The Pinball Plot

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Let’s play a game! A what-if guessing game. What if all your dreams came true in the New Year? What if, instead, your worst nightmares actually happened? What is something you’d never imagine befalling you and what if that very thing occurred?

meditation

“Meditation” by Kah Wai Sin.

I know. I know. The zen-ists find it terribly unfashionable to play such games. Disconnects you from the lush and fertile present moment — that exhilarating continuum of now-right-now. Fine. I exempt the zen-ists, but not the writers, from playing.

Writers must often play at these guessing games in order to construct the authentic arc of a character’s life through story. They must molecularlize the tissues that bridge plot to person, event to emotion. They must knit time with insight, experience with catharsis.

The methods a writer might enlist to accomplish this feat are as limitless as they are unique to the user. Some writers employ complex character maps which catalog the myriad details and events of a character’s life before or “outside” the story. Favorite colors, worst fears, most memorables, etc. From these webs, the writers hope to spider out the juiciest themes which will feed the growing story events. Other writers immerse themselves in a character’s hobbies, jobs, and distractions. Ideally, the various sounds, textures, and flavors of these activities will season the metaphors that, in turn, build the broth of story. After all, as George Eliot notes, “we all of us […] get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act […] on the strength of them.”*

tadpoles

“Tadpoles” by Mark Robinson.

And still other writers play at simple what-if guessing games. What if this or that happens? What if the character chooses this, but not that? Engage with the what-ifs and the possibilities begin to tadpole in the pond of your imagination. A potentially overwhelming situation for the writer eager to nail down a sturdy plot, but an invigorating fertilizer for the imagination hoping to find the unexpected yet inevitable mysteries!

If we were to back into the past and ask me to guess what if my life unfolded exactly as I envisioned it just then, I would have said (with rambunctious certainty) that I would wind up the wife and devoted partner of my most treasured and beloved best friend. I could see nothing else. I could not imagine any other outcomes. Or maybe, I was too afraid to play with what-ifs.

What if that was not the outcome? What if, instead, tragedy pounced on me and spent the next year and half gnashing the bones of my broken heart between its sharp teeth? What if the most unthinkable thing I could not imagine actually happened?

extraball

“Extra Ball” by Shawn Clover.

Only in looking back can I trace the ricochet rebound boomerang skip wiggle weave jounce journey of my life. Not just recently, but going all the way back. Only while looking back can I see the restrictions fear placed on my imagination.

Conjuring pinball scenarios lends much to a person’s resilience, if not to a writer’s ability to plot surprising and fulfilling stories. Remember that your characters’ lives are not javelins. Dare to be erratic in your outlining. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.

In the midst of my bounce and bang off the rubber band bumpers — reams of unpublished writing, unanswered queries, blanket rejections, and that unexpected heartache as deep as the Grand Canyon — the most unimaginable thing gradually happened: I got published…in my chosen field of children’s writing, no less! And then, I got published again. Aaaand again. By the close of 2016, I will have produced a children’s magazine article, a short story, two science picture books, two middle grade civics/history books, and three mixed discipline books for young readers!

So, you tell me, 2017: what if? What if.

cobblestone_article

“Striking a Balance,” in Cobblestone. Ed. Meg Chorlian. May/June 2016.

muse-magazine-february-2016

“Body of Knowledge” in Muse. Ed. Johanna Arnone. February 2016.

Freedom of Speech. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

Freedom to Petition. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

 The Space Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

The Nuclear Arms Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

Crazy Road Races. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

 

 

*p 85. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Get Lost: A Story for Writers Who Haven’t Found Their Way

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When a girl goes camping all by herself, as I did this past weekend, she is bound to undergo at least one significant spiritual transformation, or discover at least one profound truth about her inner self.

I will share with you one of the profundities I discovered—maybe the greatest one: I do not own a keychain bottle opener.

Whenever I have gone camping in the past and wanted to open a beer, I grabbed my darling’s keys and k’chih! I drove three hours to Utah, picked my campsite, assembled my lunch, and pulled the beer out of the cooler before I realized I could not open it.

Woman with bottle

Image from beernexus.com.

Never fear! I did not let this minor packing snafu stop me from enjoying that beer! A beer bought specifically to celebrate my first time camping all alone.

Lunch consumed and beer guzzled, I set about to camp. I erected the tent. Chopped firewood. I even managed to attach the propane tank to the cooking stove without blowing anything up! I was so jazzed that I took off the next day for a hike!

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Image my own.

