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-

A Writer Finds Hope Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I’m receiving varying messages through my artistic virtual channels.  Some of my friends are sheltered in place writing, and painting for hours on end.  Their creations, I am certain, will reflect the circumstances surrounding their current reality.  Those feelings, those never before felt nuggets, will flow through them onto a blank page, or canvas.  For some the message will be easily understood, in full display for all to see, while for others it will be hidden, like the Easter eggs I wish my grandchildren could be searching in my back yard on Sunday.

Then there are those who say they can’t seem to create a thing.  I hope for them to have clarity soon, because I find being able to immerse myself in any creative endeavor the best way to soothe my frantic nerves.

Unfortunately, I have not been sheltered in place.  But luckily, there are only a few of us working in the now closed facility, and we can easily manage the six-foot distances, and then some.  As a small business manager, I have been going to my quiet office and attempting to make sense of with the mountains of paperwork necessary to keep said business viable and able to reopen when allowed.  I hope to have dug myself out of this important task by next week. And like many of my creative tribe, I hope to be able to allow myself the grace to not force creativity, permitting it to instead flow easily, and at its own pace.

It seemed fitting since it’s National Poetry Month, and also because this poem begged to be written, that I carve out time to place it’s somewhat chaotic voice upon the page.  Is it the poem’s voice, or my own?  I leave you with these thoughts to ponder as you read on…

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C is for the many closets and cupboards which will be sorted and left spotlessly clean.

Who can sit to write when those cluttered spaces whisper and beg for a bit of much needed hygiene?

But rest assured, when all is put to order, your creativity will kick in.

The laptop, pen and paper,  will come out, and your writing will begin.

 

O is for the oath you took, once self-quarantined,

Yes, we all had this eloquent, if not, foolish dream.

To sit, and not get up until you’ve written at least a thousand words a day,

please for our own sanity, and those with whom you live, let that vow slip away.

I promise it will all be, okay.

 

R is for the mounds of reading you will undoubtedly get done.

Please don’t forget, when your massive pile is down to one, or none,

remember to support your local bookstores, in any way you can.

After all, when your books were published were they not your biggest fan?

 

This O is for those organizational skills not so readily seen, but who have now magically been awoken.

Those stories tucked in desk drawers and saved in computer files are calling to you. Send them forth, for they have spoken.

Now that it’s done, don’t you feel better?

No don’t begin to obsess over some phantom rejection letter.

 

N is for a different type of novel.  The one you’ve labored over for years, the one you know needs just one more revision.

Let’s let this one go.  Why, you can even call it your pandemic decision.

Think of the mighty fire it will create outdoors.

While you keep a six-foot distance as you roast yummy, melting, smores.

 

A is for all the other artistic skills you may possess.  Rip up that shirt or dress,

and make masks so those in need can stress, less.

Or what about planting something green, be it a flower or a vegetable.

Think of the accomplishment when you’ve grown something deliciously edible.

 

V is for the victory and validation you will feel,

when one of those stories comes back with a contract deal.

By then I’m certain you will be able to socially celebrate.

But if not, Zoom with willingly hook you up with at least one writing mate.

 

I is for the insecurities you will have as you sit quietly with all this time to think.

When it gets too much to bare, please call someone before you succumb to that 3rd or 4th  drink.

I is also for the abundance of imaginative stories and illuminating art that will be birthed from this pandemic.

I have been assured of this phenomenon by friends both alchemic, as well as academic.

 

R is for the formidable resilience each and every one of us will possess.

After we’ve come through this arduous cosmic test.

And what about all the budding new relationships that will be born,

as they visited virtual movie rooms, while eating popcorn?

 

U is for the Universal Unity which will ultimately defeat this foe.

Through our joint socially distancing efforts, we can, and will, stop its flow.

Then think of all the varying stories, from every corner of the world, we will write,

Of the time when human beings around the entire earth stood still, to fight.

 

S is for the symmetry this virus has allowed us to glimpse.

Dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals is not mere happenstance.

Where once there was death,

Mother Nature has been allowed to take a long, overdue breath.

Now it is up to we the human race to follow suite.

How do you feel about a socially sensible reboot?

 

What creative projects have you taken up, or completed as you shelter in place?

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Be Writing

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Don’t Be a Writer. Be Writing.

With thanks to WordCrafters in Eugene, where I teach Fiction Fluency.

by Eric Witchey

A little late. A lot busy. The life of a writer who has the privilege of working.

Freelance for thirty years in October has allowed me certain perspectives. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and fall to petty differences and self-righteous ideological splits. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and… Spawn careers. That was the important bit. The rest was just human beings being monkeys who think they have to hurt other monkeys to have enough bananas. It’s the bit before they start fighting over the tiny, useless, insignificant bananas that’s important—the part where they are banding together and writing.

