Saturday, June 23, 2012

Romance and Life Writing

When I first began life writing, I didn't really think that there was much romance as a genre could teach me.  I was incredibly wrong.

If you are ever interested in reading a terrific article outlining what romance is as a genre, then please read "The Basics of Romance" by Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.  They do an excellent job of pointing out the story arc and characteristics that differentiate romance from the other fiction out there.  I will be going through their points in a moment to explain how these relate to your memoir in a moment.

Another terrific article which has relevance to our last assignment is "Emotion: Fiction's Connecting Link" by Kathy Jacobson and comes from the same book.  This article bridges that "show vs. tell" gap in a way that helps you know what to show and what to skip.  We'll look at pieces of this advice later.

But back to romance and your memoir...

What's it good for?

Essentially a romance is really a story about how two people come together.  They may be tied in many ways.  It may be a fairytale ending, or it may make Romeo and Juliet look positively optimistic.  But the basic plot of a traditional romance is simple, as explained by Estrada and Gallagher:

  1. Boy meets girl.

    We all know this part of the story.  Estrada and Gallagher make the important point that in a true romance, "there are no other men for here--just as, from that point on, there are no other women for him..." (sorry, I haven't figured out a way to get a page number on the Kindle, but it's 61% of the way through the book).

    The relation to your memoir?  Well, you don't need to be writing a romantic romance, but you need to pick the moment that you recognize that the person you have introduced will be important to your life.  In other words, you don't actually have to begin your romance with the moment you met this person, but with the moment that they became important to you.
  2. Boy and girl let their characters shine.

    Before we can care about them as a couple, we need to care about them individually.  Similarly, as you are writing about the development of the relationship you are writing about, you need to let us get to know the characters individually before we care about who they are together.
  3. Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship.

    This last bit can take a whole variety of courses, but essentially, it boils down to what Estrada and Gallagher call sexual awareness and sexual tension.  In a memoir, however, if you are simply discussing the development of a relationship, this awareness and tension need not be explicitly sexual.  The four rules Estrada and Gallagher pose, however, still hold very well:

    1. From the first meeting, they are aware of one another.
    2. When discussing this relationship, spend time in the relationship.  Show scenes together or scenes in which each person is thinking about, preparing for, or learning about the other.
    3. Every scene should bring about a change in feeling.  Estrada and Gallagher suggest, "Their emotions should strengthen, shake, threaten, and, as the book progresses, solidify the relationship."  Now, you are writing memoir, not fiction, so your scenes need not solidify the relationship, but each scene you choose to show should reveal the why and how your relationship has become what it has.
    4. Estrada and Gallagher post the last of these rules as, "The senses of the hero and heroine are sharpened when they are together."  I don't know that I would go that far, but I would definitely say that there should be a qualitative difference in how you or the other person in the relationship thinks and acts when you are together.  In other words, I wouldn't say that your senses have sharpened but that they are qualitatively different--or perhaps the other person allows a space within which new things become safe or possible for you to try.
  4. Ever after.  Imply a future for your couple.  It does not need to be a happy future, but in order for us to feel resolution, we need to be pointed in some sort of direction.  And for that direction to feel satisfying and true, we need to have some preparation for it.  You need to have hinted you were heading that direction.  Of course, you could have thrown hints in all directions, and that's okay, too.  But we need to clearly know that there was some indication that we were going to head up in the place you suggest we will end up.
Do you have any relationships you can see this working for?  In my life, it definitely corresponds to the development of several friendships and in-law relationships.  In some ways, I can even see it working for understanding and bonding with my children.

So give it a try!  Soon, I will be posting on how Paedar's comment from the last post will work together with the emotional tension we want to achieve in romance.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adding a Little Action to Your Adventure

When you're writing adventure, you almost always have action scenes.  What would be the fun of a quest if your knight never gets to slay his dragon?

But how do you make that dragon-slaying exciting?  I'm assuming that we've all heard our favorite fairy tale retold by a preschooler, and, let me tell you, much of the suspense and excitement is GONE in that version (except for in the mind of the little one).

