Ain’t no fashion show

Last spring I went to a mini writers workshop that offered a sneak peek into the Midwest Writers Workshop hosted at Ball State University in the summer.  A speaker at one of the break-out sessions discussed the topic of style.  Using Mark Twain as an example, he illustrated how style can make one’s writing stand out in the crowd and eventually provide a sort of brand identity for the writer.

Well, there was this guy in the front row who felt the need to share his personal experiences with the group in an effort to discount everything the speaker was trying to say.  He was a technical writer by trade and argued that his genre had no need for style and in fact, trying to stand out from the crowd would be detrimental to his obtaining work.  This guy completely took over the session as he argued with the speaker.

I’m happy to say it was only a 15 minute session and I was able to avoid the guy for most of the other sessions but I spent some time thinking about what this over-bearing person had to say and I think still I disagree.

Even when I’m writing copy for a package of toilet paper, style comes into play.  In the advertising world they may call it tone or speaking to your demographic.  But even selling toilet paper requires the writer to find a consistent voice otherwise we would see ads for Charmin calling out, “Yo, yo, yo! Buy my toilet paper you little whippersnapper.”  See…it would just be a train wreck.

I’m glad to see that Fred finds an appreciation for writing style.  He says it’s what makes our writing unique to us.  Maybe that guy from the front of the room will read Fred’s book and next time keep his opinion to himself.

Before we got here…

It’s the weekend again.  I’m jealous when I have to share my writing time.  Right now, my husband is sleeping in so the bedroom is occupied.  My youngest son is sleeping on the couch because he gave up his bedroom for his grandparents.  My oldest is still asleep upstairs.  There are four dogs in the laundry room and Mom and Dad are reading newspapers at the kitchen table.  I refuse to write in the bathroom so I’m gonna try this in between making breakfast and bites of news.

Fred talks about back story today.   Back story is when the author reveals a significant past event that gives meaning to the present of the story.  In Thursday’s post I wrote the opening to a story about my neighbor’s barn.  In the second paragraph I reveal that the grass is tall around the barn because the neighbor was sick last fall.  That is a tiny example of back story. 

Fred says that today’s readers need to be hooked immediately when a story begins.  Often contemporary writer’s open with an action scene and then sprinkle back story in as the story progresses bit by bit.  This technique is especially effective when the back story is building tension.

I have a million projects running around in my head right now.  I think I’ll run away with my laptop sunday night.  Now, it’s off to Rural King with Mom and Dad.

Writing for Love’s Sake

I’ve managed to write every morning for about two weeks now.  Today, I am just not feeling it.  I think it’s partly because I have to be out of the house early this morning and partly because I’m in a bummed out state of mind.

Today in The Daily Writer, Fred encourages us to write out of love.  Most of my writing comes from a place of love because I write personal essays inspired by memories.  Fred talks about taking it a step further and using our writing to reach out and take part in the world.  His challenge is to come up with a project about a topic close to our hearts and write in a way that will convey our love to the reader.  His assignment is a call to action to take a stand about something from our community, country or world and write it down out of love. 

Shortly after the 2008 Presidential Election, I wrote about my feelings.  I think it’s time to find that essay and edit it with this assignment in mind.

Where am I?

Bargersville, Indiana

Have you ever read a scene in a story and been transported to the location you’re reading about?  Not actually transported but so involved in the story you could almost close your eyes and picture yourself  there.   Fred refers to the opening scene of George Orwell’s 1984 in which the reader finds himself in what Fred describes as, “a dystopia where military time is kept, where propaganda reigns, and where springtime feels more like midwinter.”  For me, an exceptional example of setting up atmosphere is in the opening scene of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  She describes the trees with, “brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.”  We see in her African jungle, “A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen.”  This girl can set a scene!

Rich description involves the senses, all of them.  To really transport the reader, the writer has to put himself there first.  Today Fred challenges us to set up some atmosphere for our characters so I’m going back to my neighbor’s barn.  Since I’ve never been inside I get to imagine what it might be like.  Here goes:

                Bent over in the hot sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by.  I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave.  He’s gone.  Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never. 

 I drop my trowel and handful of weeds onto the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn.  The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost.  A ghost of the red beauty it once was, cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door.  I take a step into the pasture.  The tall brown grass crackles underneath my boots.  Orville cuts the grass in the pasture a few times every summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing.  As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead.  It’s strange.  Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away.  “What is he keeping in there?”

                I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house.  He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today.  The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up.  I have to climb to put my face against the wall.  The boards are rough with age.  Leaning in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the raised earth, I peer through a crack in the board.  I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness.

