The surest sign some squatters have invaded the protective perimeters of your personality, thereupon claiming a spot for bedrolls and assorted sundries, is when you discover in one of your notebooks or piles of random note taking a few vagrant paragraphs you don't recall having written much less having thought.
Such notes reveal a general awareness of you as a being who, for instance, prefers red to white in everything from wines to jam and vegetables. In other words, these notes were not written by complete strangers. Instead, they most likely represented some aspect of yourself other than the one most often in charge, indeed the aspect of yourself writing these words now.
The surest sign of your own Self being host to a number of selves of varying preferences, biases, and inclinations comes while you are in the act of composition and one of the cadre speaks forth in a loud enough stage whisper for you to hear. "Surely," it says, "you don't really believe [what you have just written]."
"As a matter of fact," you tell the air about you, "those sentiments are accurate reflections of my inner feelings."
"Too bad," the disembodied voice says. "I was just beginning to grow interested in what you were doing here."
The conversations are not always so civil, giving way to the occasional shouting match. If these take place when you are out and about in public, you risk being grabbed into a vision of yourself best illustrated by the 1930s movie Topper, featuring an actor you much admire, Roland Young, engaging with George and Miriam Kirby, who, by nature of their being ghostly apparitions of their mortal selves, are invisible to anyone but Roland Young in his portrait of Cosmo Topper.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
The surest sign some squatters have invaded the protective perimeters of your personality, thereupon claiming a spot for bedrolls and assorted sundries, is when you discover in one of your notebooks or piles of random note taking a few vagrant paragraphs you don't recall having written much less having thought.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
There is hardly a story of any merit or emotional outcome that does not have some traumatic payoff lurking in the nearby shadows. You have not seen this specific condition autopsied in any text or class, which gives you the option to pounce on it and christen it The Dramatic Lurk.
Your own lifelong study of said stories of merit and emotional intensity leads you to conclude that an effective place to introduce this Dramatic Lurk awaits soon after the stratagems of opening momentum, the so-called hooker or gamut by which the potential reader's interest is piqued.
Within the Lurk one may place backstory, the relevant events and conditions that caused the front story to begin, King Sisyphus, for example, hitting on a young lady greatly favored by Zeus, or the even lesser-known back story of a certain prince of Troy being approached by three goddesses who wished him to judge a beauty contest in which they were contestants.
The fact of his accepting the invitation alone testifies to Paris' room temperature IQ, but accept he did, his prize a bribe from one of the goddesses, the most beautiful woman in the world. Who knew beforehand that this would lead to The Trojan War? Who knew the must beautiful woman in the world happened to be married? Who knew?
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And toppled the towers of Ilium? Ah, Helen,
Make me immortal with a kiss...
Nevertheless. Back to lurking. A character has been traumatized in the backstory, or spoiled, or given a hateful teacher or a remarkable and wonderful one. A character has been caused to have a morbid fear of spiders or mice. Your own "trauma" was a dislike of squash, which somehow came to an abrupt end when you were in your twenties. Not much of a backstory there, but you did and do have better candidates for some memorable ow-ies.
In that sense, characters are like used cars; they can be prettied up and made to look newer and more robust than they are, but there is some mystery under the hood, waiting to reveal itself.
When we meet new characters in reality and he or she seems a bit too absorbed in self, reminding us of his or her noble roots and background, we are quick to make some excuse to depart this invidiual's company, more than a little relieved to get away. In fiction, meeting similar characters who feel they need several paragraphs of lineage or accomplishments, we have the equivalent response, but now we are able to take even more direct and precipitous action: We put the book down with enough emphasis to remind us not to return under any circumstances.
However cynical or, conversely, of the glass-is-always-full vision we are, most of us wait to see a person or character in action rather than taking their own word for it. We've done that in the past before and found ourselves burned for having done so.
In order to get us interested in those shadowy places where hidden agendas and dark secrets lurk, you have to get out attention first. That's something that requires some doing. Too many street-corner vendors and scam-heavy Interned come-on ads await us on too many mean avenues.
Monday, November 28, 2016
For the longest time after we are taught or teach ourselves to read, we proceed with the notion of language as representing the limits of experience and existence. But soon enough, we hear at least one voice from within, expressing yet deeper, more personal meaning.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Not too long ago, a student waited for class to end and her fellow students to leave before coming to you with the announcement that she could not bring herself to write dialogue along the guidelines you'd been suggesting. Your response was, in some ways along those very guidelines you'd put forth. "Why," you asked, "is that?"
"Because," she said, "that invariably gets characters arguing with one another." She sighed. "I know you don't like -ly adverbs and so I shouldn't have said 'invariably,' but every time I get to thinking of your guidelines, the characters seem to go off on one another."
"What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong is, I can't stand it. Sometimes I cringe when I read my dialogue. It's so--so--"
You were going to say "Exactly," but under the circumstances, you decided to return to safer ground. "What's wrong with that?"
"I don't want stories where people argue. I want stories where people either get along or decide to avoid the places where they disagree."
"And you think," you said, sensing the opportunity for a teaching opportunity, "that the conditions you've described here help to define what story is?"
"Well," she said, then excused herself, knowing you have little regard for sentences beginning with "well," I--" her pause here caused you to think she was about to use another word you have little use for, "just," when used as a synonym for "only," as in, "I was only going to say--" "I meant to say that I want my stories to feature resolution and reconciliation."
"Which are meaningless if they appear without prior confrontation or tangible signs of misunderstanding and disagreement."
"I'll have to--"
You were certain she was going to need to think the matter over, which she did not say, aware of your frequent admonitions to avoid verbs relating to thought, particularly in dialogue. After a moment, she phrased it this way, "I'll see if I can find other ways to suggest wrestling with deep inner conflicts."
She was--and is--a lively, attentive student, who has a pronounced ability to convey her characters in some form or other of movement, either directly toward conflicting agendas or established conventions. About two weeks after this conversation, she once again waited until the other students had gathered their belongings and departed. In her hand was a small envelope, obviously an aspect of snail mail, thanks to the metered postage you saw in the upper righthand corner.
"Where?" you said.
"Where did you place a short story?"
"How did you know I placed a short story?"
