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.

 

 

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.

Which Snow Queen Character Are You?

by Christina Lay

We all want to be the Queen, but let’s face it; sometimes we’re the crow, the witch, or the hobgoblin.

I’ve been thinking lately about how a fairy tale penned in 1844 remains relevant in our culture today. Mind you, my thoughts never stray far from the realm of folklore and fairy, and working for the Eugene Ballet Company, listening to the brand new score for the brand new Snow Queen Ballet drift up from the studio below my office, I’ve been finding it harder than ever to concentrate on bookkeeping and easier and easier to drift into the realm of story.

Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie as The Snow Queen – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

The Snow Queen has always been one of those tales that didn’t sit quite comfortably with me. I remember watching a version of it on TV when I was kid. I was both fascinated and disturbed. I wish I could remember which of the many adaptations it was (I’m guessing this was around 1970) but as with other non-Disney, weirdly and honestly portrayed tales, it left me not knowing what to think or feel. That sense of unease stayed with me until I recently re-read the original tale and rediscovered a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stunning images mined from the archival memory of folklore.

Yes, it is weird as only a 173 year-old fairy tale can be, but Gerda, the very good girl, rescues her dear friend Kay and all is well in the end. I think what disturbed me was the lack of resolution regarding the Queen herself. The focal point of anticipation and wonder conveniently leaves on vacation when Gerda shows up at her palace of ice. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Maybe she was bored with Kay and was glad to get him off her hands.

I can only guess the movie version I saw didn’t send the queen away with no resolution, but who knows. The Queen remains a literary enigma, a mystery ensconced in a palace of ice who occasionally abducts little boys in order to have them move pieces of ice around on her frozen “lake of reason”.

Disney’s recent Frozen, very loosely based on The Snow Queen, is a sort of origin tale for the queen, exploring how a person might come to choose to live alone in a palace of ice. Obviously, zillions of movie-goers related to the concept of a person “frozen” due to the denial of their individuality; be it their artistic leanings, their sexuality, their personality, their natural talents. The story examines the damage inflicted when an essential part of oneself is rejected by those closest to you (in Frozen, Elsa’s own parents force her to suppress her astounding magical abilities out of fear). Many of us have experienced this on some level, and understand the urge to withdraw and hide our true selves to avoid further pain. In this case, we are the queen.

But there are many more characters in The Snow Queen and not all are so regal or impressively outfitted.

There’s Gerda, the lovely little girl who even the angels want to help. Gerda represents unconditional love and innocence. Something we can all relate to, right? Although she’s rejected by Kay, and even believes him dead, she won’t give up on him until she’s sure. She’s not terribly bright; her best idea to find out where Kay has gone is to throw her shoes into the river as a payment for knowledge, even after the river insists it doesn’t know anything. She does manage to get stuck on a boat and in the way of fairy tales, is carried toward her ultimate goal. Gerda also represents blind faith, and it works for her. Maybe we are Gerda when we throw common sense to the winds in order to pursue our dreams, loves, impossible wishes. Don’t the gurus always claim that when you follow your heart, the universe will aid you?

In contrast to Gerda is the robber girl, who is a psychopath with a heart of gold. She’s been raised by thieves to be violent, selfish and impulsive and yet she does help Gerda in the end. It’s not clear why, other than it amuses her more to see Gerda continue on her adventure than to murder her. I’m afraid I’ve been the robber girl on occasion. Not that I’ve every threatened to slit anyone’s throat, but the self-absorbed obsession with my own impulses isn’t entirely unfamiliar. I would venture to guess that in most people there exists an equal balance between Gerda’s unselfish goodness on one extreme and the robber girl’s amoral wildness on the other. Neither melds well to my sense of self, but I’ve been in both places.

What about the crow? Good natured, helpful, engaged but willing to risk his betrothed’s position at court in order to help out a stranger? And the crow loves to eat. The crow is about the most normal person in this entire fairy tale. Naturally he must die.

The old witch who lives on the river? She so enjoys Gerda’s company she attempts to erase Gerda’s memories of Kay in order to keep the girl by her side. The witch kills her many rose bushes so that the sight of them won’t trigger Gerda’s memories. In an absolutely lovely image, Gerda’s tears awaken the roses that have been buried beneath the earth and cause them to once again grow above into the sunlight. Then Gerda in her less than stable way runs around for a long while trying to get the roses to tell her where Kay has gone. The flowers have other things on their minds.

