Sunday, November 30, 2008

Any Portal in a Storm

portal--a doorway between or entryway from one landscape to another; most famously the rabbit hole into which Alice (of Wonderland fame) tumbled from the world of reality to Lewis Carroll's world of imagination and satire. A considerable subset of the fantasy genre is populated with portal stories in which characters are able to move variously from one universe to another or one time frame to another. Some famous portals are antique shops, Chinese laundries, apothecaries, and news kiosks which have a habit of offering certain inducements or products to certain characters, then disappearing when the characters, experiencing buyers' remorse, seek to return. Yet another famed portal is a park bench in Oxford, England, a site where Lyra Belacqua and her love, Will Parry, characters from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, sit at the same time on the same day of the year, there to hold hands across the boundaries of separate worlds.

The concept of the portal is not limited to such fantasy-related concepts as alternate universes, this for the same reason that fantasy fiction is an important construct for all story tellers. In an excruciatingly real way, every novel and short story is set in an alternate universe, one that is somewhat of this present reality and equally somewhat of the author's concept of what this present reality is. Portals allow the writer a glimpse into the alternate universe, along with the challenge of fleshing it out, making it seem plausible to the characters who patrol it as well as the readers who read about it.

In any convincing story, characters stumble or are drawn into portals they has not recognized as portals; they emerge to discover themselves in a world that may not be hospitable, may in fact be outright menacing, therein to pursue their agendas according to the risks and realities of the universe in which they find themselves. Just as personal traits help define characters, details and conventions of behavior define the world in which characters awaken then attempt to function in.

Dorothy Gale has been drawn into the land of Oz through the whirl of a cyclone, Alice has stumbled into the notional and autocratic world at the other side of the rabbit hole while Philip Marlowe is drawn into the shadowy illegalities of the greater Los Angeles Basin through the portal of a scratched and battered office in an undistinguished office on the lower reaches of Hollywood Boulevard. Similarly, through the highly idiosyncratic portal of Yoknopatatha County, an imaginary venue in the state of Mississippi, we gain access to the alternate universe of the rural United States South, a regional portal through which is seen a vision of America as variegated and painfully naked truth as possible, one so specific in its nature that it becomes ironically universal.

How characters come to be in such alternate universes, how they are seen by the denizens of these universes, and how they seek either to remain or find their way out are the essential natures of story.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Guess Who I Bumped Into

collision--an accelerated impact of two or more objects, two or more persons, an unlimited number of persons and objects/bodies. A vital dramatic verb--you might even think of it as an intransigent verb--collide refers to the very clashes of individuals, agendas, and conventional behavior that informs and buoys story. Collision is conflict living in the immediate moment, so much so that you can hear the clink of body armor, the sighs of exasperation, the grunts of frustration.

In everyday life, individuals bump into one another, mumble a brief apology (for they are truly sorry), then move on. In story, individuals who are already late for some significant event do not merely bump, they collide. Tempers flare. Frustration sprays rampant like a dropped garden hose turned at full power.

After characters and voice, collision is such an essential ingredient in story that the merest hint of it will arouse reader anticipation; the results of it will send characters and careening merrily and idiosyncratically forth like toothpaste out of a tightly held tube. Story can not only be explained in terms of collision, it is set in motion by the impact of conflict. Imagine the unusually long building known as a linear accelerator, in which minute particles are caused to move about at unimaginable speed before being sent down these long corridors to--you guessed it--collide with other minute particles, which then behave in a multitude of idiosyncratic ways, not the least of which is that they are never the same as before the collision.

A young woman, already a tad late for an interview where she will be considered for a position in a prestigious law firm, collides with a distinguished looking man in the lobby of the building housing the law firm's offices. Of course this is a romance, of course he is the man who is to interview her, of course she thinks he is insufferably rude. This is how characters collide in romances.
They collide in differing ways in the various genera in literary stories they collide out of conscience and lust and jealousy and accident and...what have you.

Collision is what happens on Black Fridays in front of Wal-Mart Stores and again on Boxing Day, where the after Christmas Specials collide with those wanting to return gifts for credits. Collision is the consequence of conflict, its side-effects remain like pesky guests who stay to help with the clean-up but invariably fall asleep on the sofa.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I Don't Have to Live This Way

agenda--what a character wants; an achievement, goal, or status that propels the character's behavior throughout the arc of the story in which the character is involved. As the story develops, the reader and perhaps other characters in the story gain an understanding of what the individual with agenda is willing to do in order to realize his goal. Agenda is much like the magnetized cards substituting for keys at hotels and motels; without them, the character doesn't get entry into a scene much less the story. Even minor characters have agendas. Major or minor in status, each character has a strong sense of entitlement to the agenda and is impacted by the hoped-for result of achieving it. Simply put, agenda is the armature about which character is wrapped.
Before considering such details as physical appearance or relationship to other characters, a writer will do well to consider the why and wherefore of the agenda that character carries, then perhaps the writer can consider the relative importance of what that character was doing before making appearances in various scenes, then the expectations that character had in entering the scene. Next would come the character's relationship (if any) with the theme of the story and/or the other characters. Then the writer may consider physical attributes.
A postal service worker, taxi driver, or deliverer of a pizza or take-out Chinese, more or less faceless, throw-away characters, nevertheless preserve the vital atmosphere of plausible reality if they are allotted agenda. Thus the mail delivery person has the agenda of wanting assurance that the recipient gets the intended letter, the taxi driver has perhaps a political agenda or wants an agent for his screenplay, the pizza delivery person is an actor awaiting discovery by a casting director. The extra line or dialogue or gesture provided by such individuals is another layer of reality painted onto the story.
Regardless of whether the story is genre or literary, agenda is an essential ingredient. By checking agenda, the reader is drawn in to a greater understanding of the intent and scope of the story, the writer is given clues for the ending, and the characters are given clues for idiosyncratic behavior that yanks them, kicking and screaming, from the comfortable shadow land of cliche.
Some characters of necessity hide their agendas, their behavior carefully controlled to conceal their overarching intent. Thus one of the more useful tests applied to persons in reality and characters in story: Does this individual's behavior hint at a hidden agenda? The result of behavior intended to conceal an agenda is an entire layer of irony. (Imagine the delicious irony in a character hoping to conceal an agenda with a range of behavior that ultimately convinces him of the wrongness of his agenda and the moral correctness of his subterfuge.)
One of the many reasons for the popularity of the mystery or suspense story is the opportunity for the reader to match wits with the author, the detectives, and the cast of characters in the examination of agenda (motive).
Agenda in fiction does not have to be any more rational than it is in real life. Ahab had intellectual reasons for wanting revenge on the whale, but seeing his tortured physical appearance was enough to suggest validity to his quest.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Block Party

block--both a concept and a device, each of which is vital to the storyteller's success in keeping the story alive and in motion.

As a concept, block becomes a verb which goes to work by way of mapping the setting of a particular dramatic landscape, dramatizing it with the details and sensory attributes that fit the author's intent and which contribute to the discomfort of the characters. A scene that has been blocked out is a Google map which shows the reader who is positioned where, what shifts in position there are, how the characters pursue their separate agendas, how they respond to other characters, at the same time suggesting the subtext of the truthful regard each character has for all the others. A blocked scene also contains relevant information about temperature, time, smell, taste, relative states of light and dark, color, as well the relative openness of space or the pressure of a closed-in space. As an extreme example of this construct at work, imagine a claustrophobic character and an agoraphobic character in the same setting, first a small, cell-like enclosure, then in a commodious locale with a breathtaking vista.

Storytellers who do not at some point in the writing process block out each scene and every bit of narrative connection run the risk of having the work appear one-dimensional or confining. Knowing where everyone is or will be in a scene helps determine as one example, of the benefits to be had from blocking, whether the characters can whisper to one another or must shout in order to be heard.

As a device, block becomes a presence or condition that prevents a character from pursuing a stated agenda; it may also be a condition having its effect on a large number of individuals who are rendered fearful of acting or frustrated that they cannot act as they might wish, or resentful that they have been issued an order not to perform a particular action even though they may have ardently wished to do so. Thus block becomes an obstacle which makes itself felt, repeat felt, by a character whose options to keep the story alive are direct opposition, seething resentment, disappointment, immediate embarkation on a counter offensive, or abject surrender. Fear is another exceptional dramatic obstacle; so is conscience. Macbeth is quite prepared to kill Malcolm as a necessary step to further his goal. Screwing up his courage to commit the murder, Macbeth observes a servant carrying a dinner tray to Malcolm, whereupon Macbeth's conscience steps in to block him, to become an obstacle. Macbeth cannot for a time bring himself to kill Malcolm. The obstacle creates dramatic tension, building to suspense. In this sense, story is like the bait-and-switch of advertising and retailing technique: a desirable product is shown at an attractive price, but when the customer appears to claim it, he is either told it is no longer available or the customer is shown another, more expensive product. In either case, the customer is diverted from his original intention. Readers not only want to be baited and switched, they expect it.

