Sunday, October 28, 2007

Angel On the Shoulder

I may have written about this in the past. Virginia Woolf writes about the "angel" on her shoulder, that nice, proper and well-behaved Victorian lady who whispers in her ear that she shouldn't say certain things because they might upset or offend. She describes her process of murdering the angel on her shoulder so that she could write and write honestly.

Today, in the WOW monthly group, we talked about this a bit, too. Everyone's angel takes different forms. Can I share this piece with the group, or will it offend someone? Is my piece too nice, not offensive enough to be cool? My piece is fiction, but what if someone in my family sees parts of themselves in it and takes offense? If I get too political, will it keep people from hearing what I'm really trying to say? Is it possible to write without being political?

Who or what is the poisonous angel on your shoulder? How is she affecting your writing? Have you killed her? How will you kill her? Do you keep trying to kill her long after she is dead?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Writers On-the-air Final Thoughts

Reading Day was long, but a terrific success! We are so fortunate to have sucha talented group of actors willling to give their time and skills to bring the writers' words to life for the first time. After the full day of readings yesterday, the writers gathered one last time this morning for a debrief. We were all a little bleary, but once again the conversation flowed fruitfully. We talked about discoveries, surprises and reactions from the readings. For some of us, the flaws and holes in our scripts came into focus. Others reveled in finding the script sounded just as they hoped it would. We tossed around our reactions to audience feedback and our reactions to each others' scripts. Some of us will be working on revisions, others will put their pieces aside and others will tweak here and there but are basically satisfied with where things stand. I announced my plans for a monthly writers critique group born of WOW and collected some evaluations of the workshop process. Bigger space & more time to share what we write were among the requests for the future.

This blog is such a woefully inadequate encapsulation of the WOW experience. I come to it feeling lazy and spent and inadequate to the task of re-creating the workshop experience. Perhaps that's as it should be. The writing workshop experience is so much a function of the interaction among participants. I repeat again, find a community of writers with whom to share and discuss your work. It is motivating and exhilarating at its best, and it can save you from the vortex that solitude can create. It is the great paradox of writing - you must have chunks of solitary time in which to create, but you must have chunks of communal time to feed that solitude and counteract it and interact with it.

So, we close another year of Writers On-the-air. But the Writers' Wavelength blog continues sporadically all year. As should the writing itself.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 8

Our final check-in before Reading Day. After a day of juggling schedules and casting, I was a little foggy-headed, but the evening went smoothly. All scripts are in and finished - bravo, writers!

When we checked in tonight, several of us talked about those last-minute tweaks and changes and the temptation to keep tweaking and changing. This is the liberating part of knowing it's a first draft. It's a little easier to stop tweaking. Still,the discussion raised that question that plagues many a creative artist - "How do you know when to stop?" One participant pointed out the quote "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Luckily, with a first draft reading like we have with WOW, you can just stop changing and see how it reads as is. That may help make the decision about changes, and save you some time if the changes weren't necessary.

One of the writers found that this last push to finish the script really kicked in her creative drive to complete another piece as well. A testament, I think, to the wisdom of those who tell you to write every day. When those muscles are in use, they get a lot done.

Those folks working on series discussed the ups and downs of that experience. It's somewhat comforting, if you have to cut, to know you can always put things back in to future episodes.

We tossed around the idea of "burning questions," which we will pose to our audience/actors. What makes a good burning question? Sometimes, you want to zero in on a particular moment, but often you want the question to look for that problem spot without putting undue focus on it before the audience hears the piece. Some recommendations: Ask yourself what you think the major strength & weakness of the piece is and formulate your questions from there. Build the questions as more open-ended. For example, say you're worried that certain parts are too short and others too long. You might ask: Which parts would you like more time on? Which parts feel unnecessary? You can also ask general questions such as: What is your impression of this character? What do you see as the greatest strength of this piece? What is its greatest weakness? what questions were you left with?

