Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir


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.

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.



For the love of…

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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

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

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

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

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


For the Love of a Cold Heart

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



For the Love of the Universe

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



For the Love of Clouds

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



For the Love of a Music Continue reading

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog


(Image Source: By Golden Trvs Gol twister –
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

Eric Witchey

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

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

We became inseperable.

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

I couldn’t do it. I kept him.

Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interview – Author Bonnie Stufflebeam




In this month’s interview, I’m delighted to introduce you to Bonnie Stufflebeam.  I met Bonnie in a writing group, and have followed her writing and projects since then.  Her work is often moving, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Bonnie’s fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 magazines such as Clarkesworld, Hobart, and Lightspeed. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Prize. Her audio fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters was released from Easy Brew Studio in April 2016, and she is also the founder of Art and Words, a collaboration of art and fiction.  Her most recent online publication is “Secret Keeper” in Nightmare, which is a tribute to Phantom of the Opera set in a high school theater

Bonnie, would you tell us about your writing?

I write fiction of a fabulist/fantastical variety, anything from what Scott Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies calls literary adventure fantasy to dark fantasy to science fiction to stories with a more literary sensibility that still have some sort of fantastical element. I love re-working myths and fairy tales especially. I also love playing with all the elements of fiction.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve been telling stories since I was a kid. I used to write and illustrate books about my cat April’s adventures (she got lost, coughed up a hairball, rescued an alien stuck in a tree, usual cat stuff). Angsty poetry is the only way I survived middle school. I got serious about fiction in college—that’s when I developed a routine and started reading like a writer—and started publishing in 2012, while I was getting my MFA.

I’m very self-driven. I want to be a writer and have always wanted to be a writer, so I work hard to be a writer (and some days are more difficult than others, of course). I also have lofty dreams that are really outside of my control when it comes to reaching them, and those dreams can be motivational but also distracting. I try to keep a good balance of hopefulness and practicality when it comes to motivation.

What kind of stories have special meaning for you?

I’ve always loved stories for that sense of connection with another person I get when reading them. My favorite stories are those that make me realize something about the world or about myself or the ones that remind me that I’m not the only one who feels a certain way or has had a particular experience. I write because stories have been so important to me, and I want people to connect to my stories the way I’ve connected to stories.

I write a lot about family. My family is a huge force in my life, so I tend to gravitate toward stories about the complicated nature of familial relationships. I write a lot of metaphors for alcoholism and addiction and depression. I write a lot about queerness and sexuality in general. I grew up bisexual in a smaller Texas town. Those formative experiences feature in a lot of my writing.

 What is the hardest thing you have ever written? 

One of the first novels I wrote and then revised, which didn’t end up selling. It was difficult, as a short story writer, to not only sustain a narrative over such a large length but then to revise that narrative. Revision has always been one of my weaknesses. I’m still learning from novel-writing, as I’m still trying and am still in the dark about so much of it. But I’m starting to understand certain things about plotting and follow-through in such a large work.

In addition to your fiction, you have done some fascinating projects and collaborations with art and writing.  Can you tell us about your annual Art and Words Show-Art on the Boulevard? 

The Art & Words Show started as a project during my MFA program at Stonecoast. For one of my assignments, I decided to put on a show that would combine literature and art. I researched various collaborations between writers and artists throughout history. For the show itself, I put out an open call for submissions. I accepted 11 visual artists and 11 writers based on the work they sent me and took one work from each of them. Then I had each writer choose a piece of the visual art I’d accepted to use as inspiration for a poem or story. The visual artists then chose a poem or story from the work I’d accepted and used it as inspiration for a work of visual art. This resulted in 22 pairings of art and words, hence the name of the show.

This year, with a reception on October 7 at Art on the Boulevard in Fort Worth, will be Art & Words’ 6th year. I’ve slowly improved upon the show in small, practical ways. For example, at first I had no word limit for the stories. But some of them were so long that no one had time to read them at the show. Now I try to keep them to one page-length. And then there’s a few things I wish we could still do that we did in those first years; I ran a Kickstarter for the first year, so we had some money for set-up and could also pay musicians to play. We don’t have the budget to do that anymore. Otherwise, I’d say that every year I get more and more submissions, which means that I’m able to feature more people who haven’t done the show before, which is great.  You can find more about it HERE


Can you tell us about Strange Monsters, your project involving music and fiction?

Strange Monsters was a collaboration I did with my partner, Peter Brewer. Peter’s a jazz musician, composer, and recording engineer, and we wanted to do something creative together. We hired local actors to read some of my flash fiction, then he wrote jazz compositions for each story. We hired local musicians to record the music, which Peter then mixed with the words. We released the whole thing as an album. All the stories dealt with women making their own way, eschewing other people’s expectations of what they should do or how they should act.

Yes, I particularly enjoyed “Stink of Horses” in this collection. Listening to it was a surprisingly visceral experience. 

Thanks.  The most fun part of this project was getting to work with so many awesome creative people. It’s always surprising to hear someone else’s interpretation of my writing, and I got to hear it translated into music. I’ve always been a huge music lover, so that was really rewarding.

So, music and art are strong influences in your work.

Yes, I’m inspired by other art forms. I’m totally absorbed by music and art, and a lot of my story ideas come from my experiences with both. I would say that my writing has gained depth from my interactions with other art forms. As one person with a limited set of experiences, I can pull from those experiences to write.

 Has your writing changed as a result of the work you have done with other artists?

For the first few years of writing seriously, I wrote autobiographical stories. By opening myself up to the work of other artists, letting their experiences in, I’ve gained a lot of empathy for other people’s experiences, and that empathy has allowed me to better put myself in the shoes of characters who may share some of my qualities but who have lived different lives.

How do you see collaboration between artists contributing to the ongoing conversations about pressing social issues?

When people create together, they’re communicating with another person on a pretty personal level, which can lead to an increase in empathy toward that other person and an increased ability to empathize in general. A lot of artists—not all, of course, but a lot—are open-minded people. I love it when open-minded people get together and share ideas in order to make new things. I think more of that can only be helpful when confronting communication barriers and organizing against the bullshit of our current world.

But of course it takes more than communicating to get things done, so I’m definitely not advocating artistic collaboration as a one-stop strategy to bolster consciousness and conversation about social issues. It’s important to do whatever else each person can do: march against intolerance and injustice, vote with your dollar and on Election Day, write letters, make calls, and offer support. But art can be therapeutic, as well, as can social interaction, and I say if you want to make some collaborative art as a part of your resistance, why the hell wouldn’t you?

So true!  Bonnie, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel. Once that’s finished, I’d love to write some more short stories, as I haven’t been able to work on those lately. They’re my first love, and I miss them.

Thank you for your time, Bonnie.  Best of luck to you in your ventures.  

Find Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Website or on Twitter

Strange Monsters: a Music & Words Collaboration, out now | Preview the tracks here

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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.




What The World Needs Now

by Christina Lay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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

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

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