Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons from a Seed

This week, I've been thinking about seeds and writing.  I've been thinking about what some people call writer's block and others call a dormant period, where ideas are germinating but nothing is visibly being produced.  I sat down to write this blog post thinking I knew what all those terms meant.  Then I looked them up and here's what I learned.

Seeds have two states that give them added survival strength when conditions aren't right for growth.  When seeds are in the packet and haven't been planted, they're dry and inactive.  They're not growing, but they aren't vulnerable either.  They can handle severe environmental changes.  When seeds are dormant, they're alive and they've been planted, but they're not growing.  They're waiting.  In dormancy, usually, something about their conditions has to change to get things moving again - temperature, water, sunlight, soil.  Dormancy is a way of surviving by making sure seeds don't put energy into growth until ALL the conditions are right.

Then there's germination.  The seed has been planted.  The conditions are right.  But you can't see anything happening.  That's because germination is the growth of an embryonic plant inside the seed.  You don't know it's happening until the sprout finally breaks through and emerges.

If you never give the inactive seed what it needs, it will stay inactive, and may eventually die.  If you plant the seed, but conditions aren't right, it may lie dormant until the right conditions come along.  If it's dormant for too long, you can bump it out of dormancy by changing the conditions.  And if the seed is germinating, it's in a vulnerable period and needs the right nutrients and conditions maintained while it does its work.

Lessons for the writer who is blocked or stuck?  First, you have to figure out WHY you're not writing.  Which state are you in, if you apply the seed metaphor?  Are you inactive, giving yourself the toughest possible protection against harsh external conditions (maybe massive life stressors, for example)?  Are you in a dormant period, where many conditions are right but things just aren't moving forward?  Which conditions aren't right?  What crucial element is missing that is causing you to conserve your energy?  Or are you germinating, taking in nutrients and developing the embryo of an idea through mental work that just cannot be seen yet?

How you proceed next depends on which kind of blocked you are.

Me?  I have a project that's well beyond the embryo stage, and I even have a plan for how to work on it.  But the timing doesn't feel right.  Every time I sat down to work on it, something held me back.  That project is in a dormant phase.  Some of the elements it needs are in place, but the conditions aren't quite right.  If it lies dormant for too long, I will need to kick start it by experimenting with which conditions have to change.  For now, I'm content to let it lie dormant, rather than expending energy at the wrong time.

Instead of working on that project, I pored over old notebooks and picked out a couple of ideas that spoke to me.  I find myself wanting to read, read, read - taking in nutrients.  The more I read the more I feel that creative urge pushing up inside of me, looking for an outlet.  Definitely germination.  It's a delicate phase.  I need to be patient, continuing to take in nutrients and sustain the favorable conditions that are feeding me.

I realize I've extended this metaphor well beyond the bounds of decency.  It's helped me.  I hope it's helped you.  Anyone else out there feeling blocked?  Which seed state is it - inactive, dormant or germinating?  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Painfully Exquisite Imagery

As I've mentioned, the latest classic on my Kindle is F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED.  He uses imagery to painfully exact effect, not only to evoke the sensory experience but also to address the emotional resonance of a moment at its most nuanced level.  This is especially striking to me because he has such an aloofness to his style.  To manage both that sense of distance and that intimacy of experience just knocks me for a loop.  Another writer whose skill with words extends to that perfect expression of moments of the soul is Virginia Woolf, my personal all-time favorite.

Here's an example from Fitzgerald - a scene that could be described this way:
Anthony and Gloria caught a cab.  They drove through the city at night, passing the tall buildings.  He kissed her.  She let him.
But this is how Fitzgerald describes it:
A cab yawned at the curb.  As it moved off like a boat on a labyrinthine ocean and lost itself among the inchoate night masses of great buildings, among the now stilled, now strident, cries and clangings, Anthony put his arm around the girl, drew her over to him and kissed her damp, childish mouth.
She was silent.  She turned her face up to him, pale under the wisps and patches of light that trailed in like moonshine through foliage.  Her eyes were gleaming ripples in the white lake of her face; the shadows of her hair bordered the brow with a persuasive unintimate dusk.   ...
Such a kiss - it was a flower held against the face, never to be described, scarcely to be remembered; as though her beauty itself were giving off emanations of itself which settled transiently and already dissolving upon his heart.
As my husband Sam pointed out, Hemingway probably would've wanted to punch Fitzgerald in the throat.  I, on the other hand, find this level of writing makes me both excruciatingly jealous (If only I wrote half so well!)  and utterly inspired.

