What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

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-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

GoldenPupFace

(Image Source: By Golden Trvs Gol twister –
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18521767)

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

Eric Witchey

Today, I give thanks for the lessons of a blind dog named Bud.

For eleven years of my life, I was lucky enough to be the companion of a blind golden retriever named Bud. He was a smart dog—a really smart dog. One of the reasons I picked him out of the litter was that I watched him develop. The dogs were boarded where I was living, so I knew him from birth. He was the first to figure out how to get out of the birthing kennel on his own. He was the first to figure out how to get back in to get a free meal from his mother when all the pups were out romping. He was the first of the pups to learn to come when called by name.

We became inseperable.

When he went blind from progressive retinal atrophy at about two years old, I was devestated. I thought my little buddy, Bud, was going to have to be put down. The breeder recommended it. My vet recommended it. My friends told me he would be too hard to care for.

I couldn’t do it. I kept him.

Thank God.

Bud taught me a lot about writing. He wasn’t much of a writer himself, but he was wise in the ways of creativity.

For example, he figured out that if he wanted to go for a run, he didn’t have to wait for me to take him on a harness. He walked around the back yard until he found the fence corner, walked some more until he found another fence corner, and slowly but very methodically triangulated on the center of the yard. Once he had found center, he began to walk in a circle around that center point.

I know. This sounds quite unbelievable, and I have to say that the first time I saw him do it, I was shocked. In fact, I thought maybe something else was wrong with him. He walked in a circle for a little bit. Then, he expanded the circle and broke into a trot. Finally, he expanded it a little more and ran full-tilt-boogy around and around and around the yard. He ran full out like he was wearing his napkin, carrying a knife and fork, and chasing a road runner.

This blind race would go on for a while, and with each lap around his running circle, the center of the cirlce would shift ever so slightly. Little-by-little, the center would shift until Bud the Blind Dog ran at full speed into the fence that bounded the yard. After he hit the fence, he stopped running, rested a bit, found his corners, went to the center of the yard, and started again.

Usually, he’d hit the fence a glancing blow and stop immediately running. Occassionally, he’d hit nearly head-on. Once, he ended up with a bloody nose and a cut on his cheek.

My friends suggested I tether him. My vet still thought I should put him down. Still a bit worried he was maybe a bit sick in the brain, I watched for a while to see what the hell he was about.

I decided he was fine when I realized that Bud the Blind Dog did this every day that we lived in that house with that yard.

I learned my first writing lesson from watching him run. Even though he couldn’t see where he was going, he could still run like the wind. When you he hit the fence, he returned to the center and started again. I also noticed that even when he was running in circles, he was actually covering different ground with each lap.

At another house we lived in, I came home one day and discovered that my helpless blind dog had climbed the willow tree in the back yard.

Yes, really.

He didn’t climb high or far, but he was up past the second split and out on a foot-thick horizontal limb nearly five feet off the ground. There, he stood, nose high, sniffing the breeze. There, he stayed for some time. Initially, I thought I should go save him, but some impulse held me back. Again, I watched. He did not seem to be distressed at all. In fact, his tail was high and wagging. Eventually, he carefully and slowly backed up along the limb and tried to back down past the place where the branch joined the trunk and down to the first split of the trunk. The effect was less than graceful. I ran to help, but before I got there, he slid, scrabbled, and fell to the yard below. He jumped up, wagged his tail, and trotted off across the yard.

I remember thinking that he had gotten up there accidentally and it wouldn’t happen again, but it did. A few days later, I watched him nose around the base of the tree, move back a bit, and bolt up to the first split and right on up past it to the second. He had a little trouble getting around and onto the limb he seemed to like, but he managed it like he had done it a hundred times.

Watching him, I realized had indeed practiced this bit of doggy gymnastics. It wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t random. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew why.

I did not, but I decided I didn’t need to know his reasons. He seemed very happy up on that limb. My best guess is that he could get his nose into the breeze better from that position, and he liked to smell the world beyond the yard. Mind you, I’m just guessing.