Guideliens and expectations for reading day:
What it is: A cold reading. A chance to hear your words read aloud by actors, see what works and what needs changing, hear specific reactions from a variety of listeners. A celebration of what you've accomplished during the workshop process.

What it is NOT: A fully rehearsed performance, final production, promise of production or future casting, opportunity for you or others to scorn or condemn your hard work, time to critique actor performances or casting choices. It does not determine your worth as a person or an artist.

In addition to logistics, we took a moment to do a "quickwrite" (write without stopping under time pressure) about our hopes and fears for Saturday's Reading Day. We hope the balance we are seeking between humor and authenticity will succeed and we fear laughter where we don't want it and silence when we want laughter. We hope genre will work for us and fear the preconceptions that some folks have about genre lacking depth. We hope we have created an effective degree of tension in a piece, we fear actors' tendency to go for the laughs in a cold reading. Generally speaking, we hope the audience will enjoy our work and fear that they won't.

Reading Day is always an adventure. I can't wait! With 10-20 actors plus writers and invited guests, 12 scripts and 6 hours of readings, it's certainly an event.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 7

The closer we get to reading day, the more aware I am of how difficult it is to capture the experience of the workshop sessions through a few notes in a blog. It just speaks to the value of working with a communty of writers.

WOW Day 7 really just served as a chance to check in with one another and provide advice and support to eachother as we emerged for the final push to complete our first drafts, and in some cases wrestled with getting those drafts done. We talked about the challenge of giving ourselves permission to let a first draft be a first draft, in all its messy imperfection, especially knowing we would be sharing it with others - not just the safe community of the WOW writers but also the eyes and ears and minds of the actors joining us on reading day. We celebrated completing something, something with a beginning, middle and end, something longer and imperfect. "Celebrate your imperfection!" I say. It's incredibly liberating.

We talked about anguishing over "killing the babies" - cutting characters that no longer worked, eliminating dialogue or scenes we have come to love, and so one. Not to mention the way such big changes can affect the shape of the whole, and then you think you need to rewrite, and it can feel unending. Once again, we have to accept that a first draft is just that. The beauty of a reading with actors and other people hearing it is that, rather than being your judges, they can be your allies in the struggle to fix what's broken and solve those nagging script problems. If there's a battle your fighting with your piece and you don't feel you're solving the problem, let it be your burning question, put it to your audience or readers and enlist their aid in your struggle.

We wrestled over endings - does it work? Is it too abrupt? We worried about length - too short? Too long? What did everybody else do? We celebrated - plugging problem plot holes, finishing a full-length piece, rediscovering an old idea and finding it has new life in it. We gave and received support - both live and online - to tackle that last push.

We listened to some audio clips from previous WOW Reading Days to geta flavor. We also compared a clip from reading day with a finished production of the same piece and noted the way the energy of a live audience feeds the actors, how the actual presence of a soundbed can radically alter the tone and mood in the final production, how ambiguity in writing invites a wide range of interpretations by actors that can influence the final impact of a piece.

From the business end, I asked writers to be sure every character is accounted for in their cast list, so that every character is assigned to an actor, and to note any that could be doubled.

Tomorrow - last minute check-ins and notes before the BIG DAY of readings on Saturday.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 6

Day 6 was a few days ago, but it's been a busy weekend. I spent Friday and Sunday at the Willametter Writer's Conference, and Saturday devoted to a brutal 2 hour Praxis test for my ESL endorsement. My brain is a bit saturated, but here goes.

On Day 6, we took refuge in the air-conditioned WRW studio to escape the heat and keep our brains fresh for sample scenes from 5 more scripts. We talked over the role of narrator (always a hot topic at WOW - to narrate or not to narrate, that is the question). We examined ways to raise the stakes for characters in a conflict. We wrestled with means for helping the listener hook into the multiple characters of an ensmble piece. It's okay to restate information a few times in different ways, and its okay to toss the character names out there in dialogue on a regular basis to help us keep them straight. The theme of intentional ambiguity arose numerous times. This is a tactic several of the scripts are playing with - intentional ambiguity or misdirection. The point was made that, while we may not share all the information with the listener, the author themselves should be clear and decisive in their own head. You should know the answers to the questions you raise, even if you don't give those answers to your listener.