Who are the writers that have this effect on you, that capture ineffable moments and make them, well, effable?

(By the way, in case your wondering, "inchoate" means "not fully formed" or "still developing" - apt for the night images of the buildings and for the relationship between Gloria and Anthony.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Speaking of High Concept: Fitzgerald on Hollywood and Novels

In my quest to read or re-read classics, I've been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED for the first time.  In one scene, set at a dinner party, a novelist meets a movie producer.  The following conversation ensues:
"I hear all the new novels are sold to the moving pictures as soon as they come out."
"That's true.  Of course the main thing in a moving picture is a strong story."
"Yes, I suppose so." 
"So many novels are all full of talk and psychology.  Of course those aren't as valuable to us.  It's impossible to make much of that interesting on the screen." 
"You want plots first," said Richard brilliantly. 
"Of course.  Plots first."  
Fitzgerald's novel was published in 1922, but this could have been a conversation at a writing conference today.  THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED itself certainly falls more into the category of "talk and psychology."  Fitzgerald captures moments, conversations, characters and images with such clarity and has such magnificent facility in the way he uses words that plot just doesn't seem so important.  I doubt anyone would consider his work to be "high concept."  "Literary fiction" perhaps?

There's an interesting challenge:  Write a pitch or query for a classic work of literature.  Can you spin it as "high concept"?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Room of One's Own: Honoring a Literary Foremother

[Apologies for this longer-than-usual post, but I believe it's worth the space during Women's History Month.  To hear an mp3 of this piece, go to this link on my website.]

As a woman and a writer, I think of Virginia Woolf as one of my foremothers.  Whenever I read Woolf’s 1928 essay A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, I am struck again by the truth of it and the profound sense of my own role in the great arc of the history of my gender.  Woolf's essay is an incredible, wide-ranging exploration, of which I have chosen a very small piece to share here.
Woolf begins by stating what she calls a “minor opinion”:  a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction...
She goes on to imagine a visit to a British men’s college where she is barred entry to the library because she is a woman.  While dining with a friend, she contrasts the great history of wealth and resources at the foundation of the all-male college with the woefully limited resources of Fernham, the nearby women’s college, founded by women and for women.
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? ...  
There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary's mother--if that was her picture--may have been a wastrel - in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church) - but, if so, her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. ...  
Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease to-night and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, ... physics, ... mathematics, ... relativity .... If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine .... We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon....  
Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been ... no Mary. ... For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it.  
... First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. ... If Mrs Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and all the rest of it?  But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all.  
Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property...  
So we talked standing at the window and looking, as so many thousands look every night, down on the domes and towers of the famous city beneath us. ... One thought of all the books that were assembled down there; ... of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space. Certainly our mothers had not provided us with any thing comparable to all this--our mothers who found it difficult to scrape together thirty thousand pounds, our mothers who bore thirteen children to ministers of religion at St Andrews.
Woolf ponders what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind.   She thinks about
... how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and ... how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; ... about the safety and prosperity of the one sex and  the poverty and insecurity of the other and  the effect of tradition and  the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer. 
Woolf goes to the British Musuem and finds it odd how many books about women were written by men.  Finally, she imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister, as gifted as he, and how impossible it would have been for the genius of Shakespeare’s sister ever to have found the light, let alone lived to see posterity.  And then she concludes:
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.   
This opportunity... is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so--... --and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; ... then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, ... she will be born.
As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
Today, I honor Women’s History Month  by honoring all our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and all our daughters and grand-daughters and great-granddaughters, whether they write fiction or bear and raise children or run for president, for we are all part of Women’s History.

[This edited version of Woolf's essay, with my intro and outro, was recorded at the Willamette Radio Workshop studio and first aired on Dmae Robert's Stage and Studio program on KBOO radio as part of Women's History Month.]

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Branching Out - Blogging Another Way

I recently came upon several thought-provoking posts about the whole concept of the digital platform as applied to fiction writers, with a specific focus on the notion of blogging as a means of building a reader base ("A Follow's Not a Book Sale" and "Author Blogging: You're Doing It Wrong").  It caused me to revisit something I'd been thinking about already - writing a new blog.  Not in place of this one but in addition to it.  A blog not for fellow writers but for potential readers.  A blog about the themes that interest me and that simmer at the heart of so much of my writing.