"Acceptance letters sent snail mail are always small, maybe three by five. Rejections come back in the SASE you sent with the story. Which of your stories was accepted?"
You could see the flush seeping through the defenses and into her cheeks, making their way as well into her forehead and down the sides of her chin. "The one with all the confrontive dialogue."
"Important as dialogue is to a story, there is a good deal more to it," you offered.
"Yes, but--" She withdrew a small sheet of note paper. "--they were specific about liking the dialogue."
Under the circumstances, you wouldn't have said anything if she'd have said "they particularly liked the dialogue." Even without trying, you can emerge sounding pretty much like an asshole, a fact that has some, but not an entire potential in your own awareness of dialogue versus conversation, and your own level of short-fuse patience.
"Sincere congratulations on placing your story. Now, given your attitude about confrontive dialogue, where does this leave us?"
"I could have done without that introductory clause."
"You mean, 'given your attitude about confrontative dialogue'?"
"You bet your ass," she said.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
We are all of us the dramatic equivalent of British actors in that we move with dispatch from starring roles in some narratives to second- or third-fiddle appearances in others, reduced to mere walk-on status in yet other roles.
Nevertheless, we long ago recognized our arrival at what many regard as the major furca point in life, which is to accept with obedience and without question the multifarious calls to perform, or resolve to give the most exquisite presence possible in every role that comes our way.
On reflection of your past history, you account yourself as having shown such responses as indifference and/or resentment to some minor roles, with minor indifference and accelerating resentment toward major roles.
Memories of the latter have been enormous help, in particular one in which you suddenly found yourself not only the major lead in a day-long seminar on what funny is and how to be it, but the only performer, you who were (and often still are) emblematic in your unfunniness.
Then there was the time when you were second banana to a noted playwright, short story writer, and novelist, to the point where you overindulged in your wine intake. At such point, you overheard a conversation in which one of the conference organizers told the other that Top Banana had strolled out into the night to pee against the side of a building rather than use the restroom, whereupon he found his way to the local Elk's Club bar, whereupon he began "tossing doubles and telling any Elk within earshot to go fuck himself."
Then you became aware of them both looking at you and, it seemed to you, counting the empty wine bottles before you.
You're about to stick your big toe into a scene the likes of which you've thought about in Real Time before, but never as a potential for a scene in a story. You're about to introduce five characters, one of them, you begin to realize, is your protagonist's closest friend. The others are individuals the protagonist works with, but in all probability, they will not return to your narrative.
Where to go next, and how?
First: Be able to tell yourself, in as few words as possible, what you want from this scene. The immediate answers you "get" are: 1. an awareness by all characters and, thus, potential readers, of the notion as a given that life is a mine field for pain, which may explode at any time, and 2. you are stripping protective coating from your character, layer by layer, scene by scene.
Second: Draw a map of where the scene will take place, then locate the principle perch of each character as the scene progresses.
Third: Look for polar aspects of yourself in each of the characters you will introduce--places where you tend to go and places beyond which you will not trespass.
Fourth: With as few words as possible, in a simple declarative sentence, reveal what each character wants in his/her secret heart.
Fifth: Find out what each character's reaction is to the work he/she does, the work he/she does in this room, and what, if anything, the character would rather be doing.
Sixth: Cause the "something" the character would rather be doing to come as a surprise to you.
From all of this comes the work necessary at some point to visualize the cause for the scene in the first place, the kind and quantity of fuel necessary to propel the scene for its required distance, and the ability to nod yes with some demonstration of emphasis when you ask of yourself those two significant questions:
1. Was this scene necessary for the work at hand?
Friday, November 25, 2016
All characters, however remote their participation in a specific narrative, have motive for being there. In some cases, the character may appear in a story without wishing to be present, wishing instead to be allowed to retreat to the shadowy assumptions of other involvements.
Other characters wish to proceed as though their already rich sense of entitlement signifies the need to tell their story rather than the ones he or she was brought in to augment. When you see the need to introduce a new character and begin figuratively moistening and articulating the clay that will become this individual, you are often too quick to skip over a significant factor that will later come back to bite you.
Sometimes the need for this character is so urgent that you give the character the benefit of the doubt by assuming she or he is a reliable narrator. With little or no thought beyond the need for a new character to set foot within the landscape you're constructing, you assume they have a place in the story, otherwise why would you have considered them?
Good at his or her job, yes; truthful-but-leaning-toward objectivity? Not so much. Indeed, this character you're bringing forth, however polar from you as an individual, steps into the early drafts with the presumption of reliability, of truth telling, of inherent honesty, of fairness, and no inherent bigotry or moral laxity.
Good luck. However nice that the character is not recognizable as you, no good can come of the relative certainty that this character will not be reliable. Like you, this character will be at work accommodating some biases while trying to cope with others. This character may even become steadfast in refusing to tell you what he or she wants.
You've had to cope with the fallout implication here that you are no paradigm of narrative regularity, which takes you to fretting about the validity of the landscape you saw fit to create. One or two of the characters who are already in place may may seem overdone in their unreliable natures, but there is no surprise to you that they are indeed lacking reliability.
Over thinking such themes can bring the entire dramatis personae, the created landscape, and the accurate parallels to human behavior crashing down about you, leaving you to glower at the segments of your own landscape you refer to as Inner Editor and Middle School English Teacher, both of whom find occasions of great mirth in your behavior related to teaching yourself to compose effective fiction.
From time to time when you have thought your way into such a sulk, you identify with the highly unreliable narrator, Montressor, from Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," devising ways to lure said Inner Editor and Middle School English teacher into some suitable trap from which they cannot escape.
One of the more pleasurable ones was set on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, which used to be The Camarillo State Hospital, a significant repository for individuals afflicted with unreliable personality or, in the case of one patient of whom you were aware, personalities.
Your Inner Editor could be lured to a previously undiscovered vault with undiscovered manuscripts of value. Your Middle School English teacher could be lured there to see a poem etched in a concrete wall that could have been Robinson Jeffers handiwork or, better still, an uncatalogued poem from Dylan Thomas.