The trail I selected roved up and down through a couple wind- and water-carved canyons. The tops of the canyons were deserts, while their crevices frilled with miniature forests. Because this was a National Park (specifically Canyonlands), the trail was marked at intervals with stacked rock formations, or cairns. I roved, drunk on the sights of red sandstone cliffs topped with white limestone scallops. I was giddy from all my outdoorsy prowess, despite all the horrific scenarios I expected (and imagined in gory detail) would befall me. Punishment for attempting something so daunting all on my own. But there I was, creative problem-solver and fearless explorer, confidently striding through the rugged wilderness, negotiating a strenuous trail. Alone. Independent. Powerful. Unstoppable!

The brief winter afternoon was well spent by the time I about-faced on the trail and started the trek back to my car. I maneuvered the naturally terraced rock steps leading to the bottom of a canyon. I gave a quick glance to the positions of the cairns ahead, and then returned my focus to my feet. I was especially good at tripping in shoes—no doubt because most of my agility training happens barefoot in the Aikido dojo. My feet do not know how to keep me alive with shoes on.

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Image my own.

Eventually, I began to notice all the shattered bits of erosion littering every nook and cranny of the canyon. I was struck by how the cliffs looked so majestic from a distance, but up close were all destruction and crumble. These massive geological castles were actually has beens. Ruins.

That notion resonated deep. I could look so confident, so proficient to my friends, my family, even to strangers who stood at a distance. But if they got too close, they would no doubt see just how broken and crumbled I was. Controlling my small universe and all the people in it was how I had formerly kept everyone at an appropriate distance, away from all my debris. I wanted—needed—to keep it all hidden from view.

Not so for these mountains. Not so for all these crumbling cliffs and ridges. They displayed their messes, their sloped mounds of talus, like the creased and pleated skirts of a ball gown. And why not? What were those talus piles and those shards of rubble under my feet but the steady signs of progress. Change. Transformation.

What had those shards and granules been before they were part of mountains? Some might have been magma. Some might have been pyroclasts, or flying rocks. Some were undoubtedly beach sand, for that is what the Needles of Canyonlands are: ancient, compacted, eroding spires of a beach. And what were those sands before that? Maybe some hard candy the ocean sucked on gummed until it found what was truly sweetest at the core, and thus spat the sugary sands ashore. And now that they were rocks and granules, they would travel who knew where in the world, carried in water, wind, human pocket, or animal dander. No matter where they went, they would inevitably keep turning into something else.

How wonderful be in a constant state of flux. Slow, yes—but continual. Almost imperceptible, yes—but happening nonetheless.

“I am changing!” they shout. “Watch me, if you dare!”

No wonder the mountains and canyons put their metamorphosis on display. Change was remarkable.

I was so titillated in that moment that I almost shouted in chorus with the canyons, cliffs, and mountains: I, too, am changing! I am eroding and growing at the same time! I am thirty five and in therapy (for the first time) dealing with my codependency issues (also for the first time because I never realized I had a problem).

But here I was, a person addicted to other people—addicted to caretaking others while neglecting myself—spending time alone in the wilderness. Caring for myself. Keeping myself warm, fed, and hydrated. Creatively solving my own problems (who needs a bottle opener, anyway)! The realization that my abilities were numerous paired up with the notion that my imperfect body was a gorgeous container for my imperfect, yet beautiful, soul. This epiphany shackled my feet in place, and for a long time all I could do was stand at the bottom of a canyon next to pipsqueak stream, and point my teary face up to the sun.

When I was ready to resume my hike, I could not locate a single cairn in any direction. They were gone.

The instant you realize you are lost, a hot, heavy pressure blankets the back of your neck. You can no longer hear anything outside your own skin. The world sort of tilts. No, not tilts. It transposes in an instant, like a picture you’re editing into Photoshop. One-click flip! What was left becomes right and what was down becomes up.

The inner compass of my body whooshed around and I become a snow globe of directions.

Let’s see. I had been walking north because the sun was on my left. To the west. Right? West is left on a map? But had the sun really been on my left or had it been on my right? I couldn’t really remember. Now it was dead ahead. No matter. I knew that the trailhead where my car was parked was to the…north. No—east! It had to be east. Right? I mean left. I mean…shit!

I tried backtracking—or at least meandering in the direction I was pretty sure was backwards. No bushes, no cascading rock stairways looked at all familiar, memorable, or remarkable.

I fumed. How could I let this happen? How could I, at my age, get lost? And so quickly, too!

Written out, it seems as though I plunged headlong contemplating those shattered rocks for hours, but really, it was no more than a minute or two.

compassBut that was enough time. In fact, that’s all the time it takes to lose your way in your own life. You think you know where you’re headed. You think you see the way all set out and marked. You get cozy. You get distracted. And then the next thing you know, the cairns and waymarkers have vanished. You.are.lost.