The writer who knows his characters well enough to see and manipulate the obstacles or each character remains in control of the need of the story to be shoved, driven, propelled against obstacle. This knowledge will lead the writer to understand how vital blockage is for the reader. As a story develops, the reader begins to take sides, root for particular characters to achieve their goals. But if the characters achieve their main goals too soon or too easily, the story is seen as a cheat or at best a dismal failure. This understanding of block-as-obstacle produces the useful dictum: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go.

Once the characters arrive at a point where the reader wants them to be, the story is over. A story that continues to generate activity and resulting movement after its major dramatic effect has been established is appropriately diagnosed as suffering from anticlimax.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Acting Up

act--the noun, not the verb. An orchestrated and contrived performance given by one or more persons, intended to define reality while pursuing some agenda; hence the judgmental, a class act, meaning a person or group whose behavior suggests quality and substantial grace of approach; or a step beyond, a tough act to follow, meaning an extraordinary performance, or getting one's act together, suggesting an orchestrated routine of behavior intended to produce a desired effect.. A component of a stage play, an act contains one or more scenes in which character simultaneously pursue agendas and through their actions reveal relevant individual traits. The act is the thematic framework in which story is set in motion, then advanced as the characters, attempting to be true to their intentions, confront opposition, reversal, and surprise.

Although meant originally as a theatrical segment, the act is a useful reminder to the short story writer and novelist as a check list of events that have happened, that should have happened, the might happen, and are being actively hoped for. An act is a larger Petri dish of smaller segments, scenes, which have some temporal or thematic hierarchy. Many short stories are readily transformed into a one-act play. Many longer novels are reduced to the equivalent of a short story before being transformed into a motion picture. (William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, is an example of the transformation from a number of acts on its way to becoming a motion picture.)

Instructive examples of acts: act one, scene two of Richard III by William Shakespeare sets forth characters and their agendas in immediate and irresistible motion. Act one, scene one of St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw quickly establishes a political climate, introduces the background of an as-yet unseen major character, all the while evoking the ambiance of a time in the distant past. Act one, scene one of Entertaining Mr. Sloan by Joe Orton presents an immediate agenda which foreshadows a bold, arresting conclusion, ironic in its Solomon-like logic.

As a verb, act connotes individuals who assume or take on agendas, attitudes, and entire modes of behavior that are not necessarily their own. In most stories, this acting is apparent to the reader if not the other characters, thus forming a double bind with irony; the author has conspired with the reader at the expense of the characters to produce this effect.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Perfect Timing

At most concerts performed in the Western world, the concertmaster arrives on stage with a pre-tuned violin, a particular tuning fork or, in more recent times, an electronic device which sounds the Concert A, the A above middle C, which vibrates at 440 cycles per second. The orchestra then proceeds to tune their instruments on that Concert A,

In many motion pictures involving men in the midst of war, some individual of leadership role makes a count-down with his watch, directing all others to synchronize their watches NOW.

Both rituals are signals: some concentrated and coordinated form of behavior is about to take place.

Scenes in short stories and novels are ultimately concentrated and coordinated as well. Interestingly enough, some concert conductors will set the level of the Concert A at 442 cycles per second when the work to be played might profit from a sense of faster pace. The Concert A may be dropped to a 438, as well to suggest a subtle adjustment to tempo.

The writer is more or less the literary equivalent of the concert conductor, most likely to use length of sentences, choice of words, and details or their lack thereof as adjuncts to tempo, and since the writer also has in the literary tool kit the ability to suspend or compress time, the count-down with a wristwatch is not always employed.

Nevertheless. Timing--pacing, if you will--is an important element in a scene, and a musical composition is a nice analogy to have in mind, if not while constructing the scene, then certainly when revising the scene.

By the time we've finished writing the scene, we have a fair idea of how long in virtual time it covers, how much action, how many exchanges of dialogue, how many reactions, how many pauses are part of the recipe. The one ingredient most likely to be overlooked is the pause. Another way to express this situation is to say that there is never nothing going on, no pace, tempo, action, or movement. Rather there is the coordinated form of characters reacting to their surroundings, to one another, to the unexpected circumstances that emerge between them, complicated, perhaps even inhibited or driven by their individual agendas and their fears of being found out.

These moments of drama are called beats. A character doing something is a beat. A character not doing something produces a beat which is the equivalent of a return volley in tennis, an arcing lob or a forehand smash. A scene begins when characters do something or do not do something. And then someone responds. And then someone reacts. And then...

It is not always necessary to have unrelenting action. Indeed, too much action can cut off the emotional responses of the characters, responses which, according to the rate with which they take place can inform the tenor of the scene. Fast action can remind the reader of those iconic film clips of The Keystone Kops, erupting forth in lock-step idiocy; slow action can project lugubriousness or its first cousin, careful concern.

Some scenes need to have the author removed from them, particularly if the author seems to be embarrassed by the pace, the pauses between words or kisses or looks. One way to look at a scene is to consider it as a complex series of reactions between characters who can't fully grasp what's happening to them and who are trying to accommodate to events as well as possible. They are individuals who are facing examinations, performance reviews, legal trials, declarations of love, desires to perform or not perform, called upon under extreme circumstances, absolutely certain of success or failure, morally certain, morally uncertain, wanting to be somewhere else. They are us and we have put them there because we had to out of curiosity and a wish to know.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Reality Check

In our personal lives we interact with friends, family, associates. If we are of the writing bent or the teaching bent, we interact with students and readers, wanting to exchange with them on yet another level than the level of friend, family, and associate. To these students or readers, we want to convey, to pass along information, to encourage. As well, we want to entertain. There is no expressed or implied hierarchy in the listed order of these things. It is not wrong for instance to want to entertain our students or encourage our readers.

There is yet another level at which we interact, offering many of the things we offer to our friends, family, and associates; in the bargain we add the things we wish to offer our students and readers. This level is, of course, the level of the self. I surely have moments where I wish to entertain myself or encourage myself. There are also moments where I wish to pass along information, moments where I am reminded of the process I go through when I wish to offer a sales person a check or credit card but cannot find my wallet, which is to say I cannot always locate the encouragement or entertainment I hope to offer myself, much less the information.

This laundry list of associations and associates and relationships is multifarious depending on my mood in a given moment and my target of intentions. Whether knowingly or not, I draw on this swath of associations, responses, and agendas while informing the interactions between characters, either in short stories or longer works. This point is a border crossing between countries; it is easier to get into Mexico or Canada than to get out of them and back to the U.S.; the Brits seem to want to know what took me so long in getting there in the first place and at least during the gurgling administration of George W. Bush, they seemed to wonder why I would want to return to such a place.

Going from relations between self and friends, family, associates, and the like to relations among characters is going from arithmetic progression to the exponential--because there are so many of them and relatively so few of me and friends, family, associates. One of the first things I notice when crossing the border is that spoken language becomes different; it is no longer conversational, thus such conversational tropes as I might use need to be harnessed. "How are things going?" innocent enough, needs to be countered with "You're asking how things are going?" Of course I could render that response "You're asking how things are going?"which in fact does add an edge of attitude to the response somewhat different than the mere repetition.

As things stand, the mere repetition, "You're asking how things are going." suggests/infers/implies the respondent being absorbed in another task and the possibility that a request for a progress report about the respondent's mental or physical well-being borders on a distraction if not an imposition.

Or look at it this way. An individual utters another character's name, punctuating it with a question mark. "Marta?" Which may be taken to mean Is that you? or Are you there?

Add one word, an innocent enough word. "Now,Marta." Suddenly an edge is there, possibly impatience. And by adding one more word, "Damn it, Marta," we have seemingly exploded possibilities for dialogue as opposed to conversation. Yet there is more to come. Look at the possibilities of mere repetition. "Marta. Marta. Marta." How quickly such a repetition yanks us by the collar into the dialogue, curious to see what happens next as opposed to hoping the characters will conversationally reveal some dramatic tidbit.

When we are in the dramatic arena, our characters are seeming to converse but are conversing with their emotions instead of their minds, sending us readers signals by which we interpret the dramatic cloud over the arena that is scene. In such cases, silence is not silence but rather the characters playing on what their feelings are whispering to them.