Between those conversations and some of the info I gleaned at the writers conference, I find myself pondering the question "When is it okay to break the rules?" Put another way, at what point have you mastered your craft sufficiently to dabble in ambitious efforts? One of the presenters I heard at the conference, Eric Witchey, used the analogy of juggling. You master the easier skills first - one ball, two balls, then three balls - before you go on to the headier stuff - flaming torches, say, or chainsaws. Likewise, you master traditional plot structure, and perhaps short stories, before going on to novels or to non-traditional plot. So I ask myself, do I keep plugging away at an idea that is intriguing and unusual but perhaps a little out of my league at the moment? Or do I sharpen my skills on something more in my current range? Intentional ambiguity and misdirection in audio (or, perhaps, in any writing) seem to fall into the category of more ambitious efforts. Absolutely worth attempting, but go in with your eyes open.

Anyhoo, those are my musings of the moment. Script drafts are due next week, so we're all putting noses to the grindstone at the moment. Sam is lining up actors for a full day of readings on Saturday, August 11.

More next week!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 5

Day 5 of the Writers On-the-air Workshop was probably the most difficult to capture in a blog. We had no audio clips. We jumped right into sharing sample scenes from our scripts, with our accompanying "burning questions." The burning questions are intended to focus listener feedback and make it more meaningful for the author. Authors read all the parts in the script themselves, which can be confusing but can also reveal when your audience might be confused as to who is speaking, whether you've captured character in the dialogue, etc. We heard scenes from 7 of the scripts tonight and what a wonderful range! Deep, intellectally meaty, mysterious and thought-provoking, chandler-esque with a humorous spin, comic inferno, satirical comedy, period gothic, tense docudrama. Burning questions included the following (feel free to use these yourself some time):

How does the scene make you feel?
How would you describe the tone and mood of the scene?
Does the scene successfully establish a sense of time and place?
What is your impression or mental picture of this character?
Is this element necessary?
Is there too much narrative?
What, if anything, is confusing?
Does the exposition work?

These questions give you a little glimpse of what our authors are working on.

On a personal note, I discovered that my piece was funny. I actually realized that while working on my scenes for this session, but was pleased to see that, in fact, laughs occurred. Comedy is a strange beast, and not one I usually tangle with. It has caught me by surprise and I'm curious to see where it will take me.

Tomorrow night we will hear sample scenes from the rest of the authors (5-7 more in all).

Friday, July 27, 2007

WOW Day 4

Audio clips for Day 4 were the opening segment of TUMBLEWEED ROUNDUP by Great Northern Audio Theatre (out of Minnesota, I believe) and an excerpt of ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, performed live by WRW as part of OPB's Livewire show. Both had a lot going on in them sonically plus potential for listener confusion. TUMBLEWEED suffered from some mixing problems, so it was harder to hear and felt almost too much, but still fun cinematic-style old western. MOREAU was a great example of what you can do with live sound effects, the power of good direction, sound design & ensemble work. We talked about the strength of a big sonic hook at the top of MOREAU, and the impact of layered sound.

Next, we finished sharing descriptions of protagonists, opening dilemmas and conclusions. The variety and creativity of the pieces inspired a lot of rich conversation and questions. We wondered about techniques for conveying a character who is pure energy - ways she could communicate sonically. We talked about the importance of having a clear vision in the author's head when something will be hinted at but never directly shared with the audience. We examined listener's point of view - which character is our "in" to the story? How does point of view impact the listener's perception of whose story this is? We discussed how plot can affect and be informed by tone. Is your piece dark drama, light comedy, dark comedy? (In Shakespeare's day, "comical-tragical, tragical-pastoral" etc.). Several pieces will use flashback-style scenes to convey memories or information, the show-don't-tell of audio. We asked one another questions about character motivations. "How" and "why" were popular questions.

