Writing in Black and White

 

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When I write I see color. It is so important to me that my very first blog featured in ShadowSpinners was titled “Writing in Color”. As I create each scene paintings float through my mind. Vivid shades of red overlay scenes of anger or lust. Glossy vermilion sparks in my mind when writing about nature. Undulating blues flow over me when water is featured, and ribbons of yellow flit through happily ever after scenes. I could continue, but you get the idea.

If you follow my blog you know I’m also an artist. In the past six months I’ve been creating a series of paintings titled “Sounds of Southern Blues”.   Three of the paintings are complete and the last one will follow by the end of the month. The backdrops of each of the paintings have only shades of black and white and the accompanying grays they create. The only “color” in each one is the particular musical instrument featured. This style of painting is a first for me, and has been quite a learning experience.

Now is where you ask, what does this have to do with writing? Over the same span of time, the past six months, I’ve been knee deep in the final editing stages of completing a novella. This has been another first for me, since the only stories I’ve written in the past (at least for publication) have been short or flash fiction.

Here comes the black and white part of my blog. I’ve not written any new stories during this time. As a result, I came to a startling realization when I saw no color as I read a paragraph in my novella for what must’ve been the twentieth time. My familiar muse of seeing the words burst to life in Technicolor had abandoned me.  Both of my creative pursuits were seriously lacking in color!

Upon further investigation I came to the following conclusion. I’m only given the gift of writing in color during those giddy first stages of creating new worlds, meeting new people, and forming new ideas. Easily done when writing short stories. Not so easy when writing longer pieces. After this earth-shattering phenomenon sank in I began to wonder if I could actually complete my novella.

But never one to give up I found myself sitting the next day once again staring at the colorless paragraph. I was determined to complete the edits given to me by my publisher.

Have I mentioned I paint and write in the same studio? I looked away from my black and white story and over at the sax painting. Its shocking blue appeared to be visibly vibrating off its backdrop of black and white, and a thought began to form.

Yes, the sax spoke to me. Doesn’t the artwork in your home speak to you? It said I’d already created all the color my novella needed. What it now needed in these final edits were cohesive shades of black and white so the color could jump off the page just as it, the sax, was doing as it spoke to me. I looked back at my paragraph where ghost like glimpses of the color I’d created shone. They began to meld with the black and white creating a visible path. I followed the path through the paragraph I’d been struggling over, and as if by magic I found myself moving on to the next paragraph.

As I now work in finalizing the last few pages of edits, I’ve came to realize the color in my story would be nothing without what I now see as a black and white backdrop. It is what contains the filler, the mundane staging involved in writing something longer than a short story. Black and white are now the other colors I look for when writing.

So the next time you get bogged down in layers of edits, understand it’s just the much-needed black and white backdrop. Without it your readers will not be able to experience the vibrant, colorful, unique world you’ve created.

How do you psych yourself up to read your works in progress for the umpteenth time and get through edits?

 

“Saxophone in Blue” Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

For the love of…

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I thought it appropriate to discuss the topic of love in this month of February, a month where you can’t escape the concept of it, no matter how hard you might try.

I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t used a writing prompt. Thus my title—For the love of…and is it any wonder that the topic of love, is written about and published more than any other genre given its many variations?

Let’s look at a few—For the love of…a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, the job, money, yourself, a worthy humanitarian cause; anger (yes one can fall in love with one’s anger). For this particular writing prompt the list is literally endless. We have at our fingertips a menagerie of topics to explore and write about.

However, as I shared in an earlier blog, when I personally attempt to write about romantic love, someone always has to die. Yes, no matter how many times I’ve tried there is never a happily ever after for my lovelorn characters. I must insert here, for those who don’t know me personally, this is not the case in my own life. In my own life, I’ve been happily married for 28 years. Okay, there were rocky times, how could there not be with eight children (big surprise—this is the love I mainly focus on in my fictional and memoir writing—a mother’s love, or lack there of), two parents working full time, and no “Alice” to have meals prepared at the end of the day (for you youngsters Google “The Brady Bunch”)? But isn’t that what true love is? In going through the gauntlet, aren’t you supposed to find the “Holy Grail” at the end?  Well, at any rate, the happy survival of a long-term marriage is just one of the many scenarios of this thing called, love.