Imagine yourself trying to please someone, say a work-level superior or a teacher. Allow yourself to feel that emotional agenda. Put an identifying sticker on that in order to come back to it when you need one of your characters trying to please another character. Imagine you, trying to please yourself.

Now, shut up and listen. Even the pause or silences are valuable.

Next week--or maybe this week, the tennis game of truth.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

You in the Hot Seat

There are hundreds of things to be learned and otherwise taken in as adjuncts to storytelling technique. While many of these are of significant value, they are early useless until they become assimilated, taken in and understood on an emotional level. One such "thing" is the need to be the first to raise any issue of plausibility that may obtain within the story, whether it is a specific plot point, a character trait, of some physical capability inherent in a character or object.

To illustrate the point, having scant knowledge of guns, I have no specific knowledge of the range of a .22 caliber rifle, much less the impact force a projectile will have at a distance. Thus if I were to have a situation where a .22 were the only weapon available, range and impact were important, I'd of course spend some time on a search engine, getting a sense of parameters, but stories don't take kindly to footnotes with references to Google or Yahoo or Ask dot com, so the solution is to have one of the characters raise the issue. "You gotta be kidding. A .22 won't carry at this range! If you were lucky enough to get a hit, it would feel more like a mosquito than a bullet." And the response: "True dat, but these are hand-loaded bullets, and I packed them with my own formula for powder. Might pick up a few yards."

Another illustration is to have a character, speaking of why a particular act, by all means irrational, was performed, give the explanation, "Because I felt like it. I've always wanted to do something like that."

Yet another vital "thing" it is necessary to assimilate is the need for characters always to be responsive. Even when they initiate action, the action comes from an emotional cue rather than the result of thought. (Thought may have a starring role in the conception of a project and its processes of revision, but while the material is being advanced, it should come from the array of emotions the particular character is feeling at a particular moment. Boredom. Anxiety. Impatience. Lust. Jealousy. Enthusiasm.

Accordingly, characters come on stage with an awareness of where they're coming from and what they think awaits them, possibly even their hopes for what they want to happen. Okay, here they are, but now there are other persons in the scene, people to react to. Perhaps someone unanticipated is there, someone whose presence is a delightful surprise or a serious threat to comfort. Each circles about for a moment until one reacts emotionally, "What are you doing here?" How do you reply to that? Why, of course, "What am I doing here?" "Yeah, that's clear enough. What are you doing here?" "That's it, huh? I live here and you want to know what I'm doing here." And we're off on a conversation that is already laden with dramatic potential.

More important than physical attributes, these indicators of character keep us focused on the need for the plausibility of the characters and their behavior to come from themselves, and the need for the responses of the characters to originate within an emotional landscape rather than an intellectual one.

This can be borne out further when we consider actors in a play, who already have set lines to deliver, prepared for them by the writer. The better actors will know their parts well enough not to be intellectualizing on the state of being of their characters but rather as having assimilated the feelings of the characters at any give moment and having developed a sense of the feel for or against one another these characters have. They will have had rehearsals, too, but then you'll have had revisions. They'll have had a director to guide them toward timing and attitude, but then you'll have had you directing your characters, feeling them out, watching the story unfold about you.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Who Tells the Story and Why?

There is always an opening for a transformational ingredient to appear in a story, edging it on its way to a state of memorable rather than simple entertaining. One of the more transformative of such ingredients is to be found in the narrative voice or voices used in relating the story. As an extreme illustration, consider Snow White being presented through the point of view of all seven of the dwarfs. Not only would such a presentation be a form of anarchy against the simplistic children's romance, it would open the door to the mischief of attitude and agenda, undermining the sugary Disney foundation, replacing it with new levels of potential interest.

Thus must agenda be a factor when deciding who or whom the narrative voice(s) is/are. Who has been acted upon in the telling or by the very act of telling? Who has come to see what the reader already sees or, conversely, persists in not seeing what has begun to grow apparent to the reader? Mr. Stevens, the prism through whom The Remains of the Day is witnessed, comes to mind here, serving not only as a splendid butler but as well a splendid example.

Because of our predilections, we tend to favor a first-person point of view, a third-person point of view, a multiple point of view, in which we delegate to characters the information, intent, and limitations we apply to our characters. It would be difficult, for instance, to see anything but a subtext of irony in a story about a group of professional basketball players told from the point of view of a midget or dwarf. Indeed, such an approach may bring down the disapproval of individuals under the height of four six as well as the scorn of individuals who are, say, six four.

But wait, before we go digressing off on that meme of the narrow cusp between irony, humor, and bad taste/judgment, let us consider the two remaining points of view, the omniscient and the authorial. The rich-as-linzer-torte William Trevor owns the former, using it with equal facility in short story and novel. To understand the effects and techniques that inhere in his work, you need only read one short story--any of his copious stories--or one novel. The irony is that you won't be able to stop at one of either. A number of authors use the authorial point of view, Don DeLillo coming to mind and as well Ha Jin, not to forget Cormac McCarthy; these authors tell you the story, constantly infusing the attitudes and agendas of their characters into their work, allowing you excruciatingly pellucid views of the characters but never entirely relinquishing the stage to the characters. This position does not come from the author's distrust of characters nor an abundant need to control the audience, rather to guide the reader through events and logic dear to the author's heart, places where the author is finally able to become vulnerable enough to let agenda slip through the cracks.

Let's get one important issue straight: all characters lie. They lie to themselves, they lie to other characters, and they most certainly lie to you. That is a given; it needs no defense.

Another important issue to lay on the table: all characters have agendas. All of them. The sooner you find out what these agendas are, the sooner you will be able to decide how many bricks of your story you will trust them with. Perhaps a full load? Perhaps a half load or quarter? Up to you.

It has often been argued that the major trait of authorial voice is identified in agenda. (If it has not been argued, then it should be.) Some authors are likely to find their voice as a result of something executed in nonfiction, the complex package of attitude and intent mingling in an essay, which is after all an examination of a subject to allow the author know how the author feels and thinks about the subject. We now bring to the table an opponent of the author's thesis and voice, admirably attired in impeccable logic, a better speaking voice than the author, and perhaps even a bit more intelligence than the author. Having evolved that antagonist, we now fictionalize the protagonist, he or she who speaks the author's belief system. Then we select a point of view and turn them loose within a confined area, an arena if you will.

All too easy to say it is Fred's story; I'm going to rearrange the furniture and select the other characters to suit Fred. The why of this is attached to the too easy part of the equation. Easy went out with all the stuff we do not ourselves wish to write. Easy is the same as saying oh science fiction? I can do that? Oh, fantasy. I can do that. The essence of the story is the arena within the smithy of the writer's soul, where ease and rest and device are not allowed through the front door. This essence is found in the exhilarating and curious mixture of fun, awe, despair, curiosity, and envy. Not fair that after all these thousands of hours I have spent practicing my craft, a less practiced writer should come along and seem to be having so much fun while at the same time covering such a large canvas. If such is the case, so be it; that contributes to the agenda. And not to worry if it does; on revision, you'll soon recognize it for the complaining it is, remove it, and get on with the fun at hand.

Lest this seem an argument of art for art's sake, allow me the opportunity to disagree. It is no such thing. It is agenda for agenda's sake, fun for fun's sake, risk for risk's sake.

Most of us who have some experience with writing have also some past experience with jumping off of things, things that were there in other guises but seen by us as things to be jumped off. In my case, the things were garages. Why would you want to jump off my garage, an outraged woman asked me when I was seven. Because, I replied, it invited me.

Point of view often extends an invitation. We need to keep alert to make sure we accept the correct one.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who Was That Writer I Saw You With?

Part of the attraction of the alternate universe meme is the happenstance in which, for good or ill, you meet yourself in a former incarnation, which is to say you find or are reminded of previous work you have not thought about for some time. The immediate good accrues when, after a gulp or two, you recognize how far you've progressed since them. But the ill part comes when the other shoes is dropped, the other shoe being the question, Have you come far enough since then?

Then, depending on when it was in relationship to the now you inhabit so loftily, may have carried no urgency with it except the urgency to get some ink, to see yourself in print, to attract a complementary or nasty letter to the editor. Were this the case, you for your part engaged in writing to appeal to people, wanting an audience. Were indeed this the case, your subtext could well have been: What do they want already, I'm writing as entertainingly as possible?

If Then were not all that long ago and the project never did find its way to an audience, the subtext could easily have been: I still like it, or Well, onward to the next one. Thus will it become clear to you that you already had the audience you wanted; you were writing to yourself and can see now as you saw when you wrote the piece whether it keeps you interested, caring, moving over the page with concern as opposed to the kind of dull-eyed lapse you fall into when watching a friend's videotapes of his or her summer vacation.

