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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Huh…? vs. Hmmm…

We writers love the mystery of a story’s unfolding. Half the time, honestly, we’re not quite sure where it’s going ourselves. Isn’t that part of the fun – the exploration and discovery? And isn’t that the same amazing journey we want to share with our readers?

In our attempts to invite readers into the adventure, we strive for thoroughness, complexity, grace and subtlety. But our efforts, however earnest, can sometimes leave our readers overwhelmed or confused.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.


The Data Dump
Beginning writers often feel compelled to get everything down all at once. I call it a data dump, and it’s a natural tendency. We get so filled with our vision. It’s glorious and we want to share it all. We’ve thought long and hard about our characters and their circumstances. So we write it all out furiously and are only satisfied when everything’s on the page–until we go back and realize that it’s an unsightly mass of thoughts with no tension, no nuance. Everything is just laid out – splat! – without any shape or form.

Historical novelists (and others who rely heavily on research) are particularly prone to the data dump disease, as Michelle and I discussed at our panel last Sunday at BooksNJ 2011. We tend to fall in love with every measly, obscure detail and get so caught up that we forget that most readers don’t want to know how many lice were in the midden pit in a particular chieftain’s homestead in 10th century Greenland. (Yes, I once could have quoted you exact counts, back when I was working on The Thrall’s Tale!)

No novelist wants to offer up for mass consumption a poorly masked treatise. A certain perspective is required to decide how much to give, how much to hold back, and how to layer in just the right details to give the flavor to our thoroughly researched work without making it too rich to swallow. A fiction writer’s first concern must always be characters and conflict, rich emotions and lives that are made, transformed, destroyed…. Truly, don’t we all want to be swept away?

Don’t Hold Back
The next writerly menace is to hold back too much. This is where our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” Perhaps our character is a speechless orphan who wanders the city streets holding out his hand. Since he cannot communicate, we never know what happened to him. Still we follow because he’s fascinating, sympathetic, forlorn. We are dying for our readers to comprehend his true depth and sorrows, but we give them only in hints and grunts, heart-wrenching looks and shuffling feet. See, dear reader, those huge, hungry eyes?

By trying to be subtle, we often end up being obscure. We neglect to take advantage of opportunities to slip in tidbits of back-story, a flashback or two of the past, or something said by a passerby who can shed a little light. If we don’t give something, our readers will eventually lose interest in our carefully crafted prose. They’ll be left saying, “Huh…?” instead of “Hmmmm….” and leave us behind.

Missing Bits
Even when you don’t fall victim to either of the above extremes, there are always little things that we authors understand implicitly but that our readers are completely unaware of. It’s not their fault. They’re trusting us to tell them what they need to know. We might drop hints that are too veiled for their own good, or forget to follow up a critical off-hand comment with proper reinforcement. All of these are cases when our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” not “Hmmmm…”

Any time we leave our readers confused, we take them out of what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous fictional dream.” In his classic, The Art of Fiction, Gardner goes on: “In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.”

We never want to draw our readers’ attention out of the book and we never want to draw attention to ourselves. The minute they say, “Huh…?” we’ve lost them. But a subtle or direct hint, an emotionally charged accusation, a dirty look or a crumpled photograph in the orphan’s pocket might reveal the character’s inner workings. It would leave the reader wanting to know more, and then, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll read on.

So how do you achieve the perfect balance between dump and hold? Think of sand through the small cracks between your fingers. You need to drop just enough, but not let the whole thing fall. One writer friend calls it “seeding”; another “tucking”; I often think of it as “layering” or “brush-stroking”. But one way or another, you drop in the details so discreetly that your readers hardly notice as they take it all in, organically understanding the terms and stakes, the characters and their interior complexities, the painful past and foreshadowed fate. We lay the groundwork and then carefully nurture it by giving our readers subtle reminders and more hints, building a stronger picture for them bit by bit until the moment when our story finally comes to full bloom, when everything will come together with the sense of random inevitability. We are swept away and returned. At last, the truth is revealed.


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The Power of Revision, from TWC Associate Teacher Michelle Cameron

As many of you know, The Writers Circle is expanding. It’s a thrilling leap of faith for me to take our very personal, very “hyperlocal” community and reach across time and space (OK, it’s only eleven miles…!) to add a new link to the chain.

Michelle Cameron, who has posted as a guest here before, will be teaching two free introductory workshops this Sunday, March 27, at Sages Pages in Madison, NJ. Children from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM will join Story Magic, our multidisciplinary approach to creative writing. Adults will enjoy a more staid but equally nurturing workshop from 1:00-2:30 PM. Please come by, bring your kids (or not!), and welcome Michelle into our Circle.

Meanwhile, I give Michelle the stage once again with some wonderful insights into The Power of Revision:

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I write quickly. Always have. It’s been a lifesaver, because right now, my life doesn’t give me the leisure I’d like to take with my writing.

