What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/the-upside-of-quitting/

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/perfectionism.html

 

A Confusing Lesson in Resistance, Ego, and Illusion


By Lisa Alber

A few weeks ago, I happened on a funny little book at the New Renaissance bookshop in Portland. After scoffing at a book about how to analyze my issues by observing my dog’s behavior, my gaze stopped on a title that read, I Don’t Want To, I Don’t Feel Like ItHow Resistance Controls Your Life and What To Do About It.

If I believed in the metaphysical, I’d have said it was a sign from the book gods. I knew I had to buy the book when I opened it and read at random:

“If you recognize this trap [i.e. nasty internal voice naysayers], perhaps as a result of years of failed self-improvement plans, you’ve most likely spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why this is happening. “Why do I keep failing?” And, you’ve probably heard plenty of internal “advice” about what you should do differently, usually amounting to “just try harder.””

It’s as if the author wrote to me personally. Having grown up in a positive-thinking, self-improving family, I am the Queen of Failure when it comes to self-improvement plans. Sometimes I despair of myself, and I do ask myself why I keep failing, and I do have a voice that always demands that I “just” try harder.

“Just” — such an awful little word.

I’m no stranger to pondering the notion of resistance. I’ve talked about it enough in psychological terms and in terms of creativity. This little book comes at it from a Buddhist point of view. The book defines resistance as an ego-identity maintenance system. It’s all about how the “I” maintains control and its status quo.

Our egos want to survive above all, and when we set out to change the status quo, the ego brings out the nasty little internal voices that rationalize, accuse, blame, shame, taunt. So, we fall back into old patterns and feel rotten about ourselves.

OK, I can see that, but then the book talks about illusion. As in, what the ego presents to us is illusion: worries, anxieties, shoulds, coulds. All these thoughts about how our lives would be better if X. These are just stories. They aren’t real and the thoughts behind them aren’t real. It’s all illusion.

We tend to believe our thoughts, don’t we? But our thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not indicative of any kind of truth about ourselves. But we believe them and we suffer.

I know I suffer a lot. I feel like I’m always striving, trying to outdistance my voices. Try harder, try harder.

The galling part is that the more I read this book, the more I realize how ego-driven I am. MASSES of ego. Ego all over the place. Oozing ego almost every waking moment — and maybe while I’m asleep too.

Thing is, I’m reading this book and gaining insight, but I’m not sure what lessens the resistance … Awareness? I think calling out the thoughts as the unhelpful beasts they are and taking a few breaths to bring myself back to the moment could be helpful.

Of course, the most interesting thing about delving into a book about resistance is that all the while, I’m resisting my writing. So my quest to lessen resistance is itself resistance?

Hmm … Seems confusing, this Buddhist philosophical stuff. Oh wait, is that resistance again?  That is, was that a naysayer thought about reading the book, just to get me to quit reading the book?

And is this tendency of mine to overanalyze yet ANOTHER example of the ego’s resistance tactics?

Dang.

What do you do to lessen resistance?

My Writing Religion: Some Thoughts as 2016 Ends

img_6452By Lisa Alber

Last week I happened to be listening to NPR as I drove my car back from Handy Andy’s, my neighborhood repair shop, when I realized something about myself. As one does, right? In the midst of the every day, in this case as I grumbled about the gift of a split radiator during the most expensive month of the year. The week before, copious amounts of white smoke had billowed out from under the hood right before an unusual snow fall for Portland, Oregon. I managed to get the car towed back to my house, and then I was stuck for nearly a week. Have you seen the horror movie “Cabin Fever?” Yeah, just about it.

Anyhow, so maybe it was having freedom at last, mixed with grumbliness, that readied my brain for a little epiphany. This has been a rough year on so many levels — many stressors (in addition to the political toxins) — and I found myself thinking:

Why do I write anyhow? What am I getting out of it? Is writing novels worth endangering my health and dealing with constant anxiety that I’m behind where I “should” be and could be doing more, more, more? Is writing novels worth not having a life as I try to get the writing done (and promotional stuff!) while working a full-time day job?