Should you ever find yourself on the receiving end of good notices, complements addressed to something specific you have sent forth to make its way out into the world, it becomes worthwhile to see if you can capture the self or selves responsible for that work, then send them a message: Nice going, but things are going to be different from now on. The goal is to get beyond liking yourself so much that your goal is to play to that audience instead of playing to the audience of the gallery of ideas, landing spots, and spontaneous wonders hiding in your toolkit, step forth in some hastily contrived vehicle from which you launch yourself afresh at the world.

The world of commerce is a lovely scatter of venues and perspectives wherein sometimes the most innocent thing flung against the barn wall sticks and the purely original thing fails to leave any trace of its existence. Believers in free market as we are, we also have to believe that the purely original thing can find a home in the market without any visible reason.

No wonder so many of us are considered mad men and mad women; no wonder so many exquisitely realized and written things are equated to poetry because, after all, poetry is madness in meter or cadence or image.

The real goal then is to strive for the dance of madness instead of the lock step of safety. When we talk about revision, it is wise to consider revisiting a project in light of what we have learned from having lived it and executed it, but it is no less wise to search through the work for lingering traces of sanity, then draw the most wonderful of all proofreader's marks through them--the places where things make logical sense, where grammar and syntax trump heart beats and the syncopated pit-a-pat of risk.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Things That Go Bump in the Night--and Daytime, Too

In a sense extending well beyond metaphor and hyperbole, we share membership in the chiropractic, massage-related manipulation of reality, stretching, kneading, pounding it to fit our will. So focused and intense is our desire that we want others to see reality as we see it, going so far as to contrive ways to make our version, our interpretation the most trustworthy, dramatic and, as a result, the most desirable reality of all.

Those of us who become writers of story are willing to undergo the initiation by fire of the Aristotle Poetics, which, as Moby-Dick does with whales, tells us more about story than we want to know. After all, Aristotle, by all accounts a control freak who probably color-coded his togas, was merely setting forth and describing the various forms while Ahab was motivated by sincerely felt grievances. Each individual had a universe, a particular reality. What shapes those realities is the difference between chiropractic and massage, the difference between Texas chili and bean stew, the difference between barbecue and backyard grilling. My own observation that neither of these pairs of opposites is wrong takes into account that there are fierce forces on either side of the argument, infusing the discipline of story telling with some kind of predisposition, some attitude or agenda.

If you approach story with too much agenda or ardor, the resulting reality will be propaganda, which reduces itself under the light of investigation to a desire to control by fear. If you approach story with too much attempt at balance and logic, the result will seem like cafeteria food, largely overcooked and under seasoned.

It can be instructive to listen to writers of nonfiction, including academics, as they discuss the concepts for their works. Some of the works, logic- or intellect-bred, have within them the ability to excite because they are expanding on previously unmade connections or relationships, while others seem to be propelled because of an awareness that the thrust or thesis of the work has general merit as well as specific merit for a specific group of readers. In comparison, writers of fiction reveal as their starting engine a sense of injustice, a desire to pick out a target then pursue the target, often with such results in mind as revenge or humor or an exposure of some other individual's or group's communal concept of reality.

Each of us who offers forth a fictional landscape is also offering an idiosyncratic universe where certain behavior or its lack, certain morality or its lack, certain expectations or their lack step forth from the shadowy world of the quotidian,reminding us for the millionth time how vulnerable we are, our own universe sent out to play, put in orbit where surely it will collide with other orbiting universes.

We are often vulnerable to collision, even more so to delusion. The person who bumps into us and possibly even causes an irritation if not an injury is merely enacting his own delusion, which, if it differs from ours, defines his index of sanity as compared to ours. In some cases this deluded vulnerability explains why so many of us depend for our sense of happiness and identity on the outcome of a sports event or why our interest in celebrities trumps our interest in self or immediate friends. Celebrities, we appear to be saying, represent what we wish to become--and would if we had the ten or twenty thousand spare hours with which to perfect some ability resident even now within us.

We are equally vulnerable to the sophistry that my universe is better than yours, can beat yours, knows more, is more green or prudent or spiritual or artistic or any other denominator you wish to use to maintain the sense of separateness.

When we write, we articulate and send our universe into orbit. When we read, we are kin to those spectator particles lurking in the linear accelerators, speeding toward a collision with another particle, a collision from which we will have been changed and energized, ready to move forth in orbit again for the next bumpy ride and its resulting collision.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Imaginary Friends

With no particular story banging at the doors to be let out, this seemed like a good time for a cattle call, an open audition for characters in search of a job, and possibly a combustion of ideas and concepts resulting in a story that wold whip through the landscape in the manner of the recent fires.

First to show up was my old buddy, Lew Lessing, who first appeared in my fiction back in my undergraduate days, a more-or-less alter ego who has done a number of the same things I have but who at one time in is life has done a number of things I haven't. He is often under consideration for a lead role or walk-on. Since we have much in common, my worry is that I don't push him enough to get away from and past me. He likes the work, is reliable, shows up on time, doesn't make excuses. But in this reading he was noticeably not on his marks because his reading partner, Maeve, growing progressively impatient with his timing, wondering when he was going to be through, finally announced her frustration with the accusation that she couldn't trust him. Lew, I learned subsequently, likes to be trusted. I told him I'd give him a call back but suggested during the next while that he work on why he is so keen on being trusted, and what he can bring to the next reading.

Maeve, on the other hand, is a keeper because of her insistence that men are not to be trusted for any reason sooner or later, she says, they will do something to bear this out, making the tracking of her an interesting project.

Matthew Bender also showed up. A pretty good actor, Matthew keeps suggesting a format for a group of short stories, thanks to the discovered connection between his name Bender and the fact of Odysseus of Iliad fame bearing translation as a man of many turns. We've contrived between the two of us, Bender and I, that as Odysseus returned home after the Trojan war, experiencing adventures along the way, Bender is returning to Santa Barbara after having been in a long run with Troilus and Cresida in an off-Broadway theater. Not quite a war for Bender although T & C has the Trojan War as a background element. Bender seems to attract rather than pursue younger women, somewhat of a frustration because of his interest in women in their late thirties to early forties. Naturally, Bender wonders why. I see him back home, being offered a job in which he wears a chicken suit as a part of a California ballot initiative for free range farm animals.

Cindy is a gifted actor who would rather be a fine art photographer.

Meryl is a teacher at a junior college who so far as she is aware harbors and broadcasts heterosexual instincts but who has been the object of romantic interest of a number of female psychotherapists.

Junior is an accepted member of a Cro-Magnon hunting clan only because his father, Curly, is an highly accomplished hunter. Junior wants to be a shaman, but shamans have not been invented yet. His best friend, Art, would rather paint animals on cave walls than hunt, and Rose, Art's girlfriend, wishes he'd get a better job.

It is true, I have been focused on two nonfiction book projects for some months now, but the consequences involve these guys and others like them, trying to get my attention. "What's with you and nonfiction?" Lessing will ask me from time to time, and Cindy frequently accuses me of denying my heritage, which could mean a lot of things, many of them quite true.

I'm fond of reminding friends that when I was a kid, we couldn't even afford imaginary friends, but the fact was and is that they have always been around, clamoring for attention, wanting to be listened to. Happy families may, pace Tolstoy, be all alike, but so are characters, alike in the sense that they have stories to tell and want to be heard.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Mysterious Stranger

There's always something going on in the background, babies crying, dogs barking, a dropped garden hose spraying anyone who gets in its way, serious-looking individuals on the front porch, wanting to talk about God. This is the background against which stories are set, backgrounds made plausible by their implausibility.

Story doesn't exist in a vacuum, a fact we do well to remember because sometimes, when we are too focused, we tune out the sensuous materials that ratify the authenticity and plausibility of story. In real life, things can happen in vacuums, thanks to such social advancements as gated communities, restaurants with a modicum of sound proofing, homes instead of close apartments.

Marlow was always hearing things while interviewing clients or driving to assignations, smelling things in the hallways, catching refrains of anomalous songs from across the way; these things made Chandler's prose near eternal. He may have been dead for fifty years but the scents, sounds, sights linger in the hallways and dark streets of the L.A. Basin. His elevators creak, have the faint odor of someone having been sick; his automobiles growl, wheeze, exhibit internal rumbles. More than his metaphor and wry observation, his sense of a place attaches to his stories like a limpet grabbing onto the pilings of a pier.