But unreliability is not restricted by boundaries; these two individuals are each in his/her own way every bit as unreliable as the rest of you. And once again, you are turning the lights of inquiry on those galloping, raucous individuals who are so intent upon their own existence that they cannot see how unreliable they have always been.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Unless you are describing something with profound meaning to you or, by implication, to a character you have created, your description falls into the journalistic equivalent, the who, what, when, where, and why plateau, where you have no trouble picturing a generic version of the "something," but so far as another reader is concerned, perhaps even so far as you are concerned while rereading the material some days later, you are taking the "something" pretty much on faith.
Whatever the "something" is, it remains in the shadowy world of the general, primarily because you have not established a dramatic relationship with it. The "something" could be literally or figuratively small potatoes, in fact a small potato, baked, with a glob of sour cream and some shaved chives, which most readers will take for granted in much the same manner they have taken actual potatoes with sour cream and chive garnish at mediocre restaurants.
The "something" stands a better chance of being memorable if it is served with one or more sensual garnishes or, if not those, some note of sentimentality or nostalgia relating to a past time and event, or, better yet, a memento from a person of significance.
A man finds a necklace that may or may not have real garnet stones, lying in a Priced-to-sell tray at a pawnshop. He has paid less than five dollars for it, leaving us as witnesses to the purchase with an overall impression of the buyer as a cheap, manipulative sort. Our impressions of him worsen when he presents it to his lady friend, telling her this used to belong to his grandmother.
This inanimate object, a necklace, which may or may not have real garnet stones, has now undergone a dramatic transformation from the cheap trinket we know it to be, the cynical tool of a character we have little fondness for, to something of great value to the recipient because it was the first present from Him, and the fact of it having been his grandmother's speaks beyond the authenticity of the attached stones and to the recipient's impression of the level of seriousness attached to the giver of the necklace.
You have in almost daily use a chipped dish, too small to be a salad plate, possibly intended for a bread or roll plate or a plate to store leftovers. The person who brought it into you life paid all of a dime for it, but the mere fact of its having been brought into your sphere by the person who paid the dime for it at a neighborhood lawn sale makes it of inestimable value to you.
If there had to be a broken dish in your immediate venue, there are other, more expensive dishes you would sacrifice to the gods of broken dishes, a simultaneous reflection on the value of the dish to you and the memory of the person who brought the dish out of its lawn sale orbit and into the kitchen orbit where you preside.
Such information is not often included in descriptions, which, however acute and accurate they may be, tend toward the general, a state and location we are all familiar with. Only when we are poised and focused for work are we able to move out of this state and into what you enjoy thinking of as the singing-in-the-shower state, the place where the birds of ideas and inspiration are likely to find the bird feeder of your imagination.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
We live in more than one world at a time, hybrid realities shifting on and off as the energy in one is used up and the other, with a lurch, takes over. Story becomes an attempt to observe the various worlds with some standardized recognition of behavior.
Wishing to become a writer at this age is a perilous business, one you had no idea was so fraught with danger when you begin. The closer you come to understanding the writer's voice that is you, the more you realize it is a distillation not merely of the voices your earliest mentor asked you if you had achieved yet, rather instead that you are a composite of different worlds, different voices, differing needs and visions, clamoring a though opposing factions in a town hall meeting.
"Do you hear voices, or do you see things?" she asked. You were relieved when she confessed to hearing rather than seeing, not that there was or is a better one to be afflicted with. The problem would be to have neither, feeling you were even at a greater distance from your goal, instead inventing the middle ground, "A bit of both," as a sophisticated choice. Within seconds of hearing that question for the first time, you were rewarded with memories of you scribbling furiously to get down the wording from those voices, coming at you so quickly you despaired of capturing it all.
Sometimes the swiftness and intensity of the words makes it impossible for you to capture it all, a frustration with close relationship to the times you dream a story or a scene or a triggering exchange of dialogue which you are unable to recall after you've awakened.
In both cases, awake or asleep, the process is in a sense scattering clues for you, making it part of your job to focus on the individuals and images involved. The takeaway: Nothing comes easy; even when you think you have "it," you have only an approximation which will want some reaching into the deeper-than-waking state to recapture as much as possible.
In order to write a page or two of narrative, you find no sufficiency in the mere taking of notes; you want to hear and investigate the clamor, listening to the voices, some of whom have the same effect on you that reading a boring book or engaging in a boring conversation has.
There is no escape when the complains from within border on the boring because this is you and you need to listen, to sympathize with as many of them as possible. From your own brief experience as an extra during the heydays of live TV drama and from the hundreds of stories you've sent to magazines scattered about the continent, you have a sense of those who are rarely if ever going to be cast in anything and of those who are not likely to find their stories being given homes in any publication for the foreseeable future, if ever.
Difficult as it is to account for the presence of such aspects of yourself, you must persist in attempts to know them and feel some compassion for their complaints lest all your characters sound as though they originate from the same source. Story plays on the contrasts or differences between individuals and between conglomerates and associations.
You'd thought earlier on that it would be easy because you were desperately bored to get away and out on your own adventures and because, even then, your own reading had provided you with what you thought was imagination.
In your first creative writing class, when the instructor asked you and your classmates to name necessary conditions for story, you said imagination, and you meant it, but he asked you to consider if you were yet old enough for what imagination really was, which had the possible meaning for you that what you really had was a group of escape plans for the prisons of reality you liked least of all.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
From time to time, your father would observe of something you'd done a judgment of "Pretty good," or "Well played," or even "Nice touch, there." Given the depth of your relationship with him and your sense of knowing him, these seemingly mild words of praise were sufficient to maintain a relationship that was healthy and supportive. As you were later to judge father-son relationships, you counted yourself polar opposites from Pat Conroy, a writer you much admire, and his father, whom he memorialized in the novel The Great Santini.
Without realizing it at the time, for that would have given you too much credit for having too much insight, you felt somehow promoted to the higher stratosphere of relationships and regard on those times when your father's observations went beyond "Pretty good," and "Nice touch" to the majestic rhetoric of, "What are you, some kind of wise guy?" or the more declarative "Wise guy."
A wise guy is an essential demonstration of a sarcasm sandwich, either the closest thing to a non-Yiddish put-down or an expression of admiration. Starting with basic ingredients, a wise guy is a savant, a magi, a learned person.
Level one of being called a wise guy is another essential demonstration, one of exaggerated otherness; it is being singled out after having said or done something of incredible gaucheness or stupidity, the equivalent of being accused of "You think you know everything, but you don't know jack."