Lost. Off track. Misplaced. Displaced. Off course. That summed up the entirety of 2015 for me. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I knew a few of the things coming next. Marriage. Honeymoon. Celebration. The holidays. A new year. A new me. The little cairns were all there. All plotted on my calendar, getting ever closer.

And then, I got cozy. I got distracted with a new job that paid little and fed lots to my addiction to others. I over-invested. I let my writing wither. I left my beloved partner to wither, too. And when I finally looked up, everything my life had been was gone. Everything I had had. Had enjoyed. Had expected. Had taken for granted. Had known. Had loved.

Talus. That was all I had left. How fitting that I was now blindly roving between walls of talus.

The thicket of bushes before me abruptly shook hard, all rustle and fuss. I jumped back, all defense and gasp. Three deer, all does, trotted out of that thicket and into a clearing where they could watch me with their glistening black marble eyes. Then, before I would whisper, “Hello,” they bounded away, light as packing peanuts on narrow hooves that thudded heavy has jackhammers. I felt their departure more than I heard it.

For a moment, I stood dumb. Then I giggled.

“Wow!” I confessed to the canyon’s wind-carved ear arches. And to think, I would not have seen those lovely animals had I not wandered off the trail. Had I not gotten lost…

cairnThe irony made me chuckle, but the notion swiftly evolved. What if I was never “off track”? What if my life—any life, for that matter—had but one track it could follow? No matter what forks and branches arose, no matter what choices were made, the way I was going was the way my life needed to go. I could relinquish any regrets for the roads I chose not to travel in the past. Those paths I did not pursue. What were they but ghosts? And I could release any frustration surrounding my current trajectory because to get cantankerous with my present position was to yearn for forks, branches, and options that had not yet come my way. The specters of future roads not yet built.

How much of my life had I spent pining for those ghosts and specters? How much had I been missing in my present reality—what gifts and splendors like those deer—when I yearned for where I was not and where I could not be?

And where else could I be but right here? Right now. And if I was always right here right now, then maybe I was always precisely where I needed to be. Always on track. Always changing. Eroding. Rebuilding. Transforming. Never lost.

I stared at the deer tracks embroidered in the ribbons of sand zippered with a slender stream. The tracks curved over the strange grid of hiking boot tread. Not the tread of my hiking boots, but someone else’s. Many someones! The boot prints traveled several crooked yards, then disappeared where the sand gave way to the rocky carpet of the canyon floor. Also precisely where a cairn sat sun tanning. Not far off was another. Another. And another.

The way.

Had it been there all along? Or had it only appeared when I was ready to see it?

I suspect the answer to either question is yes.

Stoke the Soul Fires

 

 

You see that up there? White space. Blank, empty, open page. Writers face (and curse) that every day.

“What?” The vast white screen chins at us. Aggressive. Challenging. Mocking. What are we going to put on it? What ideas, characters, settings, emotions are we daring to scrawl on that pristine open void?

It’s never easy to face the blank page. But sometimes, when you do, you get in a flow. The rest of the world melts away and your imagination runs utterly wild. Time dissolves and you hear nothing around you in the real world. You are aware of nothing else but the story gushing out of your every pore. You pulse with creation. You are ablaze. Never have you felt so alive, so poised and effortlessly perfect.

That flow state is such a nice place to work in, isn’t it? It’s one I savor on the mat at the dojo. I feel that effortless, flowing, internal blaze when we engage in randoris (multiple attackers) or jiyu wazas (freestyle encounters where you don’t know who is about to attack or how). The world beyond that place, that moment, that next inhalation of air, completely disappears and I am nearly euphoric.

randori

I’ve often thought it would be so nice if I could hit that flow every time I sat down to write. Even better: what if I could light that fire as soon as I sat down to write?

Oh to be alight with creative fire the moment I open my laptop or journal!

Well, recent advances in neuroscience suggest that writers and artists can train their brains to immediately flip that fire switch. Not only that: they can even set their creative fires to a permanently “ON” position. Kind of like a pilot light.

So join me on a brief journey into our brains where we’ll not only face the the blank page, but also learn how to go sprinting across it with fire kites of amazing prose and poetry streaming all around, soaking the void in white hot ink!

Flow: Why it Matters and Why It’s So Hard to Achieve

flow-coverMihály Csíkszentmihályi (that’s mee-HI chk-szent-mee-HI) literally wrote the book on flow, which he defines as a mental state of operation in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, deep and effortless involvement, and enjoyment. The concept of flow has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. According to Csíkszentmihályi, everyone knows the feeling of flow.