An observation then: adjectives and adverbs are better spent describing the senses than the qualities of action. Story is more than individuals forced to walk the plank of plot, rather it is the atmosphere in which thinkable and unthinkable things play our their fizzle of light, matches struck in the dark, giving us a brief vision of the parts not dark, not hidden, but nevertheless not fully revealed.

Shakespeare was performed in the blackness of the theater without setting, without flats or scrolls of scenery and yet the text is filled with enough suggestion that the story emerges not only with its own collisions and near misses but with the acute sense of where everyone is and what's going on in the background. Even Beckett, that stern minimalist, has his characters dress inform us of a greater absurdity that the setting suggests.

An actor can steal a scene merely by focusing attention on a point somewhere on stage or off, regarding it with apparent curiosity. An actor can steal a scene by swatting an imaginary fly or mosquito. In the best of worlds, a character can steal a scene, certainly from the other characters present but as well from the author, which brings us close to the scare atmosphere of creative potential, an atmosphere ripe with its own sounds, sights, smells.

Stories with safety nets end up defeating the writer, causing the writer to think how easy it is to rely on artifice instead of risk.
A bunch of ham actors, standing around the scene, watching the Alpha Players do their things, wondering what movement can change the entire tenor, shifting from tragedy to the comedic, letting the dog of pathos out the door and into bathos. Suddenly the atmosphere is charged with the electricity of impending storm; suddenly the story is changed from safe and predictable to risky and revelatory. Where does it come from? The characters growing bored with the same old prospects, you becoming bored with the possibility of ending in sight.

The "it" comes from that secret packet we all carry about with us, the thing we may show on occasion to strangers, knowing we'll likely never see them again; the "it" is the thing we often feel the most uncomfortable about, the thing we don't want friends to know about us or perhaps the thing we want family or friends to think we're comfortable with.

What better strangers to show it to than readers.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wither, Thou Goest

In the spirit of essay-as-argument-to-some conclusion, I ask you to name a handful of your favored writers, gleaned not only from the present but centuries gone by. And you offer forth Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Sarah Orne Jewett, Peter De Vries, Jim Harrison, Louise Erdrich, Mordicai Richler, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, this combination having a splendid balance of regional integrity, an ear for the drama necessary in dialogue, a sense of irony, and yes, a sense of humor. Okay, throw in Raymond Chandler, too.

The absolute beauty of this diverse ensemble cast of writers is that there are so many of them, which reminds me of the trope that plagiarism is stealing from one author, research is stealing from many authors. Which brings to mind that because there are so many of them and I am in so much debt to all of them, each for differing reasons, that the result is an amalgamation: they have blended into a unified voice, which sounds like me.

From time to time, a new voice comes along, so tempting in its way that I become fearful of being sent to the Principal's office for copying his or her answers. George V. Higgins comes to mind and, woe unto me, frequent meetings with Elmore Leonard, whom I saw a number of times when I was with Dial Dell Delacorte, and whose Westerns I had already been intrigued with as he was setting forth into suspense with Fifty-two Pick-Up.

Nor did it do my emerging self any good when, as an undergrad, my classmate Greg Hemingway, telling me his dad really enjoyed my parody of him and thus my first awareness of who his dad was.

One question is, are you unconsciously "listening" to anyone? This is not a bad thing; not unless something is creeping in, you know, like commandos, their faces blackened, knit watch caps pulled low on their faces, sneaking through the enemy lines.

Another question in the face of your having to read and digest a book a week for your review column: Where is your reading taking you in terms of the effect on your attitudes? Yet another related question: If there is a tangible direction, is this truly you-related, a product of your age, culture, locale, politics, or have you "signed-on" some petition making the rounds on Twitter or the Internet or the University? Do you have anything to gain from attending the University's classes for faculty showing how to use YouTube to enhance your teaching apparatus?

The Writer's Mind is like fly paper. Lots of things stick to it that are not necessarily flies.

The act of thinking enhances the potential for the mischief of the mixed metaphor.

The pure voices you hear are the voices of humor, irony, injustice, yearning, elegance, complex harmony, simple harmony, beauty coming from unanticipated sources. These are in a shouting match with your tendency to pomposity(you can and do go on), naivete (it often comes to you that you are the last to know--about anything), impatience, reactive/defensive animosity (yeah, well screw you, too) right out of the schoolyard.

Fair enough. There wasn't a Fitzgerald or a John Banville or a Philip Pullman, or a Margaret Atwood in their midst. You didn't pause once to envy Colm Toibin or George Orwell or Joan Didion. You got through the Tea House Fire unscathed, with only the cloying smell of burned toast in your nostrils; you got out of the latest performance review with no reprimands in your portfolio.

But watch out. You live in a place where fire and earthquake are as common as the ticks you pluck from Sally; you live in a craft where more things than flies stick to fly paper; the writing life is a metaphor for California, the home of the humane mouse trap, where the mice are not killed, merely stuck to the floor of the trap.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Myths of Sissy Fuss

As is her wont, Squirrel got me to thinking, not in that self-critical, turn-off-the-association-of-ideas way that sometimes comes along to protest an otherwise productive writing session, but in the nature of all the myths about writing I've brought to the table from my callow youth onward, and from which I have tried to disassociate myself and as well in the nature of all the myths students, authors, and clients have brought forth.

Myth Number One: Write only what you know. True enough, there are times we need to do some research, to find out about what was and was not in existence at a given time or place, where the subway stop really in mid-town Manhattan, where the red Line stops in Boston, how high Mt. Kilimanjaro really is. That said, I should have no "right" to portray female characters, Captain Nemo should have remained a ferry boat captain, all my remaining characters should be male, white, etc. And heaven forefend I should write something set in a past historical landscape or a future imaginary one, nor should I write about alternate universes I've never been to.

Myth Number Two: Show--don't tell. Hey, there are times when you have to tell because doing otherwise will take a hell of a lot of pages and bore the pants off the reader. And besides, telling helps with the perspective; after a while, the reader gets to see which events are more important.

Myth Number Three: Dialogue replicates conventional speech patterns. Have I got news for you. To disprove this quaint notion, try eavesdropping on conversations while waiting in line somewhere, or in a doctor's waiting room. Conventional speech is often boring, noncommittal, or non-responsive. Dramatic conversation has the sound of speech but is more barbed, specific in its way, revelatory of the speaker or the speaker's agenda and/or psychology.

Myth Number Four: Beginning writers should use first-person point of view because it is the easiest. Lots of luck if you believe this; the I needs as much dimension and layering of traits as any other dramatic POV. You start listening to this kind of stuff, you'll discover all your characters sound alike.

Myth Number Five: You--whoever you are--among all others who write, are unfortunate because everyone else's family is more eccentric, dysfunctional, funny,opportunistic, dramatic than yours. It only seems that way. Take a look at Uncle Harry. And what about Aunt Viv. And you really think Aunt Mavis was Uncle Ralph's first wife? Yo, ask around.

Myth Number Six: As in real life, characters always say exactly what they mean. Where do you get this kind of stuff?

Myth Number Seven: Sending out novels and short stories to agents and editors will make you so cynical, you won't be able to write. Where do you get this kind of stuff?

Myth Number Eight: Talent is the most important element in getting your stories published. I'm beginning to be concerned about you. If you want something important to hang onto, try persistence.

Myth Number Nine: If it isn't painful, it isn't any good. True enough, you may encounter some truths and discoveries you hadn't anticipated, but if you're looking overall for an "isn't" try: If it isn't fun, it probably isn't any good.

Myth Number Ten: Make sure you explain everything. Readers don't like to be left in the dark. , Yeah, Right. Henry James explained everything. You always know where you stand in Finnegan's Wake. Flannery O'Connor left no loose end unresolved. When a reader wonders what's going on, they are often exhibiting a characteristic known as suspense.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hold That Thought

For the second time in just under a month, I had occasion to listen to three actors I much admire, being on one way or another interviewed. The first actor was Idris Elba, who did such a layered portrayal of the Baltimore drug underlord, Stringer Bell, in the HBO novel-as-TV-series, The Wire. Not long after, in another setting, I heard Dominic West, who portrayed a Type-A-personality Baltimore cop, Jimmy McNulty, on the same show. Just yesterday, I heard Hugh Laurie, star of the long-running TV series, House, in which he is the eponymous near-genius M.D. with a board certification in infectious disease and street cred for his diagnosis abilities. House also gobbles pain killers by the handful to alleviate chronic pain. His venue is a teaching hospital near Princeton, N.J. I don't know his cv, but I believe he is supposed to be a product of American schools.

