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White Space

In book design as in graphic arts generally, there is a place for ‘white space’ to allow the reader or viewer a pause, a respite, a small contemplative region on the page or canvas. I am currently in a personal ‘white space’ and have turned to a bit of self observation to figure out its significance, if any.

This blog has been, and continues to be, about lessons derived from my late-blooming plunge into writing. I have learned and reported on many of those experiences from gaining inspiration to character development to development of personal process to pacing and so forth and so on. When I began writing – at the urging of my beloved muse/editor/wifemate, Barbara – I had a minor explosion of output; eight or ten novellas during the first eight months followed by a long novella and an almost-novel-length work. All told, there are now 22 pieces on Amazon and a few not yet posted in my three year run. So, this ‘white space’ has come as somewhat of a surprise. I don’t think of it as ‘block’, the horrid and sinister block that writers fear is a sure sign that they are finished. No, it doesn’t feel that way at all and yet, I am currently not move to write. Ergo, I have come up with the term ‘white space’ in the absence of something snappier.

I have an inventory of plotlines recorded but, for whatever reason, they just don’t grab me at the moment. My best guess is that I am in a ‘reloading’ stage, doing a lot of reading and observing and not at all panicked into a puddle of guilt at not being bent over the keyboard or having the 1000 yard inspirational stare out the window between fevered paragraphs that leave the computer’s working memory hot and smoking. No, this is a new part of the process and one that I refuse to read as negative.

Of course, I could just be finished and not yet know it. We’ll see….

Why do it?

March 12, 2013 1 comment

What separates writers from non-writers? Part of it is the same thing that separates readers from non-readers; the rhythm of the words, being transported, having a story told to us (fiction) or new information to expand our knowledge (non-fiction). The writer provides the reciprocal, of course; writing the poetry of prose, telling a story, imparting knowledge.

For some, writing can be analogous to exercise. To begin with, we have simple goals of looking better, gaining stamina, maybe a health insurance investment. But, once into it, the doing becomes its own reward (read, endorphins kick in). Some get driven to be gym rats or running junkies beyond what will accomplish the original goal of a slim waist, lower blood pressure, et al, and just get into it for the pleasure of working up a good sweat or what comes with transposing brilliant images and thoughts to paper. Like gym ratism, some writers feel compelled to drive themselves with daily word goals, let’s-write-a-novel-in-a-month or other inventions of masochism. I’m not one of those people.

Personally, I enjoy the creation of a story that illuminates places, situations, and thought processes with word play knowing that it is keeping my axe sharp and may, just may, provide entertainment or elucidation for others. But, a literary Iron Man competitions? Not this boy.

The Clever Turn of Phrase

As in ‘you are what you eat’, you are also what you read, who you associate with, etc. It is said that writers must read, and read broadly and habitually. It spices and enriches the tapestry of your life and the larder from which you may draw. One writer may give you description, another dialog or tension. If we are lucky, we find those who can give it all. We all have our favorites but we must push outside our comfort zones to find those writers who can shake up the pace or cadence or provide new ‘nuggets’ of expression.

My favorite writer for creating clever, original phrases – ‘nuggets’ — is the veteran film critic for the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morganstern. He reviews movies in the WSJ every Friday and can be accessed online even without the pay wall subscription. Although he doesn’t forge an original every single Friday, he brings them on regularly whereupon I shake my head, cluck and mutter, ‘By God, he’s done it again.’ I am the richer for Joe’s nuggets of expression. Who does that for you?

Your Thousand Strokes

February 4, 2013 1 comment

If you are a writer and read lots of blogs (as I do) for, about and by writers, you will hear from many – though not all – that you should write every day. They’re not necessarily saying write on your project, but write SOMETHING. After being steeped in this mantra it occurred to me that the sub-text was to think about expressing through writing every day. They’re saying the craft discipline of expressing ANYTHING in writing – dialog, description, interior analysis – will be automatically honed by the exercise.

I once shared a NYC apartment with an accomplished and recognized painter who taught at the Art Students League and University of Wisconsin. He went out every day and sketched in the park. When I asked why he had to do that at this advanced stage of his career, he replied, ‘I have to get in my thousand strokes a day’.

That’s us, too, gang. We, also, have to get in our thousand strokes.

Staccato:

Def: marked by or composed of abrupt, disconnected parts (usually referring to musical work).

Tip: It’s not necessary to maintain a smooth, uninterrupted flow in your story narrative. Try a jump/shift to catch the reader off guard. It can intrigue, challenge and compliment the reader’s perceptive capabilities. Once the reader sorts it out, he/she will say, ‘That was cool’.

My favorite for the jump/shift is John Le Carre. It’s like that old W.C. Fields saying, ‘It was a woman who drove me to drink and I never wrote to thank her’. Well, it was Le Carre who jolted me in the midst of story flow and I should have written to thank him. For wonderful examples, read his ‘The Perfect Spy’ (that one reviewer called ‘the perfect novel’).

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Defined Playgrounds:

There are mystery stories and there are action adventures. In the action adventure, lots of stuff happens – many times the same action as a mystery – only you see it all unfold, perhaps from both sides of a conflict. In a mystery, something happens – a death, abduction, theft – but you have to find out the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘who’ through the progressive revelations of clues and unearthed facts that must be pieced together. The answers are presented in the denouement, the dramatic revelation(s) that tie up all the uncertainties the author has created.

I have written 20 action adventures but only two mysteries. Perhaps that’s because mysteries must be diabolically constructed with false clues (‘red herrings’) to divert and misdirect. More work for the lazy writer.