One of your first times in memory of being called a wise guy came after you observed to your father, scant seconds of his observation that you didn't know jack, "It is my good fortune to have a father named Jack."
Depending on its use, the term wise guy is a mantra evoking praise or disdain. You spent many years thinking you were a wise guy, acting as though you were one, and not always getting along in the world about you because of it. Somehow the observations from your father were recognition that you could be prized for knowing one or two things as opposed to knowing well beyond things you had no hope of knowing.
Being a wise guy meant you were apt, funny, observant, relatively able to cope, sometimes even more than relatively able; you were more than the sorcerer's apprentice, you had a leg up over the horse of Reality.
Wise guy is other. If you have learned anything at all about story at this stage of your career, you have learned that story and the kinds of humor you prefer are about other, which is to say one thing being compared with another. Things that are merely themselves are neither story nor funny. A dandelion growing in a patch of grass is merely a thing; the same dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk is other, unexpected, story.
As a lad, you used to sell newspapers on a corner near a Branch of the social service providing unemployment payments. Indeed, some unemployed were now able to afford a copy of the Herald-Express you were selling, presumably to check the Help Wanted ads. The Other, the unexpected or story, was the arrival of a character named Adolph Menjou to pick up his unemployment check between his relatively steady employment in films, driven by a chauffeur in his employ and in a limousine he owned.
That was Other; that was funny and it was story. The universe abounds with things, persons who use those things, yet other persons who make those things. The universe abounds with an ever-expanding awareness of tenets of behavior. These tenets are sometimes called laws. There are natural laws, which may even be named after you for all eternity to see if you were the first to observe them. In your matriculation through high school and university, you became aware of such laws as the many of Newton, at least one of Ohm, one you know of from a fellow named Lavoisier. Such laws apply to the observable behavior of matter.
There are other laws, laws enacted by people, trying to exert a sense of behavioral boundaries beyond which the so-called reasonable or prudent person will not trespass. Look at the consequences of two individuals, Prometheus and Sisyphus, who overstepped boundaries.
The more of a wise guy you become, the more you see yourself as having been formed in ways agreeable to you because you knew some jack and, indeed, some considerable Jack. The Other you notice is the dandelion in the cement and your own growth therein rather than a patch of grass.
The stories you relish most are of the Other and if one of your own should happen to come to fruition along those lines, you are the happier for it.
Monday, November 21, 2016
There you were, an undergraduate by day, sopping up literature in the English Department of your university, while sneaking out at night, first to write comedy for television, later to work at the night office of the Associated Press, tucked off into a corner of the LA Times newsroom.
What you learned most nights had a growing, remarkable effect on how you progressed during the days. You learned to write essay-type questions on exams as news stories, starting with the most information in the opening paragraph.
In the same way ordinary characters cause readers to set books down partially read, not to be returned to, sameness provokes a similar need to begin casting about for an exit.Contrast is one of the essentials of humor. Persons behaving in a consistent manner rarely provide news stories.
After about two days of writing comedy, you began to understand the importance of the two principals in Aristophanes' great romp, The Frog, being a slave and his master, with each having a specific dependence on the other. Two masters--not funny. Two slaves? Even less funny.
Later, at the Associated Press, the awareness of a person doing the same thing for forty years might make a short feature article, but a person doing something wildly different after having done the same thing for forty years was a story.
Suppose Abbott and Costello looked alike, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and that twit, Lewis. What about Holmes and Watson, and, well into the twentieth century, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.
Different is dramatic where sameness is--well, static. Consistent is sameness, change and surprise are explosive. Most jokes and many stories end on a surprise that comes directly from a shift in the sameness.
We've all heard stories about genie's in bottles, offering boons or wishes to mortals who are fortunate enough to encounter one thus imprisoned and now set free. But who could fail to become interested in a story about a hearing-impaired genie, who mishears to great mischief the wish of a rescuer?
Imagine the rescuer, entering a bar, ordering a large drink for himself and a small thimbleful for his apparent prop, a tiny piano player, who begins playing a toy piano.
"The genie was hard of hearing," the rescuer tells a jaded bartender, a man who, by virtue of his profession, has seen and heard nearly everything. "I did not ask for this," the rescuer says, indicating the miniature player before him. "I did not ask the genie for a nine-inch pianist."
Sunday, November 20, 2016
In your attempts to finish up on your booklength project, Required Reading: The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own, you find yourself bamboozled and tossed about by your old friend, change.
The book doesn't change; it remains the unique amalgam of technique, inspiration, evocation and the mystical x-factor found in all enduring works of fiction. But there is also a mystical x-factor in you, manifesting its presence each time you reread something you read before.
Regardless of the outcome of rereading--you either conclude you've outgrown the book entirely or if it happens to be a so-called young reader book, you respect but realize you've outgrown it, or, better yet, you wonder how you missed all the newly discovered wonders within its pages--there has been a change within you.
Some of the obvious changes are your loss of interest in the theme or lead character of a novel, perhaps the nature of the problem he or she has set forth to grapple with, perhaps yet your awareness that earlier readings triggered a false or overbearing sentimentality which you now find intolerable.
Best of all, a sense of having grown into something, where you can identify more of the nuances you'd missed in previous readings, even to the extent of sweeping these nuances under the same rug where you swept details.
Some of your hundred choices have been lifelong friends; even this last revisit in 2016 to Huckleberry Finn, caused you to wonder how, even as recently as the last time you taught the work in a classroom, you thought you were on intimate terms with that mystical x-factor of a narrative.
You can readily understand the how and why of your appreciation for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which, as you listen to an old books-on-tape version, read by Paul Newman, you realize you know close to from memory. But that novel is not one of the hundred you winnowed from all those you've read and remembered.
Part of the distractions you're encountering with the final sections of this work in progress have to do with the inversion process, where you understand now how you are describing changes within you rather than changes in a given novel. You are also recognizing how a number of these hundred novels of which you write are narratives from your more immediate reading than the reading of your childhood, teens, twenties, and even into your thirties.
This results in a kind of perfect sense only you will see or experience, resident in today's revisit to the fiction you are writing to distract you from the nonfiction you are writing. Reading through pages you thought well of yesterday, you wonder today what caused you to see mischief and energy in them yesterday.