There are a couple of really great articles on writing action, but so far, "Writing Action Scenes" is the best I've read.

In addition to Mice's (the author's) concerns about description, believability/logistics, and point-of-view, here are a couple of other considerations that I have seen used in excellent action scenes.

And before I get into these, let me admit right off the bat that I am action-deficient.  Something about action scenes generally makes me lose my way and get lost.  So the considerations below are strategies which seem to keep even the most hopeless action followers in the moment.

And they all boil down to this:  To enable the action to move quickly in your action scene, introduce the reader to everything important BEFORE you get to there.  Excellent examples of this strategy are found in J.K. Rowling and in Rick Riordan.

  1. Make sure we know where we are.

    Often, in action scenes, the surroundings--what is hidden and what is not, who is where, what props/weapons are at hand, etc.--are very important.  It may be too much to take in at once.  Many of the best authors either build in a slow scene just prior to the action to allow us to take it all in before it becomes important, or they may gradually show the place throughout the story so that we know what's what when we get there.
  2. Make sure we know everything important about what we're fighting with.

    If that gun only has six bullets, then we need to have seen that problem before the final fight so that after that fifth shot, we all know what's riding on the accuracy of the final try. 
  3. Make sure we know who's fighting and their strengths and limitations.

    Come on, we all know what happens when Velma loses her glasses and we all know that Shaggy and Scooby are going to bug out of there when the monster shows.  We're always waiting for the dawn in vampire pictures, and everybody knows the guy in the black hat is in for it.  When we know either our specific character's weaknesses (Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby) or the weakness of a general class of characters (vampires and cowboys), then it allows us to just focus on the scene and not the justification for the characters' actions because we already know their motivation.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Adventure and Non-linear Writing

One of the first things we teach children when we teach them to read is left-to-right orientation.  In essence, we are saying, "Start at the beginning."  But we all know that much in life doesn't start at the beginning.  We all walk in on conversations in the middle.  If you're not the firstborn, it may really annoy you that people in your family remember what happened before you were born.  And I've certainly be remonstrated, "Can't you just use what's come before you?  Do you really have to reinvent the wheel every time?"

When you're writing, sometimes you want to start at the beginning.  But when you're only at the writing stage, it doesn't actually matter if you start writing there! Sometimes it's best to start in the middle or at the end.  Adventure is one of those times.

Because adventure is about change, sometimes it is best to start with who you want your character to become (or the aspects of yourself/character experiencing change that you want the reader to see) rather than beginning with how that character began.  Two of the reasons for taking this approach show its clear benefits:
  1. By emphasizing the traits which the character develops through the quest at the end,  you can be certain that when you write the beginning at a later date that you pick actions, descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that illustrate either the absence or opposite of those traits.
  2. By recognizing what has changed in the mind and actions of the changing character, you can make certain to highlight those moments of high action/drama with the thoughts/reasoning of the main character which brings him to the conclusion that he draws.  For example, a car accident in itself is not enough to make anyone come to any conclusion.  It is the rationalizations and reactions to the car accident that cause the protagonist to forego all future driving, decide to get driving lessons, or develop a feeling of immortality.  We all react differently, and it is not enough to show the event and expect us all to arrive at the same conclusion (yes, I know "show; don't tell," but you also need to show the thought process or we may miss your point! And, honestly, the longer I live the less obvious I think it is that people will just understand.  Most of us don't.  Really.).
So how would you go about picking the scene to begin with?  Here are some ideas:
  • Write the scene that's bouncing around in your head first.  It should come out the most easily.
  • Write the ending you would like to see, one that you feel will make you feel "full," as if you've just finished an excellent meal.
  • Write a simple description of your character's philosophy/outlook on life at the end.  Then elaborate on that feeling by expanding those ideas to how your character's appearance might reflect those feelings--what bumper stickers would he have?  What kind of car would he drive, shoes would he wear, place would he live, etc.?  Then expand that to dialogue.  What jokes would he find funny now?  What things would he say or NOT say?  Finally, channel that into actions.  On the basis of his inner changes, what outer behaviors would manifest themselves?  What would he do if a homeless person begged him for money, if he had a gun in his face, if he was given incorrect change?
Once you have begun writing your scenes, be sure to plot them on your story arc so that you know where you're going and what you still need to do.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Reading and Life Writing

One of our fellow life writers mentioned a visit to a fiction writing group and a point that she felt certainly carried over into life writing:  reading other books in our genre.  And now, with summer reading starting this week, is the perfect time to jump in!

