The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

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The Enlightened Assassin’s Agenda

Eric Witchey

My agenda today is to move my readers toward more specific articulation of their character agendas. If there’s any overlap between handling dramatic characters in text and managing our own lives, it is purely coincidental and has little or nothing to do with me or my agenda.

In a recent conversation with a writer, I said something that she then sent back to me as an important quote. At the time I said it, the words meant little to me. Having them sent back to me as important to someone else made me look at them again. Here’s what I apparently said,

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

Hm, says I. Isn’t that like setting identifiable, quantifiable, achievable goals? In moments of hubris, haven’t most writers entertained fantasies of accolades, awards, and glory? Even the humblest of us have at one moment or another had J.K. Rowling’s name evoke at least a little wish to be richer than the Queen.

Of course, those visions of grandeur are generally beyond our control. Even if we follow the advice of every well-established writing productivity and personal self-help guru alive, we have to acknowledge that a number of things have to happen at the right times and in the right order. We can control how hard we work. We can control how focused on the craft we are. We can control how much we risk and how often we put ourselves out there for consideration. To an extent, we can control how we use our financial, physical, and emotional resources to pursue our paths to publication.

However, we can’t control where we started in life, our beginning cultural currency, the attitudes we were trained to and had to overcome, the beliefs we had to recognize were not useful, the dynamics of family and language that both support and limit us. We can’t control the coronavirus, the economic swings of the nation, the consolidation of publishers, changes in marketing attitudes toward various demographics groups, or the wind on the wings of the Peking butterfly.

Still, as one writing friend once told me, “Lightning can strike anyone, but it helps to put up a lightning rod.”

So, when writers meet to set our goals, we look for the things we can measure, execute within our limited awareness of the world, and pat ourselves on the back for achieving. We whittle away at the greater obstacles, and we hope the moment comes when the lightning rod of hard work and focused effort over time pays off by attracting a strike that powers us for our next sustained effort.

So why is it that as writers we create characters with agendas like, “She wants to feel respected by her culture?” Don’t get me wrong. I think that is an important theme, but it is pretty useless as a scene agenda.

When I talk about character agendas, I often parrot one of my teachers, James N. Frey, who said, “EVERY character on stage has an agenda they are trying to execute. Conflict is the execution of mutually exclusive agendas.”

My favorite scenario for describing this, which I may have gotten and modified from Jim, is the pizza delivery man at the door. In the scene, there are three characters. An assassin, the person who lives in the house, and the pizza delivery guy. The agendas are all working against one another:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
  • Homeowner wants the pizza guy to call for help.
  • Pizza guy wants to be paid for the pizza.

The stakes are life and death for the homeowner. The stakes are professional success/failure and maybe honor or several other intangibles for the assassin—perhaps even incarceration or death. The stakes for the pizza delivery person are minimum wages, tips, and maybe some distracting fantasy they have going on about someone else on their delivery list.

Which brings up another point.

If Pizza has some adolescent male otaku Japanese anime-driven fantasy about the hot schoolgirl he’ll be delivering too next, then he has another agenda that his current scene agenda contributes to. He wants to get paid so he can deliver the next to pizza to the object of his creepy obsession.

If Homeowner wants Pizza to call the police and live through the afternoon and, perhaps, get information about why someone is trying to kill them because their daughter will be devastated to lose another parent, they also have another agenda that their current agenda contributes to.

Assassin might also have an overarching agenda. Assassin wants to get finished, get paid, and move on to the next job so they can build a strong enough reputation to be able to pick and choose jobs that will let them influence the world order and eventually retire to a personal island in the Caribbean from which they believe they will pull world-wide political strings and usher in an age of greater peace and prosperity for all.

However, right now in this moment in this scene, knife to the skin over the homeowner’s kidneys, Assassin wants the pizza guy to go away. Right now, Assassin only wants privacy.

Right now, in this moment with the knife in their back and Pizza outside the door, Homeowner only wants Pizza to get a clue and call for help.

Right now, large veggie pie in hand, door open so they can only see Homeowner and not Assassin, Pizza wants to be paid and, if possible, tipped well—quickly.

The agendas are, to take a line from the gurus of goal setting, specific, measurable, and reasonably achievable. If achieved or not achieved, each agenda for each character has an immediate impact on the character’s wellbeing and life in the moment.

