Posts Tagged ‘question’

The Post – Under the Pier: Research Part I – Turning the Dream Into Flesh and Blood

March 3, 2008

According to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” (John 1:1,14) Something similar happens when performing a science experiment or writing a novel. First there is the idea. But before the idea becomes a scientific paper or a book in the hands of a reader, a few things have to happen. Again, given my science background, I’ll define the process in terms of the scientific approach.

The scientific approach involves a series of steps:

1) Define your hypothesis – the question you are trying to answer or the idea you think you want to prove and a rough idea of how you will do this

2) Outline the procedures and supplies to be used

3) Research your idea to see if it has merit, if there are any invalid assumptions, or new information out there

4) Run your tests and record the results

5) Do a preliminary analysis of your results

6) Re-test anything soft or questionable and make any changes or additions to the experiment

7) Analyze the data and draw conclusions

8) Write the report

Now the same steps adapted for writing a novel:

1) Define your premise – the deeper story question you want to answer – and create a rough outline of the story plan you will use to do this

2) Create your research plan and to-do list: what areas will the research cover, who can you talk to, what information should you collect, where can you find it, what places might be good to visit

3) Do any interviews, phone calls, site visits, library visits, obtain books, pictures, maps, DVDs, music, anything to “put the reader” in the story. Look for any new or unusual information that could add a twist to the story

4) Refine the story framework, such as plot action points or chapter structure then write some sample scenes, character descriptions, dialogue, and chapters

5) Review what you’ve written to see if the characters, emotions, and setting ring true, if the rules of your story world hold up, if the path you’ve taken will in fact answer your story question, and if the pacing is correct. Read any scenes, dialogue, or chapters out loud to see if the voice sounds real or fake. Decide if the point of view is correct

6) Make changes to the story framework such as adding, deleting or rearranging chapters; If needed, add, delete, or change characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, voice, themes, story action, point of view, or pace.

7) Review your plan and tweak where needed

8) Write the first draft

Before I go on, I’m going to put one disclaimer in here. My computer shows #8 on both of these lists with a smiley face. No matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. I didn’t put it there and it annoys me, but I’m not wasting any more time on trying to get rid of them. If your computer doesn’t show the smiley faces, that makes me happy.

I’ve already covered item one. I know that my story question involves the theme of connection: Do you run from yourself and others or risk connection? The setting includes the worlds above and below the pier in a fictitious New England port town, and there are dual protagonists – a 12-year-old girl and a hermit crab – each with a predicament that forces them to answer this question. I’ve already roughed out a chapter structure and a story line with plot action points, crisis, climax, and hopefully, the correct resolution. This post introduces the next step: Your research plan and to-do list

Research is a kick. In fact some authors will tell you they love it so much they can get lost in it. They have to literally pull themselves out of it and force themselves to start writing. Research unearths specifics, those delicious details that bring the story world alive. They besiege the readers’ nose with pungent smells, their skin with sticky salt water mist, their hair with humidity-generated curls, and their ears with the dull moan of foghorns. They answer questions like: How DOES a fishing trawler catch fish and why does it use cookies and rockhoppers? Can a child operate an ROV? WHICH seagulls are in Narragansett Bay and where?

Specific details make the difference between a man “on a beach looking at the ocean,” and a man “staring longingly out over the east passage of Narragansett Bay, while slipping on black-algae coated shale next to a tide pool containing blue mussels, orange-striped anemones, Northern rock barnacles and red-gilled nudibranches, at Brenton Point State Park, in Newport, Rhode Island, on a steamy August afternoon, just before the black cumulus clouds erupt into a violent thunderstorm.”

Research helps answer “why.” Why is the character looking out over Narragansett Bay instead of Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay or the Outer Banks? It explains why the story action is set in January and June instead of July, and why the fish you wanted in your story can’t be used because it’s not in Narragansett Bay near the shore in June.