You can easily register for summer reading on Plum Library's website.  You do not need a special card from Plum Library, but you do need a library card with the Allegheny County Library Association.  You can check to find your closest ACLA library on their site.

Some memoirs recommended by your classmates were (check the Carnegie Library for availability.  You can request to have the books delivered to the library of your choice.):
  • The works of Frank McCourt:  Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man
  • Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic
  • Tracy Elliott's Unbroken  
You can also find award-winning memoirs at A Reader's Place.

Memoirs I have enjoyed even if they haven't changed my life include:
  • Steve Rushin's Road Swing  
  • Anthony Youn's In Stitches  
  • Margaret Overton's Good in a Crisis 

One caution I have heard about reading anything within the genre of your own writing is to take it all with a grain of salt.  Use what you find as a guide, not gospel.  Look for conventions.  How long are the chapters?  How does the narrative unfold?  How do they give you caveats?  Note what you like.  One comment from a colleague of mine also made me take notice.  Memoir and fiction are different.  Memoir involves a certain bit of your own thoughts--essay if you will.  Too much essay and we get bored or lost.  Not enough essay and we wonder what the point was.  Note which memoirs you really love and the balance of these two aspects.  Remember it as you write and also as (or "if") you query publishers.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Hi, all Plum Life Writers!

Next Friday (June 15, 2012), I will be picking up a very important visitor in DC, so I won't be able to meet you on the 15th at the library, but I will definitely be there Friday, June 22, 2012.

This blog will still be active in the interim and beyond.


Let's Write: Week of June 15

Last week we looked at humor and suspense.  This week, I'd like to look at the idea of adventure.  I am specifically not going to address action right now because action is a separate topic.  Many adventure stories have action scenes, but adventure is an overall arc with specific steps whereas action is movement on a micro level, an appeal to our senses within a scene.

Therefore, we will start with the basics of adventure.  We've all had adventures in life, and some of the stories I enjoyed most as a child took the form of adventures.

What are some adventures in our lives?
  1. Learning to do something new--walking, riding a bike, driving a car.
  2. Beginning something major--the first day of school, heading to college, the first day on the job, waking up in your new home the day after you're married.
  3. Trying something new or coming up with a plan of your own--making up your own recipe, building something yourself, fixing your own mistake.
  4. A commitment to something--your new diet, your exercise plan, a vow, a promise to do better at something (your marriage, parenting, being a good son/daughter)

How does that translate?  Well, if you think about those childhood adventures, you can probably easily identify the key components an adventure in them.  An adventure has six main parts:
  1. The point of departure, home, or where we start.  We need to see ground zero before we're ready to take the adventure or we won't appreciate the departure.
  2. The quest.  Most adventures begin with a goal.
  3. The journey.  An adventure requires leaving the bounds of our home and what we know and embarking on a journey into the unknown (and the difficult).
  4. Challenges/obstacles.  If the journey is easy, it's not very interesting.  Most adventures require at least three of these.
  5. The obtaining of (or the failure of obtaining) the goal.  We need to see it won or lost.
  6. The return home.  We need to see how the adventure has changed our hero and how that change translates back in his home environment.
Can you think of one?

Writing your lifestory: Worksheet 1

Before you decide how to set aside time to write, it often helps to decide what you want to write about.  This helps to prevent that “blank page” syndrome in which we are daunted by the pristine white space before us.  But how to decide?