Something has changed. Also, paragraphs you gave little thought to yesterday suddenly seem alive with potential and promise. You stopped writing yesterday having come to a point where you'd run out of clues or possibilities. Where to go next? No clue.
Even more disconcerting, much of your fiction has migrated from Los Angeles northward to Santa Barbara, where you have lived nearly half your life. The project you want to begin directly after getting past The Hundred Novels Project is set in Santa Barbara. The distraction fiction had its beginnings of all places in a men's room in Royce Hall, the building at UCLA where most of your literature classes were held.
You were out of clues that would whisper hints of where your next scenes would take place, until a passing remark from a student moved you out of your westside Los Angeles dead end, perhaps sixty miles northward to the outer reaches of Los Angeles County, a large campus you have never visited, at least not in reality.
This campus is the retirement home for the men and women who worked in the multifarious aspects of the motion picture and television industry, where you and your protagonist will be coping with the outcomes of change.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
A practical but frequently overlooked device to feed the incessant demands of story shows its hand in the in the form of a shift in the status or power of one of the principal characters. Look no farther than Macbeth, wherein the eponymous protagonist may be seen reporting to his wife how his conscience forbade him to take the life of King Duncan as they had planned.
We see the shift in status not only from the change in Macbeth's earlier demeanor but as well from the manner in which Lady Macbeth responds to the news. She is telling him how less than a man he is in her eyes.
This reversal is overcome later, when Lady Macbeth looks up from her husband's hands, dripping the blood of Duncan. The first words out of her mouth reflect a shift in status. "My husband!" she says.
Story runs on power, its energy the inertia of dramatic movement. The inertia begins with the intensity of interest and focus of a major character on a goal or intent, which means the actions of an antagonist to blunt the inertia of a protagonist will serve the dramatic purpose of keeping the story alive and moving.
Sometimes, particularly in longer works, two-act plays or novels, the writer will find use in bringing the action to a screeching halt by ending a scene on a matter of pending inertia, which is to say a cliffhanger. After establishing the outcome to be kept in a pending condition, the author injects another agenda, another character engaged in some compelling activity, the dramatic equivalent of bait and switch, which may--and has--extended almost to the limits of the writer's purpose.
Season four, episode six of the ever-shifting strands of power in Breaking Bad, illustrates such a point of transference. Skyler White, wife to the protagonist, Walter, fearful of the safety of her family, begs Walter to go to the police.
Skyler insists Walt is "in over his head." In this scene, he takes, embraces power. "Who is it you think you see," Walter asks Skyler. He informs her of the amount of money he makes and the power he wields. "I am the man with the gun, knocking at the door. I am the danger."
In some drama, power is a matter of social status or tradition, sometimes inherited through position, sometimes obtained by the equivalent of blackmail. The holder of the power expects to be listened to, obeyed without question; the power holder expects a continuation of the status quo. As readers, we watch for the moments of shifting, perhaps recalling moments in our own life when we stood up to the established power, then stared it down.
In constructing story, you try to keep in mind at all times a definition you once memorized in a high school physics class, where the topic of inertia was presented for your consideration. "Objects at rest tend to stay at rest until their stasis is overcome by a governing force." In other words, the "another day in paradise" residents of Santa Barbara are so fond of observing much of the time--until the stasis is destabilized by a force intense enough to set the "object" in motion.
"Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until they are overcome by friction of sufficient intensity to bring them to a halt." Thus story, which is inertia-in-motion, is propelled by the lead character's wish for an idiosyncratic outcome. Story stops when the details or digressions take the energy away from dramatic inertia.
Friday, November 18, 2016
The basic shape of story is the scene, into which such separate forms as interior monologue, narrative, and dialogue appear as vehicles to bring forth dramatic information.
Interior monologue manifests itself in the things characters tell themselves, observations made about the story in motion, Hamlet, for instance, thinking things have reached an acute downward spiral that he might just as well take his own life.
Narrative is the expression of the movements made and actions taken by the characters. Dialogue represents the things characters say to other characters.
All three of these forms represent action, which may be measured in increments of time, much in the manner of the duration of notes in musical scores. In story, these increments or moments of action are known as beats. In novels and short stories, beats may be alluded to with stage direction disguised as narrative. "He paused for a moment, looking warily about the room to see if he'd left any unintended traces of his presence."
In a script, the duration may be noted in print by the author, or penciled in by the actor after consultation with the director. "I have something to tell you. (A beat of three.) And you're not going to like it."
Time is a presence in all stories, not only in the moment-to-moment world of the beats but the order in which time is presented. Some stories progress in a straight chronology, from point A to the concluding moments, but even then, the possibility of past events or backstory hovers.
Thus, with one or two occasional exceptions, the basic physics of story in appearance and presentation. But before any story can engage, one more property must be introduced into the chemistry of drama as opposed to outline, the energetic presence of change.
Without change, there is no story, only the straight line of a report or description. Characters are growing familiar with one another, growing closer, more alienated, more likely to have a hidden agenda, maturing, regressing, feeling free of encumbrances, becoming more aware of previously unseen encumbrances.
First-rank characters, protagonists and their polar opposites, the antagonists, are growing at a rate of progression the writer has seen and is at pains to make the reader aware of. One of the oldest jokes known to mankind is predicated on change. A farmer realizes he needs a hoe, opts to borrow one from his neighbor, sets out at a brisk pace to his neighbor's farm, thinking how fortunate he is to have a person such as a neighbor from whom he can borrow a hoe.
But, he wonders as he walks on, the neighbor is a bit of a pinch purse and may not take to loaning a thing of such value as a hoe. Nevertheless, our farmer continues, using internal monologue as he walks, to remind himself his neighbor might in fact not loan the needed hoe. And after all I've done for him, coming over to milk his cows when he was ill, helping out with his neighbor's harvest of hay.
By the time our farmer has arrived at his neighbor's acreage, he has worked himself into such a lather of resentment that when his neighbor sees him approaching and hails him, his response is, "You can keep your goddamned hoe."