But while I produce words swiftly and can focus in very short bursts, I do tend toward that infatuation with what I’ve just written that I think plagues all writers. I look at the freshly-minted page and fall in love. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s sublime. I want the world to read it, then and there.

I was reminded of this when I watched the video, Sondheim teaches ‘Later’ from A Little Night Music:


As Sondheim explains, this song describes Henrik, a sullen, adolescent young man from Scandinavia who is constantly being told “later” by everyone around him, with resulting frustration. Pay attention to the singer’s rendering of the piece. Sondheim allows him to get all the way through it the first time around. Listening to it (and granted, I am musically ill-equipped), one would think the music student had nailed it. There’s no place to go here. It’s perfect, just the way it is. Well, maybe not perfect, but good enough.

But Sondheim, the consummate artist, understands the power of revision. He has a vision of what he wants to hear and makes the performer repeat the song over and over until he achieves what he has in mind, because artistry isn’t just getting the notes right – it’s understanding the nuances that make it a living, breathing thing.

The first interruption of the second rendition of the song comes early. “It’s already too angry,” says Sondheim, wanting the student to understand how Henrik would really sing these words.

Characterization is critical to just about any song Sondheim writes. Giving the actor “someplace to go,” so his anger doesn’t stay at the same pitch throughout, is vital. He has also carefully considered the reasons why Henrik plays his mournful instrument, the cello – as opposed to any other instrument.

Sondheim then gives us a bit of insight into a fairly comprehensive cut that he made to the musical as a whole. Originally, every character was going to be carrying an instrument. “But it got too pretentious and it had to go,” he tells the audience, who laughs appreciably.

What they may not understand thoroughly, though, is the discipline it takes to make a cut of that magnitude. Take a second to ponder this. Sondheim went through the process of selecting instruments for each of the characters in A Little Night Music. It sounds as though he might even have staged it. But he was willing to cut this particular theme – akin to a writer having to write a character out of a novel, something I’ve actually done. Never mind the hours spent to make the selections. If it doesn’t ultimately serve the piece – it’s got to go.

Which brings me back to my original point. Getting the words down is only part of writing. The part that makes a writer into an artist is the ability to wait, to gain some distance, to come back to the draft with dispassion, and then to make sure that every word, character, plot device, and description all work as a cohesive whole.

It takes discipline. It means you often have to wait until “later.” But only there, in revision, is art truly possible.


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Falling in Love with Revision

“I had to fall in love with revision.” Since Lena Roy‘s visit to Words Bookstore this weekend, I have been continually quoting her honest wisdom.

Stuart Lutz shared another quote that supports the same idea: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting,” attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. To make our work great, we must embrace this critical truth.

Then why do we do it only kicking and screaming?


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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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Taming the Wilderness

All of us struggle with revision. It is undoubtedly the most anguished part of the writer’s craft. Earlier this week, one of our Circle bemoaned the challenge. “I wrote the entire manuscript in a few months. Now it’s taking me weeks just to revise a single chapter.”

Believe me, I understand. I’ve felt the same frustration. But I’ve come to realize that revision is as much about another draft as it is untangling the emotional ties we have to our existing creation.

Writers make much of the daunting blank page. But I say first drafts are incredibly freeing. You can do anything you want, write anything that comes. If you can shut down that nagging inner critic for a bit, trust me, your words will flow and you will undoubtedly think they are wonderful.

But also trust me, first drafts are always – repeat ALWAYS – terrible.


It’s a childish conviction that art is “a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is most authentic,” as Allegra Goodman writes in her recent Wall Street Journal article, Inspiration Revised. The more mature recognition is that only through revision can we hone our raw instincts into something that vaguely approaches passable, never mind art.

“Even the great ones work for greatness,” Goodman writes, referring to her own youthful realization after studying Keats’ path to poetic god-hood. “What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often the most conventional.”

Yes, conventional in form, execution, language, character, pacing, and tone. But in those first impulses are the kernels of something better. The trick is to step back far enough to recognize inspiration’s flaws. From a safe emotional and creative distance, we can begin to consider dispassionately what is wrong and weigh the infinite options for improvement.


Revision is a tricky thing, though. We run the risk of strangling our best impulses and creating something wooden and flat in our effort to remake what inspiration spawned. It’s a careful balancing act to know what to change and how, who to listen to, how far to go, and when to say, “Stop, no. That really is the way I want it.”

Revision is the work of making the words flow naturally when they are anything but. But you don’t have to transform your rocky wilderness into a formal garden. We’re not trying to turn tribal dance into grand ballet. We are aiming for a place that is somewhere in between, where we finally accomplish the vision we were aiming for all along, taming the vista we had originally discovered, but leaving it still unique and perhaps just a little bit wild.