REVIEW: Writing Tools

If you write you need this book.

Roy Peter Clarke’s focus is on providing a writer a box of tools. From copy editing to point of view and project management of writing projects, his insights and common sense approach make this the most useful writing book I’ve seen in years. His background point of contact is in journalism, but the lessons can be applied to all writing styles.

My personal favourite is the chapter on generating a story question. Here, he talks about the “story engine” — a concept I first learned about from Sol Stein. Mr. Clarke refines this concept and shows how a question can help a writer to tame those sub-plots.

This is most definitely a go-to resource for editing your work and punching up your prose.

REVIEW: The Art of Memoir

I heard Ms Karr interviewed on the most wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and was so intrigued ordered it.

At first I loved the voice in this book on writing memoir. So authentic, honest, gritty and modern. But soon the book became all about that voice. In some cases, the nuggets she attempts to deliver are so much in “her voice” that it’s hard to understand what she means. This book is supposed to help someone write memoir, but there are times when the message is so opaque, it’s unclear.

That’s not to say there aren’t bits of value.

I agree on how writers need to learn how to include the “carnal” in their writing to capture readers. And yet I disagree with the use of the word “carnal.” She is talking about the senses: Visual, auditory, sensory (touch), olfactory, taste. Many a memoir midwife will tell you, the doorway into writing about the past is through the senses. Recalling the smells, tastes, touches brings a writer into the moment, which leads to other memories. But to me, the word carnal implies sex. Of course, a memoirist can dive in between the sheets, but there are so many more planes to sensual experiences. So it’s a quibble, and she very likely has her reasons.

Karr has great points and bits of advice on finding voice, integrating back story, including some excellent examples. I’m normally not keen on authors who use their own books as examples, but she is wise in how she uses them here.

A great bonus is the last section with a list of memoirs and books on writing memoir. Very useful.

I recommend this book for people who are currently working on a memoir, but not just starting one. My reason: This is sold as a synthesis of her great experience in teaching memoir and writing memoir. But it is not a step-by-step how-to. Half of it is skippable. But the nuggets are so valuable, to a writer who has dug in and going would find some great ideas to reflect on and lenses to review their work.

REVIEW: The Comic Toolbox

This little book is jam-packed with tools that will help any and every writer, regardless of genre. With down-to-earth language, and brief explanations, Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks.

From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty).

As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

His explanation of plot structure is a 9-point list:

* Who is the hero?
* What does the hero want?
* The door opens
* Hero takes control
* A monkey wrench is thrown
* Things fall apart
* Hero hits bottoms
* Hero risks all
* What does the hero get?

If you include all of these points in your story (as he explains one by one), then it will work as any kind of story. This list parallels and expands slightly on the 3-act structure of commercial feature films (inciting incident, Climax 1, 2, 3). The only thing I’d add to his list is that when the door opens, the character walks through it. Because until the character acts in a way that reveals character, the story engine doesn’t get in gear.

What’s really useful about a tool like this is you can fit the answers to the questions on a single page, so it serves as your pencil sketch, thinking tool, your briefest of outlines, to help you manage the narrative arc of your story. Great stuff.

Since it’s a comic toolbox, it covers the comic premise, comic story types, joke types, situation comedy, sketch comedy and more using oodles of easy to understand examples. After introducing each simple tool he encourages you to try them out.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its title and sub-title, The Comic Toolbox: How to be funny even if you’re not.

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write.

Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective.

A metamorphosis

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The publishing game, like the recording industry, is in evolution. Book publishers are struggling. Many authors with impressive publishing records are finding it hard to place their work. Bookstores are disappearing. According to some, the novel is a dying art form.

Dying or evolving?

I would argue, however, this kind of hyperbole is the easy way out and it does nothing to pinpoint where the real change resides.

Will Self wrote a compelling (and long) piece for the Guardian about the novel’s demise, pointing out that the long narrative form is in an evolutionary stage, not a death rattle. I think he’s got a point. The novel is just one type of long form narrative. Prior to the novel’s prevalence, Dickens was publishing his stories in magazine serials.