Flowers Return to Life – Photo Courtesy of The Eugene Ballet

I find the old witch more disturbing than the Snow Queen or the robber girl. Her manipulation is subtle, possibly even well-intentioned, and she could represent the authority figure who suppresses dreams, talents and nature in order to cleave someone to their side; depending on your perspective, this could be an entirely selfish quest to clip someone else’s wings or a rational desire to keep someone safe. Doesn’t every parent or lover have a little bit of this impulse inside them? Stay near, dear one, don’t venture out where you might get hurt, or lost, or worse, fall in love with someone else and leave me.

And then there are the hobgoblins, or trolls, if you prefer, who start the whole thing. The trolls have a mirror which when gazed upon, distorts whatever beauty there is into ugliness. They have great fun tormenting everyone with it and decide to take it to heaven to mess with the angels. Well, the mirror falls and shatters into a million pieces, but the shards still have their evil effect. Only now, the shards get into people’s eyes and hearts and make them see everything as twisted, bad and ugly. Obviously fragments of the troll mirror are still at work today, with hate and bigotry so prevalent in our politics and media. There’s no shortage of trolls at work eager to warp and twist reality into something monstrous that can conjure hatred. “Fearmongering” is word that is sadly useful here. Have you ever used gossip or lies in order to punish, manipulate or control? Yeah, me neither.

Kay, the little boy whose heart turns into a block of ice, represents the human side of the troll equation. It is certainly not uncommon to be infected with an attitude that turns everything grey, or threatening. Depression is like this, but so is prejudice; fear of the other. I hate to admit I’ve been under the influence of troll thinking more than a few times in my life. If we are exceptionally lucky, we have a Gerda in our lives who will stand by us now matter how big a prick we become, someone whose love might save us from our own worst impulses.

The Snow Queen clearly still touches our hearts and our imaginations. I’ve read the theory that Hans Christen Anderson’s character of the Snow Queen, a heartless figure sitting on her throne of ice in the middle of the lake of reason, was a reaction against criticism he’d received for writing fanciful fairy tales. Writers of fantasy today still have to defend the relevance of their “fairy tales”, despite the fact the genre has become hugely popular. People who don’t “get” fantasy fail to see the truth behind the tall tales. Perhaps they have a bit of glass in their eye. Fantasy is to literature as poetry is to language, it gives us the magical ability to say things in words that can’t be said in words. And now, in the wonderful way of human creativity, the poem is being translated into dance. No matter the medium, fantasy and fairy tales let us see beyond the clouded mirrors to deep within our souls and into the souls of others, connecting us in the dreams we share.

***

If you happen to be in Eugene this weekend, don’t miss the chance to check out The Snow Queen, an original ballet choreographed by Toni Pimble, original score by Kenji Bunch.

 

 

 

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

A few months back, several people suggested that I write more blogs about “your brain hacks.” At the time, I found that sort of amusing because all the writers I know do the best they can with what they have. We are all born with our physiological predispositions (talent), and we all work hard to adapt body and mind to the tasks we value (skill). So, I sort of figured everyone has their own brain hacks. I still do.

Recently, I made a little speech in Eugene, Oregon about how writers can use tempo tools to influence their creative states, idea production, and writing speed. After that speech, a good friend reminded me that I had promised to write about brain hacks. So, I took a look back at my world and my experience and considered what things I had to learn to do in order to write stories.

Here’s the thing. When I teach, I can’t teach things I do but don’t know I do. I can’t teach things that come to me intuitively. I can only teach the things I had to consciously learn. Whether by luck or by some perverse curse, I had to learn a lot. Again, whether by luck or curse, I had to learn to overcome certain physiological limitation of mind and temperament. Many writers do. Mindfulness meditation has been a huge help in overcoming my personal limitations, but that’s another essay.

So, here’s a brain hack I had to learn.

Creativity is a learned skill. It is a verb: to create, created, creates, creating, will create, had created, have created, will have created.

The brain is a pattern matching and inferencing system. It recognizes patterns, cross-references them, and correlates them to experiences. The activity in the brain can be, somewhat erroneously, described as interacting ripples of potential. When rippling troughs meet peaks, they cancel out. When peaks meet peaks, they amplify. When amplified ripples reach a certain threshold, we become aware of the “thought.”