This story required LOTS of research, and I had a ball with it. All the research really fell under two categories: Characters and Setting, though in some respects, setting can be a character too, but for simplicity, I’ll keep them separate. I will deal with each of the two categories below more extensively in separate posts, but for now a general summary of the approach for researching characters and setting issues. Like the journaling phase, you start with questions:

1) Characters/Creatures/Place as character

First you need to know who you have. In this story, for both people and animals, there are primary, secondary, and background characters. Real people and animals have lives. Good characters – human or animal – have back-story. What’s the story behind each primary and secondary character?

Since there are animals, there need to be rules of the story world. No Suzy Squirrels, no ducks in clothes, no seagulls driving cars. There are long-clawed hermit crabs, hydroids, slipper snails. common periwinkles, Atlantic oyster drills, dogfish sharks, winter flounder and Northern lobsters – in short, real animals, specific to the location. But do they talk? To each other? To only certain animals? To certain humans? No humans? No one? Do they understand “human talk”? Do they know what boats, piers, fishing nets, and otter boards are? Is the human world totally foreign? Do they think?

Regarding place as character – are there particular places in the story that are characters in their own right? Why? What do they feel like? What is THEIR backstory?

2) Setting – This story has a dual setting – under the pier and above the pier. The setting issues include the “broad picture” – what is the surrounding area like, and the “narrow picture” – what is the protagonist’s home turf like? For example, what is her house like, or what is the hermit crab’s tide pool like? What kinds of neighbors do they have? What places do they like? Avoid? Why?

Topics to investigate include things like: topography, geography, geology, climate, the natural flora and fauna above and below the pier, environmental issues, financial and sociological concerns, local economy, business and industry, higher education and research universities, military installations, availability of technology, an educated populace, the effects of prevailing attitudes, ethnicity, and superstitions on the types of jobs, housing, architecture, food, dining, shopping, churches and civic institutions there, the effect of the area’s history on its attitudes, the incorporation of historical buildings or artifacts, legends and myths as part of every day life, and whether historical values influence current day life at all.

Once you’ve brainstormed about all the possible areas to look into, what questions to ask, what references to get, who to talk to, and where to go, the next step is start digging. In the next three posts I’ll show how steps 2 and 3 were applied for my character and setting research.

Coming up Next: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

Soon to come:

Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal Character R&D

Under the Pier – Research Part IV: Setting as Character

Under the Pier – Test, Review, Retest, Analyze, Conclude

Under the Pier – Write Your first Draft

General Writing Journey Topics – Broken Bits, Writer Sanity, The Writer’s House – That Swarming Bacteria Proteus mirabilis

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The Post – Under the Pier: Next Step – Scaffolding

February 26, 2008

Okay. Besides sitting in the chair playing 20 questions with my stories, what else happened as Under the Pier took shape? I spent a lot of money at Office Depot and Staples. Let me back up.

In the early stages of the journaling and “assessing what did I have” it wasn’t obvious at first that I was combining all of these various stories into one big one. I am a stubborn person. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the reality I’m supposed to confront in life. I was still trying to “finish this story fast” so I could go to my to-do list and say “Yup! Finished a story, mailed it, waiting for the money, move on to story number two.” Yes, I told you I learn slowly. So I tried to make the animal story into a chapter book. I thought about making the Max-Jamie problem into a chapter book. Chapter books are longer than than the picture books I couldn’t write and shorter than the novels I didn’t want to write. It was just my last vestige of resistance and it didn’t last long. God finally hammered it into my head that 1) you have to write the story that’s meant to be written, not the one you can cross off your list fastest, and 2) if you’re not going to do it right, why bother? In any event, the bottom line – novel.

I think it was about this same point that it suddenly occurred to me I might have something bigger than a simple novel. That’s how I am. One minute I’m trying to get away with writing a sound bite, the next minute I decide to go for the other extreme – TWO novels intertwined. And that’s what this has become – the story of a girl and her world above the pier, the story of the hermit crab and his world below the pier. The two worlds intersect at points until they meet at the climax, then go off their separate ways. The two worlds reflect similar struggles, and mirror the question “will I reach out for connection or run away?”