I have a friend who’s been writing novels for decades, and she’s said about the endeavor: “It’s heartbreaking.” Meaning, you work and work, but you don’t necessarily get anywhere. Another friend said about the publishing industry, “It’s a punishing business.”

So, yes, the question I’ve been thinking about lately is: Why do I write?

Driving home last week with my new radiator, listening to NPR, Martin Scorsese spoke to Steve Innskeep about his newest film, “Silence,” a film about faith and compassion set in 17th century Japan. It centers around two Jesuits priests who infiltrate Japan to recover another priest who may have “gone native.”

Innskeep asked Scorsese whether making movies was his religion. I found this quote that summarized Scorsese’s answer:

This is what I do. If I could paint, it might be better; or if I could write, it might be better. But this is what I know and what I do. And so in a sense they [the films] are religious acts and you could, you know, ridicule that or you could take offense at it, but they are religious acts, even the profane ones. … I’m trying to find out who we are.

This struck me, and I remembered a moment maybe a decade ago when I realized that writing had become my religion. For years, I had been searching for something. I experimented with many religious and self-help practices. A few years after starting a serious fiction writing practice, I realized that I had stopped my endless search. I had found my “religion.”

I write to process the world and myself in the world. I write for connection. I write to understand, as Scorsese says, “who we are.” What is this thing we call “humanity” — the humanity within human kind?

In the car with the new radiator, I realized that I’d lost my way. In religious terms, I’d lost my faith. Faith is a funny thing. It’s just belief that you wrap a ribbon labeled “truth” around. Having faith is a process of circular reasoning, for sure, but that doesn’t lessen the comfort and purpose it provides people as they negotiate treacherous, unfair, unjust life. (Life is beautiful, too, but I’m not talking about that side of it right now.)

For me, it comes back to the practice of writing. Maybe it’s a little like prayer for people of faith. It’s the practice of prayer or any kind of meditation that brings peace and groundedness. Could writing stories be my prayer? Have I lost my prayerfulness as I try to keep up with the publishing biz and figure out how to be a marketing whiz (failing miserably, FYI)?

This is worth thinking about, and so I shall in 2017. I may have to make changes, alter course, I’m not sure. I’ve got to figure out my faith again, just like the Jesuit priests in Scorsese’s movie.

What are you thinking about as we head into 2017?

In Which I Muddle Through a “Blah” Writing Day … Week … Month …

img_6619By Lisa Alber

I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve written 700 words on three different topics for this blog post and nothing’s working.

  • Goddess-y neighborhood coffeehouse anecdote? Yeah … Could have been humorous or thought-provoking. Now, it’s just as dull as my thoughts.
  • Novel development process? Perhaps, but this has been a problem for the past month–whatever process I thought I had doesn’t seem to be working.
  • Novel research topics? <yawn> Feels like you gotta be here in my head to be interested in these topics, and, frankly, I’m not even enthused right this second.

This is a truly strange feeling. Normally, once I get going, I’m OK. Blog posts are *never* an issue. I can always spin a thought into 500 decent words.

So, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s the same thing that’s hampering my novel development process. A few days ago, on my personal blog, I was certain it was the election cycle clogging up my brain. Could be. Have you read the articles about the anxiety that this cycle is causing? Election anxiety is apparently a thing–and this thing is affecting folks in record numbers. If this is what it is with me (and I won’t know for sure until later in November when I can look back on these weeks), then, holy crap, what kind of toxic environment are we living in at the moment?

And why am I susceptible to this anxiety? (That, my friends, is probably a question for a therapist.)

You’d think I’d be able to shuck off BS and rhetoric and worry and fear … I succeed for a little while then find myself online again, sunk in articles and commentary. My brain’s been taken over by — politics. ACK.