We closed with some discussion of the writing process. How do you approach building your plot? Some of us use a fairly organic process, starting with an idea, then unfolding it or writing it out or following it where it takes us. I voiced my need to strengthen my plot skills as a reason for approaching the topic of plot in a more intentional and analytical manner. One author suggested mind-mapping (some know this as making a web). Begin with a sentence - perhaps a central idea or event or character. Then ask "Why?" ("how" would also work). Write your answer. Ask "why" again. etc. (Rinse, lather, repeat). Another author talked about writing towards a feeling or emotional response, rather than towards a predetermined ending. Look at the big picture, then zoom in like a microscope. Someone else liked having a simple, clean through line, and viewing character and relationship as the ornamentation, like a christmas tree. I floated the idea of storyboarding as a tool. What pictures do you want your audience to have in their mind's eye?

As a parting gift for anyone who might need it, I shared following exercise:

1-Write out the key events in your story as sentences.
Each sentence should include the main character.
Follow the structure of person + action + thing acted on.
The verb in each sentence should show action.

2-Put each event sentence on a notecard or slip of paper.

3-Draw a graphic representation of the plot structure you plan to follow.

4-Arrange your event sentences on the graphic.

For next week, we'll be turning in character breakdowns with descriptions (remember, its audio - "Blonde, tall and buxom" is not an audio description) for casting purposes, and sharing sample scenes from our scripts, with our burning questions.

Tune in next week!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 3

Our first Day 3 listening excerpts came from, Meatballs Podcast 7 - selections from the series SARATOGA SPRINGS. Music plays an absolutely essential role in these pieces. One participant said the style was reminiscent of Ken Nordine. The plot? Not so much plot-driven, although two of them basically follow the plot of a journey. Beautiful in their simplicity. These selections blow open what a story can be. At their heart a real sense of place and time. In addition, there were some great examples of the extraordinarily layered sound and remarkable location recording that are Tom Lopez' trademark.

We also listened to a clip from Episode 3 of THE LAST HARBINGER, by CrazyDog Audio Theatre in Ireland. The clip included the convention of a series intro summarizing the nature of the story and catching the audience up. The piece created a sense of place with very little time & info, though there was some discussion in the group as to how well that was achieved, whether we really had a sense of the characters or direction of the story. The intro was rhyming, and there were widely divergent opinions on that as well, which speaks to the range of tastes & styles. While the soundbed was rich, we again had stylistic & taste differences over "how much is too much." As one participant put it, "My ear didn't know where to go," though that experience might prove different when listening with headphones. We talked about the listener needing time to breathe & absorb what they're hearing. Finally, the clip had some great examples of creating "3-D sound," a sense of spatial relations through sound, a technique that can really expand the mind's eye of the listener.

We also discussed the nature of sci-fi, a topic we later returned to - science as the background rather than the focus, character as the focus, what can we tell about the world of the story and how is that information conveyed. One participant said that sci-fi is not about high-tech props & costumes, it's about characters and story.

We then moved on to sharing our descriptions of protagonist, opening hook/domino/inciting incident and concluding changes to the character. This proved to take longer than expected and will be continued tomorrow night. Among the highlights of the rich conversation: When you float an idea that sounds like an existing story, is that bad? As writers, we sometimes fear being derivative, but the point was made that everyone tells the story differently. There really are no new stories under the sun. So the question is, What will YOU do with that story?

Finally, we drew graphics to represent non-traditional plot structures, drawing on stories (books, movies, TV) we already know. The images included stairstep arrows with lines going back on themselves, spirals, squares dipping in and out of a central circle, a straight arrow with multiple lines traveling above and across, a triple Venn Diagram. Stories folks referenced included the movies RASHOMON and MEMENTO, among others. Some of the non-traditional approaches included backwards storytelling, telling the same story from different viewpoints, telling a collection of stories that all reveal something in common, embedding a section where the plot diverges into 3 or more stories as different lead characters are separated. Food for thought: What structure will tell your story best?