In the New Yorker, George Packer wrote a piece, Is Amazon Bad for Books? about how Jeff Bezos used the book industry to gather data and figure out how to sell stuff to intelligent people. In doing so, he removed the publishing gatekeepers from their castles and turned publishing into a two-tiered system. On the one hand, there are the Harry Potter Shades of Grey trends that go from page to movie screen to McDonald’s plastic lunch figurines. Below that there’s a swamp of cheap unknowns. Gradually, the masses are becoming the gatekeepers.

If his version of the trend is correct, we’ll we end up with picture books of cats and dogs.

Cats and dogs

As much as I like cats and dogs, I don’t think I could survive on a steady diet of them.

I bet there are many others who feel the same. More people than ever are curling up with their kindles or kobos or iphones. They’re reading on packed streetcars and planes. They’re drinking too much wine at reading clubs trying to remember explain metaphors. They’re hearing and participating in Canada Reads debates and lapping up Oprah’s recommendations (I’d link to her, but her site is weird and I don’t think she needs the promo 😉 ).

We crave those moments, sitting alone, allowing our imaginations to take wing. Where the stage of imagery is on the screen of our minds, rather than constructed for us. Where stories allow us to explore places and experiences outside the realm of normal day-to-day schedules.

The gatekeeper role is changing places, but it doesn’t mean that, in all cases, they’re lowering their standards.

Less talk, more action

A few initiatives are out there that are helping to figure this conundrum out.

In a new blog on self-publishing, The Guardian makes a very good point: The trouble with many self-published projects is quality. New authors, so proud of the plain act of stringing so many words together, get their work out without much reflection or input. Then they’re defeated when their work doesn’t catch on. Or, writers who do manage to find quality are not so good at promoting their work, and get lost in the deluge.

But how do you get a one-man band to realize they may be very good at playing the harmonica, but may need some help with the bass drum?

Indie Author Land has a competition to find the 50 best self-published books of the past year. They received 5,000 nominations in 2 weeks. (Yikes!).

Should book publishers be morphing into book development midwives? Change the emphasis from putting stories on printed pages and focus on developing the writers? A model similar to that has existed for playwrights in Canada (PDCC). These organizations read early drafts of a playwright’s work, provide feedback and when ready, hold a reading with professional actors. These organizations are government funded, but so are literary presses.

If anyone out there knows of another indie author community, please let me know in the comments. Or do you have something to say on this topic? Go for it.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Rhythm. Energy. It’s in everything we do. As an artist, part of your job is to create energy. To shift the mood of your audience from wherever they are in their real lives to where you want them to be. And it better be someplace special, or who will want to stick around?

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Ai Weiwei

Visual artists do this with colour and shape and ideas and how these components flow together. They take the familiar and turn it upside down or backwards so we can see it in a new light. For example, Ai Weiwei creating what looks like an ancient ceramic urn bearing the Coca-Cola logo.

When a rock star steps onto the stage, their job is to create energy. Their tools include instrumentation, poetic phrases, dance and encouragement. If they do their job well, we wind up singing across the abyss in bliss with them.

Writers create worlds with words. By careful selection, sentence length, point of view of the writing and characters, we create a swirl of a journey.

When done well, the audience is so caught up, the medium disappears. We’re not looking at an urn, we’re turning our thoughts to how advertising has taken over the world. We’re not at a concert, we’re Walking on the Milky Way. We’re not sitting on the couch reading, we’re fighting dragons in Middle Earth.

We become invested in a two-way, collaborative process, where we are as actively involved in creating meaning for ourselves as the artist was in creating the work. The reward is a pleasure that is most intimate, as if our souls are rewritten and joined together through participation. We feel ourselves open up and see the world afresh.

The act of creation is indeed magical, isn’t it? To start with nothing more than a thought and wind it up into an energy that people recognize. It’s an amazing power; to make people feel something; to bring them into a world of our own making. Nothing is more powerful than that. I call it, “making like a god,” because artists create something out of nothing more than thoughts.

But how does a writer get there?

In creative writing workshops a piece of writing is put on the table and participants dissect what they like/don’t like, believe/don’t believe about it. This teaches writers to dissect their work, not build on it. I’ve got a problem with that.

One of my favourite books on writing is called “How Not to Write a Play,” by Walter Kerr. A key theme of this book:  “the critic dissects, the artist unifies,” and it couldn’t be more apt for would-be writers. Kerr speaks of writing by touch, of how to explore your ideas while keeping your analytical brain at bay until it’s needed.