I’ve seen poor writers rise out of poverty and return to it again. I’ve ridden that ride myself, though things are pretty good right now. I may be on the rise. I may be on the fall. Who can say?

A few people who have called me friend have decided I’m a lesser human because they achieved their vision of success. A few people who have called me enemy began to call me friend when I achieved their vision of success. I have looked down on other writers for not being whatever it was that I thought they should be that day, and I have railed against people who looked down on me for not being whatever they thought I should be that day.

Writers and readers have ridiculed my work because it is “only genre” and, equally, because it is “literary and not imaginative enough.” Just this morning, I received a rejection letter in which the editor said, “I loved reading the story and the sense of the innocent imagination of the child character, but I wanted more depth.” Another editor rejected the same story a couple months ago because, and I quote, “Children aren’t that deep.” In college, a professor attacked me for being a technocrat. In high-tech, engineers attacked me for being “just an English Major.” I’ve been shamed for working from home and raising children. I’ve been envied for working at home and raising children. If we are honest with ourselves, envy or condescension, it’s all the same. It’s fear. Fear that what I am is not enough and I should be like you; fear that I might become like you; fear that if I see you as legitimate I can’t get the bananas I want because my path is not like yours. Fear.

People have stolen my work. I have received email copies of my own articles, sans my name, from friends who said, “This guy thinks like you do.” Once, I managed to get paid for one of my stories that had been pirated. More often, pirates have taken my work and turned it into money for themselves without a thought to my life and my effort. In a seminar, many years ago, I heard a teacher say to a student who was carefully picking up copies of the story we had just analyzed, “Why are you picking them up?”

“I don’t want anyone to steal my story,” the student said.

The teacher laughed then said, “You should be so lucky that people want to steal your work.”

Thanks, M.K. Wren, wherever you are. I’ve never forgotten. I am that lucky.

I’ve known honest, helpful agents. I’ve know agents who were liars and thieves. My name has been on black lists and white lists. Companies have tried to ruin me. I’ve witnessed, and even uncovered, some very shady doings within government agencies and corporations. I even worked as a consultant for ENRON on the project that blew up in their faces. I discovered that a company I worked for was a coke ring. Another was a front for actual spies. Another . . . And another. . . And another. . . I learned that an editor who won’t sign their own contract is not worth the argument, and I learned that when someone says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business,” that they have never been hungry or lived under a bridge. They think there’s nothing personal about food, shelter, and feeding self and others.

Freelance for thirty years. A lot of stuff has happened. Awards. Money. Friends. Lovers. Fans. Detractors. As Vonnegut says, “So it goes.”

I get paid. I write. Sometimes, I’m asked to give advice to agencies, entities, executives, and even other writers. Generally, the advice is ignored until the issues hurt enough. That’s very human. I know I often can’t see or hear things I should until I’m desperate enough to seek change. If only I had listened. If only they had listened. If only I hadn’t listened. It’s not my fault you listened to me.

Through all the years, I write. Today, I finished reading a novel. I revised a document that will help bring clean water to a village. I also wrote a few pages of fiction that are, well, meh. A rejection came in. This essay happened. I wrote. I got paid. I did my job.

The rest is just noise in a wind that howls in the back of the mind.

My friends at the WordCrafters in Eugene, an organization I often support by teaching, have a motto, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” They have stickers that say that. I have one on the door to my office. It faces outward so I see it every day when I walk in.

Today, I was not a writer. I was writing. It was a good day.

It was good because the whole time I was writing, I felt no pain from my life. I even smiled and laughed. If someone stole my work, I didn’t know. If someone bought my work, I didn’t know. No rejections got read. No sick children or dying family broke into that magical space where vision and feeling merge to become words on the page. Food and shelter were worries to imaginary people who only live in my heart and mind and, with luck, in the hearts and minds of others someday. Political turmoil only existed as a theme. Liars and fools and all the various types of lesser people my righteous stupidity lets me believe exist in various moments all existed only as shadows and echoes far beyond the walls of my office and the light of my screen.

I was writing. I was, for a few blissful hours, what I was meant to be and what I have trained to be, and in the being of that writer, there was no striving or regret or fear or hope. Only the dream made word existed.

