Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Going Places

Michelle CameronTips on starting with a bang, from TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron:

Picture this scene:

A man lands at an airport. The plane taxis on the ground for nearly fifteen minutes, while all around him, people are talking on their cell phones, hoping to be picked up or explaining when they’ll arrive, or just letting the family at home know they’ve arrived safely.

The plane finally taxis to the gate. People take down their luggage and wait, impatiently, in the corridor of the aircraft. Finally, the line begins to inch forward. It picks up speed. Everyone moves out of the aircraft while the flight crew bids them farewell.

The man moves quickly through the terminal, exiting at the security gate. He goes downstairs to the luggage area, a cold, sterile place. He waits for his luggage to appear…

Are you bored yet? I am, and I haven’t even had my character retrieve his luggage, find a taxi, drive though the city, check in at the hotel…

Now, consider this:

A man lands at an airport. Two hours later, in his hotel room, he lies down on the king-sized bed and calls his mistress.

Bam. In two short sentences, we’ve moved the story forward – and haven’t bored the reader (or writer) to death.

It can be difficult for writers to know how many transitional details to add to a story or novel. Sometimes a writer feels obliged to include some of the day-to-day details that, frankly, have meaning in real life but not necessarily in a piece of fiction.

Generally, it’s good to recognize when you yourself are losing interest in just such a transition. That’s usually a great clue to examine why you’re writing such a scene. There are some times when you might want to include the transitional details. For instance, if they give some insight into the character or set a scene that is going to be important for your readers, then it’s worth it. But if they don’t serve the story in any way except to get your character from place to place, consider cutting them and getting right into the action.

How? A simple transitional phrase such as “two hours later” will usually be enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. We’ve all been to airports, we know the mindless details that have to occur as you go from place to place. We’re often happy not to have to revisit them in our fiction.

The best rule of thumb is always – does your transition serve the story? If not, as they say in the movies, “cut to the chase” and get moving.

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Writing in 3D

We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”

Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?

We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?

Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.


Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?

It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.

For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.

But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?

The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.

I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”

“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”

All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.

“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”

I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.


“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”

OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.

And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.


You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”

And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.


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How One Paragraph Can Take Four Days

by author and TWC Associate Teacher, Michelle Cameron

I love research.

To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than discovering how my characters might have lived their lives – what they wore, what they ate, how world events might have affected them.

All of my writing tends to start with a single scene in my head. When I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, the picture of twenty-four cartloads loaded with volumes of Talmud being driven to a fiery death in a market square in Paris inspired me. With my next book – the story of Judean exile during the Babylonian epoch – it was imagining what those captives must have felt, mourning their lost homeland by the twin rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And in the series I’m writing today, the scene of Napoleon’s Jewish soldiers breaking down the ghetto gates of Ancona both astonished and bemused me.

printing press
Once that scene persists in tickling my imagination, I embark upon roughly three months of intense research. I try, in that short period of time, to read and peruse as much as I can related to my time period. Not just history books – artwork, architecture, and maps all inform the work. I try to get to museums – the Met is my favorite – several times when I’m doing my research.

My notes take several forms. The central document is a timeline that I usually divide into three columns: one for general historical events, one for historical events that I will incorporate into the novel, and one for fictional events so I can keep track of what needs to happen when. Then I have separate documents for major topics. What happened in the French court when the Jews tried in vain to defend their Talmud? What gods did the ancient Babylonians pray to? What did Ancona look like during the Napoleonic era?

In addition, I use the closet doors behind my head to pin up images – portraits of real-life characters and objects that will find their way into the work, as well as maps, street scenes, and renderings of what people in that time period wore.

What’s incredible about all this research are the story elements that grow out of it. Real life characters are woven into the fictitious story. Scenes suggest themselves. Slowly, the plot and arc of the novel take shape.
And then I start writing. But the research doesn’t stop there. In fact, the research never stops. The writing is often put on pause as I discover more I don’t know and need to. Which returns us to the title of this blog post.

Scene: a printer’s press in Paris during the French Revolution. I know why I need the printing shop, but I don’t know anything about what one would be like during that time period. Where is it located? What type of presses were used? What’s the process for turning out the pamphlets, the broadsheets? What time of day did the printers do their work? Since this is during a time of great turmoil, did they have to do their work in secret? What would happen if the King’s police raided them? What was the social structure like in the shop? How did the printed pieces get from the press into the hands of the revolutionaries, inflaming loud and passionate debates in the coffee shops?

It began with a single paragraph, all the questions above, and the need to do a lot of digging. Four days later – spent online and in various books – I have a full picture. Now I can keep writing – being very careful not to “dump” the history I’ve just gleaned into my work wholesale, instead using it just to flavor the work as needed.


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Writing the Body Electric

So often I begin a writing class with a simple, free-writing prompt, usually just a word or phrase – “skipping in the rain”, “amusement parks”, “the kitchen sink.” I enjoy watching the quizzical glances of my writers at these random ideas. But slowly each of them connects to some inner flash of thought or memory.