In the larger dramatic sense, each agenda also has an impact beyond the moment for all the characters on stage.

If Pizza gets what he wants, he’s off to the next delivery and his inevitable disappointment. Homeowner will not get what they want. Assassin will quite likely get what they want, but maybe not. The fight in the foyer is another conflict to play out.

If Homeowner gets what they want, they might survive and get information, but Pizza will not get what he wants. Assassin will not get what they want—at least not all of it. They may end up killing two people and losing the ability to slip away.

If Assassin gets what they want, Homeowner is dead. Pizza may or may not get what they want. Who knows? Perhaps Pizza will become an apprentice to Assassin.

The point for writers developing dramatic scenes is that:

“The more specific you are on agendas, the more proactive the agendas become and the stronger the scene becomes.”

If the scene opens with the setup described earlier and the writer sees each character agenda as something less specific, the potential of the dramatic moment changes radically. Starting with a vaguer agenda than discussed so far and moving toward the global, vague, more like a theme statements we get things like this:

  • Assassin wants to be the best assassin.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent.
  • Pizza wants to get a raise or something.

In this scenario, the Homeowner could be anyone. Pizza guy might be motivated to move quickly, so he could just drop the pie off and go. No reason not to if the ticket was paid over the phone or online. Homeowner might beg because they want to see their daughter, but the agenda statement doesn’t focus their choices to allow selection of a specific set of tactics beyond that. Assassin might see killing Homeowner and Pizza as becoming the “best assassin.” They might see killing one and getting away while people chase them as becoming the best assassin. There are a million “best assassin” possibilities here.

Let’s create broader, vaguer agendas further outside the dramatic moment.

  • Assassin wants to go on vacation.
  • Homeowner wants to be a good parent and chairperson of the HOA.
  • Pizza wants to go home and boost his buzz.

These agendas might be true, but they are not specific in the moment. The types of motivations this filter encourages don’t lend themselves immediately to tactic development.

If I’m Homeowner and chief among my concerns is that I want to be a good parent and head of the HOA, connecting parenting and HOA to evading assassin behavior is a stretch. It works for comedic effect, but in that case, it is actually quite specific and reveals the mental problems of Homeowner. Homeowner might be engaged with the assassin on the manager’s worst nightmare level of, “Do you know who I am? I’m the next manager of the HOA. Did Karen VanSitling put you up to this? She’s been after the chair for…”

Now, Assassin can kill them, and Reader will applaud. It’s all good.

However, Pizza might as well be an unused chair in this scenario.

Let’s get vaguer:

  • Assassin wants satori.
  • Homeowner wants the respect never received from their parents.
  • Pizza wants to rise to CEO of the franchise system.

Now, the agendas are bordering on themes that might be stated more like this:

  • Becoming a perfect killer is a type of enlightenment.
  • Adherence to early life rules and values never heals the wounded child within.
  • Ambition and diligence are the path to wealth and power.

These might be true in the story. Certainly, I’m not stating them as true in any context other than the context of a story. However, at the best they only provide nuance in the dramatic moment in a specific scene. These vague agendas/themes do not allow a writer to discover or design possible tactics for achieving an immediate result in-scene.

That said, a set of nested agendas such that each specific agenda is a contributor to a larger agenda might allow for development of details that would enhance the scene. This set of agendas might provide insight into exactly what each character would do in the moment. Assassin’s agenda might look like this:

  • Assassin wants to kill homeowner and slip away.
    • in order to build skills to become the best assassin.
      • in order to go on vacation.
        • in order to create spiritual balance.
          • in order to one day achieve satori through their art.

Suddenly, the blade at the kidneys will be held a specific way. The words whispered in the ear of Homeowner must be considered carefully in both context of the moment and in terms of how Assassin sees the moment in relationship to their higher-level aspirations. Consider how this cascade of agenda elements can affect a line like this one:

  • …pressed her back against the wall, using the door as a blind to cover her presence and the blade she held to Homeowner’s back…

If each layer influences the moment, the physical reality of the blade, the door, and the wall remain the same, but the language might change to something more like this:

  • Smooth, black silk slid between the skin of her back and the coolness of Homeowner’s stucco wall, and she brought her thoughts back from that distraction, returning her focus to the transience of breath, the inevitability of mortality at the point of her blade, and the rhythm of the pulsing jugular of Homeowner’s neck. A skilled assassin might see the vein’s rise and fall as a tell, but a Pizza delivery boy distracted by material gain, hormone-laden blood, and cold night air would not perceive the interconnections of life and death and knowing and unknowing in the words that would arrive on the wave of Homeowner’s next breath. Assassin found within the silence that gave a shape to the perception she would spend on those final, important words. Later, perhaps on the beach while meditating, she would savor the moment and seek the meaning within the words.