Selecting the stories you want to tell need not be intimidating.  You can take several tacks to select what you want to tell.  Feel free to refer to my May 30, 2012, blog post to see some of the top experts’ advice on how to set a list of stories.  Below are some of my own ways of making lists that I have found helpful:

Keeping the list—overall hints:
  1. Always keep a pen and paper with you.
  2. When you write, keep an extra sheet of paper to the side.
  3. Attend a group and use it as a deadline.
  4. Whenever you read the stories of others—be they published stories or your colleagues’ work in class—keep that pen and paper beside you.
  5. Any time you get an idea—a memory of your past that you feel is worth passing on—of something that you want to write about, jot down the topic on that paper. 
  6. Find a central place to collect that list—notecards, a document file, a notebook—and make sure that you copy over your smaller lists to that master one.
Starting/organizing the list:
  1. The spider web method
    1. Begin with ANY memory—the very first one that crosses your mind—and write it down quickly.
    2. Think of a memory that spins off of it and write that down.
    3. Repeat step two until you draw a blank.
  2. The chronological method
    1. Separate your life into sections.  You can use set numbers of years (0-5, 6-10, etc.) or general classes of time (preschool, grade school, high school, etc.).
    2. For each group of years, try to come up with 2-3 story ideas.
  3. The topic-related method
    1. What are the big topic areas—things, people, places, ideas—of your life?  Food?  Childhood?  Work?  School?  Your parents, siblings, spouse?  Try to list at least 10.  If you can, list 35.
    2. For each topic area list 3-5 story ideas.
  4. The story arc method:
    1. Is there a lesson that you want to tell with your story?  If so, what is it?
    2. Can you identify a beginning, middle, and end to that story?  What are they?  Mark each one with a concrete story idea.
    3. Flesh out the middle.  What is the climax of the story?  The rising action?  An event that foreshadowed the outcome?  A moment when it seemed all was lost?  A moment that you became determined to see it through?  Set down these ideas and coordinate them along a timeline.
You try it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Suspense and Humor: Timing and Hints

At their core, suspense and humor are essentially the same thing but with different anticipations--how one chooses to see the outcome.

In the case of suspense, the outcome is usually negative, and we wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop.  We have an inkling about what is coming.  If we didn't have any clue, there would be no suspense.  But we don't know when it will happen or exactly what will happen.  It is these two items that create the tingle of suspense.

See this strategy in effect here (I will discuss it below):

For you to completely appreciate what's happening, you may also want to see clips from the beginning of the movie (like Chrissie's last swim) and the end (Brody kills the Beast).

Similarly with humor, we have some idea what should be, but for some reason, that "should" expectation is not being fulfilled, is being thwarted or perverted, in some other way.  We don't know exactly what will happen next or when the problem will come to a resolution.

See such a comic strategy in effect here:

How do we achieve these effects?
  1. Play with your timing.
  2. Spend some time with the fake out.
There are currently two excellent articles on these topics.  For suspense, I highly recommend Carol Davis Luce's chapter, "Writing Killer Suspense," in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing available on Amazon and from our own library.  For comic timing, I have both deeply enjoyed and found extremely helpful Backstage's article, "Can Comedic Timing Be Taught, or Is It Innate?" While the article is written for actors, it provides many helpful bits for writers.

Boiled down, though, these are some common tips to pull us through:
  1. Make sure your reader is aware of the situation.

    In "Jaws," before we get the Alex's death, we've already had Chrissie's, and just in case we're not as concerned as we ought to be, we have brooding Captain Brody to remind us that worrying about the possibility of danger in the water is important enough to ignore the neighbor with a problem, brush his your wife, and insult an old man.

    Also in the "Jaws" sequences, note that the music builds as the audience's awareness builds.  There is no music in Chrissie's last swim unless you count the buoy's bell.  We don't know of the danger, so there's no sense in drawing our attention to it.  By the time Alex is attacked, we know the shark is out there, so the music immediately before the attack sets us up for the immediate action, even though we see very little of it.  When we are ready for Brody to kill the shark, the music is a constant undercurrent--just as is our awareness.  You have to bring your reader with you for the suspense to work.