From his tree climbing, I learned that things that are supposed to be impossible are sometimes the best things to do because they let us find new perspectives. Even if doing them is a little painful when we have to back down or move forward, they can still be worth doing because they expand the edges of the world we live in. I also learned that practicing technique eventually leads to the ability to climb trees we can’t even see.

The third lesson, but certainly not the last, I learned from my blind dog was actually a lesson I learned from two dogs. The group of friends I hung out with during that time included a whole pack of various dogs. One was a young yellow lab named Corey. Corey and Bud were good friends. When the whole crew got together, we would put all the dogs out in the fenced yard to play. At supper time, we would call them all in through the back garage door. However, the rule was that no dog got fed until all the other dogs were in and sitting in their places.

Normally, this would be fine. However, Bud the Blind Dog had a little trouble finding the back door. The other dogs all came in and lined up, but they had to wait for Bud to fumble his way to the garage wall and nose his way along to the open door.

Now, I don’t know if Corey was naturally kind and helpful or just hungry and impatient, but I have good reason to believe the former rather than the latter. Anyway, Corey figured out that if she went and found Bud, gently took his ear or his scruff in her mouth, and tugged at him, he would follow her.

We would call the dogs. Corey, normally very obedient, wouldn’t come. Instead, she’d go find Bud, grab his scruff, and tug him to door, through, and up to his place next to the food bowl. Then, all the dogs could eat.

Bud seemed truley grareful, and the two dogs developed a lot of trust and acceptance of one another. Corey was the first self-trained dog’s seeing eye dog I ever met. She helped Bud find food, helped him find water, ran in circles with him sometimes, and even blocked his impact on the fence. She helped him hike with us, and she made sure she always knew where he was when we were in the woods.

From Bud and Corey I learned that sometimes, we need someone we trust to bite us on the neck and pull us through doors we can’t see if we want to succeed.

Looking back over the years, these three lessons have served me well. I have learned to run fast and hard even when I can’t see where I’m going. I’ve learned that when I hit the fences of life, I only need to rest a few minutes before finding my center and starting again. I have learned that doing what other people think is impossible lets me rise high enough above normal to experience new smells, smells that help me live life more fully. The new perspectives have been worth the bumps and scrapes and practice it took to perfect the techniques needed to climb. Perhaps most important of all and most difficult for me, I have learned the importance of trusting a few other dogs to see well and to help me find and move through doors I need but cannot see.

-End-

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

Warning: Any product advertisements that appear with this post were NOT authorized or endorsed by me in any way.

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-

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed(image source: Alan M. Clark, cover artist)

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

In my small way, I try to continually expand my awareness of the experiences of others. I do this because I’m curious by nature and because to do so improves my ability to tell a story. Because I have been working on a fantasy story to support the marketing efforts of Dungeon Solitaire, I found myself researching death rites and rituals from various parts of the world. I also decided to reread Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

For any human being capable of compassion, reading Viktor Frankl is always a heady experience. However, my immersion in death rites and rituals somehow brought me to a moment where I was struck by how fully universal to the human experience his accounts of life and core integrity are. Perhaps I should have felt this before, and I certainly understood it before, but this time it hit me more deeply in both the heart and mind.

In my travels in the writing life, I have met some pretty rabid Zionists, a few really terrifying Palestinian poets, escaped hostages from the Palestinian hostage crisis, survivors of Guatemalan genocide, Serbs, Iranian ex-pats, righteous American ex-pats, escaped cold war Ukrainians, Holocaust survivors, Turkish intellectual Muslims, a Greek freedom fighter (against the Germans and carrying huge hatred of all Germans and Turks), a Catholic monk who fought on the German side in WWI and the American side in WWII, and all manner of extreme Christians who, more than the others, scared the hell out of me personally. That last one included a mercenary I met on his way to South Africa to fight for the Christian white-right to bring Apartheid back. I won’t add more to this list. It’s already long enough to make my point.