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Well, that’s a start.  Duty calls and my writing time is up for today.  I think I’ll come back to this later to see where it goes.  It’s true that scheduling time to write every day and sticking to it is inspiring.  Now, it’s stopping to go to work that is hard.

Fact of the matter

Get the facts, mind your p’s and q’s and get it straight.  Don’t forget to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.  Today Fred talks about fact checking, making sure your writing is accurate by backing it up with research.  Since I publish my own blog, I don’t have the luxury of an on staff fact checker.  I do it myself and frankly, sometimes I blow it off.  Fred and I agree it’s important but it shouldn’t get in the way of the creative process.

Fred suggests keeping a fact checking notebook as you write or assigning yourself a “fact to be checked” symbol to write in the margins to remind you to check into it later so in the midst of writing you can continue to go with the flow.

My friend Amy and I spent quite a few weeks last year in a local coffee shop working on writing a collaborative script from scratch.  It still sits unfinished on our respective laptops but the experience was a blast and we both discovered a love for research.  In fact, we would often get carried away reading each other snippets of history about our story’s location or obituaries of people with names the same as our characters.  It was so much fun and the hours passed too quickly.  We would often finish the day with only a page of dialogue but a plethora of information about lingo used by short order cooks in greasy spoons of the 1940’s.  I miss those days.

Eventually, we made a pact to note items to be researched later so we could plow ahead with the dialogue and the plot.  Of course, we found other distractions but we did make a little headway after that.

My plan of action is to continue noting my ‘to be checked facts’ in the margins.  The idea of maintaining another notebook seems like too much trouble to me and that’s a fact.

Superman had it easy

Superman probably hated those tights, but at least he didn’t have to grow wings every time a bad guy came around.  In comic books and in life, change often involves pain.  Superman was lucky, all he had to do was change clothes and boom – he could fly.  Others were not so lucky.  Wolverine had to project steel blades through his skin to go into battle, Spiderman got that venomous bite and I’m pretty sure David Banner was in pain every time he transformed into the Hulk. Transitions cause pain and it’s physical if you’re a superhero.  For us, mere mortals, the pain is often the emotional kind.

Change is hard.  I’m not the first to write that sentence but there’s no way around it.  Change is hard.  It’s human nature, it seems, to resist.  Some of us resist quietly, protesting in private while putting on a brave face.  Others take a stand and fight it every step of the way.  Superheroes channel their pain and direct it right back at the story’s villain.  Humans sometimes do that too; we find someone to blame.  Some villains are born for their roles.  They wreak havoc on our lives.  Others are forced into it out of sheer necessity.  But hearing someone say, “No pain, no gain,” doesn’t make it feel any better.

Time after time we all learn to adjust and move forward.  That’s the key.  Move forward.  Moving on just isn’t enough.  One can move on in defeat but moving forward means finding the positive and making the most of it.  Moving forward means growth has occurred and better days lie ahead.  It’s a choice we make, how we deal with change.  Buying into the fear that often accompanies change is a recipe for chaos and despair and there’s not always a hero to save the day.  When the time presents itself for me to deal with a change, no matter how much I want to resist, I hope if it’s inevitable, I find the grace and strength to accept it and move forward.

I think I thought a thought.

Being the organizational freak that I am, I’ve been bothered by my digital journal and the fact that I have to scroll to the bottom to add the next post.  So, I spent the last 15 minutes cutting and pasting each entry so the new posts could go on top.  There was probably an easier way but this is the way I know and now it’s done.

Organization is important in writing but often we don’t notice our mistakes in filing and archiving until it’s gone too far.  How often have you thrown something away that’s been nothing but clutter for years   only to exclaim a week later, “Now what did I do with that thing?  Oh yes, I threw it away.”

Today, Fred talks about keeping track of good ideas.  We all know to keep a notepad close at hand wherever we go but then what?  Fred suggests looking back through journals and organizing by topic or using scrapbooks to file clippings and notes and ideas.  He also describes an idea file as “a soul-satisfying way of surveying the full spectrum of your personal philosophy.”  I like this technique and happen to have a drawer full of blank index cards because my kids use them to make flash cards when studying Japanese.  I even found an old plastic avocado green recipe box on a dusty shelf that will be thrilled to be of service.  Fred offers a list of question to get started.  I think I’ll look through the notebook at the bottom of my purse and see what I find.

Structure First…

Outlining as a first draft?  Hmm, I’ve never tried it.  It kind of seems like using structure as a basis for a first write might hinder the process, but Fred says our brains naturally organize things in this way anyway so I might as well give it a try.  I’ve had my short story/book Turning Rows on the back burner for some time now so maybe it’s time to drag it out and make an outline.  Here goes.