Thus, even attitude and perceptions are subject to change. Things may remain solid in Reality; in story, change represents the ante chips the writer tosses on the table when first sitting to compose a particular work.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
One of your many projects-in-the-works is a book length treatise on how techniques actors use to help them articulate their assigned role and, indeed, to be more convincing in their interaction with other characters. This project is undertaken in the conviction that tellers of stories and actors have more in common than meets the eye.
An additional aspect of this conviction leads you to believe storytellers and actors share many techniques related to the development and maintenance of characters, techniques with the common denominator of concentration, which is to say the actor's absolute ability to concentrate on the inner life of the character portrayed, and the writer's similar need to leave the writing self behind while exploring the nooks and crannies of the character's persona.
Disclosure # 1. Much of your reading, however much you may enjoy the performances of the writers you read, is to see how accomplished storytellers convey the depths of reality and simultaneous empathy they do.
Disclosure # 2. You believe there is a direct link between the writer's successful portrayals of persons, places, things, and motives to the writer's ability to concentrate out of self and into character.
Disclosure #3. You believe the ability to concentrate can be better grasped by watching the better actors. You also believe trained actors are more likely to have the ability to concentrate in better control than most writers.
Disclosure #4. You are accordingly envious of the actor's ability to understand, use, and demonstrate the nuances of concentration than most writers are able to effect without significant revision.
Disclosure # 5: Sometimes when you are in class, your own DIoP whispers in your ear and you are off one one of three exercises in concentration given you by your acting mentor. DIoP stands, accordingly, for Dramatic Imp of Perversity, which wants you to collude with it.
Exercise # 1. Pick a spot close to the baseboard, where wall meets floor,in the classroom or social situation. Imagine a mouse hole and, then, the head of a mouse appearing in the hole, investigating to see if it may step forth to engage in an exploratory run for food.
If you focus and believe you are seeing the mouse, it often will appear. Over the years you've been working this exercise, you find it helpful to imagine the color of the mouse or, particularly if there is food available in the immediate area, what kind of food this is.
Since you've "worked" the exercise, your concentration has gone from a grim determination and thus, a rather forced, near melodramatic stare to one of amusement: Here you are, able to watch this mouse about the warp and weft of its venture to provide itself a meal, while the students or others present know nothing of its existence.
If you are a complete success in performing the exercise, one or more persons will "catch" you in your observation and ask, "Are you seeing a mouse?" or variations on that theme.
You believe--and this is a key ingredient of the exercise--that a skilled actor could "project" that mouse to a larger audience.
Only in the past several months have you come to understand that those small details, the color of the mouse itself, the location of its den, and the target of its venture outside the den, are heavy contributions to you being able to imagine the mouse for more than a few seconds at a time.
Exercise # 2. Pick a spot in the ceiling or, if outside, some tree branch or wall or shrub, from which a spider has produced a strand of web from which it lowers itself, allowing you to follow its progress.
The goal is the same as with the imaginary mouse, but to date, you've only once been able to cause someone to arrive at the desired result of, "Eeew, a spider."
Exercise # 3. Best done indoors but may also be essayed in porches or outside dining areas. The imagined object this time is either a house fly or a bee.
You've had the most success with this one, not surprisingly because it is, you believe, the least complex of the three. With your eyes, you're able to "track" the fly or bee in a more distinctive flight pattern, say circling the room in search of a place to land or, outside, moving from object to object.
If you were asked what one thing you see actors do is the most valuable to you as a storyteller, your answer at this time is the ability not only to concentrate, which certainly happens to you when you are approached by a story idea in a manner equivalent to someone in a Trader Joe's or COSTCO parking lot asking if you have any spare change. You are suddenly focused on the idea, and its implications.
The process begins in earnest when you find yourself able to concentrate on it in longer increments, the way an actor does when undertaking a performance.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
When you think of tension out in the world of physics, you think of a piece of string or wire being drawn taut to the point of near breaking, a large rubber band (of the sort you associate with a slingshot) being extended to such a degree that it will, in the process of returning to its normal state, send a pebble or small projectile flying with great force and delivering itself to a target with a smack.
Tension means something being extended out of shape, a force or pressure being applied somewhere and, in strict accordance with Newton's observations of the behavior of matter, a consequential effect in direct proportion to the density of applied tension.
In the worlds of psychological and dramatic reality, tension continues to apply the equivalent of Newtonian observations to existential and dramatic postures, wherein individuals respond by tensing in reaction to a physical or emotional stimulus.
A tense person is "all nerves" or "on edge;" a tense dramatic situation is one beset by impending deadlines, sudden and unanticipated disaster, the arrival of a suspicious individual. The individuals who appear in these psychological or dramatic situations responds, each in idiosyncratic fashion demonstrating the emergency modes of persons who have been stressed to some abnormal extreme.
Part of the joy of investigating story comes from the discovery of what normal behavior is, because, whatever it is, the presence of tension allows us to see the difference between the laid-back, mellowed-out was of then, and the tense, emotionally taut is of now.
Tension can be said to represent a force holding in most emotions except fears associated with survival; danger, predators lurking nearby. Coping responses may be driven by panic, urgent messages shouting, "Run! Run!" Never mind what is being run from.
The point of this stress talk is your observation that the panic mechanism triggered by stress causes your characters to do things they might not ordinarily do when they are not stressed...
...which brings forth the matter of what the characters do when tension is removed or at least allowed to unwind: they become better able to recognize and deal with the feelings put on hold when panic strikes. In some cases, the character has been wound up most of his or her adult life and the emotions now freed come forth at a different age level, with the ironic observation of them, you may only be the emotional equivalent of a knock-off Rolex watch, but at least for a while, you'll keep good time.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
During your reading of a particular novel or short story, why do you:
laugh at some scenes and not others,
cry at some scenes and not others,
feel your anger rise during some scenes, but not others,
consider skipping some segments to get at the "good stuff" rather than others,
copy entire sentences and paragraphs (and not others) into a notebook or commonplace book
The answer is: Because you bring a honed set of responses, needs, and expectations to the table, aware how any other reader may well bring greater sensitivities yet to bear, or in some significant way, make no connection whatsoever with the text.
