Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking Up the Logjam of Mid-story Writer's Block

In the old days, breaking up a logjam was incredibly tricky and dangerous. Loggers carefully removed one or more “key logs” (a little like reverse jenga, I guess) and if it was a really bad jam, they had to use dynamite. These days, they use a machine to haul out big chunks until the logs start moving.

I've been working on revisions for my YA novel, THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART. It was my first novel, and it's been through more rewrites than I can count, including a complete point of view shift from third person to first person, but I keep coming back to it because I still love the protagonist and he just won't let me give up on him.

Recently I hit a logjam. I'm trying to rewrite a pivotal scene that introduces an important character, the protagonist's Aunt Megan, a complete stranger to him until this moment. My critique group demanded a better description of Aunt Megan and her house, as well as a restructuring of the scene to raise the tension and conflict. I kept coming at the scene and stalling. Over and over and over. Finally, I realized I really didn't know enough about this aunt of his. So I sat down and started working on the backstory.

Now, I'd worked out a backstory for Aunt Megan before, but it really was surface stuff, more about plot logistics as they affected my protagonist than about Aunt Megan herself. I realized I didn't even have a clue how to get inside her head yet. So I started with the timeline, her age when certain key events took place. I pieced together the ways those events affected her and her life. Then I wrote my problem scene in first person from Aunt Megan's point of view. Mind you, I have no plans to rewrite the novel in her point of view. This was an exercise to help me find my way into the scene.

I wish I could say the words flew from my finger tips, but they didn't. With each key log I thought I'd removed, new ones took its place, new questions about who Aunt Megan was. I wrote scenes that had nothing to do with my protagonist. I followed lines of thought well beyond the necessary conclusion. I got out my sketchpad and drew a complete floor plan of her house. It was a little terrifying to make such a commitment to the interior world of a character who isn't my protagonist. Why was I spending all this time on stuff that wouldn't even make it into my final draft?

But it was worth it. Bit by bit, the logs began to break free. Aunt Megan came into focus. Critical motives and subtexts revealed themselves. It's taken me a good week or so, and a lot of words that won't end up in the novel itself, but the logs are floating downriver again.

Mine was definitely a case of removing key logs one at a time, gradual and painstaking. But I've also had those dynamite situations - just sit down and power through it with some insane, off-the-wall notion. I've even used the chunks at a time method - cut this chunk, move this chunk, and soon it makes sense again.

When you've faced writer's block, how did you break up your logjam? Chunk-chomping machine? Key logs? Or dynamite?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life in a Literary City - Portlandia is for Writers

First, confession time. I've only watched the TV show PORTLANDIA once or twice. I didn't care for it. Why? There was no affection for the place they were mocking. I mention this because the overly-quirky, accept-the-fringe, coffee-loving atmosphere PORTLANDIA mocks is the same atmosphere that has fostered an incredibly literary city that I am proud to call home.

When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I was blown away by two facts. First, something called Portland Arts and Lectures, featuring literary speakers and expensive tickets, was routinely sold out. Second, on a Saturday night in Portland, the Anne Hughes Coffee Shop at Powell's Books was packed with literary geeks like me until late into the night. "I have found my tribe!" I thought.

Portland has a thriving writer's community that's given birth to all sorts of literary events, including Wordstock and the Willamette Writers Conference, not to mention Haystack and the Pacific Northwest Children's Book Conference. Portland is also home to such literary talents as Ursula LeGuin. And recently, not one, but two Portland-based writers were selected for inclusion in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. Other selections were previously published in two nationally-recognized Portland-based magazines, TIN HOUSE and GLIMMER TRAIN.

Maybe its the nine months of rain. What else is there to do but hunker down inside with a good book, or write your own? With all that gray, drizzly weather, we lean on coffee just to keep our spirits up, but maybe that thriving coffee shop culture fuels good literature. Maybe it's the afore-mentioned quirky, fringe vibe, which leaves so much room for artists of all sorts. Maybe it's the low cost of living. Yes, we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but it takes less money to get by in Portland, so folks who quit the day job to work on their novel can make it on less money.

Whatever the reason, Portland is a literary city, a city of writers and readers, a city that values words, and I feel lucky to be here.

Where do you call home? Would you say it's a literary city? Where have you found your community of writers, live or online? What do you think fosters a literary climate? Which cities would you cite as writer-friendly and why?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Following Karen Russell Beyond Swamplandia!