  1. Jill’s father thinks she should get a summer job and talks to an acquaintance
    1. Introduce Frank
    2. Describe need for walking beans
  2. Jill is picked up for her first day at work
    1. Introduce Sam
    2. Describe bean field and the job at hand
    3. Introduce Clay, Adam, and Chris
  3. Describe relationship between the girls and boys as they work
    1. Girls keep to themselves
    2. Boys try to get girls attention
    3. Tall tales scene
  4. Sam’s accident
    1. Reveal how young people sometimes make irrational choices
    2. Reveal Jill’s loyalty to Sam
  5. Frank returns to the field
    1. Lunch
    2. Describe progression of time
    3. Describe fatigue
  6. Going home
    1. Girls under the tree scene
    2. Boys arrive
    3. Begin revealing Chris’ dangerous nature
    4. Show Jill’s inner conflict
    5. Jill asks boys to leave and tension builds but then they go.
  7. Sleep over
    1. Describe the inside of Jill’s house
    2. Show girls alone in bedroom
      1. Getting ready for bed rituals
      2. Sneaking snacks
      3. Silly girl time
      4. Discuss the boys
    3. Reveal Jill’s Dad’s authoritarian nature
      1. Girl’s giggle and squeal
      2. Dad opens door and yells for girls to get to bed because they have to be up early to get back in the bean field.
      3. Lights out and whispered conversation before going to sleep
        1. Reveals Sam’s adventurous side
        2. Reveals Jill’s desire to do the right thing but her conflict at wanting to appear adventurous in Sam’s eyes.
  8. Rise and Shine
    1. Introduce Mom
    2. Describe relationship between Jill’s Mom and Dad
      1. Mom is housewife
        1. Takes care of younger siblings
        2. Makes breakfast for Dad and girls
    3. Describe girls getting ready
    4. Girls making their lunches and watching for Frank to pick them up
  9. Back to Work
    1. In the truck
      1.  Sam’s makes a bid for a hook instead of a hoe.
      2. Boys make obscene demands
      3. Jill gives her hook to Sam
    2. Back in the rows
      1. Show changes in how girls and boys interact with one another (more familiar)
      2. Downpour scene
      3. Work day ends early
      4. Summarize rest of week
  10. Saturday
  11. Bike ride with the boys
  12. Jill gets pressured
  13. Sam saves the day

That was an interesting experience.  It’s useful to get the chronology down on paper as a guide.  Who knows where it will go from here.  Fred says to use this outline as the framework for a type of free write first draft.  I’ll give it a shot.  Check back to see where I end up.

Asking the old, “What if?”

Bargersville, Indiana

I have found that I’m pretty good at writing down my personal experiences in a way that tells the tale without boring the life out of my reader.  In other words, I can tell a good story.   There are a lot of good story tellers out there but not all of them are writers.  Today, Fred suggests looking at every day life experiences in a new way.  In this excercise we are to treat our experiences as part of our research and then take them beyond the ordinary by asking, “What if?”

I have a neighbor who is a nice old guy and his property overlaps the back of our property to form an “L” shape.  He has this huge dilapidated gray barn that sits behind our property line and he is very persnickety about anyone getting near it.  Now, his story is that he’s afraid someone will get hurt out there and that seems reasonable.  But, what if…?

What if Mr. Orville has been socking away cash all these years?  What if out in the dark dusty corners of that barn lay piles of mason jars stuffed with silver dollars.  Or, what if he’s making moonshine and that rickety old place houses a giant galvanized still?  Better yet, a time machine or a wrecked alien space craft… the possibilities are endless.

Fred says the trick here is to imagine those endless possibilities but then choose the one that takes you in a new direction or that takes an old story and gives it new life.  I think I’ll start by finding my binoculars.  I wonder what Mr. Orville is doing right now?

Stealing a moment

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to putting up road blocks to my writing.  I tell myself I’ll get to it when the dishes are done and I’ve filed our taxes and after dinner.  I never get to it.  The idea that I enjoy writing makes it a less valuable task than all the others I’m responsible for.  I feel like I’m being selfish if I put it first.

But, that’s just what I’ve decided to do.  I’m determined to write when I first get up in the morning.  Right now my husband is grumpy because he was sleeping next to my writing space.  I’m not sure how he could hear my typing over his snoring but apparantly, I woke him up.

Well, this new plan works better when the kids are at school and my husband is at work so I guess I’ll have to work out some sort of compromise for the weekend.  But it definitely ensures that I keep in practice if nothing else.  As soon as I walk away from my writing desk the phone rings and emails need to be addressed and the hope of writing for the rest of the day is lost.  But, if I can hold those first moments of morning sacred, I’ll keep writing and not feel guilty about stealing time from something else in my day.