I find this idea really interesting, particularly in light of recent brain research (Watch the BBC’s The Creative Brain How Insight Works). Apparently, when jazz musicians are improvising, they turn off portions of the pre-frontal lobe of their brain — the bit that controls planning and strategizing. It is also the part that makes us self-conscious, forcing us to control our behaviour.

To shut off the analytical brain and write by touch, you need to find a process that allows you to let your imagination drift without judgement. As many writers put it, it is very much like an archeological dig, where you are trying to uncover ancient gems inside you. As W.H. Auden put it:

“A poet writes ‘The chestnut’s comfortable root’ and then changes this to ‘The chestnut’s customary root.’ In this alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. ‘8357. No, that’s not it. 8557. 8457, no, it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a minute, I’ve got it, 8657. That’s it'”

Auden uses ’emotion,’ I prefer ‘energy’ — because it implies something physical as opposed to internal. Emotion sucks you in, while movement is emotion realized.

Some Tools

To prompt uncovering, I suggest turning to the tools of the method actor.  Here’s a few:

  • Artist’s journal: Big ideas usually start with small and specific images. As you come across examples that demonstrate the texture and timber of life, jot them down. The vacant smile of the sales clerk. The mother’s glance to her daughter, full of love. The flash of anger on the bus driver’s face. The young girl playing lazily in the sand on the beach. The body tension of someone caught in a lie. All of it fodder for characters, moments, exchanges.
  • Music: Do you write while listening to music? Make sure it’s helping you, not standing in your way. Lyrics can  impose language and rhythms into your writing, even if you’re not aware of it. So, choose well. On the other hand, music can help you find energy.  Writing a death scene? Maybe a requiem mass will help. A happy scene? Put on a boppy song that makes you want to move. How can you capture that energy and put it on the page?
  • Play dress up: Find a piece of clothing that puts you in the role you are writing. Look at yourself in the mirror. Feel the texture of the fabric. Smell. How can you use that clothing? Is it getting in the way but the character insists on wearing it?
  • Play act: If you’re in costume, you might as well take it all the way. Imagine yourself in the scene, as if you’re playing to a camera. Play all of the characters, one at a time or all at the same time. Move as they would need to move. Imagine the room where they are. What are the smells? What moments of poignancy do you find? What are the moods of the other people? What actions communicate their moods?
  • Breathe: Breathe? Yes, breathe. As all actors and singers know, the breath impacts emotion. So, let’s say you’re writing a scene about a car chase. Breathing fast and low can help you to get closer to where the character’s emotional world would be. How about a sensuous sex scene? Breathe deep and slowly now as my fingers play with the hairs at the nape of your neck.

Oh, excuse me. Ahem. (straightens her clothing)

  • Pictures: Look for images that get across the mood you want to create. Paste them on the wall or carry them in a folder and flip through them.
  • Write: Create a diary of what life is like for your character for a few normal, boring days. What is bothering them, making them feel insecure? What are their joys? Or write a monologue about an important time from their history that has impacted their character. Perhaps it was a terrifying encounter with a snake or the most joyful moment of their life so far.
  • Read it aloud: When you’re finished writing something, stand up and read it aloud. Feel the rhythms of the dialogue, the flows of description. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Are you caught up, or are you bored? Make notes as you go, revise, print, stand up and do it again.
  • Research: All of what I’ve talked about here could be termed ‘research.’ But to be a bit more academic, you might want to read a book on a topic, or at least Google it. Walk the street where you imagine a scene taking place. Note the cracks in the sidewalk, the sounds, the smells.

 Method madness

Tools like these help actors get under the skin of their characters. To really ‘be’ their characters. To find the energy for the moment at hand. The closer you can get yourself in that energy, the more likely you’ll re-create it on the page. Little details you find in your energy search can become powerful metaphors, or rhythms that can affect how your audience feels. They make your work more real, on an emotional level. And that’s what it’s all about.

Now, this is not to say that using your analytical brain isn’t an important part of the process. But at the wrong point, it can kill creative energy rather than build on it.

Always remember, you are creating a ride of energy for your audience. Don’t pick. Make like a god and create something powerful out of nothing but words.

Do you have an energy search tool that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment.

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How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.