In just a moment or two, all their pens have touched down and the air becomes infused with soft shushing. The room almost sizzles with an electric flow of thoughts connecting our deep, interior minds to the exterior space that allows creative energy to manifest into something real.

It’s a miracle really, as magnificent as discovering how to harness lightning. It’s also as practical as the humble plug, lowly, taken for granted, and yet, without it, we sit cold, bored and hungry in the dark.

As long as there’s a physical connection — our pens on pads, our fingers on the keyboard — the energy begins to pick up speed. If we listen to our thoughts, we can feel the ideas forming. The words beg to be written down. If we’re lucky, our hands keep up. (The best thing I ever did was to take that touch-typing class in high school, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time!)

touch lightning

Even hooked into that current, our thoughts might not make sense. They’re just random static and scattered sparks — brilliant, sometimes frightening, irrational, moved by emotion, not logic. As they should be. If we stay with that flow, slowly the electrons (or neurons) begin to fall into line. It is a natural progression from chaos to order that has formed and reformed the universe again and again. Eventually our random thoughts — our own personal chaos — take shape and find direction.

Eventually, the connection slows and sputters or sometimes even breaks. That’s when our eyes gaze up and we stare off into the distance. But if our thoughts drift slightly, that too is a necessary part — a slight readjustment in frequency. Our minds, as our bodies, need sometimes to rest in order to catch the flow of energy again and continue.

The key is not to unplug completely. We must dip the pen again and float with the stream, even as it shifts and veers, often in completely unexpected directions.

By working from random meanderings into a purposeful stream of thought, these seemingly meaningless prompts become vital exercise. They help beginners and more practiced writers strengthen our instincts to tap into the flow which is so necessary to create short stories, memoirs, novels, plays — to write anything, really.

The purpose is to physically — pen on pad — tap into the unconscious stream and to steer toward a single, clear image, to follow it doggedly, fluidly, instinctually again and again until there is no question that we can find it whenever we need it. The practice may seem pointless at first, but over time, our words flow more freely until writing becomes as natural as speech or thought.