Tune in tomorrow for Day 4!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 2

Day 2 began with a selection of 4 audio clips shared by Joe Medina, creator of the AFTERHELL series. The clips explored the defining conflicts that shape the plot. First up, THE ODYSSEY OF RUNYON JONES, a Norman Corwin piece that, to my mind, is a marriage of Kafka and The Cinnamon Bear - in a good way. Small boy seeks lost dog and is faced with the worst of adult bureacracy in tracking his poor Tootsie between Dog Heaven and "Curgatory." (You can purchase this on a CD of Norman Corwin stuff from The SFX in this piece were pretty incidental. The dialogue was all.

Next up, DR CHRISTIAN, a country doctor series starring Gene Hirshel (forgive my spelling). Written in 1937 or threabouts, a relaxed dialogue style leads us to realize the conflict is that local wife Charlotte's new found fame as published poet leads her to seek a divorce. Her husband just isn't interesting enough. Can Dr. Christian help, or is he too clueless?

Third clip, from the STAR WARS audio series, gives us a taste of a more modern, cinematic style - lots of SFX and music. Notable in that it focuses on setting up a central relationship between two characters who are friends, rather than the central conflict, although that is embedded in there. We talked about the differences in plot structure with an episodic series, and the nature of writing a story that people know, where you may be able to establish the conflict later because the audience knows what it is.

Finally, a clip from AFTERHELL, the Hotel Giallo (apologies - I may be getting the name of the episode wrong). Richly layered sound effects here. Conflict is immediately established as the tough boss announces, "The job isn't done." What job? Why isn't it done? Stay tuned, as gangster hitmen grapple with the impact of zombies on their profession.

Next, we went shared our descriptions of the central conflicts in our own pieces. There was a terrific range: vampire drama, postapocalyptic inner conflict, detectives in hell, dog detectives, intellectual terrorism experts race against time, man battles ambiguous forces without and within, angel special ops or a society in which a professor can be jailed for discussing his encounter with the almighty, cops track a serial killer, noire detective or holiday variety show, docudrama of Flight 305, reporter searches for mysterious vigilante (plays with unreliable narrator concept), man's inner voice is broadcast and takes over, teenage struggles of puberty become manifest thru sci-fi, cowgirl tries to save the ranch. Whew!

Finally, we drew visual representations of traditional plot structure, with, again, a wide range of images resulting. There were graphs, both linear and circular, flow charts ( "If short story, end here. If long story, repeat loop"), stick figures driving cars, gravesites and headstones, a bee collecting pollen, a man climbing a tree and fighting off agressors, ever-increasing peaks and valleys, a doorway leading to stairs. We talked about decisions an author makes - plot driven or character driven? tragedy or comedy? Or both, which may sometimes be the most interesting. We discussed the role of the "inciting incident" and the little conflicts along the way. What supports those smaller threshold moments? Some of the pictures looked at plot structure from the view of character and how character change occurs in a story. Some looked at it from the reader or audience perspective - how we collect information as we proceed through the story. We kicked around visions of the climax - an explosion? a tree? Fireworks? The nature of your piece affects the nature of that final climax. What type of resolution will you have? Or will it be ambiguous?

Rich conversation! The assignment for next week: Write about the following three key plot questions:
1-Who is your protagonist? Get to know them, likes, dislikes, etc.
2- What is the "inciting incident" or hook, the action or change that starts the ball rolling? Not sure? Try writing a sentence or two telling what your story is about. Find the first active verb in the sentence. That may be your hook.
3-What will your conclusion be? That is, how will your character and/or their world be different? Will they succeed, fail, give up?

See you next Wednesday!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writers On the Air Workshop - Day 1

Day 1 was really about introductions and a little audio theater overview. We have a wonderful range of experience at the table, with many returning workshop participants and folks who have experience producing audio theater and stage theater, among others. We went over some key points about audio theater - that it's really about writing a good story, what are the limits on language for broadcast, the many narrative devices available (and how narrative is not so frowned upon in audio), about 6 main characters is a good limit, though you can have a lot more minor characters.