Olympic swimmers, X-game snowboarders, rock climbers, even chess champions describe flow in the same terms. Regular folks (non-experts or non-pros) who get immersed in an activity also describe flow in the same way, regardless of cultural backgrounds, income, or age.

I first heard about flow from my brilliant classmate and fellow Wingbuilder, Ashlee Glasscock. In fact, her graduate lecture was all about how writers could use the flow state to defeat procrastination. Leapfrogging from Ashlee’s shoulders, I want to examine how writers can train their brains to flow so that the writing comes electrically fast and supernova hot!

You see, attaining flow is not easy. Csíkszentmihályi notes that evolutionarily, flow is a bad state for humans to enter. We evolved to have quick-cutting brains that continually chatter and mumble as they take in information here, there, everywhere (because you never know what’s lurking and waiting to make you its dinner)! If you focus so intently on something that the rest of the world melts away from your awareness, then odds are pretty good a saber-toothed tiger is going to eat you.

Compared to those old saber-tooth predator days, the modern world pretty tame. But the brain prattles on. And its eternal nervous chatter distracts and stresses us. It compels us to multitask. It nags us. It interrupts a perfectly good train of thought to — oh dang, I forgot to order more tea.

See !?

But lucky for us, the brain’s wiring is plastic, meaning it can change constantly. We can rewire our brains to chatter less and focus more.

Artistic Immersion Makes a Better Brain

A yummy way to think of the brain (for zombies and non-zombies) is to imagine two hunks of angel food cake. Squish these into two lumpy blobs about the size of your fists and place them side by side. Next, envelop those cake lumps in pliant fondant. The angel food cake represents the white matter, or the fatty tissues that connect the left and right sides of the brain, ricocheting information back and forth. The fondant represents the gray matter, which is where the brain transacts the majority of its thinking and processing of all that information.

Like fondant and all its billions of densely packed sugar particles, gray matter is densely packed with cells called neurons. In his 2011 TED Talk “A Map of the Brain,” Dr. Allan Jones estimates no less than 86 billion neurons. Neurons are hairy with wires called synapses that connect and “talk to” other neurons. At any given time, one neuron can be connected to at least 10,000 other neurons, says Jones.

To operate efficiently, your brain maintains a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Not consulting that area of gray matter where you stored high school French lessons? Kiss it good bye. The brain will prune it out. To save your neurons from the pruning, you need continual learning. New challenges, new information, new anything allows the brain to continually connect more and more neurons. So long as neurons stay connected, they do not get pruned out.

Spent too many decades thinning your gray matter? Don’t worry: your brain can actually grow it back! This ability to generate new neurons and new connections is called plasticity.

In the September 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a team of New England-based researchers published findings on how adolescent brains developed thicker areas of gray matter in response to regularly playing musical instruments. Other studies have found that artistic activities like dancing, crafting, sculpting, etc. also bulk up the grey matter.

In a June 2014 study, German researchers found that connectivity across the brain’s gray and white matter was significantly improved with participation in artistic activity. Led by Anne Bolwerk of the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg, the researchers used fMRI to observe brain activity in 28 retirees aged 62-70 years old. One half of the subjects participated in an art class where they actually drew or painted, while the other half took a class where they would only be observing art.

[Technical note: While MRI is like taking a still, satellite image of the brain, fMRI (f = functional) is like a weather balloon monitoring the live-action blood flow around the brain. As you undertake an activity, different parts of your brain are needed to do different things. The working parts are the ones in need oxygenated blood.]

Bolwerk and her colleagues found that the retirees who actually made art had better brain connectivity/plasticity than those who just looked at art.

Bolwerk suspects that a better brain is one regularly exposed to the kind of focused immersion usually associated with creative activities. Training your brain to flow ultimately makes it a better brain AND a brain better able to flow! When you flow, you are maximizing the functions of your white matter, harmonizing the left and right sides of the brain. The two work as one. With all roads smoothed out for stimuli, the better your brain can focus. The more your brain can focus, the more it is engaged in learning. And when your brain is learning, you are building robust gray matter full of neurons electrically firing!

Flow for Writers

So, after I found out all that, I wondered: “How is it I can write all the time and yet I don’t always flow. Are these neuroscientists politely insinuating that I’m gray-matter-deficient or something?”

Well, it turns out that the act of sitting down to write doesn’t always fulfill the essential components of a flow activity. According to  a flow activity needs to be something you can finish. If I sit down to work on my novel, odds are good I’m not finishing in that sitting. So, to make writing a flow activity, I could set smaller goals: I am sitting down to write 1,500 words….

Another important facet of a flow activity is the need for immediate feedback. If I were to sit down and work on a craft project, I could hold it up when time ran out and proudly say, “Look what I made!” Polite people who love me would nod, applaud, or otherwise give good feedback. But those people who love me can’t always immediately stop what they’re doing and read what I’ve written. And even if they could, I probably wouldn’t want them to!