Another definitive difference is that between a novel and a script. Although they can be, and often are, about the same subject, there is a paramount difference; the novel allows interior dialog and the script requires that the story be told in dialog only. If you write a novel, as I have, then decide to present it in script form, it is immediately evident, sometimes from the first paragraph, that any thought must be verbalized. Daunting, but achievable. Oh, there is opportunity to provide stage direction but an author is wise to keep this to a minimum as it encroaches on the movie or play director’s purview. Creative fiefdoms must be respected.

The ongoing flow

December 26, 2012 1 comment

The end of a year, the beginning of another. One door closes, another opens. Is there something exciting about it? No. Is there something profound about it? Yes. End of the world? No. Beginning of a dramatically different world? No.

So, what’s the significance?

One of the positive things about getting old – I’m 75 – is the increasing ability to see the flow, the continuum. It may have been fun to indulge in the idea that the World would end, or at least dramatically change, with Y2K or the Mayan Calendar deadline but, the truth, the reality, is that we continue moving along. That’s not to say things stay the same, just that real change is glacial.

But, back to the subject and the subject of this blog is writing and attendant issues. So, what’s the connection with the year end frivolities and writing? I ascribe to the POV that, although there is nothing new under the sun, creativity is alive and well. Contradictory? Sure, on the surface. All the themes have been done, all the stories told, same old words arranged and rearranged. True, but…

The glory of humanity is waking up and pressing on to deal with the daily challenges, the constant mixing and remixing of human activity to suit ever-evolving events. And, for writers, its about connecting with fellow Earthlings to relate, to comfort, to excite, to console, to explain. There is joy in striking the spark of connection, be it ever so brief. We live for it.

Happy New Year…but, don’t take it too seriously.

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Re-reading Le Carre

I was sent to the woodshed to study up on tense issues. At the urging of my editor/muse/wife, BaBa the Beautiful, I turned to rereading some of the early works of one of my favorite authors, John Le Carre, and found lessons and inspiration once again. I opened what was perhaps his first work, ‘Call for the Dead’ and was charmed/seduced/instructed anew. He writes in a deceptively simple style that pulls me on like an old boot. This first work starts with a prolog called ‘A Brief History of George Smiley’ that does a novel’s worth of character exposition in five pages. Masterful.

Le Carre has a way of painting his protagonists as ciphers who burst forth with strength and resolution when needed. He lulls then ambushes.

Another Le Carre signature is his respect for his readers’ intelligence as demonstrated by his jump shifting times and places. When I first encountered this in ‘The Perfect Spy’ – one reviewer called it The Perfect Novel – I thought perhaps it was a mistake. But, upon a bit of backtracking and reorientation, I took it as a personal compliment that Le Carre thought I would pick it up and press on. He was right. I did and pressed on thinking,‘Wow, that was cool!’

Playing ‘what if…?

The surest way to cure writer’s block – or writer’s temporary lapse of inspiration – is to play ‘what if’. Anyone can play. All it takes is to clear the mind and contemplate events, either inside or outside one’s actual life. Let’s play right now:
• Situation: high school reunion. Possibilities: What if one of your class mates could not be located, had simply dropped from the map? Had he/she simply gotten married and changed name? Moved to a foreign country? Or, was in one of our majesty’s secret services? Or in prison? How/why did that happen?
• Situation: you see a familiar looking face in the background of a newspaper photo. Possibilities: If a red carpet Hollywood shot or a disaster situation, how did that person put themselves into that situation as it was way outside of the known or expected life path?
• Situation: you barely missed getting creamed at an intersection. Possibilities: What if you had and you went into a coma, your mate bailed but you recovered to face the total rebuilding of your life? Or, what if the trauma provided you with new skills and capabilities and allowed you find fame and fortune in a new field? Or, both.
• Situation: you are trapped in an elevator with someone for whom you have had little interest or regard. Possibilities: What if you found that the extended conversation revealed absolutely congruent interests, humor, world view? What if lust and opportunity brought on a spontaneous erotic event that was erased as soon as the doors were pried open? Or, you discovered that the guy was your wife’s lover? Oye!
‘What if…’ is a game anyone can play and every writer should play.

Throwing (or writing) like a girl

November 8, 2012 1 comment

I’m at the stage of life where I go to Little League games to watch and cheer on my grandson. In the stands a few games ago, I turned to another oldster and said, ‘You have a boy in the game?’ He replied, ‘Yep. You’ll see him. He throws like a girl.’

I watched the boys warming up and, sure enough, it was easy to pick out his grandson. He threw like a girl. I tried to capture what characterized the distinctive throwing delivery but could only return to the old saw about pornography, ‘I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it.’ (By the way, he played just fine despite his odd throwing style).

This brings me to the actual point of this blog post: writing like a girl. You see, I’m a man. Been one all my life and didn’t realize I couldn’t write like a girl until I tried it. Actually, it’s more basic than that; I didn’t know how to think like a girl.

I had a perfectly good premise for a story. It was about a middle age woman with grown kids and a husband totally immersed in his work. Feeling adrift, she decided to take a solo trip through the southwest of England, ergo the name ‘Southwest’. Obviously, I couldn’t have her just wander around by herself so I had her hook up with a young Irish girl waiting tables in a B&B and decide impulsively to help the girl out of a jam. I thought I was doing okay until I tried to divine how the women would relate to each other. That’s where I ran off the tracks.

When I showed my brilliant draft to some women, I was universally booed off the stage. ‘No, no, no! That’s not how they would relate or how they would discuss sensitive matters. You’re going at this like a typical man; just bulling your way in and crashing around breaking crockery.’ Ouch. Looks like my feminine side was not as evolved as I had thought. Back to the WIP for a thorough rethinking.

The moral of this tale of woe (although I’m told I finally got it right): Writing like a woman takes a different mindset and it’s imperative that real women parse any effort of a man to convincingly imitate female thought, action or communication. I have been properly chastened.

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