Realerism: Why Does This Story Feel More Real Than That One? By Eric M. Witchey

Realerism Redux

Source: pboehringer. Purchased under license @ istockphoto.com for use in this blog.

Realerism: Why Does This Story Feel More Real Than That One?
By Eric M. Witchey

Text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing dramatic timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.”

I’m writing this the weekend after Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for my many writing friends, and I’m especially thankful for people who ask me questions that help me think about what I do and how I do it.

This week, Chris Pence, one of my online writing buddies, asked me a question that got me thinking. A while back, Chris read my original ED ACE article from Writer’s Digest, and he’s been working with that tool for a while. As most writers know, if you work with any specific technique for a while, you find its edges and new questions to ask. This week, Chris asked me about the illusion of realism. Specifically, he said, “I’ve been re-reading Stephen King lately, mostly early stuff, and I’m struck with how realistic he was able to make those stories feel. Too many stories I read never quite shed the “fiction” feel. What advice do you have on increasing the realism in a story?”

Before answering, focusing on two things in this question is important. First, Chris is asking about “feel.” Second, he is asking about the reader’s experience rather than the concept of realism as it is used in literary criticism.

The question is simple enough, but the answers are complex.

Note the plural of answer.

The factors that mix in order to create or detract from a sense of realism are myriad.

First, consider that each reader brings their genetics, early life imprinting, personal history, family culture, community culture, regional culture, national culture, religious background, gender experience, sexual experience, travel experience, etc. to their reading. Therefore, realism for one reader is different than realism for another. In Jungian terms, while there are culturally recognizable archetypal images and symbols, each specific image and symbol has its own much more particular meaning for any one individual. In fact, Jung believed that it was not possible to decode an individual’s relationship to their own symbolism until extensive personal history and background had been fully understood. As writers, we don’t get to sit down with each reader and explore their background. We get to write from our experience and with a general sense of our audience’s experience in mind. If we all wrote the same way, from the same experience, and with the same sense of the symbolic, we would all have the same audience. Luckily, we don’t.

The written word, in fiction, is a guided meditation–a sort of hypnosis–in which the writer is the guide and the text is the voice the guide uses.

The reader begins with trust that allows them to slip into the illusion. In fact, the opening of a book is a ritual of trust. If the writer does nothing to violate that trust, readers allows themselves to be immersed in the experience. Once the writer violates the trust, the reader breaks free from the illusion.

Realism, in the case of Chris’s question, is a term that describes the reader’s ability to completely believe in the experience of the reading.

If the above is all true, which is debatable, then the mix of techniques employed by the writer interacts with the set of experiences and expectations of the reader to create a completeness of belief—a feeling of realism.

So far, none of what I have said is particularly helpful to a writer attempting to place little black squiggles on a white background and call it a story. Execution is very different from theory. However, the above is important to understand in terms of background for what follows.

Here’s a piece of the execution side of realerism.

For me, and I stress that this is a description of my experience, the sense of the piece being “a piece of fiction” lingering in the background results from slight violations to my sense of immersion as a result of character depth, timing, and attributions. This is a fairly simplistic description, but those three things can be used as categories for larger and more complex subjects. However, it is important to keep in mind that many more factors can influence the reader’s belief in the fictive dream. For example, I won’t be talking about objective correlative, clinching details, telling details, concrete imagery, and many other things.

Traditionally, narrative immersed in character experience is called “close subjective narrative.” Personally, I prefer the more descriptive phrase, “reader experiencing through the character filter.” What I mean by that is that every moment and everything in the story within the perception of character is selected and interpreted based on character psychology, physiology, social history, emotion, and agenda. That experience and observation is grounded in the sensory and reactionary experience of the character.

You can say:

He felt the warmth of the sun on his cheek and wondered why she had left so abruptly. No matter. He would find her that evening at her mother’s house and prove his love.

Note that the character in question has a sensory experience. He has emotion, curiosity followed by determination. He considers and decides. The lines can be mapped to the ED part of ED ACE. The character has an Emotion that drives a Decision.