During my interactions with various people who held aggressive/defensive positions that made me nervous, I have tried to keep my fear in check and truly listen to their (sometimes insane and irrational) personal positions in order to seek some understanding of what motivates actions I cannot understand from the context of my white-boy, Midwestern, multi-religion upbringing.

Those extreme souls I met who had a sense of history, even if only from their own agenda-driven point of view or other-interpreted oral traditions, had one thing in common. They deeply felt, and were sometimes motivated solely by, their fear for their families and their futures. Often, that fear was grounded in their sense of history, and their sense of history was based entirely on which side of the experiences they were on.

Here’s an example. I was in a village in central Mexico, and the man I was staying with casually described how he really liked the new mayor because she was not corrupt. I asked how he knew she was not corrupt, and he said, “Because the cartel has tried to kill her twice.”

Well, that caught my attention.

I asked about the cartel and whether we were safe. He laughed and told me that of course we were safe. He said, “If you were in one of your cities, there would places you knew not to go at night, right?” I nodded. “Us, too,” he said. “We just don’t go to the wrong places at the wrong times.”

The casual conversation moved on, and he eventually described to me how the cartels weren’t really a problem to the people of the village. From his perspective, the American gun dealers were the real problem.

I kept listening. He kept talking. From his perspective, the cartels were like the weather, but the Americans sold death. From his perspective, the cartels were God-fearing people doing the best they could in terrible economic circumstances. They brought products in from the South, moved the products through the area, and passed them on across the border to the North. However, it was the Godless, money-hungry Americans who created the market for the drugs and who fueled the destruction of families by selling guns to both the government and the cartels.

The above is a very short description of an off-and-on conversation that went on for more than a week, but I hope you get the idea. Everything he said was true for him and his family in their lives in their world.

The flip-side of that story is also equally true. The DEA agent I met in Pima, Arizona who had lost two members of her family, one to addiction and one to gunfire, hated the Mexican government and the Mexican people for allowing the cartels, for trafficking across the border, and for making poison available on the streets in a way that killed her brother. She believed that the Pope at that time supported the trafficking and that Catholic confession was part of the reason the smugglers could do what they did without remorse. She was also correct from within her context.

Both people were deeply moved because of their connection to family history, family safety, and possible futures. Both essentially hated the other for what they considered to be good reasons. Both supported their positions from a combination of personal experience, family history, speculation, and verifiable fact.

An aside: Personally, the more I learned about the illegal gun trade and the multi-billion dollar flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico, the more disgusted I got with the whole situation. So, I wrote a story, “The Tequila Volcano.” It appeared in a literary journal last year, Timberline Review. It’s very short, and I recommend both the story and the journal.

When Viktor Frankl described both the deterioration of prisoners, whom one would expect to be supportive of one another, into brutal behavior toward one another and concentration camp guards, whom one would expect to be brutal but a few of whom engaged in acts of compassion and kindness, I was struck once more with the sad truth that no group has a lock on reality.

No person or group is entitled to perfect righteousness.

Frankl broke both the prisoners and the guards of the concentration camps into two essential groups: those who have core decency and those who do not. Neither guards nor prisoners were a homogenous front of virtue or brutality.

My life has exposed me to people from many traditions, to multiple holy texts, to people who have survived race and religion-motivated traumas, and to amazing acts of kindness and human decency from all regions, races, and holy traditions.

I do my very best to support the growth of the human heart. I do my best to find the commonality of experience and to avoid becoming bogged down in the destructive, isolating interpretations of ideology that are often used to fuel fear and justify destructive behavior. I cannot ever truly understand the devastation that is part of some family histories and historical identities. I can only do my best to dampen and block the perpetuation of fear and hatred in all its forms. I hope that my fiction explores mutual understanding, expands the development of compassion, and creates some sense of common ground in the human condition.

I believe that stories can help to heal the world. They lead the way to new thoughts, to expanded awareness, to a smaller sense of “I” and a greater sense of “we.”

So, I tell another story.