This is important to me because all three actors, when not in character, speak with their native English accents and cadences as opposed to their character's native American English accents and cadences. A ham at heart, I am always on the lookout for an accent to grab onto, twist around a finger or two, perhaps even work into a story. The importance of language and its effects had its conscious effect on me back in the day when, watching another splendid actor, Derek Jacobi, portray the Roman Emperor Claudius, I became aware that his guards all had a deliberatly British accent but were said to be from German-speaking backgrounds, an effect that "allowed" or "caused" me to hear their dialogue as the Latin spoken at the time.

Actors have numerous ways of absorbing a regional dialect, including tapes and CDs of speech samples, living among their desired target group, consulting vocal coaches, even consulting books, and the always satisfying all-the-above choices. Actors have also the options of some of the more popular acting school techniques, including but not limited to that of Sanford Meisner, a staunch advocate of "being there," being the character while sending the real self to the principal's office or some other such exile.

Works the same for the writer; being the characters allows them to speak and be heard or, appropriately, not heard. Like an iron-on transfer for a t-shirt, being the character brings another presence to the front, often a presence at some odds from the reality of the actor. Being infused with the reality of the character allows the actor to experience the potential for the character's responses, sponteneity, and yes, even language. True enough, each actor brings his toolkit of the character's sponteneity. (I have often in recent years pondered what I, for instance, could bring to Lear, things that would nevertheless allow me to project a plausible Lear instead of a Shelly at a party doing a parody of Lear.)

At every moment in a story, the writer copes with the multifarious question of what a given character would do in such a situation, then copes with the techniques to bring that character's response to plausible life. Thus has the writer taken on all the parts in a play, making it at once more daunting a task to "be" so many characters. This multifarious quality has the blessing of distracting the writer from being herself or himself, allowing said generic writer to concentrate entirely on "being there," of "being in the moment."

The key to all of this starts with listening to the characters, listening as the particular point of view character of the moment, then responding via the instinctive response of that character, based on what the goals of the story are.

Whether it's the first draft, the tenth, or the last, the antagonist--your antagonist--is thought. The moment you start thinking is the moment your antennae are out searching for signals from other readers, literary agents, editors, the reading public, rlatives who will be horrified by your portrayal of them, various exes in your life who will see your work as an elaborate revenge fantasy.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I'd just returned from a twilight walk with Sally to hear the voice of Jim Alexander on the answering machine, offering to come by with his truck to give evacuation assistance. What evacuation? I asked, picking up the phone. From the fire, he said, usual no-nonsense voice. The whole fricking area around you has gone up.

It was six, barely dark. With Alexander's prompt came the rush of sensory things, the thrum of helicopters overhead, moving from their base at what I later learned was Santa Barbara Junior High, taking on fifteen thousand gallons of water from the hydrants deployed there, then off to the fire line just above Mission Canyon. The Sant'Ana winds were up, gusting at over thirty mph, swirling plumes of smoke skyward. The oppressive weight of the wind-warmed air, laden with smoke. The local NPR station suddenly dead, its transformer a probable victim of the fire. News on our local ABC outlet: fifteen acres of chaparral gone in a flash, the roar now of equipment moving across the landscape. Then the lights and utilities are gone. The decision to start packing things for a quick get-away.

By one this morning, still no lights or TV or Internet. A phoned infomercial about Hot Springs Road being on the cusp of the mandatory evacuation perimeter. All too aware of what living at 652 Hot Springs Road implies, I gather Sally and some things into the car and make my way back to the very place I'd walked her earlier, there to spend the night in the car.

Home in time for a quick check to discover utilities back on, prognosis for more Sant'ana winds later this afternoon, and a layer of ash crusting everything, like dandruff on an old boy's shoulders. At about seven thirty this morning, the usual suspects gather in the newly opened downtown Peet's to drink coffee, exchange horror stories, and celebrate Mary's birthday for which Melinda has miraculously prepared an enormous, complex cake.

The news is that at least two hundred homes on the area known as The Riviera are burned toast, the fire daunted but by no means down, news persons guardedly offering that the fire is by no means under control, reading off a litany of names of closed streets. Indeed, coming home from Summerland this morning I see two barriers across Hot Springs Road as it intersects East Valley Road. Taking advantage of the size of my Toyota Yaris, I scoot past the signs, head up toward Mountain Drive which I know to have been evacuated, then turn in at 652, down the long drive past the garage that was once an office, relieved to see no immediate signs of burning.

It is more than an anomaly; it is an irony to see Martha Stewart talking about cornbread baked in the shape of a turkey. As such things go in Central Coast fires, the flames are idiosyncratic, leaving homes standing in the midst of burned-out neighbors, a kind of Bridge of San Luis Rey, a random menace, waiting in the wings.

Seventy-mile-an-hour winds confirmed for last night; thirty-to-forty-mile-an-hour winds forecast for this evening out of the north east, Hot Springs Road on the eastern perimeter of the evacuation.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Hall Pass

By the very nature of the velocity and set of goals established in the story you are working on, it comes to you as no surprise that the next scene--or surely the one immediately following--will require four particular characters to appear together. Having made the decision to put them all on together, you are almost ready to begin, pausing for a moment to consider how each of the four feels about the others, which alliances or enmities have been forged. You have even given careful thought to what each of the four had been doing moments before appearing in this scene, when each would like to leave, possibly even with whom; you certainly have a sense of what each of the four would like to get from the scene in a substantial manner.

All of this seems in a way like the kind of party arranged for young persons by their elders: pin the tail on the donkey, a pinata, hide and go seek, musical chairs. In proper context, all these can be fun--not as much fun as, say, a mud puddle, or a garden hose, but fun nevertheless. As children being in such atmospheres and quite possibly as adults planning such atmospheres for young persons, we can relate to the sense of being managed and wanting to be managed, so much so, in fact, that it might be a bit of a surprise to hear a character in such a scene speak out his or her resentment at being managed.

Silences sometimes can be as dramatic as a statement of resentment or admonition or encouragement. You do want to play pin the tail on the donkey, don't you? may convey an edge of managerial concern, but so too is the response of silence, which could well produce a repetition of the question or the more heated don't you? followed by another silence and, indeed, another don't you? Anyone hearing this exchange will have little trouble discerning the attitude of two characters, even though one has said nothing. Silence becomes more than mere silence; it becomes a something.

Every moment in a scene has value in time. No moment should be allowed to go to waste.

Well, Bob said.

Well what?


Getting a sentence out of him is like pulling teeth.

There; four-part counterpoint.

Since you are the director,you get to chose the pace of a scene. You may do this with dialogue, with action, with a combination of dialogue and action. You may do it with one garrulous character and one phlegmatic or guarded character. You may do it with short, declarative sentences or with longer disquisitions. The important thing not to forget is that each character not only has a pace, each character has an agenda. You have to let the characters interact as they would interact--not as you would have them interact. This awareness turns the soap opera into the Arthur Miller or David Mamet stage play.

Characters, although spokespersons for you, do not merely rattle off soliloquy nor a laundry list of alibi or motive; they interact or pointedly do not interact, they understand or do not misunderstand one another. Always they do so in ways that allow us to see there is some response, some action or words or a combination that comes forth as a result of the character having been called forth to assemble here at this time, having just come from this, having agendas of that. The key is the spontaneity with which each responds to the other, the degree to which each is caught up entirely in the moment, is performing right now, on the cusp of a precariously thin edge. They are behaving as they would behave, which may be somewhat of a surprise to you, one you must permit. This hall pass for your characters is the way to let them respond to the surprises of your plot as they would respond to anything, with individual reflexive response as opposed to a mannered, studied effect.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sorry for Your Loss

Many characters are built around a single, compelling need or desire such as Dorothy Gale's The Wizard of Oz desire to be back home or Jay Gatz's The Great Gatsby desire for Daisy Buchanan. Your own characters are wrapped around the armature of someone having just achieved what he or she yearned for and now dealing with the consequences. You are also pleased to note that some of your characters are built on the construct of individuals who do in fact yearn for someone or something they know in advance to be running well behind the short odds of many gambles within reality.

This pleasure in noting such a trend comes from the more global observation that most persons on a daily basis are brought to grips with the notion of things, or at least some things, being unavailable for a considerable time, possibly even forever. Reminds you of the moments some five years back when the anaesthesiologist had his thumb on the valve that would cause to circulate a numbing and sleep-inducing substance into your blood stream prior to having some malignancy removed from your otherwise thriving body. You turned to Dr. Koper to ask, "Will I be able to play the cello when this is over?" and to hear the surprised Dr. Koper respond, "I don't see why not," then deliver the punch line, "Funny, I couldn't play the cello before."