In discussint the challenges and guidelines for giving and getting criticism, one participant made the link between criteria and criticism. Once you know the criteria, e.g. what the author is going for, then you can give constructive criticism on whether that criteria was met. Another participant used the phrase "roses and thorns" to describe good criticism. A third participant suggested that, before giving a critique, you ask yourself: "What is it (the piece)? How was it done?" and then "My response to this is ______________."

In discussing how an audience talkback can sometimes run away with your work, someone pointed out a quote from Isaak Denisen: "Your only loyalty as a writer should be to the story."

We did an exercise to explore writing in the sonic realm and look at what sound effects can and cannot do for you. Each writer had a card with a sound effect that they had to describe. The other writers then tried to identify the sound. Finally, the writer shared some lines of dialogue that might help the listener identify the sounds. One of my favorites was the description of a low-pitched, slowly repeating, creaking (The description was more eloquent than that but I failed to write it down). Our guesses were all over the map. The dialogue was Amish-style and talked about pulling a heavy load and fixing the axle and led us to figure out that the sound was a wooden cart rolling.

The exercise highlighted the dangers of depending solely on a sound effect to convey information to your listeners. Also, when even a little context is provided, the listener tends to expand and build upon it to create a world and sense of time and place.

Here are a few for you to try to identify:

1. Loud, uninterrupted metalic buzzing with varying pitches
Dialogue: "How many feet did you want cut?"
"It's a six-foot fence, so-"
"Right, then - six feet." Followed by sound.

2. Slushy, watery crack, tearing, grunt, groan, scream, rustle, deep breathing.
Dialogue: "You've got a right arm. I'm gonna make sure you never use the left one again!"

3. metallic shwunk, swoosh of air, human gasp, splatter, drip, heavy sickening thud
Dialogue: "Take it easy! Put that down! We can work this out! No, stop! Stop!"

4. A slipping fabric sound like cloth being pulled taut, perhaps a grunt or "ah" and faint foot pad, followed by a zzzip and a tinkle of metal
Dialogue: "Hang on a second - wrong leg. There we are. These used to fit ... Ahhhh."

Answers: 1-power saw, 2-arm being torn off, 3-throat being cut, 4-man putting on pants.
(They were all fascinating - wish I'd written them down!)

Now, try your hand at the writing part. Choose a sound effect. Describe it, using only sound words that the listener would hear (no identifiers such as "sounds like a hose being turned on"). Then, write some dialogue that will provide identifying context.

1. Sound of a body being dragged through the mud
2. walking through snow
3. whip cracking
4.getting a haircut
5.stacking wood
6. running through the jungle

Finally, we listened to the first 5 minutes or so of the following WRW productions:
THE SHADOW: SILENT AVENGER (classic old-time radio style)
FALL OF THE CITY (completely different style, written in same time period)
CHRISTMAS AT THE TNT (modern piece, slice of life, rich atmospheric soundbed)

We noted the distinct styles of the writing, the flavor of specific genre writing such as noire. Also, we talked about how the listener needs adjustment time if there is an abrupt change in style, perspective, point of view. As authors, we need to be consistent OR be intentional when we shift. Finally, I pointed out that most strong pieces establish the conflict in the first 5 minutes or so. Which brings us to tomorrow's assignment - describe your central conflict, how it starts and how it ends.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

4th annual Writers On-the-air Workshop (WOW)

WOW 2007 starts Wednesday, July 18 and runs Wednesday and Thursday nights through August 9, with script readings on Aug. 11 and Writer's Debrief brunch on Aug.12. This year's focus will be on plot structure. Over the course of 4 weeks, meeting twice a week, participants examine the storytelling process through audio theater and develop complete audio theater scripts. WOW culminates in a day of recorded script readings by professional actors. Many of the scripts developed through WOW have gone on to full productions through WRW and other entities. Previous WOW scripts include one Mark Time Award-winner, five Ogle Award-winners, and three National Audio Theatre Festival Award winners. WOW is offered at no charge to anyone committed to the process and interested in exploring writing through the audio medium, although participants are welcome to donate money, space or refreshments.