Aside: For people not familiar with ED ACE, it is an acronym for an emotional logic cycle that often functions in the mind of the reader as they experience story: Emotion drives Decision, which results in Action, which initiates Conflict, which results in a new Emotion. The new Emotion initiates the next cycle. I’m sorry, but I don’t have space here to provide a more detailed exposition of the concept and how it can be used and abused.

However, the sun on the character’s face may not have anything to do with his deeper psychology and emotion. Consequently, the reader will feel that he is false–not real—because he is paying attention to something that violates the reader’s internal sense of who that character is and how they “would” behave in this moment. Additionally, he is “feeling” the sun, which means that the reader is not in his skin experiencing the world through him. This creates another level of distance that is “unreal.”

Here’s a revision of the lines. This time, I’m making the world something that is experienced through the selection caused by his truer emotion and interpreted from the perspective of his specific psychology and emotional state.

He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. This heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.

He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Heading through the forest toward the parking lot, he kicked through the fern-choked undergrowth, imagining himself a god striding through delicate ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying.

She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.

Okay, what has happened is that every object in the experience of the character has taken on significance to him in the context of the emotional experience he is living through. A small amount of back story created contrast between an earlier life innocent state and a current obsessive, tainted state.

This is what I mean by depth of character. Every detail that is selected, recognized, interpreted, and experienced by character is a result of the character’s psychology and their emotional state and agenda in that moment of the story.

Strained Example: Given the above character in setting, consider how the reader would respond to the following.

He had loved the summer sun warming his cheeks when they had played on Aunt Sophie’s beach as a children, but this sun, the sun of the midland forests, was an insult to life and love. The white sand back then had been a mystery, and he had more than once set out to count all the grains on the beach. Once, he had even tried to take a bucket of sand in to the kitchen table so he could count grains while it was raining outside. Of course, nobody had helped him at the time, and his mother had gotten angry. Luckily, his sister had been willing to help him clean up the mess. Now, the heat in his cheeks raised his hackles and made unwelcome goose flesh crawl up his arms.

He abandoned their driftwood bench, rejecting any place where she had turned her cold cheek to him. Kicking through the fern-choked undergrowth, he imagined himself a god striding through the ice castles in her heart. The crack and slap of each frond was another wall falling, another defense against him dying. Each fern matched his sense of order in the way that fiddleheads and fronds confirmed nature’s use of the Fibonacci sequence. It would have been good to sit down and unwind a few fiddleheads just to count the curls and see the numbers and symmetry. He supposed that he wouldn’t be able to explain that to a poet or a songwriter, but what did he care about people like that?

She could not hide her heart from a god. Tonight. Tonight at her mother’s house he would make her understand his love.

In this example, the reader’s sense of character is either strained or broken because the interpretation of the images contradict one another in terms of their support for his emotional state and psychology. Because they are not quite resonant, they also create a violation in the reader’s sense of timing. Even though a case could be made that the passage on Fibonacci reinforces his obsessive nature, such a passage strains the reader’s sense of belief in how he “should” think and behave if he is experiencing the suggested emotions.

Now, a few words about timing.

Each genre has expectations. Story is story, but the mix of techniques for rendering story changes from genre to genre. On a more subtle level, the mix of technique also changes from writer to writer. Timing is a function of the way in which the writer provides narrative content, character experience, conflict, and detail. When the timing is right, the reader never considers the components of story in any way. When the timing is off, the reader becomes aware of the words and how they are organized on the page. While the writer can manipulate timing, they cannot control the reader’s sense of how the timing should be managed.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Once I got used to the language, I was able to read (insert classical author name here).” For me, that’s an apt description of how I feel when I read Tolstoy, Jane Austin, or Henry James. I have to get used to the rhythm of the narrative and the movement of narrative distance in and out of character experience. I have to get used to the flow of the syntax that was used at the time the tale was written. Only after I choose to spend some time reading such stories do I relax into the experience of the worlds they render for me.