When you approach a new reading experience these days, which is to say this century, this year, even this month, you do so with expectations formulated when you first began a serious campaign of reading in the late 1930s to transport yourself from the life of being the youngest in a four-person family, living in midtown Los Angeles during the waning years of an ordeal which saw your parents' sizable resources diminished by sixty or seventy percent thanks to a phenomenon known as the Great Depression, set against a background of a pernicious virus that would soon be recognized as World War II.
There was much to retreat from, but the single most significant thing was the boredom of restraint experienced by any young person with limitations on his or her freedom. Your real antagonist was boredom; how3 much adventure can a young person experience without an imagination or some rabbit hole of a Purpose (in contrast to mere purpose) to fall into.
You read to advance rather than retreat, to progress rather than remain in that inertial state of rest. You read for the same purpose today that you read those long years ago, for the movement side of inertia.
In consequence your reading tastes take you beyond the simple solving of a problem or, for that matter, the hour or two you spend on Sunday with the crossword puzzle from The New York Times, into places where your imagination has to find a conversation with writers who have moved beyond the simple art of description and into the worlds of detail and evocation.
How do you evoke without showing a character responding to a set of details that have been braided with circumstance? How do you provide a range of emotions and impressions beyond your own? How do you get beyond having each character with the same goals, vocabulary, and sense of right or wrong?
Step one: Stop describing.
Step two: Allow each character to experience as he or she experiences, not how you think they would experience.
Step three: How do you see the difference between characters you like and dislike, between characters who resemble you and those who are your polar opposite? Why, you hear them out, just as you've come to rely on hearing out aspects of yourself with whom you are not always on the best of terms.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Don't you love it when someone explains how the book you recently read for the cheap thrills of a quick trip away from the daily lurch and buckle of Reality is in fact a grand metaphor for all of creation?
You come away feeling a double traitor. Bad enough you didn't stand up with some affirmative response of your own, you also felt the need for a hit or two of escapism.
After devoting much of your young life to reading everything you could get your hands on as a way of finding your own path to regular publication and, thus, a semblance of a living, you had some notion of where to go in order to escape, as Thomas Paine put it in 1776, "these [are the}times that try men's souls," or, as William Wordsworth put it in 1806, "The world is too much with us, late and soon."
Some of that escapism was because of the callowness of your youth, a tincture of not knowing any better, and the already growing pressure from instructors and friends for you to "settle down and get serious." In your secret heart, which was at times filled with a boozy sense of resentment, as in, you'll show them how serious you are, you had the experience of conversation with that well-hidden and serious you, tucked away like a time capsule within the outer you of you.
So far as the hidden metaphor was concerned, you were reading trash, plot-driven stuff, and escapism for the rush and excitement of adventurous action. You forget who it was, could have been as far back as high school when Mr. Herman Quick said to someone (not! you) "Don't worry about theme. Theme will come to your writing whether you want it to or not, and to the degree that no one can see theme in your writing, they will later attach more theme to it after you are published."
You did not know how to deal with that when you first heard it. As a teacher yourself, as an editor who had to justify taking on certain projects, as a writer being informed of themes you did not know you possessed by readers you did not know you possessed, you are more earnest about the matter now, these years later.
This observation rates a retrospective nod of appreciation to Ruth, one of your earlier publisher bosses, who warned you one night over thick steaks and cloudy cocktails of the dangers of mentioning thematic implications of a project when advocating for its publication in an editorial meeting. "When you say theme," she said, "I begin to ask why you need to tell me than and I begin to question why you didn't pick something more tangible such as dialogue, setting, motive, and levels of action."
All the readers and, indeed, the writers you know, read and write for different reasons. You read for slightly different reasons than you write, the former being to escape the potential for boredom and malaise, the latter, although aware of boredom and malaise, more for a way to pay tribute to the vast potentials of mischief in free circulation.
Without a human presence, there would be no mischief. To give personification for a moment to Nature, she doesn't need to endow her landscapes and creations with mischief, substituting instead a graduatged scale of grandeur. Making comes along, and before you know it, there is the mischief of the pool hall, the tattoo parlor, the House of Representatives, and one of the best offerings to the gods of mischief we know of so far, the theme park.
Mr. Quick never said this, but you can almost fit him in as having done so, "Keep your stories loaded with the mischief of individuals having various notions of what constitutes correctness, and keep your themes in theme parks."
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Shapeshifting words can, when the occasion calls for it, switch from noun to verb, from a person, place, or thing, to an action. Such words and possibilities enliven stories; the reader is in a constant state of wonder, which is a good thing, and the writer is in a constant state of amazement, which is an even better thing for all concerned.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
By establishing boundaries for your front-rank characters, you establish a cheat sheet to remind you how far to push them in order to bring your story to life, and as well to pull the grenade pin on your hidden strength.
All right, the grenade pin metaphor is a hyperbole. As you understand the matter, you have three seconds to rid yourself of the grenade or you will find yourself wishing you had. Even so, establishing some situation in which your front-rank characters reveal the spoken and/or moral equivalent of "That's where I draw the line," you now have a clear picture of what the line is you will push that character over.
Sometimes, when you consider this device, you wonder if you have grown more cynical in your advancing years, certainly more cynical than the onset of your political overdrive of idealism. But no, this awareness is not cynicism so much as recognition that you view boundaries as comfort zones, that people are essentially moral and in varying degrees unselfish to the point of altruism.
You want stories in which characters become aware of some salient thing or develop a desire for some tangible thing or outcome to the degree of being ruled by it, informed and transformed. Story begins when your characters begin looking for shovels to tunnel under their property lines or, indeed, wire cutters to snip the fences preventing them from entering a terrain they'd had no thought to enter until now.
You want characters who break their own rules or the rules of those they are more fearful of than respectful. And by the same metric you want your good guys capable of extending their individual boundaries of morality, you want the bad guys to be drawn beyond their apparent lack of concern for morality to be driven by circumstances to do something of a highly moral reach.
Now the fun--and the story--begins; the good guys and the bad guys, having been driven beyond their limitations in pursuit of some goal, now live with the awareness they have broken some deep-held limit, in the process having become something and someone different from their earlier self.
More than likely, it was Faulkner who got you to looking at his belief that most of us are still governed essentially by the past, to the place where you began noticing other writers, pre- and post-Faulkner, say Louise Erdrich, for one example, who express through their choices of characters the tremendous weight the Past places on an individual.