Homeowner said, “. . .”

Of course, I have made the leap to Assassin being the POV character. I’ll leave building the nested agendas of the other characters and writing the moment from their POV as a game to play later. The point here is that the agendas are nested. The outcome of the moment will have an impact on all the layers of each character’s beliefs and desires. To get the best result, the most immediate agenda—the desire of each character at this moment, in this breath, in this heartbeat—should be as specific as possible.

-End-

My Holiday Gift to Writers, by Eric Witchey

Sitting female teacher surrounded by school-aged childrenPhoto Source: iStock, diego_cervo.
Please pardon my abuse of form, line, and rhyme.

A Holiday Story

Eric Witchey

Twas three weeks until New Years, and Wrimo was done.

The revisions had started. They weren’t very fun.

Plot  stickies were strewn o’r the coffee-stained floor

And my phone was turned off. Ha! Ring nevermore!

I hated the tinsel, the red and green lights

That draped from my bookshelves and flashed in my nights

My pumpkins and witches, bones, and fake gore,

With my raven were stuffed in a box by the door.

My letters to Santa went out in e-mail.

“Buy my book. Leave reviews. It’s right here on sale.”

Santa ignored me. He did every year.

My stories lived only in ether, I fear.

A notice of email pinged on my box.

Damn, I forgot to shut off my intox.

Better than fixing a flaw in the plot,

I clicked on the notice with nary a thought.

“Mr. Writer, it started”—innocent enough.

“I read your last story and think it’s real buff.

It made me think of my mom and my dad,

And I couldn’t help wonder if you knew how sad

My parents are that I’m leaving real soon.

They’ll miss me. They love me. Please grant them a boon.

Stories are healing, though I can’t be healed.

A story for them, I hope that you’ll feel

Is worthy of time, of love and attention.

Please, when I’m gone, if you could just mention

Our names in a story about love and joy.

Remind them that they still love this small boy.

Remind them that love makes a life and a family.

If you could do this, that would be dandy.”

After I wiped away my sad tears,

I read the kid’s closing and let go selfish fears.

“Please do this for me,” the brave child said.

“Give them a vision of love when I’m dead.”

Now, Wrimo meant nothing. Revisions felt lame.

Only one thing mattered. Not fortune or fame.

Only the love that a story can weave

Into the hearts of the people we leave.

Stories are doorways, or windows, or paths

Into hearts and minds to do work as salves.

Distraction, or message, or battles with dirks,

Stories give healing for foibles and quirks.

By telling in paper, e-reader, or chant…

By ink or by stylus, by pen or by rant…

The word shamans’ duty since stories began–

To bring healing and peace to just one fan.

That letter to me, no Santa would read

Santas don’t write. They can’t plant a seed

Deep in the hearts of those who must heal.

Word shamans do that—we whom muses wield.

For a child who loves beyond life and reproach

To the pen, to the page, to the tale we approach.

The years that will come are made of our vision

One family from all should be our heart’s mission.

-End-

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prologue: I wrote this as a joke among friends in January. This week, I posted the original version as a thread on Facebook. Sadly, it was taken seriously. I’ve been full-time freelance since 1990. I have had wonderful experiences with editors, agents, publishers, and other writers. I’ve also had horrible experiences that include having work stolen, pirated, and used in ways I did not authorize and from which I did not profit. Buy me a scotch at a conference, and I’ll tell you horror stories. However, I will also require you to listen to the glorious moments that I have been privileged to experience. I know of no profession or job that does not include both good and bad experiences. Writing, more than most jobs, is a lifestyle profession. Please don’t take this seriously. Little bits are true. Other bits feel true to some people. However, that little bit of truth and feeling are mixed with lies and myths to create the following.

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

by Eric Witchey

2000:

  1. Learn the Craft.
  2. Write a good book.
  3. Get an agent.
  4. Sell the book.
  5. Go to signings and parties.
  6. Write another good book.