I also use prompts when looking for new painting ideas. Here are the results of the, For the Love of…paintings. One of them even elicited a poem.

 

For the Love of a Cold Heart

“Ice Heart” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of the Universe

“Cosmic Heart” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of Clouds

“Heart Sylphs” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of a Music Continue reading

How a Writer Might Live Forever

By Cynthia Ray

The world is fascinated with creativity and how it works, perhaps because it has an almost magical quality to it, where ideas and inspiration seem to arise out of nowhere.  Science continues to study, research and even map the brains of creative people, uncovering new and amazing things about creative expression.

Research has validated what many cultures throughout time have known, that creative expression can make a powerful contribution to health, well-being and healing.

That making art and participating in creative endeavors, whether it is photography, collage, music, dancing, painting or writing has mental and physical health benefits is now accepted as a scientific realty.  Creating art and music enhances health and wellness, and specifically, expressive writing is linked with improved immune system response.

health

One does not have to be especially creative or artistic to reap the benefits.  Anyone can journal.  Writing is an excellent choice because it doesn’t require any special equipment to begin, all you have to do is open the computer, or pick up a pen and piece of paper and let it flow.

In addition to positive changes in our mental and emotional states, creative expression and expressive writing effect actual physical changes in the body, enhancing immune response and speeding healing from trauma and injury.

This excert from an article titled Make More Art-the Health Benefits of Creativity illustrates the effect.

“The act of writing actually impacted the cells inside the patient’s body and improved their immune system. In other words, the process of creating art doesn’t just make you feel better, it also creates real, physical changes inside your body.”

Another scholarly article documents how one experiment with expressive writing worked, and the amazing positive results.

“The researcher had students write about their deepest thoughts and feelings on an important emotional issue, with the only rule being that “once you begin writing, continue to do so until your [15- to 30-minute] time is up.”  Dozens of replications of these types of studies have demonstrated that emotional writing can influence frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure, and a number of social, academic, and cognitive variables. These effects have been shown to hold across cultures, age groups, and diverse samples.

There are only a few examples, and here a couple of additional articles to puruse if you are interested in learning more about Writing to Heal and the health benefits of expressive writing.

Since I work in healthcare, I receive notifications of interesting health topics almost daily, and last week, I was sent a link to a study where researchers identified the top 10 things that contribute to an individuals likelihood to live longer.  They were surprised to discover that the top two contributors to reduced mortality were having a close friend or person upon whom you could rely, and talk to, and connection with others in a real way. the NY times article says:

“In a study of 7,000 men and women in Alameda County, Calif., begun in 1965, Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties,” John Robbins recounted in his marvelous book on health and longevity, “Healthy at 100.”

This major difference in survival occurred regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices or physical health status. In fact, the researchers found that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits,” Mr. Robbins wrote. However, he quickly added, “Needless to say, people with both healthful lifestyles and close social ties lived the longest of all.”

 Writing is magic, and so is loving connection-the combination is potent.  My take away is this:  Writers could live almost forever if they spend part of the day writing, and the other part connecting with real live humans.

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Interview with Alan M. Clark, By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Cover_ApologiesToTheCatsMeatMan_The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

I’m delighted to be interviewing Alan Clark on ShadowSpinners today. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing this talented author and artist for several years and have even taken a few of his painting classes. His very brief bio below, mentions the house full of bones where he grew up. Well dear reader, I have personally been in Mr. Clark’s current home, and I can attest that bones remain a prominent feature in his life, and in the macabre décor of his studio. Those of you who have followed my blog know of my own penchant for all things dark and twisted, so I naturally took an instant liking to Mr. Clark!

I’ve just finished his latest book and immediately gave it the five stars it deserved on Amazon. The book is Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man: A Novel of Annie Chapman, the Second Victim of Jack the Ripper (Jack the Ripper Victims Series). My interview will focus mainly on the book, while also touching on the series and Mr. Clark’s artwork.

Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. He has illustrated books and stories by authors as diverse as Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z Brite, Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards.

 

Alan, what first drew you to write historical fiction?

Thanks for the nice introduction. 