After the Great Hormonal Attack of the teens has run its course, most of us wake up at an hour just short of what we'd consider a sensible hour, portions of the mind already allotting time to chores, necessities, surprises, and leisure activity. In direct proportion to ABT (age beyond teens), the definition of sensible hour is revised. You have long since begun to consider "sleeping in" to mean seven, even having revised sleeping in to mean six thirty, with sensible being six. Hail and farewell to all that, even though you would not mind an occasional sleep in. And if there is a writing project in the water, launching bottles of champagne having been smashed over the bow, five or five thirty are luxuries. All this is recognition of the increasing number of things plopped on our plates by the hands of Fate, which have come to resemble those resilient cynics, the grizzled ladies who were servers at the cafeterias of our high schools and undergrad years. We did not realize it at the time, perhaps because the hormones of the Great Hormonal Attack shielded us from the slightest hint of metaphor; we did not realize that each scoop of scrambled egg or mashed potato or macaroni and cheese was anything more than what it was, that in time hands of Fate would in deed plunk things on our plate we might want to refuse but could not.

And so we are trying to find ways to get our characters launched into action again, making actual and mental excuses to actual individuals in reality who have expectations of us, friends, for instance, or mates, or students, or employers. There is one dean to whom you can--often to your regret--refuse nothing, which opens another can of worms, as in the why of this being so. To be sure, she is enormously attractive, but to write this lack of ability to refuse down to mere lust is to miss an enormous range of response. There was one producer for whom you also had no ability to say no, I'm busy with other things, but there were other factors such as our having been school mates.

Snow-shoeing across the drifts of logic, you come back to the original concept, knowing you will be disappointed, refused, lost in some logistics shuffle, not likely to achieve your goal today or tomorrow or perhaps at all, perhaps on the cusp of success but then surprisingly interrupted. Do your people carry such weight in their fanny packs? Do they have some sort of batting average where, as in yet another metaphor, baseball, one for three is an A? Do the persons you create show any effects of unrequited love, any frustration at not being able to play the cello, any sense of living with the consequences of an error or mistake or simply bad judgment? Are they being stalked by a neurotic creep such as yourself? Do they ever find themselves drawn along as though a VW Beetle, caught in the slipstream of an eighteen-wheeler on the freeway, unable to cope with the pull? Do they recognize such weaknesses and walk around the block to avoid contact with the temptation? Have they ever amassed more than twenty-two rejection slips on a particular story or been told, thanks for coming out but you're not what we're looking for? Have they ever been turned down by the love of their life, driven across town to get the early diner discount only to be told that the early diner dinner has sold out, taken the photo of a lifetime only to discover the cap was still on the lens?

If they have not set out on these ventures, you must ask yourself what they're doing in your story in the first place? But you probably already know the answer to that one: these things have surely befallen then; you simply have not taken the time to listen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Risky Business

When calculating who we are as an individual or whom the characters-as-individuals we create are, the word "risk" orbits about like a pesky fly at a picnic. Whatever else we have to know about ourselves or the characters we have to create for an invented story or the focused attempt to replicate a real-time event, we need to know something about the existential status involved.

Let's start with the rhetorical and borderline accusatory: How well did we do the last time we created characters? Were we satisfied with the results, or did we allow the laziness of picking one or more of them from the 99-cent store of cliche, where there are large piles of them on display, one looking suspiciously like another? Did someone call us out on our characters, say an editor or critic, questioning their psychological wiring? Were we in some way allowing a particular dimension of bigotry to shine through?

All the while assessing the last time we created characters whom we were in premeditated fashion placing in some form of risk, we do well to consider what mood we were in or what attitude clung to us like a parasite, influencing how we felt about the characters we created and indeed how we felt about ourselves.

Of the many ways we may look at characters, there is this salient one: the way that character will behave as we pile on the consequences and pressures in dramatic fashion. Of course the more we know about the character, the more individualized the response to risk will become. And the more we know about ourselves, the more we are able to put particular spins and interpretations on the risks we hand out so freely. Depending on our mood, placing a character in the pathway of fast-approaching love speaks volumes in the implication that we think love is a risk as opposed to, say, a healthy, engaging step away from loneliness and disconnection with our species.

Not a large puddle of logic to skip over with the suggestion that the forgotten element in character as related to story is spontaneity. The more present-moment oriented a character, the greater the chances of that character having to take an action that will move beyond mere reaction and into revelation. As we see that character's response to risk and that character's speed or lack, preparation or lack in coping with it, the more we are allowed to establish a sense of knowing that character, feeling the most valuable thing of all we can feel to a character--empathy.

Creating characters is a risky business in many ways, not the least of which is the revelation of ourselves they can convey every time we look at them or, alas, don't look. Eager to get myself aboard a train that may already have left the station, I try to position myself to be less judgmental of them and more of the opinion that they are neither evil nor virtue incarnate but rather individuals who are embarked on behavior patterns of which they are already painfully aware and have to live with as best they can. True enough, some need to be kept under supervision or assisted toward some theraputic vector, likely to be overwhelmed to the point of falling off the local bus of conventional behavior, but to write them off as having only the dimension of their deviation from the perceived norm is to write off the norm and most of humanity.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dramatic Astronomy

"Man," Mark Twain says, "is the only animal who has a conscience--or needs to." Continuing that thread, Man is the only animal who thinks in metaphor, a quirky side effect to having so many multi-tasking components. Man has learned to see a universe in a grain of sand, causing among other things an endless search for discovery, for noting parallels of construction or systemic similarity. In this spirit, Man has learned how to replicate analogs of the Big Bang, the moment when IT all began. In the process, Man has learned how to cause atoms to collide at great speed, producing or perhaps exposing side effects of great revelatory impact.

Eavesdropping on some of the dialectic among quantum physicists, I have come away with a Big Bang Theory of my own about story that may not replicate the origin of the universe but comes close to helping me define my own sense of what dramatic narrative is and how it begins.

Simply put, story is the result of a collision of accelerated agendas. Anything beyond that definition is an idiosyncratic expansion, the icing and decoration on the cake. In a more complex and appropriately metaphorical definition, story is an orbital configuration of particles, forced into accelerated motion which results in a collision.

Whether simple or the more orotund and pleonastic, story and its effects do present an attractive astronomical metaphor. It is no secret that some form of longevity is one of the subtexts those of us who aspire to tell story invest in our work. Modesty and ego are other subtexts, constantly colliding within the universe that is the individual writer, an ongoing argument between aspiring for immortality and simply doing our very best, setting aside any rewards or recognition beyond the reward of having done the work and the inner recognition of having done it. In that sense, it is the Bhagavad Gita, played forth for an audience of one, wherein Krishna tells Arjuna, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."

In the creative astronomy of loneliness and awe, we consider such orbiting luminaries as Hildegarde of Bingen or Geoffrey Chaucer, or William Shakespeare, still known to us across the void of time. We consider some of their work, their heart-rending work, the things they set into orbit: Ordo Virtutum, the Play of the Virtues; The Wife of Bath, Sir John Falstaff. And we recognize them from their remote orbit and nod with warmth at the realization that we are still seeing them--lights from distant stars.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where Did I Leave My--My--Myself?

Settling in to work this morning after a satisfying run with The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, I noticed a highly personalized pigeons-coming-home-to-roost paradigm. The backstory to this awareness is my ability to wear with comfort drug store reading glasses as a supplement to my contact lenses. A regional drug chain is frequently offering a two-for-one sale on the brand and magnification that suits me. Once in a while, I'll toss a pair when their lenses have become scratched through pocket friction or the overall woes of the aging process. Less often, a temple will break off or the screw that holds it to the frame will loosen and vanish somewhere in transit.

My discovery this morning was six pair of Dr. Edel 2.50 magnification wire-framed reading glasses, as chummy on my desk as a Democrats' caucus. That there were six pair tells a story on me: reading glasses have been a major item in the Things I'm Likely to Lose or Temporarily Misplace category, followed in rapid succession by fountain pens, notebooks, manuscripts, checkbook, a particular book, my Peet's (coffee shop) debit card), car keys. I suppose you could call these items tombstones or bench markers of absent-mindedness. My definition is: markers of multitasking. Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, said misplacements have their collateral effects on me, physical and emotional. In awareness of the tendency to set down reading glasses on uncharted surfaces, I have secured enough to leave some in strategic areas of my lifestyle. In similar fashion, I have rationalized the need for any number of fountain pens, several Peet's debit cards, and at least three Moleskines or surrogates. Without some severe personality reeducation or behavior modification, there is little I can do about the misplaced keys or checkbook except to be late to some planned meeting while looking for them in all the logical and illogical places they may reside during my efforts to ferret them forth.