So what’s a poor writer to do? One thing a writer can do is weave short flow activities into her day. Before your designated writing time, give yourself anywhere from 30-90 minutes to immerse in a bonafide flow activity. If you paint, paint. If you craft with metals or beads, do that. And don’t forget: athletes experience flow, too. So if you bike, go for a ride. Jog? Hike? Walk? You get the idea. Do what you do, but do it with attention and focus.

And if, like me, your flow activity takes place at a regularly scheduled class (like martial arts at a dojo, or yoga at the gym), then set up a 30-90 minute writing time to immediately follow that activity.

The first time I tried this, I was hand-crafting Christmas ornaments. I gave myself 30 minutes to craft and then I followed up with a writing session. Let me tell you…

IT.WAS.FRIGGING.GREAT!

I came to page on fire! My pen sliced up page after page. Or my fingers hit the keys and didn’t stop until my timer went DING! (I use the tomato-timer, AKA pomodoro, method which forces me to take much needed breaks.) Exhilarating. Satisfying. Productive!

bantock_tricksterNow, if you don’t count yourself among the “artsy,” “crafty,” or “mountain-climby” types, fear not. For you, I recommend Nick Bantock’s The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity. This book is loaded with timed flow activities designed to supercharge your angel food cake and fondant! Some of the exercises are writing exercises. Some involve art: draw a 1″x1″ box and inside that, scrawl as many animals (stick figures are fine) as you can in one minute! Some are just fun: for no more than two hours, go outside and use only raw materials and found objects to build a tiny village.

Okay, off you go! Focus. Immerse. Just be careful where you fly those fire kites!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edit Like Jack the Ripper

Jack o’ lanterns are assembling on stoops and driveways like plump neighbors gossiping, grinning, sneering, and gawking at the neighborhood goings’on. Spiders of all sizes, hairiness, and sparkliness lurk over every window and doorway. Bats, ghouls, mummies, Frankenstein monsters, vampires, and witches form monstrous lawn menageries.

That can only mean…IT’S OCTOBER!!!

Time to indulge in our fanciful fears! Rather than tremble under the blankets when something goes bump in the night, it’s time to sit up and shout BOO!

It’s enough to make any Gothic writer giddy and drunk! So yeah, maybe it was seeing all those cobwebs spread like fungus on front porches… Or, maybe it was the muddy, chemical odor of the wart make-up kit I bought at the store… Whatever it was, I couldn’t read (or write) anything without the macabre sneaking in.

Thus infected, I noticed something leaching its way across two different books by two very different, yet talented writers. Something unpleasant. Something almost sinister.

asaro_veiledwebThe first affected book was Catherine Asaro’s The Veiled Web (1999). Despite its… ehem… mature publication date, I nabbed this book for my own research. I’ve been working on a Gothic cyberfantasy and needed to see how the internet influenced my predecessors.

In The Veiled Web, Lucia del Mar is a world-famous ballerina with an obsession for the internet. She tangles up with a brilliant, sexy tech-mogul who’s virtual reality web browser could revolutionize the evolution of mankind. Then again, it could destroy everyone and everything in its path!

berry_amaranthEThe second book soured by my heightened Hallow’s sensibilities was Julie Berry’s The Amaranth Enchantment (2009). This book is miles away from cyberfantasy, but came highly recommended for Lucinda, its plucky female protagonist (a whole other topic for a future post, I promise).

So what was it that prohibited my enjoyment of two books in such quick succession? I can tell you that had nothing to do with the very similar names of the main characters.

Rest assured, it was not that these authors lacked talent. Indeed, Asaro and Berry are not slouches in the land of literature. Asaro has published hard sci-fi, scientific articles, and she’s had a lot of short stories included in a lot of anthologies. She’s won a few HOMer awards, and snagged more than one Nebula. Likewise, Berry’s books receive multi-starred reviews from Kirkus, and The Hornbook. Her YA novel, All the Truth That’s in Me, was a 2013 Hornbook Fanfare title, Boston Globe Best Read. It was also nominated for a YALSA Best YA Fiction award.

No, the problem resided in a bad habit that many writers exhibit from time to time, and one that I commit often enough I might have overlooked it…had it not been for all those Jacks shining their lanterns on the issue! What leached through both books was what I call anatomical choreography. Whether its a rough draft or a polished revision, many writer’s litter good writing with action described via body parts.

Her feet danced across the room. His eyes darted to the phone. Her hands groped for the ladder. 