I’ve always liked history. Many years ago, in the early ‘80s, one of my first jobs was as a museum guide at Fort Nashborough, a partial replica of the first non-native-American settlement of Nashville, TN. I was in a position of having to bring to life for the visitors what existence was like for those who first settled the area. Using my imagination, I found I could sort of travel back in time to help the visitors get a glimpse of a time when the area was surrounded by wilderness, as well as hostile Indians who held those lands as sacred hunting and burial grounds.

What inspired you to write about the victims of Jack the Ripper, while so exclusively leaving the man out of the stories as well as any speculation as to who he might have been? 

I read the police reports of the killings, the transcripts from the inquests, and other material that gave a sense of who the victims were, what their lives were like. Knowing something of history in the nitty gritty of life, beyond significant dates, locations, and standout events, I became fascinated with what it took for the women to survived in London’s East End of the period. I found a parallel with the homeless of our time. We have the tech revolution marginalizing the less fortunate among us, and Victorian England had the same thing with the Industrial Revolution, the suffering at its worst in London, the richest and most technologically advanced city in the world at the time. Survival in that time and place was a tale worth telling. The more I learned about the women and their environment, the less interested I became in the endless, and often ridiculous speculation about the murderer. Because we don’t know who JTR was, the killer is mostly defined by his victims and what he did to them, while the women should not be defined by the circumstances of their deaths since we have some information about them and their lives. 

What do you feel are the ethics of writing historical fiction?

There are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series at present: Of Thimble and Threat, Say Anything but Your Prayers, A Brutal Chill in August, and Apologies to that Cat’s Meat Man. I state in the front of each novel that they are fiction and that is meant to tell people that I’ve made up much the story, the dialogue, and the motivations of the characters. I try to create characters that ring true in the imagination as human beings. They are necessarily flawed. I try to stick to what is known of their lives, their motivations, their feelings, but clearly I have to invent.

Popular notions about the victims would have us believe that they were prostitutes of little value. Unfortunately that is because that’s the way they were seen in their time. Those killed on the street, the first four, were casual prostitutes, meaning that they engaged in solicitation when they had to in order get by. The going rate for a casual prostitute at the time was four pence (pennies). If my calculations are correct, adjusted for inflation, that would be about almost 2 £ British currency today, or about $2.70 cents USD. The rest of the time, they eked out a meager existence doing what work they could find, mostly hard and tedious labor for little pay. Those four women had all lost their husbands and were destitute. There were so many poor, so many partner less women living in the East End of London, and so many of them were alcoholics, often struggling to get from one meal to the next, one drink to the next, that they were considered a nuisance by most people of the higher classes, and of very little worth. Yes, there was a rigid class system in place at the time.

Yet those women had lives, families, friends, emotional gains and losses, the controversies and dramas to be found in any life. My opinion is that giving a sense of life in that time and place to people of our time, and to those of the future, is a worthy endeavor. If people are so fascinated by the idea of an inhuman killer that they are drawn to material about the violence, why not use that to draw attention to something intensely human.

Do you feel you owe anything to the all too real victims in your books? In particular Annie Chapman the second victim of Jack the Ripper upon whom “Apologies to the Cats Meat Man” is based?

I owe her compassion as a fellow human being, and believe I have written something that depicts a character going by her name and having similar circumstances in a way that makes her more than a two-dimensional alcoholic Victorian-era whore. Hopefully, the story inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time.

In preparation for this interview I delved more deeply into why your book resonated with me, even weeks after I’d read it. I realized it was because of what you touched on in the last sentence of your response above—inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time. You see I had a daughter who—slept rough—the term used in the 19th century to describe having to sleep on the streets at night. My daughter was also an addict. Through her I learned of the lives of many of those considered—least of our time—those who slept rough, right along side her. When she died those same marginalized people were the ones who shared stories about my daughter’s compassion toward them. So thank you for humanizing those who are all too often invisible.

That is hard. You have my sympathy.

Compassion is in short supply in a world so full of people and dwindling resources. That was true in Victorian London, just as it is true today. In 1888, the Whitechapel district in London’s East End, where most of the Ripper killings occurred, had an average of 800 people living per acre.