Schedule of WOW 2007 sessions:
Evenings (7pm-9pm) on
Wed, July 18 and Thurs. July 19,
Wed. July 25 and Thurs. July 26
Wed. Aug. 1 and Thurs. Aug. 2
Wed. Aug. 8 and Thurs. Aug. 9
Final readings of scripts on Saturday, Aug. 11 throughout the day
Final writer's brunch on Sunday, Aug. 12 , 11am - 1pm.

For more information or an application, please contact WOW Director Cindy McGean at

Monday, June 25, 2007

Quotable Quotes

I'd like to thank Kate Hawkes for sharing these quotes with me. Food for thought.

"Is it constantly on my mind when i'm going clickety-clack on the machine that this is somehow going to enlarge the scope of human comprehension? I would have to say no, that's not what I'm thinking about. I'm trying to get the line done.'

'The secret of being tiresome is to tell everything.'

'It's no use. I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face.'

'No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft.'

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Writers On the Air Workshop 2007 - It's all a plot!

Heads up, writer friends! The 2007 Writers On-the-air Workshop is coming in July. This year's focus will be on plot structure. Stay tuned for details, and thanks for your patience and your interest!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Writer's Movie

If you haven't seen "Stranger Than Fiction," with Will Farrell, you must check it out. It is truly a writer's movie. Among other things, it examines the process of figuring out just what story your character belongs in - comedy? Tragedy? Often, you may have a character but are uncertain about the unfolding plot.

The movie also explores the writer's relationship with their characters - how close is too close? If a character truly becomes real enough, how do you deal with their death? Can your characters ever be too real? Can you ever get too close to them? Does a story have to be tragic to be profound?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

What if I'm a Sanjaya and I just don't know it?

Forgive the pop culture reference. I've been thinking about the need for critiques, outside eyes and even writing classes (something I've often been ambivalent about). Writers, indeed, any artist, must be able to gauge if their work is quality work, but we often don't feel able to trust ourselves or those close to us. We ask ourselves, "What if I'm producing garbage and I'm just unable to recognize it?" On the other hand, we have to develop a certain amount of steely confidence in order to survive the inevitable rejections and dismissals that come with seeking an audience for our work.

In the process of developing a tough skin, do we run the risk of building a wall so strong that valid criticism cannot enter?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Watermelon and Seed

I must credit Lucy Culkins with the title of this entry. Her books on teaching writing to children delve beautifully into the writing process. I have learned much to apply to my own process by the explicit modeling and examination of writing in which I engage with my students, thanks in part to Ms. Culkins' work (THE ART OF TEACHING WRITING is one I recommend - I think that's the title). "Watermelon and Seed" refers to the notion of choosing small ideas to focus in on, rather than trying to eat the whole watermelon. Of course, the metaphor breaks down a bit, since I don't want to eat the seeds, but you get the idea. A variation on this comes in the form of word limits. I recently submitted a short children's mystery to a contest. The word limit was 800 words. I found it a real challenge to maintain a sense of the mystery genre within such a short space, but it forced me to zoom in on the seed instead of the watermelon and give my story a lot more focus. Ultimately, not only did it improve the story, but I now find I have other "seed" ideas with the same character.

What are some seeds or watermelons you've encountered? Wrestling any watermelons you need help whittling to a more manageable size?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Attend the Mutant Frogs

I was talking with a playwright friend the other day about a review he had received. He made the point that at times, while a specific criticism may not itself be valid, it may be a symptom of a problem area, a sign that something needs fixing, even if its not the something the critic thinks. These kinds of criticisms are the mutant frogs, those signals that all is not right in the waters or ecosystem of your written work. I had a similar experience in getting critiques of my novel and the mutant frog comments helped me identify the areas of the book that had not kept pace with the continuing evolution of the characters, often sections that were holdovers from an early draft and no longer fit the direction of the story.