So far, so good. That’s all automagical. We don’t even know it’s going on.

However, many people, writers included, believe without consideration that if the thought they have more-or-less fits the shape of a problem they have, they are done. Sometimes, they are, but my brain was a bit bent out of shape from the start, so I had to learn to express a thought, abandon it, and find another one, and another one, and another one… I had to learn to keep finding new ideas until I found one that would work really well in text in a story that would then be interpreted by the pattern-matching inferencing system riding around in the reader’s head.

Many writers call this “finding the third alternative.” Personally, I wish I only had to find three.

Instead of the normal three, I have to find ten, twenty, fifty.

Enter a guy I’ll call Brian the Brain Guy (BBG). He’s a psychologist who hooked me up to an electroencephalograph in order to study the ripples in the brain during creative activity. I won’t go into the tech or what happened, but I will say that it caused me to look at my creativity tool, my brain, differently than I had. I stopped thinking of it as a piece of standard equipment that either worked or didn’t, and I started looking at it as a tool that could be modified, sharpened, and improved. I learned that it could be trained.

So, I started ringing a bell every time I began writing. That is, I started to type, then I rang the meditation chime, then I continued typing. I typed as fast as I could, and I worked furiously until I fell into that magical trance of creativity called a flow state.

Fast forward a few years, and my brain has been trained to enter flow state when I ring a bell.

Here’s another hack.

I took a page out of one of my teacher’s playbooks and started using a metronome during brainstorming sessions. I start it slow, and I have to come up with an unjudged new idea for each tock of the metronome (an app on my phone now). Then, I increase the tempo. Automatically, the brain that has been delivering an idea per tock at slow speeds ramps itself up to present new ideas at the new pace. For the brain geeks who want to try this, I start out at a tock every ten seconds: six per minute. My fingers can’t keep up anymore at about fifteen per minute. My brain is willing, but my fingers are not fast enough on the keys. Considering that my original, uninfluenced pace was about one new idea per fifteen minutes (and sometimes per week), that’s a huge improvement.

Because when BBG had me hooked up he was observing and measuring particular wave forms, I started paying attention to biofeedback tools for inducing and maintaining those wave forms. This was particularly important to me because it helped me reduce the amount of medication I needed in order to manage the bent brain problems I mentioned above. Back then, it was hard to find such tools. Now, they are freely available on the internet. Here’s a link to one such “entrainment video” I use. Try it. Relax. Just let it run quietly while you are creating.

Don’t let it run while you are editing. Different brain states. Oh, and run it very quietly. The brain doesn’t need it to be loud. In fact, the brain will pick up on it even if you think you can’t hear it. I’m running it right now at volume 1 on my headphones. I have to concentrate on it in order to hear it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbU8rndchsk

Caveat: Some people experience mild dizziness the first few times they listen to a recording like this one.

Finally, I will give away the biggest, best brain hack I have ever learned.

Intuitive writing comes from the subconscious mind. It flows effortlessly through the fingers to the screen or page. It requires no thought, and when we come up for air from successful, intuitive sessions, we have no sense that time has passed.

Conscious writing requires self-aware thought, planning, execution, and repetition. We know we are doing what we are doing, and time drags out like the slow-motion shootout in the Matrix.

Before I give you the big brain hack, I want to say something important. In my personal experience, there is no quality difference between the two modes of production. Conscious, intuitive, or mixed, each has a distinctive, physiological feel. The results of the different creative modes are different in content. However, my records show that, at least for me, the revision time needed to take raw text to a sold story is exactly the same either way. The techniques applied are a bit different, but that’s all.

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

The subconscious makes use of everything we are exposed to. EVERY FREAKING THING.

The more we consciously understand writing and creativity, the more the subconscious has to work with. People who avoid reading about writing, reading other writers, or studying creativity are limiting the raw materials available to the subconscious. The more we expose ourselves to grammar, punctuation, meta-descriptions of story, methods, processes, and techniques, the more likely those skills are to manifest in our flow state sessions—drawn straight up from the subconscious mind.

My best advice to the writers I meet at the conferences, seminars, and lectures I do is to constantly learn about the craft of writing. Immerse yourself in it. Practice techniques until they become part of the deep self from which dreams flow. Then, let it flow!

-End-

Eric’s Upcoming Speaking Events:

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

Cover_BullsLabyrinth_Text_AllCentaur

How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

-End-