There will always be those who stereotype the unfortunate individual as a loser. It’s easy and can be a comfortable way to temporarily pump up a deflated sense of self. But all of us make mistakes and suffer for it, and, at times, suffer through no fault of our own. Writing drama is all about the decisions characters make, the consequences of those decisions, and how they deal with adversity. If done well and the character’s motivations ring true, a story becomes an effective reflection of human life, a mirror we value because it gives us glimpses that help us understand ourselves and others.

What was the hardest, and in turn the easiest part of writing this book? 

What made it hard is that there is little information about Annie Chapman’s life, really just a bare-bones outline. The lives of each of the victims is most clear closest to their deaths because of the inquests. Those are investigations to determine the manner of death, much like a trial, with witnesses testifying as to their relationships, knowledge, and recent interactions with the deceased.

Because there was so little information about Annie Chapman, I had to pick up even the thinnest emotional threads and try work with them. I found a letter written by Chapman’s sister that gave some truly wonderful emotional context concerning love and loss and even violent suicide in the family—that was very helpful. The lack of information made it hard, but also gave me room to invent. The trick is to invent in a way that remains true to the environment, the circumstances of the characters, ones that seem consistent with what we do know from history.

You did an excellent job of making me feel the hardships, squalor and violence in the life of a working class woman in 19th century London. Were there specific reference books used to accomplish this?  

Thank you. Most of my research for the series has been done online. There are great resources for this, maps, documents, fiction, nonfiction, and government studies from the time period. Google books has a seemingly endless selection of material referencing the Victorian era, generated by authors, journalists, and social scientists of the period. The ability to search online for images using key words was also of great benefit.

For those unfamiliar—I was one of those and had to look it up—please explain what a “cats meat man” is.

A cat’s meat man is a street vendor who makes rounds of neighborhoods that have people with pets, selling meat to those who have dogs and cats. It was usually horsemeat not fit for human consumption, dyed green or blue to indicate that and stabbed onto thin wooden skewers. A cat’s meat man would have regular customers and and a beat so as not to compete with others in the same trade. Wearing a big, bright neckerchief, he’d wheel a barrow that held his merchandise in containers of brine. To draw attention, he’d sing a song or shout “Beep, beep,” as he proceeded to. They were often organized through someone who had access to the cast offs of a local slaughterhouse.

TheCatsMeatMan

“The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

What is the one most important thing people think they “know” about the Jack the Ripper victims that’s a fallacy?

Many assume that the killer was a top-hatted gentleman slumming in the East End. I’ve seen depictions of JTR wielding a knife with a jeweled handle. All that is unlikely. The murderer would probably have been someone who could blend in, and that would have been someone of modest to meager means. Even your accent, your manner of speech, and vernacular placed you within that society.

I have shared in this blog how my own painting and writing both assist and hinder one another. Other than the creation of the art for your book covers, does your art inform your writing in any way? 

I have done numerous illustrations for the series. I approach the material as I would with any illustration job—the images are in response to what I’m writing. With the artwork, I try to add to the experience audiences have of the stories, while pinning things down as little as possible. Audiences respond better when they are given room to use imagination. In many of the illustrations, instead of depicting the character’s facial features, I concentrated on their hands, thus allowing the audience to put their own stamp on the characters.

StillInItsHidingPlace

“Still in Its Hiding Place” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark

I am anxiously awaiting a book on final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Is it in my near future? 

Yes, next year—have begun it. Using some of the illustrations, I did an animated film less than 2 minutes in length to help promote it and the rest of the JTR Victims Series. Just finished the film and haven’t released it yet.

Other than the book mentioned above, what do your plans for future projects include?

As I’ve done in the past—not just with the JTR Victims Series, but also with The Door that Faced West, about America’s earliest serial killers, and A Parliamnet of Crows, about 19th century American Murderesses, the Wardlaw sisters—I’ll be looking for something in history that leaves me disturbed and wondering. All my historical fiction starts that way. I call it Historical Terror: Horror that Happened. Something in the past stands out to me because I have to wonder how those involved in the event found what they did reasonable. Writing the tales helps me provide answers. The novels are about crimes, the victims of crimes, or both.

Thanks for interviewing me on ShadowSpinners.