Now that I’d finally gotten the message it had to be a novel AND figured out the one line premise, there was that whole HOW in God’s name do I combine all this and keep track of details? How do you remember who did what in the various chapters, never mind between two different worlds? For that matter how could I keep track of who was who? And then what about when the worlds intersected? Lots of places to drop the ball. Hence – I needed infrastructure. Scaffolding.

Some people can do all this in their head, or their computer. I need to “see it on a wall.” I need paper. Sorry, trees. And I had to tackle this like a business otherwise the brain says “hobby…play” and nothing gets done. Writing is a business. A novel is a project. When I worked at Glaxo, we had project planning – calendars, files, SOPs, to-do lists, wall charts. I had to manage multiple projects at once. If you don’t keep track of details, it all comes crashing down. So, manage two novels at once when I’d never even written ONE novel? Yup – go back to what I know. Organize.

That meant binders, index cards, binder section separators, page protectors with binder holes, stickies, markers, highlighters, cork boards, Styrofoam boards, push pins, a spare toner cartridge for the laser printer, pens, crayons, large sheets of paper to plan on…. Yes, I go to Staples a lot.

I set up binders for character bios – animal and human. I made short “at-a-glance lists” of characters for both sides of the story, so I could quickly know who was who, saving the binder bios for the complete facts. I also made an index card for every invertebrate, fish, algae, plant or mammal that might show up in the story, with scribbled references on the back to find more elsewhere. More on these in the research post.

There are binders for the settings above the water and binders for the places below. I had binders for all the research I did and the background info I created. Again, I’ll discuss this separately under the research post.

As I reviewed all the journaling I did on the story line, I established a “time-line” and figured out what times in the story would be covered and in what chapters. Once I had a rough idea of chapters, I took a cork board and huge sheet of paper. I drew a large box on the paper for each chapter/time point. Any idea, shred of paper, page of journaling that pertained to the events on a certain day, I tacked up in the appropriate box. Every time I thought of something new, another note got tacked up under that day. Some of those days had an inch thick stack of idea notes.

I made a wall chart that showed at a glance the chapters in the novel, human on the top half, alternating with the animal chapters on the bottom half, and listing on each, the chapter number, human or animal, exactly what day of the week each took place, and relevant plot points in each chapter. On this same chart in the middle between the human and animal chapters, I graphed the rise and fall of emotions and action for the plot. I wanted to see at a glance how the story tracked for rising and falling action, both in each chapter, and in the story overall. I knew the story needed to have balance – not all snoring nor all white-knuckle rides, but a mix of intensity with catching your breath. However, I did want to make sure that overall, the trend of emotion kept rising until the crisis/climax, and then dropped for the resolution. Hence my chapter graph.

I made a chart of the human world characters – their family trees and interrelatedness with the other characters and locations in the story. This was helpful actually, because I discovered a couple of characters who didn’t really connect to anyone and hence I cut them. If they don’t connect to anyone in the story, why have them?

I made a chart of all the chapter happenings on the animal side of the story- where the action happened underwater for that chapter, which critters were involved, what happened. I wanted to make sure that 1) I wasn’t having the same thing happening in 3 different chapters, 2) I had the right animals in the right place at the right time, and 3) if the animal appeared in both the human and animal chapters, I made sure the action matched up

I kept a running to-do list of things to check on, research, fact check, people to call. I have logs for each chapter in each draft of the novel and can tell you the dates I worked on a particular chapter in a particular draft. I made organizational charts to show the chapter numbering changes from draft one to draft two and there’s charts on foam boards of all the elements to check on when revising the stories – one board for the human story, one for the animal side, one for elements of revision applying to both worlds.

And calendars. Yes. I kept a calendar. I even set deadlines for finishing certain milestones. In business, you have deadlines. It’s the only way your product gets out the door. Now, most of the time I missed those deadlines because things always take longer than expected. Still, the thing about deadlines is that you set them. Even if you don’t meet them, you’re a hell of a lot closer to the end goal, than if you never set one.