    In "Mr. Bean," we have strategic double takes and the laugh track.  We know he can't get out the instant he pulls in because of the laugh track, but just in case we didn't know, he's going to bang the door, look at it, and bang it again--and again and again and again.
  2.  But also divert that awareness (or fake us out).

    The best "Jaws" clip for this technique is Chrissie's last swim.  First we are diverted from danger in the water by the possibility of danger on the land.  The boy is drunk.  Is Chrissie running away to escape him or is she really interested?  Then we are diverted by where the real malice lies.  Does Chrissie really want him to follow her or is she kind of hoping that, drunk as he is, he will hurt himself?  Finally, we are diverted by blame.  Is it really the shark's fault he ate her?  If she had had a little more sense (or, depending on how you perceive her intentions, if her intentions had been a little less malicious), would she still be alive?  If he hadn't been drunk, would he have been eaten also or could he have saved her?

    Similarly, in watching Mr. Bean in his car, we are not paying any attention to movement in the car beside him.  We don't pay attention to the fact that the man who walks in front of his car clearly gets into the car beside him, as we can see from the slight lowering of the red car when he gets in and shake as he slams the door.  Thus, because we are diverted by Mr. Bean's antics, we are surprised when the red car pulls out and drives off.
  3. Up the stakes.

    Did you notice how many kids went in that water as soon as we had established the fact that it was unsafe?  There was hardly anybody in there until that point.

    How about Mr. Bean?  I think the upping of the stakes here is with the work and intention.  We see the plan.  We know that it's a ridiculous plan, but it's a plan nevertheless.  And the more he does, the more deliberate he is, the more he has lost when a better parking space opens up.
  4. It's not over till it's over.

    Just when we sigh with relief, there's more.  In "Jaws," that's the story of the whole movie.  First it's one death, then another.  First swimming is unsafe, then boating.  A harpoon won't kill that shark; neither will bullets.  He must be blown up.  How long can you prolong the problem (with caveats--this is where Luce's advice comes in)?

    In comedy, it's that natural reaction AND a breath moving on.  It's not over until Mr. Bean is really done.  First, he could have pulled in, seen the problem, and pulled through.  But no.  Second, he could have climbed out the window, but no, he banged the door and then pulled back.  Third, he could have just left the car there and then walked away, but no, he pushed the car forward.  Fourth, he could have walked away immediately, but no, he stuck around just long enough to see the offending car drive away.  By waiting all that time, by taking all those detours, by adding all those "ands" instead of "ends," we are pulled along.
  5. Whose fault is it?

    This last is not necessarily needed, but our culture has a tendency to assign this and it often end caps our stories.  In the "Jaws" clip, we have seen Alex's mother on the sand not watching Alex.  Do we blame her a bit?  To some extent, this blaming strategy not only throws a spotlight on prevention but it also allows the perpetrator to continue his/its reign of terror.  Because it was someone else's fault, I can prevent it from happening to me (which of course is only partly true, but that's why you have the rest of the book, movie, story, or whatever).

    In "Mr. Bean," this fault functions as an instance of needless suffering.  If Mr. Bean had just waited, then he would have been fine.  But he didn't, so we've all had a good laugh.  Sometimes this circumstance makes our protagonist out to be a fool.  Of course, that's Mr. Bean's hallmark.  You might want to watch this tendency in your own stories, though, and play around with caveats unless you really want to implicitly criticize your protagonist.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Let's Write: Surprise for the weeks of June 7 and June 15

John Lennon said (or borrowed), "Life happens when you're making other plans."

As life story writers, we can take full advantage of the truth in this statement by focusing on two genres:  humor and suspense.  In essence, they both hinge on a single element:  surprise.

For the story to work, however, the surprise cannot be completely unsuspected.  Instead, it should be hinted at obliquely as you go along.  We shouldn't guess it, but we should experience the mouth-watering-like pleasure of smelling something good just around the corner.  Your hints in the story should be specific enough to keep us from feeling misled but vague enough that we don't guess either.

Thankfully, life is full of surprises.  Pick a suspenseful or humorous moment and write about it.