I recently read Karen Russell's novel SWAMPLANDIA! and I can't quite stop thinking about it. Much like HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, it makes me want to re-read it from my writer's brain. The two books are so different, but both examples of great writing. HUNGER GAMES keeps pulling you forward with in-your-face stakes from the get-go. SWAMPLANDIA! draws you in with its rich, strange images. It keeps growing on me over time. After HUNGER GAMES, I had to read the rest of the trilogy. After SWAMPLANDIA! I wanted to get my hands on Russell's short story collection, ST. LUCY'S HOME FOR GIRLS RAISED BY WOLVES, which I've just started reading.

There's something liberating about Russell's writing. The places are so fully realized and so wildly other at the same time. It reminds me of the worlds my brain would travel to as a child, though it is not children's literature. It leaves me believing that, like the protagonist in SWAMPLANDIA!, I can leap off the high-dive into a pit of alligators and swim safely to the other side. It makes me want to take risks in my own writing, to pursue the crazy, out-there images that float through my brain without fear and see where they lead. That's a trick worth celebrating. So, thank you, Ms. Russell!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Notice, Conjure, Give In, Resist - Using Imagery

Lately, I've been obsessed with imagery - sensory details and descriptive passages that carry the emotion and mood of a narrative. I used to think description was good if it put my reader physically in the moment - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching what the character did. But descriptive passages and sensory details can and ought to do so much more.

I thought about this a lot as I was reading Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA! At first, the dense, thick, laden descriptions almost seemed too much, slowing down the narrative and making it hard to find my way in. But Russell knows what she's doing. The descriptions are absolutely essential to creating the semi-magical, otherworldly mood that makes the novel work, drawing us into the world of the Florida swamps and the possible supernatural experiences that lay within. I only accepted the strange pivotal events of the novel because all that mood work brought me so fully into the mindset of the main character - not through her thoughts but through Russell's descriptions of her environment.

I want to share an example of my own efforts to rewrite description in order to convey emotion. This is a brief excerpt from my novel THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART, which I am in the process of revising. The scene is the funeral of the protagonist's mother.

Early draft:
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle. Inside was a fireplace with candles on top, some fat armchairs, and a tall, polished table all covered in lace with a vase full of fake flowers on it. A big picture of Momma sat next to the vase, and there was a black guest book with a fancy pen so people could write stuff about Momma inside. Some double doors opened on a little room full of chairs with a table at the front and a big wreath of flowers and a wooden stand and a microphone."

Rewritten draft:
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle and polished tables with flimsy lace on top. Made me want to stick a wad of chewing gum somewhere. There was a fireplace with no fire in it, candles with no flames on top, and a vase full of flowers with no smell. One fat armchair stood in the hallway facing nothing, like anybody'd want to sit by themselves in a hallway staring at the wall. This long black book with a long black pen was spread open next to the flowers, waiting for somebody to come by and write something. In between the fake flowers and the empty book, Momma's picture smiled at me, flat and frozen."

Now, I know I still have work to do on the revised draft, but I think you can see the steps I've already taken to make the description carry more emotion and mood.

You can go too far with imagery, pouring it all over everything like Will Farrell ladling maple syrup on spaghetti in the movie ELF. So, how do you approach description without going off the deep end into a binge or tiptoing so carefully you miss opportunities? I think the sensory tango goes something like this:

1. Notice: Notice the world around you. Pay attention to your senses as you move through your own days. Constantly collect those observations and store them up in your mind so you have lots and lots to choose from when the time comes in your writing.

2. Conjure: When you sit down to write a scene, use words to conjure your stored up images. Choose the words carefully. Approach descriptive passages like poems. Wear the character's mindset and the mood of the scene as filters while you write.

3. Resist: Imagery is seductive. The juicy words and thick wealth of details will seek to pull you in at every moment. Play hard to get sometimes.

4. Give In: Hard-to-get is great, but occasionally you have to let imagery sweep you off your feet and carry you away. You can always dial it back later. A little wild abandon can lead to wonderful discoveries. That tension between resistance and giving in makes me call it a tango.

During the Teacher as Writer course I attended last week through Wordstock, instructor Joanna Rose gave us this exercise, which I believe she credited to author John Gardner:
A farmer has just lost his son in the war. Describe his barn. Without using the words "loss," "death," "tragedy," "son," or "war," convey the mood and emotional content of this moment.

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