Writing cures everything if you are writing instead of being a writer.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

by Cynthia Ray

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Writing short stories, poetry and flash fiction is fun, interesting and doable for me.  Undertaking a longer work scares the pen off my pages, because the skills and commitment required for writing a novel are very different from those needed for the short story.  I didn’t realize exactly how different until I ambitiously started a novella over two years ago.  I spent a few months on the task, became bogged down in the middle, frustrated with myself and the process and in a self-induced state of embarrassment, shame and regret I quit writing.  I gave up on myself and the book.

once upon a time

Recently, inspired by a friend’s publication, I dug out my draft and read it again.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t  as atrocious and stinky as I remembered.  In fact, I liked it enough to finish it after all.  Now that I am re-engaged with the project, and recovering from my feelings about my wobbly process,  I wondered how long it takes for someone, who is not me, to write a book. Is there an average?  Is there a right answer?  Do people start and stop, and then start again?  Is the process consistent among authors?  As you would imagine, the answer varies wildly among authors.  That, too, gave me hope and inspiration to write on to the end of my project, no longer alone in my leaky canoe.

In the writers who “git r’ done” category:

  • Jane Austen, according to family tradition, began writing First Impressions, the novel we know today as Pride and Prejudice, in October 1796 at the age of 20. She completed it in August 1797, just 10 months later. (Has it really been 300 years and they are still making movies of this story?!!)
  • Victor Frankl wrote his amazing and inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, over the course of nine consecutive days, but he had thought about it for years during his time in the camps, and written it in his head.
  • It only took Charles Dickens six weeks to write a Christmas Carol- Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit helped speed up the process. When Dickens wrote he “saw” his characters much like the way that young Ebenezer Scrooge saw the characters from the books he had read.
  • Stephen King says that “”The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season,” he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.

But take heart, my slow writing friends. Look how long these famous books took to produce:

  • Melville’s tome, Moby Dick, took 18 months (but that was a year longer than he had planned).
  • Margaret Atwood took over a year, with starts and stops, to write the Handmaids tale.
  • JK Rowling worked on her first novel for more than six years.
  • George Martin also took six years to write Game of Thrones.
  • It took Tolkien more than 12 years to write Lord of the Rings, and he kept on tweaking his books even after that.

Finally, here is a short list of novels that took from 10 to 20 years to write.  Mine won’t take that long to finish.  I promise.  By the way, what are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be writing?!

the 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-

Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Words of Wisdom to Inspire

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Please read each word listed below individually.  Close your eyes and see the vision each word brings forth.  Is it not amazing how one word can paint a vivid picture in your mind?

Joy—Peace—Love—Explore—Magic—Laugh

Depression—War—Despair—Fear—Cry

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We writers use words daily to paint pictures in reader’s minds.  We also use them to inject the remainder of the senses: sound, taste, smell, touch.  But what are the other uses for the tiny insect looking expressions of language which magically flow from our brains, through our fingers, and on to a page, or computer screen?

Words, the right sequence of words, when read at the right time as evidenced above in the few I’ve listed, can fill us with hope or bring us down to the dark depths of despair. The world in which we live at various times in history has plunged entire populations over the cliff of despondency.  Thus, I am using my blog today to give examples of how I’ve chosen to use words, in my own humble way, to help alleviate some of said gloom.

At any turn in our lives each and every one of us are in need of inspiration, positive reinforcement.  In every aspect, be it personal, work related or in the midst of an artistic block when our muse is silent, a few simple words can help to move us forward.   Give us that much needed shove to get over the hump, see the sunshine through the fog, or simply get out of bed.  For myself one of the ways I gather encouragement is through positive/inspirational quotes.

My first venture in to this realm began years ago with a deck of affirmation cards called Positive Vibes.  I pick two to four at random monthly and place them on the mirror where my morning rituals begin.  It is surprising, and then again perhaps not, how on the mornings when I would prefer to climb back in bed and pull the covers over avoiding life one of those cards tells me exactly what I need to hear.  I then carry it like a mantra throughout my day.

In my work life (as a business manager) I tuck one of the many inspirational note cards I’ve collected in each employees monthly paycheck.  I am always seeking new, fresh cards.  These cards are small tokens of knowledge discussing topics from Joy, to Dreams, to Being Thankful, to Being Successful.  I started this practice over ten years ago.  Only once did I run out of the note cards.  Unfortunately I had no time to replenish them, so no words of wisdom fell from my co-workers envelopes when opened.  I received many more comments of disappointment around not receiving those small tokens than I’d ever received over a missed hour or two of time worked, but not reflected in their pay. Now, I make certain I always have a surplus.

In another area of day to day life called social media, we encounter many negative comments. However, I’ve also found a plethora of not only inspirational stories, but also those positive quotes I seek out daily.  In turn, I personally attempt to post at least one inspirational quote a week.  I also pull some of these quotes off the internet, print them, and hang them in my art studio.  They are hung like precious clothes on a line, and interchanged often.

In the vein of all of the above I have collected some positive quotes on this solitary art form we’ve chosen called writing.  I hope you find them helpful.  I hope you print some of them, cut them out and place them where they will be seen when most needed.

What is your favorite inspirational quote?

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