Lucia’s body and it’s many parts are all over every page in The Veiled Web. Similarly, in The Amaranth Enchantment, Lucinda’s body crops up, too. Here are several examples:

“Aunt’s mouth opened and shut…” (7)

“I heard the unmistakable stamp of Aunt’s feet in the hall below…” (36)

“I shoved my hip against my bedside table crate to put it back into place…” (36)

“My hands mopped the kitchen floor…” (38)

“I arched my back and let Papa’s strong arms carry me…” (55)

“I reached out a hand grasping at darkness…” (59)

“He reached a long arm over to snatch back his chicken…” (111)

These are all a random assemblage of instances. They seem to arise sporadically, but in truth, the novel averages about 5 body parts per page. Multiply that by 336 pages and what you get is a ton of anatomical shrapnel! Eyes, knees, hands, feet, toes, arms, legs — all scattered about.

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Image from M.Lever.

(I could only obtain Asaro’s book on CD and, therefore, could not as easily apply similar scientific metrics; however, after 15+ hours of listening, I can say that the mention of body parts started knelling in my ears.)

Yeah, so what, you wonder. Unless your Dr. Frankenstein, there should be nothing wrong with a few body parts hanging around. Especially when they’re doing what they were went to do. Hands grab. Eyes glance. Feet dance. 

To which, I say: Yes! So why waste narrative time telling the reader what she already knows?! There’s no point. If a character trudges, marches, or skips… it had better be on her feet. Of course, if she’s doing any of that on her hands, then I REALLY want to know!

Besides stating the obvious, ascribing action to the body parts (rather than the person) takes the onus of action away from the character. The examples above make it seem as if Aunt and Lucinda have no say in their physiology. They do nothing, but their eyes, hands, knees, etc do everything — autonomous little zombie bits.

You could remove the body part from any one of those examples above and still have a perfectly good description of action. In many instances you have to rework the verb, but I would argue that’s ultimately a good thing. Good verbs make the writing clear. They open the floodgates of action and clamp the trapdoor down on passivity.

Aunt gawked… I scrubbed the floor… He snatched at his chicken.

Gawked. Scrubbed. Snatched. All good, clean, upstanding verbs. Sure, they aren’t fancy, but they are clear. And so long as clarity hovers on the writer’s radar, she can get a little more audacious. Aunt mackereled… I knuckled* the floors with a scrub brush… He gibboned for his chicken…

Dynamic verbs are tinder in a dank forest of exposition. Use them well, and you’ll spark some really hot reading.

So take out your drafts, hunt down those body parts, and like Jack the Ripper, slice them out! Terrorize the bodily neighborhoods of your novel. Lurk behind the paragraphs. Find your victims and let the slaughter begin!

jackripper

“Jack the Ripper 3D” by svogthos.

*Verbing a body part is a great way to surprise the reader and push your action imagery to a whole new level! 

Epilogue
A super-genius writer would save herself hours of time by simply never permitting unnecessary bodily bits into the writing in the first place. Ahh, wouldn’t that be nice? Just to sit down and sling nothing but perfect prose with sweet and sassy verbs!

No doubt, many years of writing could lead to just that utopia. But in case it doesn’t, might I suggest an exercise?

I postulate that body parts zombie-stalk into our writing because we sit still when we write. We are physically stationary and from that position it is easy to forget what part does what task. Thus we constantly remind ourselves, and have our hands grab, eyes look, or legs walk.

To prevent the “invasion of the body actors,” try verbing yourself. Move around! Reach desperately for something. Walk in a hurry, like you’re missing your own birthday party. Slouch, crouch, grovel. Jump, stride, glide. Get your body and brain talking to each other. Get them in sync! Do this before writing. And for best results in a coffee shop, do this while writing!

Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 5

When last I posted on the Radical Approaches to Writing series, I was prepping for my Ikkyu (brown belt) exam in aikido. To pass, I had to master over 140 hand-to-hand combat techniques. Essentially, it’s like a really long kinesthetic multiple choice test.

How would you respond if someone attacks you by…

  • grabbing your arm,
  • grabbing both your arms,
  • whacking you on the head,
  • stabbing you with something sharp?

According to the ikkyu rubric, there are at least 20 different responses for each scenario. Following the attack-me portion of the test, there was a lengthy weapons component where I demonstrated all kinds of taisos and katas with a bokkend (wooden sword, katana-training stick) and jo (wooden staff).

And after about two solid hours of demonstration, I passed!

DSC05934

Me, demonstrating Kihon Hassei with bokkend (wooden sword). My partner is John Partenope, who recently passed his shodan (black belt) exam. Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.