Consider if in the passages above the character had, in addition to considering fiddleheads and Fibonaci, waxed poetic on the carpet of fall leaves beneath the ferns and the way in which some were already damp and rotted while others were caught in fern fronds as if immune to the natural mortality of the earth and the cycle of life. Imagine if he had moved from that little internal essay into an assessment of his own relationship to the woman in question and how she wanted him to be a damp, moldering leaf while she remained green, and full of life on the tree as if the coming winter were a mere inconvenience. . ..

This type of introspection might function well for one type of reader. They might consider it quite wonderful and part of the realism of the psychology of the character. Another reader (me, for instance) might consider it overwritten crap that gets in the way of the truer, more terse interior truth of character. For me, the timing would suck, and I would stop reading after one or two passages like that.

Interestingly, however, I would not stop listening if the book were in audio form and the reader were accomplished. Different input experiences create different tolerances.

In the timing category, issues of presented detail during the Decision in the ED ACE cycle and narrative overburdening of the E tend to be where problems demonstrate themselves. In fact, in terms of ED ACE, the decision is often implied by emotion and context in order to manage timing and not violate the reader’s sense of realism.

Timing problems also often result from inconsistency in how the E and moments are handled. If the character is prone to the poetics described above, the writer has to be careful to make sure that the poetics occur when action, conflict, and emotion are equal in tension and speed. When, for instance, action is frantic, the poetics will disappear to an extent. In a moment of peace prior to a reversal, the poetics might go on for a while in order to create the idyllic lull that will be violated by the coming plot turn.

So, what about attributions? Most writers develop a sense of when to, and when not to, use dialog attributions (he said, she said). If at all possible, I like to allow scene business, character action, diction, and dialog implications to provide attribution. These techniques help keep the reader in the experience of the dialog. Of course, it is not likely that a writer will get rid of all dialog attribution.

In the same way, sensory attributions are occasionally necessary. Example of sensory attribution:

He felt the heat of the sun on his cheek.

He felt, saw, heard, tasted, wondered, etc….

All of these are sensory attributions.

A common error in developing writers is constantly, and without reason, narrating at a level outside character. One of the markers for that type of narration is sensory attribution. If “he felt the heat,” then the narrator is watching him feel it, which means the reader is experiencing it second hand through someone telling them about it. Refer back to the second passage above in order to see how the “felt” got replaced with direct experience and interpretation that was more true to character psychology, desire, and immediate experience.

These sensory attributions are, at times, necessary. However, text that relies entirely on them always “feels like fiction.” In addition, scenes that only allow the reader to “see” the scene and not to smell it, hear it, feel it, taste it, and have an emotional sense of the ambiance also cause the reader to feel outside the reality of the story.

So, text that evokes the heart, history, and physical experience of character while managing timing and avoiding reminders that the story in the mind of the reader is actually coming from text on the page tends to “feel more real.” Of course, how real depends on the skill of the writer and the mix of personal characteristics and expectations that the reader brings to the text.

-End-

There’s more to the story….

magic-book

By  Cynthia Coate Ray

Last week Liz Cratty gave us the recipe for a story: an interesting setting, an interesting conflict, and an interesting protagonist. Of course, being in possession of an excellent recipe doesn’t necessarily make us excellent cooks.

Sure, there are techniques, rules and form. We can talk about grammar, diagramming sentences and character arcs, but those are not the story. Even when we add them all together with setting, conflict and protagonists and antagonists, those are no more the story than a woman is only muscles, bones and hair.

So what is the special something that goes beyond the parts and pieces to make beautiful and compelling stories? What makes it whole? What is it that breathes life into the story? It can only be the writer. Each of us has a powerful magic that resides deep inside of us, alive and waiting to be released in words. The magic is your own way of looking at the world.

The particular story can only come through you-you and no one else. Sometimes we are afraid of that power, of owning our truth. It can’t be validated by anyone else. No one can tell you what it feels like, what it looks like or how it should be.

