No need for clichés, stereotypes and superficial stories when you have some real meat to work with under the surface.

The very story you tell comes out of a choice when answering the questions – Do I write what I know? Or what I want to know about? Sometimes you choose a place or character or issue that you know personally. Sometimes you choose something you have no experience with. You could even choose something that repulses you, but you want to explore it so you can stretch yourself and grow. George C. Scott did that when he portrayed General George S. Patton, Jr. in the 1970 movie, Patton. In this quote from a special features documentary included on that movie’s DVD, one of the former executives at 20th Century Fox, David Brown, spoke of all the issues they had to deal with in making that movie. One was casting an actor for the lead role:

“…of all the critical decisions made for the project, perhaps none was more crucial than the casting of George C. Scott as Patton. George C. Scott was not very fond of General Patton. Why he accepted it was because it was a good script and it was a reach for him as an actor.”

Jodi Picoult noted that she’d grown up happy in the suburbs. Everyone in her family liked each other, there were no dark secrets in the family’s closet, and she worried that she was doomed as a writer before she even got started. “Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about.” She came to the conclusion she had to alter that “write what you know” rule a bit to “write what could be learned.” Tabitha King said most people assume that “write what you know” means “tart up your autobiography.” Her feeling is you should “know what you write.” All of these things come back to…questions.

But which question do you start with to unlock the answer to “What is my story about?” For my money, if I was allowed only one question, it would be ‘why’? That’s the one I used most heavily in getting this novel going.

Why write this book? Why have these characters and not others? Why does someone do what they do? Buried in the answer to why, is the story of that whole character: flaws, strengths, wishes, dreams, disappointments, crimes, family background, personality traits, likes, dislikes. Ask “why” and you’ve opened the can of worms. Everything is folded into “why?”

People act a certain way. Pretty girls, tomboys, shy ones, party girls. They each have their personality and behaviors. Why? Were they born that way? Did something happen to cause them to act that way? Both? What was it that happened?

Why leads to more questions:

– Where do they live? What’s their environment like? Why are they living in that environment? Are they rich? Poor? Brilliant? Anti-social?

– Who do they live with? Why? Do they get along? Why or why not?

– What’s the story behind the people they live with? Work with? Go to school with? Why do THOSE people act like they do? Who is or isn’t in their lives? What happened to them if someone, say a parent or spouse, is missing?

It’s like spinning a web. You start with one thread, one character. Give that person one trait and ask why. The minute you do, other pieces of the puzzle pop up. You choose a few pieces. More questions come up. Add another trait. Exponentially, the character expands before your eyes. Things you didn’t even know about your character show up on the pages. And so far, you just have the one character.

Now. Want some real complications? Add in another character. The minute you add in another character, the possible choices for how they interact, what they are like, what’s going to happen when those two collide, expands. Then add in a third, a fourth. Add in the environment. Add in the weather, the teacher, the dog down the street, whatever. The minute you add ANYTHING to that one solitary person, you get a reaction. It’s like adding a second chemical into a solution with something else – chances are, you get a reaction. That reaction is based on the properties each chemical brings. And why does a particular chemical have those properties? Because of it’s structure, it’s formation process. So, mix two people together and based on their structure, formation, properties in the form of their birth, environment, personality, etc. you get a reaction.

If you haven’t had enough, add in the question “What if?” What if one character jumps off a bridge and the second one tries to save him and the first one lives but the second one dies? What does that do to the person who tried to kill themself in the first place? Questions multiply the possibilities.

With all these questions and answers, your story seems to be beyond your control, right? It’s not. It’s messy, but that’s good. For right now, you want your right brain to just explode with the possibilities and get it all down. This is still part of the “what have I got” stage. You want to have as many options as possible, as rich a palette of colors as possible, to choose from. Save controlling it for later. Right now just throw all the mosaic stones on the table and see what you’ve got.

You will have to reel in the storyline at some point. Your story will need a road map – the plot, and its soul – the premise. Premise is a one line summary of what the real heart and soul of your story is. Premise may take time but it is percolating in the background as you go through assessing, researching, and planning. It may even change after you put your first stage wild ideas through the research and planning process. But all of this can come later. Right now, just keep throwing things on the pile of “what have you got?”

So how do you do all this? I’ve thrown in all kinds of theoretical process information and questions. But you’re me sitting in that room with these folders and binders of pieces of stories all around you. You’re not sure how to put them together, if to put them together, which characters to keep, create, jettison . . .

I don’t know about anybody else, but the way through all of this for me, was to journal. I have a couple of binders of journaling. Maybe those journals were my “couple hundred pages to find the story” that other authors write then throw away.

I picked a version of each of those three stories and used that as my starting point. If there were scene variations, better wording, or different events in other story versions, I cut and pasted those into my journal or made a “list of possible things to add later” to the version I started with. The point is – I had to pick a version to begin with, then journal from there. I might in the end decide a particular version, scene, person didn’t work. In fact, I know I did. But at least, I had a starting point. You can always add, take away, or start over. But you have to pick that one nipple and just start journaling.

Every day I sat down and did a piece of a scene here, a character description there. I wrote up thoughts about what if you mix these two characters in that setting with this problem – how that might play out? I did sample plot lines. Again and again and again. Dialogue samples. Setting descriptions. List of things to check on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made to-do lists.

It’s a messy, imprecise process, but what I was doing was slowly working my way to the soul of the story and its characters. I was pruning. Refining ideas, discarding others. For me, it’s a gut, organic kind of process, like baking bread. You mix up this mess of ingredients, knead it, set it aside. It rises. You come back, push it down. It incubates some more, then you come back and roll it, stretch it, bake it. You eventually end up with a concrete product: a loaf of bread, that you can hold in your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose and taste. The same happens with your story and characters. By the end of the journaling, you have this concrete mass of information about the story structure, who’s in it, you may have even answered that one line premise question. The reality is, if you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two, you don’t know the story and need to go back to the journaling. At least I did. Once I could write that sentence or two, it was time to put up the scaffolding. It was time to run all of it through the concrete tests of research and planning. Construction was on the horizon.

Next: The scaffolding – index cards and binders. LOTS of them. And maps. And lists. And books and….

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.