I like this notion of mutant frogs as a way of hearing criticism. Look past the surface of the critique. Does it point you toward an area of toxic waste in your work?

What signs serve as your mutant frogs, clues that something is amiss in your work? What about canaries in the coal mine (not to batter my metaphors too badly)? What signals tell you when to cut your losses on a piece as being too toxic to support life?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Dueling Viewpoints

So, I've started reading THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus. What strikes me thus far is what a good example it is of an effective use of multiple viewpoints. He basically sets it up that you find yourself sympathizing with 2 characters on opposing sides of an experience. They can't both get what they want, by by alternating between their viewpoints and making both sympathetic, he makes you hope they both get what they want. In so doing, he illuminates a particular concept - that to achieve the American Dream, it may often be at the expense of someone else's dream. Anyway, that's my impressions thus far.

Dueling viewpoints, anyone? Have you ever explored this in a piece? If so, what was your goal? Did you succeed? Why or why not?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Writing on Demand

It's lovely to build a notebook, revisit your ideas, write what the muse inspires, work on the pieces that truly call to you, but what of the command performance? An opportunity or a need arises and - bam! It's time to write something, on a deadline. "Be creative," you shout at your poor brain as it stares at the blank page like a deer caught in the headlights. Is this writer's block or simple fear-driven paralysis? My college motto often breaks thru the paralysis for me - "It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be done." Still, is that the road to quality writing?

The command performance has the great advantage of demanding completion, demanding output, no excuses. Sometimes, that urgency can plow through the wall, free you of all your crazy internal editors and censors, drive you out of your writer's shell, stretch your writing muscles. "Write on this topic. Write in this genre. Write something of this length by this deadline." The sheer compulsion of external motivators can produce remarkable results.

How do you feel about the writer's command performance? What have you experienced as the best and the worst of your own writing on demand? Ever wished for those external motivators when you didn't have them? How successful are you at completing things without those demons driving you? When they're absent, what do you use to motivate yourself? Which do you prefer - intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Writers as Readers

As I browse through the book review section of the paper, I am struck yet again by the number of books that are out there, and how few of them I've read. I used to think I was an avid reader, but sometimes I wonder. I guess it's WHAT I read. I read old classics, I read books that catch my interest when I browse in the book store or the library, I read books on topics I'm looking to learn more about, I read children's books for my teaching. I don't read from the latest best seller lists. I don't seem to read many modern novels. There's a lot I don't read.

How does what you read affect your writing? As a writer, should you strive to expand your reading repertoire? Are you ever afraid it will just paralyze your writing if you read the work of others?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shakespeare Meets Jerry Springer

What do Shakespeare and Jerry Springer have in common? Just ask the kids at the school where I teach. After I described the plot of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM to the afterschool Drama Club, one of them said, "Jeez! It's like the Jerry Springer Show!" In fact, I realized, they were right - catfight and all. Both portray conflict and the complicated entanglements that are human relationships. And both are popular in part for that reason - people can see and recognize their own entanglements in both men's particular forms of expression. But Shakespeare makes his catfights poetic.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Many a great writer - and some of the rest of us, too - have had the urge to burn our false-starts and incomplete work. Or at least throw them away. Certainly never look at them again. And yet, I have found of late that there is value in some of those old pieces. Indeed, work I thought was garbage has time and again returned, tugging at my sleeve, until, with the good grace of time and distance between creation and revision, I have been able to recognize the potential in a piece I had given up on.

Who are the old acquaintances of your writing, those sketches, half-formed ideas and unfinished novels that deserve a second look? Old acquaintances should not be forgot. Let them go, leave them alone, and they may well come home wagging some new inspiration behind them. (Now there's some kind of bizarre stream-of-consciousness metaphor-mixing happening, huh?)

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