And that is where creativity begins.
~~~
Here’s a list of prompts I’ve used over the last few months. Pick one to start or end your writing day. Write for ten minutes. No editing or second-guessing. Just write. Ready, set, pens down, fingers on keyboards. GO!

  • Forgetting
  • First Meeting
  • The Ritual
  • Last Day of Summer
  • Small creature in a storm
  • Write a dream (real or otherwise)
  • What’s missing
  • Violin
  • Passing On
  • A favorite place (for you, someone you know, a character)
  • Blackbirds
  • Family gatherings
  • Write a run-on sentence
  • Something worth stealing
  • Writing on the wall
  • A holiday tradition
  • Packing
  • Start with the phrase: “If the door opens, go through.”
  • A place you once lived
  • Your first time (take it any way you choose!)
  • Origami
  • Damp earth
  • The scent of an orange (go smell one – really!)
  • Falling Leaves
  • Skipping in the Rain
  • Being Bored
  • An argument
  • Write about the living room (yours, your character’s…)
  • The Final Chapter
  • Folding sheets
  • Don’t Panic!
  • The playroom
  • Spring cleaning
  • Kitchen Sink
  • Amusement Park

I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
— Walt Whitman


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Musing with Aristotle

For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.

I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.

In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.

Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”

Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.

Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.

Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.

Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.

Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.

Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)

The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.

Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.


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The Meandering Plot, or how to figure out what’s next

Plotting is a delicate balance of intention, intuition and flexibility, of knowing what path to follow without losing track of all the other forks in the road. We generally sense our story’s direction – its main thrust and the ultimate objective of our tale. But along the way, we trip and wander. Other events and characters step in with subplots, histories, and desires of their own. And themes appear that deepen our telling, even while they confuse and distract us.


In early drafts, meandering is good, at least to a point. If we stick too closely to an outline or plan, we lose opportunities for our subconscious to bring us offerings. A combination of knowing and not knowing is the perfect state from which to explore.

I view my own plots as a map with lots of dots for places. The landscape is sketched in lightly, but there are no details or connecting roads. I can see perfectly well where I want to travel, but I don’t really know which route will take me there. And like an explorer, I sometimes end up at cliffs, canyons and impassable rivers.

One writer-friend advises to “throw rocks at your characters” when you get stuck—to make something big and bold happen that throws your character into new chaos. High tension and hard choices make for excellent drama and action. But subtler approaches can also yield fascinating results. Try working from a character’s interior. Consider the conflicts and the desires that form their moment stuck in time. Dare to step into their skin and feel and see the world you’ve created for them. Whatever action, situation or choice your character has made, force them to ask themselves: “Why the heck did I do that?” and “What can I do next, now that this is what I’ve chosen?”

Of course, characters are not people and stories are not life. When you’ve made a wrong turn or a bad choice, you can always change it. Sometimes I make bullet-point lists of my character’s situation and emotional point of view, making sure the progression makes sense. I diagram plots and subplots to figure out what I’ve left out, or create outlines of each character’s journey until I discover something I haven’t dealt with fully. Taking a break or jumping to another scene or story can also loosen the clog. With time and examination, I can usually pick up my plot and start moving again, however haltingly.

But getting stuck is never a waste of time. We learn while we linger, muse and take tangents. Often these detours enrich our tale. Though more often, some of our best writing ends up tossed out with the recyclables.

Have I mentioned the “Cuts” section at the bottom of my chapters? It’s often several pages longer than my final draft, with beautiful writing that I’ve sweated over before realizing I’ve gone astray yet again.

Does anyone know a more efficient way to write? If you do, please comment and share!


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The Gift of Prompts

I used to find writing prompts annoying. I mean, they didn’t add up to anything. They just sat there in a notebook. Magnificent or pointless, they were words that would never be published or publishable, that would probably never be read again.

But lately I’ve been giving prompts in most of my classes. I’m doing them myself and finding them oddly freeing. Sometimes they’re just a single word or simple concept: “Write about insects… a spatula…. your first memory…. Write about something worth stealing.”

In class, we generally free-write only for about ten minutes. Sharing is always optional. Since we’re really just spitting on the page, it’s stupid to expect much. Often enough, I’ve gone back to read my own responses to my exercises and discovered just a bunch of mismatched thoughts. Free association, irrelevancies. Other times, I’ve found kernels of brilliance.

These prompt-writing moments bring back a feeling that I’d forgotten – when I was 7 years old, discovering that I loved to dance. I had no dreams of tutus and sugarplum fairies when I first heard the music coming from that rundown rec-hall at my New Hampshire summer camp. It was a beautiful solo piano piece – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that it called to me.

The dance counselor was working on some choreography when I quietly took a corner and started to move. After a moment she paused her own work to watch, and a few weeks later, I performed my improvisation before an audience of campers and counselors. In that moment of complete freedom, the marriage of movement and music, and the succeeding applause, my future plan to become a dancer was sealed.

Well, I can’t dance like that anymore, not only because I’m no longer so young or in shape for pirouettes and grand jetes. It’s because I spent years learning what was right and wrong through training. Technique embedded itself in my body until the initial inspiration and joy were nearly strangled. It took me years to undo the binds of that rigorous training until I found a shadow of the original joy that had moved me before I knew anything about anything.

The same danger lies in the process of writing. We can get caught up, even lost, as we work our way through a big project, or even a small one. We can write ourselves into corners, or edit until we’ve killed the very thing we were attempting to nurture. We can work so hard that we forget why we’re writing in the first place.

Herein lies the grace and benefit of prompts. They’re moments of total letting go. They have no greater purpose than to explore, to recall the freedom that comes at that first, naive moment of free-writing. We use them to stretch, to reach deep into muscles that perhaps we’ve forgotten to use in the midst of our struggles with an especially difficult story, memoir or novel. The only objective of a prompt is to let the words flow, just as I danced as a child.

Oddly, my youngest writing students often struggle with prompts. They can verbalize fantastic stories, but when they have to write them down, it’s as if the words get stuck somewhere between their minds, mouths and pencils. I’ve often asked kids to just tell me what they imagine, then simply say, “Great. Now write that down.” Over and over, moment by moment, “What’s next? What will your character do? How does your character feel about what just happened? OK. Write that down.” They often speak their thoughts in simple, beautiful words. So I say, “Now grab them! Just write them down on the paper before they fly away.”

Because words are difficult to master – their shape, their spelling, their syntax, are not natural to us the way they are in spoken form. Just the opposite of the primal act of dance, music, even storytelling, with writing, training must come before inspiration. To solidify our thoughts into lasting form is a sophisticated skill that requires education and practice.

So, with older students and adults, I take joy in the smoother flow of pen on paper. I revel in the scratchings as we all open the gates and let the words slip down. As I listen, sometimes I hear pauses, breathing spaces, or perhaps tighter curves in the flow of thought. I murmur, “Don’t worry. Just keep going,” recalling Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just keep your pen moving no matter what.

I assure my students that these ten minute spitting sessions won’t add up to brilliance. They shouldn’t. Just like stretching before a run or a dance, these fluid moments of non-judgment and free writing are just that – warm-ups. Improvisations.

So I give you the gift of a few prompts for the holidays. This week’s New York Times Magazine online featured a series of videos, Fourteen Actors Acting. Each short film is wordless, accompanied only by music. The actors’ emotions are vivid and clear. As the subtitle states, they are intentionally iconic character types from the silver screen, but each moment can be interpreted in infinite ways.
14 Actors Acting
Click and watch a few. Absorb their feeling, their moment. Imagine their circumstances, their settings, their lives. Then write for ten minutes or as long as you like. And don’t judge what you write. If there’s a glittering kernel there, you’ll find it. Just enjoy the slip and flow of pen on paper, jamming, improvising, dancing as words form on the page.

Happy holidays. I wish you all good writing.