You are reminded of some of the handicapping techniques used in thoroughbred horse racing, where a horse, according to its ratings and past performances, is assigned a handicap weight to be carried in its saddle during a race.
You don't like characters who are bad for the sake of evil, rather they behave because they are powerless to prevent themselves from wanting a position or status in a given incident, even if the motive is self-serving and obvious to other characters and many readers. "I did it for the family." "I did it for my country." "I did it for you."
You are speaking to the matter beyond the matter going forth without needing you to speak of it, nevertheless you don't want someone to be noble or unselfish or considerate beyond the point of the behavior having felt right at the time.
Friday, November 11, 2016
Almost without exception, when you bite into a slice of warm, bubbly pizza, you are yanked back beyond your current age and into one of the joyous, essential processes you use when you seek to compose dramatic narrative or the expository essay.
The long, drawn-out wisps of cheese set you to smiling, often to the point of outright laughter, bringing you to that place you think of as home. More often than not, you'll find yourself recalling one of your earliest existential questions, Is mozzarella stringier than Romano? while experiencing the transformational joy you experienced when you first heard uttered the word ductility.
The stringy cheese on warm pizza--never so wispy when the pizza is yesterday's and not reheated---relates to ductility, which is, after all is said and done the quality inherent in an element such as copper, to be drawn out into wire of the merest diameter, or, if you will, of certain cheeses to be drawn out into tiny tendrils or filaments which need to be folded or tucked in order to maintain some control over where they go next.
What is so funny or even remarkable about stringy cheese or the quality of ductility? Why should stringiness or the ability to change shape have any effect at all on how you or anyone else composes dramatic narrative or pursues the path of an expository essay?
For starters, you, at this stage of your life are comfortable with the notion of the human condition not having changed all that much over what for humans would be the considerable span of six or seven hundred years.
Accordingly, you find the motivation and behavior in The Canterbury Tales limited only by social strata and technical innovations. Jenkyn, most recent husband of The Wife of Bath, has access to the Middle Ages equivalent of Playboy. The fact of no iPhones or texting or emoji does not foreclose responses wired to recognizable feelings such as lust, shame, prudery, envy, and self-aggrandizement. In fact, the presence of such human attributes and their recognizability add to the lure of this glorious romp of a narrative.
You're still at work pursuing why you, from ages five or six until eight or ten, often sat immersed in what you thought of as dark moods, withdrawn to the point of being surly, clinging to what started as a kind of life preserver cum totem, taking refuge in reading and music until the moods passed. Nevertheless, you say without equivocation that your childhood was happy, secure, unthreatened. Worst case the boredom of the usual parental constraints on a person of that age and an intense desire to explore the world beyond your limitations.
The street where you lived was entirely of apartments, more often than not four-plexus with the occasional duplex. It paralleled a major thoroughfare on each side, sandwiched in amid a welter of trees and shrubbery. Down this street wandered such regulars as the milk delivery man, the bottled and seltzer water delivery men; Mordecai, a gaunt-faced man who bought old clothes, in a sweat-stained fedora who affected a Yiddish accent--"Buyin' old clothes, buyin'--but in a more professorial tone provided you unanticipated additions to your own vocabulary, a mailman who, in retrospect, had the same stature and complexion of Anthony Quinn, who quizzed you with regularity about your knowledge of Don Quixote--"eh, and what was the name of his horse, eh?"--Mario, the fruit and vegetable vendor, and Steve, the Good Humor ice cream truck driver; and Bart, the driver of the Helms Bakery van.
Distinctive as they were, there were those who passed by only once, greeting you as though you were an individual who mattered, then moving on. One of these, who claimed to have been a veteran of World War I and who was impressed with the information that your father, as well, was such a veteran, said in full dramatic brio, "I'm going to tell you three words that will change your life."
Further evidence of who and what you were at the time was your assurance that you already knew one of those three words, having only a week before being given the Spanish word pinche by the Appell's gardener, Julio. Your about to be mentor would have none of profanity. "I'm talking science, boy. You listen well. Catalytic agent, boy. You got that? And ductility. Them's the lynch-pins of the universe. I'm gonna come back here next week to test you, boy. You better learn."
The notion of cheese having long tendrils that persist on extending themselves, the name and intent of the word ductility, and such memorable moments as the mailman asking you the name of Don Quixote's horse join forces with the appearance, as if before your eyes and instantaneously, remind you how ductile your own senses are, how, if you keep your ears open, strangers will share secrets with you, either theirs, such as Mordecai, who claimed to have attended Brown University, or others who consider their secrets the secrets of the universe.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
First drafts of dramatic narratives often emerge sounding as though they were outlines of the intended story. As an example, this outline of Shakespeare's play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
A young prince of Denmark is summoned home from Wittenburg College to the family castle in Elsinore to attend the funeral of his father and the marriage of his mother to the new King, Claudius, once her brother-in-law. At the castle, Hamlet is confronted by his father's ghost, informing the young prince that Claudius had murdered Hamlet the elder, and calling on him to exact revenge.
The outline could add more plot detail, including the deaths of Hamlet's former girlfriend, her father, and, ultimately, King Claudius, leaving a final scene in which various corpses, including the young Hamlet's lay strewn about the stage, to be reflected upon by the two survivors, Horatio, and the new king, Fortinbras. Adding these details as mere events only adds to the sense of outline rather than drama.
We need, as viewers of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or any other play, filmed drama, novel, or short story, to get inside the hearts, minds, and sensitivities of the characters. We need to see the actions performed, the descriptions dramatized, the interior monologues uttered to whispered or belted out as though an operatic aria or blues ballad.
Look at it this way: A detail that slows the sense of inevitability requisite for story is a distraction. A detail that enhances the sense of movement is no longer a detail; it is an action.
Story is a progression of actions.
Questions, whether asked by the characters in a narrative or the reader/viewer of the narrative, are actions.
Back to young Hamlet for a moment; that often remarkable, often flawed narrative begins with a question.
Bernardo (a sentry atop Elsinore Castle): Who's there?
Fernando(another sentry): Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
The time is midnight, time for ghosts. Our guest this late evening is he who once was King of Denmark, now given to occasional appearances to demand revenge.
Are we in?
We certainly are.