If you were to plot my year on a storyboard, completing this test would definitely be my midpoint, that huge climax right at the middle of the story where nothing could possibly be any better. But the year is not over yet. Who knows what great things await me in the 2014-still-to-come? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m certainly getting ahead of myself in this discussion of revise-before-you-write techniques.

Ehem.

Storyboards comprise the last step in the revise-before-you-write methodology—that radical approach to writing which invites the two halves of your brain (the wild creator and analytical editor) to be at peace and work as one.

The storyboard is where you track the entire trajectory of the novel. Every character. Every action. Every emotion. Every scene.

Like Beethoven, the writer is an orchestral composer and the storyboard is the sheet music for the literary symphony, tracking every note for every instrument. Every crescendo and every coda. It will take creativity and analytical pondering to figure out if your beginning is allegro or sonata, if your middle transitions from scherzo to adagio or the other way around, and if your ending returns to sonata or closes out with a rondo!

To make a storyboard, you can use a cork board or simply use masking tape to quadrant off a section of a wall in your house. Either way, you need a place to tack up all those scene cards.

Because stories are told in many different ways, the board gives you the freedom to stick your scene cards up in a variety of ways. You could have a 3×5 free-for-all.  Or think of the board as the night sky and you are the deity responsible for installing the stars. You could stick each card on at random, or you can arrange them into constellations, configurations with explicit and implied meanings. To render meaning from your arrangements, you’ll need an organizational schema.

The schema I’m using is the screenwriter’s three-act structure.

basic_storyboard

It’s called a three-act, but you can see that this storyboard is broken into four sections: act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. Similarly, author Tom Birdseye suggests what is called a quartile board which also splits the story into four distinct quarters.

quartile_board

Interestingly, symphonies are also divided into four movements. Y’see? You are a composer. (Cravats and frizzy hair optional.)

If four is not your magic number, then why not try a seven-act paradigm, or the twelve-step formula, or the twenty-two-point framework. Writing professors, professional screenwriters and theorists like Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and others have come up with an endless range of organizational schemas all derived from classical drama, mythology, and even psychology.

(Note: for a truly mesmerizing exploration into all the myriad structures available to storytellers, definitely check out Ingrid Sundberg’s “Organic Architecture” series!)

Screenwriters use three acts because it helps them demarcate the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story. Researchers also use a three-part frame. They divide their papers into sections of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or common ground, disruption, and resolution (Booth et al, The Craft of Research, 249).

Regardless of what each section is called, it’s helpful to know that each section has a function. Each one serves the story in a particular way.

Act One

Act One, Quartile One, the Common Ground, the Beginning, (whatever you call it) opens the story. It introduces the reader to the main characters and the world. Blake Snyder refers to it as a “before shot.” How things were “before” the adventure. Wilbur’s beginning is in a cozy box near the stove in the Arables’ house. Harry Potter’s beginning is the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive.

Act One also hints at problems with the world or the characters. This is very similar to the introduction of a research paper where the writer presents the “common ground” or the context of the topic along with a problem or a series of problems surrounding that topic (Booth et al 162). Wilbur is not a pet and can’t live indoors forever. Harry has powers he cannot always control and does not know where they come from.

Act Two

Act Two, Quartiles Two+Three, or the Middle, takes the reader, and more importantly, the protagonist away from the familiar or away from how things are. If we see it as antithesis or anti-thesis, then it is an upside-down world. Compare Wilbur’s box by the stove to the Zuckerman’s barn. Compare Harry’s life at Hogwarts to Privet Drive.

In research, this section is where the researcher tries to establish and defend what he believes is the kernel of truth at the crux of the research. As you might recall, the theme is your story’s kernel of truth. While you state it in Act One, you will fully establish it and test it in Act Two (Snyder, Save the Cat, 79). Either the unfolding events will successfully defend the theme or they will destroy it.

For example, Act Two of The Wizard of Oz grapples with “Is there really no place like home?” If Dorothy Gale can face every obstacle and survive every danger in Oz, then you betcha! Because there’s no place like home, Dorothy is willing to face flying monkeys, a wicked witch, and an all-powerful wizard just to get back to it.

Act Three

And Act Three, Quartile Four, the Conclusion or The End, is where problems are resolved. Some writers are satisfied with defeating all the villains and getting to the happy ending. Similarly, some research papers use the conclusion to restate supporting evidence and annihilate the antithesis. But both examples miss an important opportunity to achieve synthesis. Synthesis is sort of like aiki, where two opposing forces are blended. From it, truth emerges out of our better understanding.

To synthesize the story, the protagonist takes lessons learned from Act Two and applies them back to the problems and conflicts of Act One. We see this clearly in Charlotte’s Web. Remember the logline we came up with for this book?

In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all humans and to himself.