So, lots of infrastructure. Other authors may be ripping their hair out. This may not be their way to work. I may not be this detailed for another story. This is not the only way to write a novel. It’s probably not the best way. It’s simply my way – what my brain needed. I’d never written a novel before. Also, given the complexity of this one, the level of technical, scientific, and real-life detail, and the fact that I was writing two stories at once that intertwined, infrastructure was the only way I could keep anything straight.

Next : The First Half of the Scientific Approach – Define Your Hypothesis, Assemble Your Gear, Do your research

The Post – Extra! News on Preparing the Fiddler Crab Nursery

February 23, 2008

So you’re like me and you’ve got a pregnant female fiddler crab. Now what?

Well, we just came home from Petsmart with a second 10-gallon tank, lid, light, and pump/filter assembly so I can set up a saltwater aquarium in which to put the babies. Maybe I’m crazy for trying to see if I can raise them …?then sell them? but the challenge of motherhood calls. My husband, a geek of a different nature, respects this need in me to see if I can do this. He quietly acknowledged that he would “understand and be willing to fund” a second tank for the “kids.”

The dilemma now is did I wait too long to get it set up and get the “nitrogen cycle” started before she releases the babies? I can take a patch of the filter gauze from my current tank, which is loaded with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and put it in the new filter to “seed it” with bacteria.

Tomorrow I’m going to Fish Pros in Raleigh NC to get another good-sized chunk of live rock. Between the filter seeding and the live rock, that should get the water parameters in the safe zone and the bacteria up and running quickly. Also the live rock will provide calcium for the many molts the little ones will need to go through.

What I was not sure though was how I would be able to “catch” the babies since I won’t know when she releases them and I won’t know if they’ll be too small to see once she does. Also, should I make the second tank a regular “salt-water” tank to represent the “open ocean” like most fiddler babies go to, or make it brackish like what they’ll end up in? This last question got further complicated by the information I found on the blog below that indicates I should isolate mom before she releases the young. So I have much to ponder tonight while I get this up and running.

I did a search for info on pregnant fiddler crabs and come up with The “Dear Blue Lobster” blog entry” from July 25, 2007. The Dear Blue Lobster site claims to have been answering “your crustacean questions since 2002.” This entry is from someone who is concerned that her fiddlers make have “hooked up” and now what should she do? She is freaking out at the prospect of a 100,000 babies in her tank.

The gentleman who runs the blog gave good technical advice on taking care of the pregnant mom, saving the larval babies, raising them, and even indicated how much/lb. you can sell fiddler crabs for over the internet. The crustacean guru also gave the following emotional advice:

“So what do you do if your female is indeed pregnant? Comfort her. Her man has kicked her out and will no offer care for her children — in fact, he may try to eat them! ….Good luck to you and your Fiddlers. Motherhood is a special blessing indeed.”

Since it is well past July 2007….I wonder how the mom (human) and the mom (fiddler crab) made out with their situation? For myself, we shall see. I am off to set up the tank. I guess I’ll set it up brackish and isolate mom before she “delivers.” I have also emailed Dear Blue Lobster for help on what I should do. I’ll keep you posted on his reply.

I recommend the blog. The crustacean guru is Christopher Chimwish. His site description is as follows:

Christopher Chimwich received his MMN in 2000, specializing in decapod behavior. He is currently surveying benthic decapod populations in the Indian Ocean for his doctoral thesis. Chris answers questions about crustaceans, covering everything from DNA mutation in African crayfish to Fiddler crab sign language.

By the way, if you want to be a real geek, apparently the term for my fiddler crab when they have the brownish eggs attached to their abdomen is being “in berry.” So.

If you want to know what he has to say about fiddler crab sign language, click here.

The Post – How Long Do Fiddler Crabs Stay Pregnant?

February 23, 2008

I spotted this question on a Google search and decided to follow up on it. It has been the question in our house – Scarlett O’Hara seems to get bigger every day with the larval crabs she’s carrying. How long will she carry them? What will she do with them? I’ve learned that female fiddler crabs usually like to hang on to the babies until the right set of tides and conditions so that their babies will be carried out to the open ocean. Apparently they do this because the larval crabs stand a better chance of finding food, and of not becoming someone else’s food, out in the open ocean. That gives them the best chances for reaching adulthood.

