A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

Interview – Author Bonnie Stufflebeam

 

 

Bonnie

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

ArtShow

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

Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.

windmill

For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

Immersed In Voices

by Christina Lay

Today’s post is dedicated to a gentleman I met at a writing conference who proudly told me that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want his voice to be influenced by other writers.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

If you are alive and moving through society, you are influenced by writers, whether you read or not. You’re influenced by the stories you heard as a child, by the television and movies you’ve watched, by songs on the radio, speeches you’ve listened to, graffiti glimpsed through a train window, poetry carved on tombstones and conversations overheard. Voices are everywhere. They creep into our mental milieu and join the babble, for good or ill. You can’t stop it. To try is just silly. Nor should you want to. It’s a little bit like a visual artist deciding to walk around with their eyes closed because they don’t want their vision to be influenced by what they see. While you might be intent on being a total original, shutting out the world, especially the art form in which you seek to express yourself, is a way to grow stifled and dull, not fresh and exciting.

I was thinking about this because I recently found myself strongly influenced by the voice of a writer I was reading. Before you get the wrong idea, no, this was not a case of stunningly artistic and meaningful prose that shook me to my core and made resolve to write nothing but lofty and truthy literature from this point forward. No, the book in question was a snarky fantasy involving a hornless gay unicorn and a sexually aggressive dragon (The Lightning Struck Heart by TJ Klune). It influenced me because it made me laugh and yes, I did suddenly find my characters wanting to be so much more witty and unrestrained. I paused and wondered if I was guilty of copying the writer I’d enjoyed. He certainly influenced the tone of what I was doing, but I think the main effect was more akin to a barrier broken, a buried voice uncovered, a repressed impulse given permission to unfold.

I remember when I first read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. I thought I’d been handed the key out of writer hell. At last I discovered that yes, you can be both silly and good. You can let your inner crazy out and people like it. You don’t have to be serious, emulate Hemingway (when you’re trying to conform to the accepted ideal, it’s emulate, not copy, btw), squash playfulness and grimly grind out perfectly diagrammed, perfectly original sentences in order to be a respectable Author with a capital A.

So after reading this writer, characters started gabbing away in my head, saying whatever came to mind, and instead of deciding that it was all too silly and shall we say, risky, I hurried to my desk and wrote down whatever they had to say. I didn’t censor them, much. I found a character who seemed like a long lost friend and two weeks later, I have an 18K novella out of it.

In this case, I believe what I found in another writer was a deeply felt need to play at the keyboard again. Odds are, you don’t know what you need, so filtering out possible influences is simply self-defeating. This doesn’t apply to writing only, but to any place where people are expressing themselves. It might be a song or an essay, or it might be, God help us, a Facebook status update. Because that’s where a lot of people without any other platform are expressing themselves. Don’t hide from it. Even the words and opinions we don’t like are informative, maybe especially so.

Other voices inspire us. They inform us. They show us what we didn’t know was possible, or remind us about what we’ve forgotten. The more “other” the better, in my opinion. The purpose of writing is communication, but communication is a two-way street. How can we hope to reach an audience, any audience, if we’re not willing to listen?

 

 

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

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.

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The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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