Some of my dearest friends would never dream of being in such situations, much less would they actually experience them. They are A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place sorts, while I remain true to my code of being an I Wonder Where My Glasses Are Now.

But enough about me; I have served my purpose of having delineated traits, follow-through, behavior, follow-up (if you will) and consequences. It may be easier to imagine a writer or editor or teacher having six pair (at least) of reading glasses and finding them all at once on his desk, but what about a dress designer, a politician, a hired hit person, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a Republican? And what would happen if your character(s) appeared in a new scene not only hopeful of fulfilling some intention but also of finding reading glasses or keys or a misplaced checkbook?

All of which is to say that characters are not to be merely plopped into a new setting with a few anticipatory goals but with a past history that is rooted in the immediate past, an immediate past that carries with it the subtext of emotional parasites. Rowena, whose work habits I so admire, manages to get writing or painting done not in my time frame of free half-hours or the luxury of hours but rather in terms of nap times in which her young ones may or may not be fully immersed. It is one thing to portray a painter, but how about the portraiture of a painter who, just as a particular form on her easel comes to life, hears the call of a youngster awakening from a nap? In the abstraction of a mother trying to slip in some writing or making of visual images, there is the reality of a five-year-old (was there ever a more rambunctious set of energy?) close to hand as Marta finds focus on a project. Some of these unspoken subtexts do not get mentioned in text but when the characters are real, they emerge as living presences because they influence so may physical actions either done or not done.

I'm at my computer, lost in thought. Two pleasant enough men in Sears suits and black ties are knocking at the door. Too young to be FBI or cops, they must be, yes! they must be Mormon missionaries wanting to talk to me about...well, the thing is, do I respond to them the same way I respond to my mailman who happens to have gone fishing with and gotten drunk with Jim Harrison, and who showed Harrison the review I'd done on his last book? Do I conflate the Mormon missionaries with my old partner of so many years in the writing workshops? I am me at the computer (I thought you said enough about you) and another me depending on who's at the door, who interrupts me, and what the circumstances of the interruption are.

So too are your characters, who are subject to these sudden pulls and tugs on the self. There is a concept in certain plays in which a character may double, which is to say play two roles, changing from one to the other, a lovely concept for this argument because our characters set forth with a set of expectations that may be changed for unanticipated reasons.

Suppose, for another instance, Rowena has launched the kidlets into their nap time with assurances from them that they are really and truly tired, on the basis of which she rushes to her studio to pursue a more ambitious project. Or suppose, previously aware of their states of, shall we say animation, she figured on a max of twenty minutes worth of work on one of her Flying Girl renditions and it has already been forty-five minutes and not a stir. Imagine her anticipation now. With every brush stroke, she waits for the Hey, we're awake sounds, but by now it's moving on to an hour. Anticipation.

Not much at stake here, really, except the acute awareness that we are borne from scene to scene, attitudes and perhaps tummy aches or cravings for coffee or awareness of an impending deadline attached as fanny packs to our mutable selves, selves who nevertheless are called upon to act as indeed we have in reality been called upon to act or be somewhere or have something done or not to have done the very thing we did.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Who Goes First?

The first-person narrator haunts the hallways of fiction in the same manner ghosts were alleged to have wandered the battlements, bedchambers, and cellars of old castles, seeking to arrest us with tales, complaints, and sagas of unrequited injustice. Some of us are drawn naturally to the medium, thinking it frees us from our own restraints as an observer and manager of events, while others of us have found ourselves locked in a log jam of the pronoun I, which pops up with the insistence of a grade schooler wanting to show off knowledge of a right answer to a teacher's question.

Many diverse and lovely first-person novels have graced the literature, ranging from the exquisite wrench of Dickens' Great Expectations to the more recent skepticism of the Philip Marlow detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Within this panoply is one of the more dangerous examples of how a mismanaged first-person can lead the writer to limitless agony. I speak of Huckleberry Finn, an exemplary first-person novel because of the depth and honesty of the chore it took on, and as well because of the emotional journey on which it led his creator. Huckleberry Finn also illustrates my greater point about the first-person narrative.

For most of his written work, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain trying to be Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain was his discovered voice, his mischievous, irreverent self, champing at the bit to get at pomposity, pretension, sanctimoniousness. At the same time, he yearned for the status of his literary friends, the Howells, the Lowell, even the respect of his friend, the Rev. Joe Twitchell. In short, when Twain got into the first-person self of Huck Finn, he was writing about himself again, himself burnished by hundreds of thousands of words and of that many readers. He'd wrestled with his conscience in print before but never over so deeply as in Huck Finn, where he literally took on the issues of slavery and racial equality. The I, the first-person, was a thirteen-year-old boy, a boy that was created the way a trained actor today would create a role. Twain lived that part until he could no longer put up with it, at which point he shelved it for nearly ten years. Lucky for us but not so lucky for Twain, Huck wouldn't let go, kept pestering at Twain until he made himself heard. This time he brought in Tom Sawyer, who had grown enough to show Twain how a more regular boy would have responded to such an adventure. Tom stuck around to do some reprehensible things, particularly to Jim, the runaway slave. For a while, Huck went along with the teasing because of his admiration for Tom, and what a thesis and or deconstruction that would make--but not for now. For now, the first-person drew Twain into an unintended honesty that was transformative.

The detail about Twain and Huck here is to emphasize the point that the author has to create a character no less extensive in the first-person point of view than in any other, say third or multiple, or even the omniscient. The author has to know or discover the intent of the narrator, then portray it through emotion being evoked in the reader. In the calculus of drama, emotion evoked leads to action; action is the spine of the story.

How does one "prepare" for the first-person point of view? One way is to create a biography of the character, including a map of that character's senses: does she profess vegetarianism for instance, or does she secretly love and want Fred, and if so what are her chances of having her love reciprocated, and if they are in her estimation next to nothing, what does she do as Plan B?

Or to put it another way, the I is not you, but you become the I.

Another way for us to prepare for carrying the story is to ask why this character wants to tell her or his version of the events. We had no such problem with No Country for Old Men because the author decided he was the one to tell it, whereupon he did so by his stunning command and vision of the people involved and how they felt and how they were driven by what they did.

Yet another way to help us see those who would relate their versions is to pick a favored poem. In some ways, I'm a sonnet man, so I'll use as examples two of my favorites, the Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and the Wordsworthian trope, "The world is too much with us, late and soon." Both are readily available on Google. Recite one of these as each of your characters would using that practical exercise to help you "get" the tone and attitude of each.

I is a fine medium--provided you know who I is and who I is not.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Characters with Intent

Whether or not you're working from outline or the sense of being so immersed in your story that your characters are talking to you, sending you sensory messages about where they want to be and what they want to be doing, there is a moment between the ending of the last scene and the beginning of the next when you might with good reason stumble.

The moment of stumble may arrive when the new scene begins, not with a dramatic sweep of intensity but rather a confused moment or two when the characters seem dazed, as though having eaten a too large meal, suffered through a boring lecture, or worse, entered the wrong story (See Mario Vargas Llosa's remarkable Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.)

To prevent this beginning-of-the-scene stumble, you need some preparation. A simple laundry list will do it, a list for each character:

1. What is the character just coming from--what had he/she just done?

2. What is the character doing right now?

3. What is the character's immediate goal? (What does he/she want right now?)

I am particularly reminded of my mentor the actor telling me her experience on opening night when a fellow actor, appearing in his first Broadway play and having been lackluster in rehearsals, seemed not to be waiting in the wings for his cue to go on, then was reported to have been seen out in the alleyway, chinning himself on a fire escape. At length the actor appeared, sweaty and breathless from his exertions, gasping for breath as he delivered his first lines. Thus did Marlon Brando "prepare" himself for his portrayal of a character who was nervous and excited. Here was a character who felt his nervous excitement, then behaved accordingly.

The character moves into the scene with at least the subtext of having recently been doing something else, possibly not wanting to be here.

The character is here with intent in place.

Some of us may have our characters scoot about like the bump cars in an amusement zone, exchanging meaningless dialogue, more or less warming themselves up for the essential movements and behavior of the scene; others in our midst may have made a story board or, as I do, rely on a few scribbled notes on a three-by-five index card. All these and other similar roads lead to the payoff of fully informed characters starting in fully engaged presence.

It might illustrate the point for our writing self to stop for a moment before we enter a new scene--any new scene--in our world of reality, then take note of what we are bringing to it in terms of past history, attitude, agenda, hoped-for action, perhaps even a sense of what we will do after that.