The fear:  How to focus that blog without limiting myself?  How do I identify those themes and prevent the blog from being wishywashy or lost in a sea of other blogs?  I suppose I will have to experiment.

So, what are my themes?  Well, spirituality for one.  Complex notions of God and religion.  People's relationships to God and religion.  Grief, loss, parenthood.  How society treats children.  God and Other Big Stuff.  And that's the name of my new blog.

As of now, it's an experiment.  We'll see if it lasts and where it goes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

White Space - The Impact of Paragraph Indents

When I was in elementary school, I learned about paragraphs through nonfiction writing.  We learned that a paragraph had a topic sentence, supporting details and a conclusion.  I don't remember how or if I learned about using paragraphs in fiction, other than the rule that a new speaker means a new paragraph.  

When I became a teacher and started working with the Lucy Culkins writing curriculum (which I've mentioned here before), I learned some good basic rules for paragraph breaks in narrative, rules I was probably following without even realizing it.  When there is a change in time, place or speaker, or when a new character enters the scene, you generally start a new paragraph.  

Of course, since narratives are about people, and people don't follow rules very well, the rules can only get you so far.  On my last round of revisions for SPARROW'S SECRET HEART, I found myself obsessing over the impact of paragraph breaks, the way that white space at the end of one line and the beginning of the next affected the rhythm and pacing of a scene and changed the emotional focus.  I realized paragraph breaks are a way to create beats.  

Just as a book is made of chapters and chapters are made of scenes, scenes are made of beats.  "Beat" is a term I first learned in theater.  According to, a "beat" is "the smallest unit of action in a scene. ... It involves a shift in the action, thought, or emotion of the actor."  (I invite my theater and acting friends to chime in here with better, more nuanced or experience-driven explanations).  

Are you on a late revision round and running into a moment that's just not working?  Maybe it's time to look at the beats and the paragraph breaks.  Within the rules, there's some wiggle room that just might make the difference.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Words of Wisdom on Revision, from Kent Brown at Highlights Foundation

The following came from Kent Brown at Highlights Foundation, with a tag at the end inviting folks to share.  I especially like Raymond Chandler's comment!:
"Revision is where the real story lives." 
Editorial consultant Eileen Robinson provided us with this thought. We wondered how many people in the children's book business feel the same way about revision. We found thousands of quotes from authors and editors alike, who, like Eileen, know that "revision is where the real story lives." 
"I'm a rewriter. That's the part I like best . . . once I have a pile of paper to work with, it's like having the pieces of a puzzle. I just have to put the pieces together to make a picture." Judy Blume 
"If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, 'Make it shine. It's worth it.' Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It's a new vision of something. It means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!" —Naomi Shihab Nye 
"Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain." —Elie Wiesel 
"Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon."—Raymond Chandler  
"Get your first draft done any way you can. Then the real work starts: revision." —Harold Underdown 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Jargon Part 2 - "High Concept"

I recently posted about the term "literary fiction."  Well, here's another one of my favorites - "high concept."  I turned once again to my trusty dictionary, but, alas, there were WAY too many entries for "high."  "Lofty"?  "Rich and luxurious?"  "In a high manner?"  "Elevated?"  "Socially superior?"  "The excited or stupefied state produced by a narcotic substance?" The one that came closest to the explanations I've heard for this puzzling term was "advanced toward its acme or fullest extent."  "Concept" was a little more straightforward:  "thought, idea or notion."

So, where did all this leave me, besides "in a stupefied state"?  I inferred that "high concept" meant a story whose idea was taken to an extreme.  But that still seemed pretty vague to me.  Off to the magical internet in search of useful blogposts to which I could  refer any loyal, or newly arrived, readers.  

Many of the links I found are directed towards scriptwriters.  Turns out "high concept" is a Hollywood term that has made its way from films to books.  That realization took me a long way towards an understanding of "high concept" applied to books.  It means "blockbuster movie potential."  

Perhaps that's just a tad cynical.  For more in-depth explanations, here are a few links:  My favorite, from a non-script-writer perspective, is the one at FictionMatters.  This explanation is fairly simple, acknowledges how annoying and befuddling this term can be, and speaks to us book types and the darker anxieties this term might stir up.  If you want the scriptwriter's explanation, try Writers Store, Absolute Write, or The Dark Salon, among others.

Personally, I'd like to see "high concept" and "literary fiction" thrown into the bin of overused and useless terms.  But that's just petulant little me.  Got any terms you'd like tossed in with them?

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