2019:

  1. Be really lucky, or….
  2. Establish financial support and freedom to pursue craft: husband, wife, trust fund, inheritance, poverty lifestyle, Patreon, GoFundMe, hut on a third-world beach, a diamond heist, etc.
  3. Choose a currently very popular genre. Base the choice on what you like to watch on TV.
  4. Read a few popular books in that genre so you can pretend to have read a lot.
  5. Learn enough of the language of craft any way you can to sound like you understand it when you are interviewed for webcasts or by Oprah.
  6. Establish credentials that prove you learned the craft: A couple honorary internet Ph.Ds or a six-week, low-residency MFA are good enough. In a pinch, Microsoft Certifications can be used. You can also purchase reviews, purchase awards, and pay someone to campaign for awards for you.
  7. Spend a few thousand dollars attending a conference and buying people drinks where editors and agents can be met and slowly befriended while you repeat this exercise 20 times a year to demonstrates that you have number 2 firmly in hand and can travel the country and world promoting and hand-selling the books a publisher might buy.
  8. Establish platform: Build, buy, or steal a mailing list of over 50k people, create or hire out author sites on all social media systems. Don’t worry. You don’t have to use them. You just have to have them so the marketing team can nod sagely and say that you have platform.
  9. Establish more platform: Create or hire out a successful YouTube channel, generate endless self-promoted appearances, hire a click farm to manipulate search engine hits on your name to exceed 500k, participate in lots of blogs and vlogs talking about you and your life as a famous writer.
  10. Write, or hire someone to write in your name, a book or series of books that: can be compared to two, but no more than three, extremely successful books or series so that marketing people can begin to believe they won’t have to work if they allow your book to be purchased by the publisher. However, be careful that your book or series is just different enough so that they have to change the cover art, blurbs, and press releases they used for the books you compared yours to. You can’t be too careful with marketing people.
  11. Get a famous author with film industry connections, say George R. R. Martin, to pitch your book or series to Netflix, HBO, or the Syfy Channel.
  12. Get an offer.
  13. Show the unsigned film offer to a publisher.
  14. Get an offer.
  15. Show the unsigned book offer to an agent.
  16. Sign with the agent.
  17. Let the agent sell the book to the publisher, which will require a new contract that gives the agent a higher percentage of all derivative products.
  18. Agent says, ” It’s a good contract. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  19. Let the agent’s film agent negotiate the contract for the film, which will require you to reduce your up-front and take points on net while the agent’s agent and the agent lock in a percentage of points on gross for themselves.
  20. Agents all say, ” It’s good. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  21. Go online and vaguebook about what might happen soon.
  22. Read the marketing instructions the publisher publicist assigned to your book has sent you. Realize it will be expensive to fly to go to signings and interviews in places like the independent bookstore in Brillton, North Dakota, pop. 1700. Note that the marketeers have committed to nothing except sending you the list.
  23. Ask for money for promotion. Marketing people say, “This is standard for our first time writers.” Agent says, “The money will come. Stay focused.”
  24. Take out a loan against your advance.
  25. Remain upbeat and plucky. Dutifully start the prescribed prepromotion for the book, but carefully adhere to contractual constraints and only hint at the pub date and possible film. Wouldn’t want to sour the deal or be considered hard to work with.
  26. Continue prepromotion for one to five years before you can announce the pub date and the film deal.
  27. Finally announce a publication date range that is intended to match the film release.
  28. Come up with an idea about merchandising. Publisher loves it. Realize that all merchandising revenue is owned by the publisher. It’s a good contract. Don’t overthink it.
  29. Politics and infighting end the film production.
  30. Production company declares bankruptcy.
  31. Agent says they can’t help.
  32. Agent’s film agent won’t return calls or emails.
  33. Hire an entertainment lawyer.
  34. Receive bill from lawyer for lots of phone calls, prework on lawsuit, and the final meeting in which you are told you are a creditor and won’t get paid.
  35. Publisher blames the story. They drop you just after you have delivered the second book, which you wrote in hotel rooms, vans, back alleys, and bookstores while promoting the first book and film. They cancel publication and demand the advance back.
  36. Agent blames the story. The second book, which you personally fought to get back from the publisher, “isn’t right for them at this time.” They drop you and tell you that you have to pay the advance back but won’t get their percentage back because they did their job and get paid for the work they did.
  37. Bookstores remainders your first book. Your name is forever associated with losses on their computer ordering systems. Even if you had another book, they wouldn’t order it because your name is on the cover and the last one lost money. However, they got paid for the books they sold and didn’t have to pay a dime for the books they didn’t sell. There’s that.
  38. You realize that you are the only one who does not get paid for the work you did.
  39. But wait. A huge company bought the assets of the defunct production company. The project is resurrected. The film is made. Hooray!
  40. You celebrate with a banquet for your sister and both your patient, supportive friends. The brewpub has never had it so good.
  41. The film burns bright in pre-release focus viewings. A novelization of the film goes to your former publisher. It tops out the NYT Bestseller List. Everyone gets paid except you because you were only a creditor to the first production company.
  42. Your accountant sends you a bill and a P&L that shows your net profit for the entire process is: -250k.
  43. The lawyer puts a lien on your house.
  44. Return to 1.