The question in our minds here is: we have no outgoing ocean tides in the “aquarium estuary” so when will she release them?

We’ve noticed she keeps hanging out on top of the water filter. In fact yesterday she was deep down INSIDE the water filter. She’s also been ripping the filter backing apart and eating whatever she’s pulling off the fibers. Since fiddler crabs like to eat a lot of microscopic algae, I assume that’s what she’s found. I keep wondering though, is she going to release her babies in the “currents of the water filter?” If so, I wonder how she will decide which currents are “outgoing tide” to that imaginary open ocean we don’t have. 🙂

Anyway, two good articles I came across in my search:

1) When ‘in a pinch’ won’t do: Ultra-picky female fiddler crab cited in UCSD (Univ of California at San Diego) study.

Apparently the female California fiddler crabs are VERY picky about their mates and have REALLY high standards for what kind of “house” the male is offering them. On average the female passes up 23 offers before finally selecting a male. In one case a female passed up 106 offers before choosing her mate. Now…I don’t know who to be more impressed with – the female fiddler crab who passed on 106 males before choosing one? Or the human researcher who followed this female fiddler crab around and kept track of how many males she turned down before choosing? In any event, an interesting article on the life cycle habits of the California fiddler crab.

2) The SC and C FAQ Database: it has a large number of questions and answers about crabs, shrimp, and crayfish. Question # 16 is about 3 pregnant female fiddler crabs and how long their gestation period lasts. Apparently in an aquarium, the female will release the eggs in about a week. We shall see. …Also it has information on what to feed the newly released babies, which might actually let them survive in an aquarium and grow to adults. Hmmmm 100,000 grandchildren. Needless to say my husband is thrilled with the news we might actually be able to help the babies survive in a tank! 🙂 Now all I need to do is find micro-plankton, like Infusoria, to feed to them…..

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 – Writing: Fear, Luck, or Burn the Ships?

February 5, 2008

I know I am lucky because I have a chance at a dream. I have the rare chance to write my books, my blog, do what I’ve dreamed of. There are moments though, where I’ve considered that a curse, not luck, and I suspect there are at least a few writers who share that. It’s scary.

It’s like the time my husband and I moved from CT where we were born and raised, to North Carolina, where we’ve lived now for 18 years. We’d decided we needed a different environment. Ours was killing us – between climate, work problems, cost of living, we needed a change. We checked out this “North Carolina place” and after some initial uncertainty, decided, “yes, that’s where we want to be.” It took us about a year before my husband found a job that was right. The offer even included relocation costs, something not as likely today. It was exactly what we’d dreamed of. But when the person in North Carolina called and said, “We want you for the position. If you want the job, it’s yours,” we froze.

In that moment, all the eagerness to get the job, make the move, obtain relief from the circumstances draining us and our marriage, evaporated. In that moment terror flooded both of us. The moment of truth – if you want it, it’s yours. Now came the real questions – DO we want it? CAN we do it? We thought we could, but up until that moment it was a dream, not reality. Could we really leave all we knew behind? Go to a place we’d spent one weekend in? It was the equivalent of choosing to jump off a cliff. We knew there would be no turning back if we did. Financially, it was stay or go. No changing your mind once you chose.

My husband and I looked at each other. The question hung in the air. “Well?” We recovered after a few moments, gritted our teeth and said, “It’s not getting any better here. I guess . . . we jump.” With that, we invested our whole souls to make that choice a success.

My writing dream has that same feel. Each day I watch others go off to jobs that maybe they love or hate, jobs they choose or need, and I sit here, with the opportunity to create my dream. All it takes is for me to say “yes” . . . and just do it. I feel the weight of the responsibility, and the wall of fear comes up.

Katherine Paterson spoke a bit about the fear: “With each new book we must dare failure, or worse: mediocrity.” There are the questions: What if I try for that dream and find out that what I wanted all my life, I can’t do? What if I fail? What if I try and nothing happens, or I try, and it’s downright terrible? And if it is, it will be a very open, very public failure. As Paterson also said, “Writers are very private people who run around naked in public.” No hiding the results once you put it out there.