Throughout Act 2, Wilbur has been doing all he can to prevent his own untimely death. But the book’s theme centers on the miracle of life. Specifically, the theme is: All life is extraordinary.

When Wilbur stops fixating on death (first his own, and later, Charlotte’s), he starts thinking about life. And that’s when he finds a solution: he will take her eggs back to the farm and care for them until they hatch. He will see to it that they live. In other words, Wilbur comes to understand the theme and by doing so, E.B. White implicates the “so what?” of the whole story.

An ordinary pig become extraordinary and saves a spider’s egg sack. So what?

So what? Every life is exceptional and extraordinary. A pig’s. A spider’s. Mine. Yours. That’s what!

Researchers think of the “so what” in terms of the significance of all that has been studied and presented in writing (Booth et al 252).

Equipped with your logline, beat sheet, scene cards, and storyboards, you too can map out your entire manuscript, including the elusive X that marks the deep, philosophical treasure at the heart of all you’re trying to say with, “Once upon a time….”

Here’s a basic example of a storyboard with scene cards arranged to fit a traditional, linear hero’s journey/arc plot:

storybaord_scenecards

And, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, just like all the other revise-before-writing methods, you can revise the board over and over again before you sit down to write the first draft. It’s one more tool to help your creator-brain and your editor-brain team up. Playing with the storyboard is a lot like playing with Legos. You can create, stack, and layer to inconceivable heights, but if you don’t logistically analyze the structure of those stacks and layers, your creation will surely crumble.

And just like Legos, a storyboard is more fun to play with than your laptop! So play, play, play. “Keep playing with it,” Tom Birdseye instructed me in an email, “[keep] arranging, rearranging, until, ideally, it is so good, and feels so right that it gives you the writer’s electric buzz of triumph. Or at least a feeling of ‘this may actually work.’”

And once you’re buzzing, you’re ready to write. So go write. I have given you all the steps you need to revise before you write. Please know that despite the clean, linear order of all the steps, you will often work on different stages simultaneously. You don’t even need to draft your scenes in order. You can and should skip around. In fact, your brain will appreciate it if you start with the awesome scenes, the ones that made you want to tell this story or get to know these characters in the first place (Snyder 103). I call these the cookie-scenes and ample neurological research proves that cookies can help you complete long and difficult tasks!

Cookies for Writers

Scientists gave put a bunch of college students in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 135-36). Half the students were told: DO NOT eat the cookies, but the other half was told they could eat cookies.

After noshing, the students had to try to solve a difficult puzzle. On average, students who did not eat cookies were grumpy and easily frustrated. They spent less than six minutes on that stupid puzzle. Why?

Because willpower is what enables the brain to exert discipline and self-control.  Willpower is why you get dedicated to a project, a diet, or a workout routine. It’s like a muscle. You can exercise it and train it, but then it gets tuckered out (Duhigg 139). And when you’re out of willpower, you’re saddled with decision fatigue. That’s why the cookie-eaters could work on that puzzle forever. It took no willpower to sit in a room and eat warm delicious food. Two hundred other studies have modeled this one, and they all found the same results: Cookie-eaters work harder and longer (136).

The moral of this story is: eat your cookies, which is to say enjoy your sweet-scenes whenever you want!

cookies

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Storycrafting is demanding and complex. Be prepared to follow its crooked path. And never let any process or plan box you in. Be as plastic and ever-changing as your brain. Writing, after all, is a life-long pursuit. As you change over the span of your life, permit your writing process change with you. Allow your process to grow, shift, and adapt over time.

In closing, I hope I’ve encouraged you to see the storycrafting process in a new way (especially with NaNoWriMo coming up)! When we see revision first rather than last, we can tackle it more successfully. When we see the two sides of the brain in harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page.

“Thinking, we believe, tends to be for procrastinators. Writing is the real work. But that is a fable,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. And he is right. Throughout the Radical Approaches to Writing series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), you have seen just how much work can happen before writing. You have seen that revising does not come after writing. And you have seen that you can tell a story without putting your brain in conflict. You do not have to banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And you do not have to handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like supergluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

In light of all this evidence, isn’t it time we reconsider the old writing process? Rather than put writing at the front and center of your novel’s cosmos or making it orbit revision throughout, start with some revision. Instead of imagining the battle between the two brains and crafting in the middle of their battlefield, imagine the harmonious path of your story paved with scene cards and lit by a logline. Imagine yourself not merely attempting a novel, but completing it.

Take this moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself anew. Imagine yourself as competent and confident. Imagine yourself as a storyteller. Imagine it now and alter the tendrils of your living brain.

imagination_jwall

“Child of the Universe,” by Josephine Wall.