Thank you, and I look forward to many more great reads as you explore my new catch phrase—Historical Terror.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

What The World Needs Now

by Christina Lay

For many years I had a Take Back The Night flyer pinned to my wall. On it was a simple abstract figure dancing and the words across the top read Take Up Space! As someone who was raised to be demure, polite, invisible and most importantly, quiet, this message meant a lot to me.

I’m not sure where that flyer went, but recently I’ve found myself thinking about it again. Perhaps like me you’ve been somewhat alarmed by recent political events. Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it; perhaps you were thrown into a spiral of despair when our country elected a bigoted sociopath to the highest office of the land. Perhaps you asked yourself what you as an individual could possibly do to counteract an apparent rising tide of hatred and ignorance.

I’m personally blessed to work and play in  environments where I’m surrounded by creative people who are literally working their hearts out to create art in dance, song, images and words. As you can imagine the stunned reaction was fairly universal amongst my friends and coworkers. But then of course everyone went about their business, which is to make art. I’ve always been a supporter of the arts, but in January I was seized by how extremely crucial it is to the health of our culture that individual expression does not wane in the face of disinterest, but grow, and take up space.

Even before the election there was a general reporting of abysmal attendance at the performances of local art groups and the trend continued on afterward. Speculation has it that people are too depressed, wary, unsure or economically strapped. Probably a combination of all those factors and more is keeping the more casual appreciator of the arts away from the theatres. But this is exactly the wrong time to hide in our houses. We need to step out and support each other, in any way we can.

As I listened to many people discuss what we can do in a world where close-mindedness seems to be the in thing, I looked at myself not just as a writer but as a citizen and human being and asked myself—what can I do? My first impulse was to buy more tickets to more things. Supporting creative expression seems more important than ever in a time when simple human empathy is being shouted down from every corner.

And then I looked a little closer at myself and decided it was time, not to isolate and circle the wagons, but to get out into the world. Take up more space. Interact with the humans. Express my humanity. I signed up for a drumming workshop and a European long sword demonstration, just to expand my creative mind and step out of my comfort zone, not to mention supporting the artists who were presenting them.

At the same time I stumbled across a local call to artists for an “Objects Afterlife” show in which artists are assigned a used object at random and asked to make a piece of art out of it. I’m not a visual artist but this sounded like fun and a good way to get out there, so I applied, paid my admission fee, and was assigned a tube of blue vinyl. I had no idea what I was doing but I had fun doing it, and for a brief time, I took up a little space on a gallery wall.

But what about the writing? In times like these, one might think a writer should turn away from fantasy and attempt to write something contemporary, politically-edged, “real”, or possibly a post-apocalyptic warning of the dire future we seem to be headed for. Alas, whenever I attempt to write fiction that is a direct response to what’s going on in the world, it comes off as pedantic and self-righteous. I think this is one reason we make art. Sometimes we have emotions that are just too overwhelming or powerful to express.  Some people, like my friend Cheryl Owen Wilson, whose artwork is below, can do it, but I’m not one of them.

The Guardian by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

So I turn to my fantasies and my fairy tales and ask, does this have value? I believe it does. Escapism gets a hard knock, but who would argue there is value in beauty, peace, comfort, and happiness, even if only temporary? On a basic level, this is what fantasy, romance, cozy mysteries, etc. provide. A place of refuge. A momentary respite into a world where the good guys win and Love trumps hate. I always remember a story, and I wish I could remember where it came from, about a holocaust survivor who spoke in later years of how important it was for him in his depths of despair to know that somewhere in a world gone dark, someone was penning a beautiful symphony.

On a deeper level than ordinary expression, art allows us to explore depths that are hidden to us in the day-to-day living of our “mundane” lives. Art no matter the form or presentation is full of archetype, symbols that speak to our souls, souls that are often buried beneath a mountain of survival tactics and walls. Art is reality in disguise, attempting to slip past the guards of reason in order to whisper to the heart.

In times when so many people are more afraid than ever, confused, possibly full of anger and hate, the magic of art is crucial to the survival of the spirit. If you open your heart to them, fictional tales are immensely real and I believe this applies to all art and creative expression. Dance, music, theatre, painting, you name it- we need to do it, and we need to consume it. No matter what form the expression takes, it must be done, or our culture will wither and shadow will fill the empty spaces.