All the years I worked at other jobs to pay the bills, take care of my son, whatever, and didn’t have the chance to try for the dream, it was easier in two ways. First, love or hate the job, I came home with a steady paycheck. No matter what, the mortgage got paid, groceries came home, the car was repaired. I had worth and value because I provided security. It came in a paycheck. Not only was my home life secure but my identity got validated as well. The paycheck gave that, too. If I wasn’t who I said I was, would they really pay me? Second, the weight of having to answer that offer from life – it’s yours if you want it – was lifted from my shoulders. Because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t have to answer. Because I didn’t have to answer, I didn’t have to find out whether I could do it or not and risk humiliation, even if that humiliation was only in my own mind. So I had financial security, value, identity, and I could escape the question I felt God was waiting for me to face.

There’s that truth that a dream is always perfect. The moment you try to pin it down in the real world, it never, ever measures up. I read an interview someone did with Billy Joel one time. He spoke of the songs he heard in his dreams, wondrous bits of heaven. Perfection. Then he woke up and tried to capture them. Now I consider him a tremendous singer and songwriter and a hell of a success, given the body of work he’s created. Yet he said that nothing he’s ever created measured up to what he heard in his dreams.

So if someone considered a success by the world, feels he’s failed, where does that leave me? His work got the financial security. He had a job title and identity validated by his paychecks. God asked him the question, “Will you create?” and Billy Joel did it. Yet he feels it didn’t measure up to his dream. What do I do? Why? And how?

I don’t know how anyone else would answer those questions. For myself, I’ve gotten some glimpses at my mortality. I only know I can’t meet God and say, “Well, I meant to, but . . .” I could get away with that answer before. I can’t now. I also couldn’t look my husband in the eye, the man whose hard work is giving me this chance, and say that. Or my son, or my friends. However, I think the absolute worst would be having to look me in the eye and say that. I think God, my husband and son, my friends, would forgive me, accept me, and who knows, God might even give me another life to try again. But would I forgive myself? Maybe that is what hell is. So why would I do it? Because I would never forgive me if I didn’t.

The question hangs before me: the job is yours if you want it. Deep in my heart, win, lose, fail, or as Katherine Paterson put it, be mediocre, I know what my answer is.

The remaining question is – How? I could say that if I’m terrible, at least I know I tried. But then maybe that’s not quite the right attitude, either. In the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tells Yoda he’ll try to lift his spaceship with his powers. Yoda immediately jumps down his throat. “NO! Do, or do not. There is no try!” Maybe the answer is that it’s how you show up to do the work that makes all the difference. It certainly made the difference in our move to North Carolina knowing there would be no option to turn back.

There’s a scene from the movie “Hunt for Red October,” that illustrates it. The captain, played by Sean Connery (who looks better and better as he gets older), is leading a select group of officers on a mission to defect and deliver a new, deadly silent Russian attack sub to the Americans. It is treason. If discovered, they’re dead and they all know it. Their consciences drive them to do this so that such destructive power cannot be used by their superiors, yet at one point their resolve fails and they want to quit. At that moment the captain tells them there is no going back. Moscow knows what they are doing because he sent a letter to their superiors stating their intentions. His men freak. In their eyes, he’s signed their death warrants for sure. They know that every ship in the Russian Navy will be out there to hunt them down and kill them. They demand to know why he did that.

His answer: “When he reached the new world, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

When there is no going back, you have only yourself to work with. It is “Do, or do not. There is no try.” You have only your motivations and faith, or the lack of them, to fall back on. What do you believe? When Luke could not raise his spaceship, Yoda did it for him. When Luke said he couldn’t believe it, Yoda’s answer was simple: “That, is why you fail.”

So my answer to how you do it is: Burn the ships. There is no turning back. Do or do not, there is no try. And believe. Because if you don’t, that is why you fail. I cannot control the outcome of the effort – whether my writings will be read, published, make a dime, validate me and give me value- but I can control how I do the work. And I only know that if I don’t do it, none of those things will matter.