There’s something worrisome going on that’s larger than either of the candidates–don’t you feel it? Something might have to give, to seriously give, at some point … But maybe that’s just my anxiety talking.

So how to muddle through? I’d actually rather not muddle. I’d rather just do–but if muddling is where I’m at, I figure there are a few things I can do:

  1. Show up at the computer at my regular writing times.
  2. Open Scrivener (my writing software) and the last file I was working in.
  3. Engage in one thought related to whatever’s in that file.
  4. Write something in relation to that thought.

That’s about it. Normally one thought leads to the next–but I can’t count on that at the moment, it seems.

One thought does keep going through my head: This too shall pass. I didn’t understand the simple yet sublime wisdom within these four words when I was younger; now I find them a comfort. The election cycle will pass and so will this funky headspace I’m in.

Here’s my contract with you: I just opened Scrivener, and I see that my last brainstorming thought for the next next novel (for 2018, cross fingers!) related to a character named Kevin, and his quest for answers about his birth family. So here’s what I’m going to do right now: his character sheet, which is to say his character arc and motivation for this story.

OK!

How do you muddle through when the going gets sloggy? Are you feeling any election anxiety–how are you coping?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

img_6420By Lisa Alber

You know what’s funny? Since my last post here on ShadowSpinners, my second novel launched–woohoo!–but I’m already so far beyond the fact of it, that I’m not going to tell you about the book, WHISPERS IN THE MIST. Easy enough to get information online, if you so desire.

I spent most of my summer feeling harassed by the specter of the public life (readings, launch party, etcetera) and stressing out about promotion and publicity tasks. Plus, August was shite-meet-fan deadline time for my next novel, you know, the untitled one that’s coming out next year around this time? Yeah, that one. And, frankly, book launch was getting in my way. I wanted it done and gone and behind me, which only added to my stress.

After awhile, I imagined WHISPERS like a baby too long in the womb: Get this bloody thing out of me! A tad dramatic, true, because it’s thrilling to have a book come out, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d practically forgotten what WHISPERS was about because I was so immersed in the next next novel.

My head at the beginning of August: I have to talk about WHISPERS now? Yeesh … Can’t I hole up with my deadline for the next novel? Really, I’m frantic about handing it off to my editor in decent shape. The manuscript needs so much work. It’s an utter tragedy, and the ENDING ISN’T RIGHT!

Plus, I have a day job (alas) with big August deadlines every year, wouldn’t you know it. Plus, for some reason everything the publisher might want and need from me (in addition to the manuscript and authorial book launch tasks) landed in the hopper in August too: flap copy, book cover discussions, proposal for next books. Yee gads.

I’m happy to announce that in the wee hours of Thursday, September 1st, I emailed my editor the manuscript for Novel #3, a.k.a next next novel. And that was it. The black-out curtains closed on Lisa the Author for a full week. I looked forward to a last summer-hurrah (but really, what summer?) Labor Day weekend full of zippity-do-da-nothing that included a marathon of “The Affair,” season two (recommended if only to see how the screenwriter plays with point of view), reading for more than ten minutes in a sitting, and sleeping.

img_6463It’s been a restful week, but the new school year has begun and I’m already behind! I probably should have started writing the next next next novel (pub date 2018–isn’t that crazy?) by now. The other night a character revelation popped into my head, so that was a good sign. I bought a new organizational notebook (Christina, you might like it!). I have my first task list in said notebook. I need new business cards and need to prepare for a reading tomorrow night and next week I’m flying to New Orleans for a huge conference and need to–what?–something …

Hold on, wait–the next next next novel! Before I know it, it’s going to be a year from now, and I’ll be freaking out all over again. Number one priority: write first draft. This will be number one priority (and home squalor be damned) for the next, oh … nine months? Do you think I can finish the first draft by June 2017?

So, let the school (writing) year begin!

What’s on your list as the school year begins?