A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

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A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

Eric Witchey

Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.

The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.

In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.

For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.

Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.

I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.

Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.

Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.

She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”

“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.

“Make the scene ugly.”

Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.

Was I wrong? Of course not.

Was she wrong? Of course not.

“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.

“What kind of fiction do you write?”

Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.

When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”

That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.

I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”

Ha! Take that!

Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?

Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.

We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.

Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.

Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.

In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.

I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.

However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.

Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.

Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.

-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

 

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-

The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I recently attended a writer’s retreat where each morning after breakfast we’d sit around a large table, laptops open writing. The unique sound of many fingers hitting keys surrounded me. At some point in the morning, my coffee fueled brain kicked in and the end of a chapter began to unfold. In that moment I realized there was a specific rhythm to the tapping of my fingers against the keys. Is there anything more satisfying to a writer, than that very distinct sound when words naturally flow, revealing story, like the petals of a perfect flower opening?

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On the flip side, when all around me was silent and my own fingers lay frozen on the keys I yearned for the sound to return. Many things have been written about famous author’s choices of writing tools. But while sitting in the silence of that room I wondered if the actual sound created by the tool itself, if that sound might have aided in the words created.

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I recalled reading how Ernest Hemingway wrote on a typewriter while standing. What a visual it creates. But can’t you also hear the sound the keys made while striking the page to form each and every letter? Those old typewriters had a most distinct reverberation when the keys were struck. Could it have contributed to the intensity in his novels?

I wrote my first short story on an electric typewriter. To this day I can hear its soothing whir as it helped my words come forth.

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Then there are writers who compose with a ballpoint pen. I’m always in awe of them. I’ve tried it. For every page I filled to the margins, I salvaged maybe five useable sentences. The remainder, were rendered as blobs of ink marked through again and again. I realize now, it was the scratch of the pen on paper. The sound. To me, it is nails on a chalkboard. And yet, when writing a quick note to work through an anger issue I might have, a pen, is my perfect instrument of choice —oh, wait—I get it.

shakespeare-writing

Now let’s go back in time a little, to say, Shakespeare.   When I read his plays I know I will be immersed in the—to my ear—lyrical cadence of his words. They easily bring to my mind the visuals of his time; cobbled streets, thatched roofs, etc. But the other visual, I always have, is of a solitary man bent over a desk, quill in hand scratching words onto papyrus by the flickering of candlelight. Scratching, the scratching of the quills point against the porous page, seeing him having to stop and dip it into the inkpot again, and again. Could it have aided in the cadence of the words written? Would the same sentences have come forth, if perhaps he had at his disposal a graphite pencil? Heaven forbid he would have used it to erase, or replace, even one word of his poetic prose.

Now let’s go back even further to when words were carved into rock or stone. How precise must the writer have had to be before taking chisel in hand? Can you not hear the pounding as stone gave way to create a simple idea, word or visual of what the writer intended to convey? The crude instrument along with the sound it created. How could it not have shaped what was being written?

What sound does your chosen writing instrument make? If you changed it, would your writing change? If your writing could have the impact of Hemingway’s would you not gladly pound away on old typewriter keys?

Now I’m not suggestion you go out, with chisel in hand and find some stone. But then again—maybe I am. After all it does feel some days like that is exactly what we are doing, doesn’t it? Chiseling words from our brain and placing them carefully into our story. Now, I like the sound of that.

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