We are told to embrace what makes us unique, strange, weird, and special. Our very brokenness-that is where the power is. That is where the magic is. That is where the story comes from. Light reflects through the facet of a jewel. Your story reflects through the facet of your soul.

So to be a good writer, learn the recipe, and then forget it. Dig deep into your magic core and let it flow through your fingers onto the page.

Rejected!

By Cynthia Ray

Like the man in the video, a recent form letter rejection rocketed me into a worm-hole of dejection, depression, and lethargy. This gray soup of self-pity, anger and bitterness lasted for five very long minutes before I talked myself down,  but it made me consider better ways to handle the inevitable rejection.

First of all, even reading the definition of REJECT makes one feel bad:

Reject: verb \ri-ˈjekt\

  1. To refuse to believe, accept, or consider (something)
  2. To decide not to publish (something) or make (something) available to the public because it is not good enough
  3. To refuse to hear, receive, or admit : rebuf
  4. To cast off

Hmmpf!  Let us reject the definition of rejection. It turns out that rejection is part of the publishing cycle, and has nothing to do with whether the manuscript is good enough. It is part of the natural and inevitable consequence of the act of submitting manuscripts. As spring follows winter, publication will follow rejection as long as you don’t give up.   We are in excellent company when rejected. A post from Writers Relief give some illuminating stats:

  • John Grisham’s first novel was rejected 25 times.
  • Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) received 134 rejections.
  • Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) received 121 rejections before it was published and went on to become a best seller.
  • Gertrude Stein spent 22 years submitting before getting a single poem accepted.
  • Madeline L’Engle received 26 rejections before getting A Wrinkle in Time published—which went on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 20 times before being published and becoming a cult classic.
  • Stephen King received dozens of rejections for Carrie before it was published (and made into a movie!).*
  • James Lee Burke’s novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years and, upon its publication by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

How can we stay motivated to keep sending out stories in spite of the ugly spectre of rejection?  

Celebrate!  You only have a rejection because you sent a story out. One critique group I know hands out candy to any member who announces a rejection. They believe that rejections are a wonderful sign that you are writing, submitting and going about the business of being a writer. Why not have your reward planned in advance so that when the rejection comes you can pull out that hidden bar of exotic chocolate. And, of course, keep a bottle of champagne on hand to celebrate eventual acceptance.

Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s often not even about your story. It’s about editors preferences, who else might be submitting, the time of day your story rose to the top of the pile or whether the editor had a fight with her partner that morning.

Don’t change the story. Writers are sometimes tempted to mess with their story every time it is rejected to see if they can make it better. Don’t do it. You thought the story was good enough to submit. It still is. Send it out again.

Plan to be persistent. Liz Cratty advises writers to make a list of ten possible markets for their story. Then send it out. If it is rejected, send it out THE SAME DAY to the next market on the list.  When you get to the bottom of the list make ten more and keep going until the story is published.

Always have several stories out at one time. You will always have something to look forward to if one is rejected.  And statiscally, writers who publish are writers who submit. A lot!

Talk to other writers. Their personal stories of rejection will make you laugh cry, and feel like you are part of a tribe. No one is alone on the planet of “Rejected”.   I know that my fellow bloggers have all experienced REJECTION and used it to become better, stronger and more committed.  That is, once they had picked themselves up from the fetal position they were lying in.

Persephone Emerging

by Christina Lay

Like Persephone, five days out of every week, I descend into darkness, into a cold, lifeless world where the bright shining flowers of my creative life seem but a distant dream.

The darkness has a name and it is called “the day job”.

The thought came to me as I was toiling (I rarely get thoughts while on the dark side of my journey) that when I go to work, I leave my authentic self behind. Immersed in a world of numbers, inventory, and hushed retail panic, hidden away in the dim corner that I’ve come to know as “the bunker”, the playful, bizarre rantings of my writer’s mind vanish, repressed by the thoroughly uncreative reality of bookkeeping.

For one blessed month this summer, I roamed a twilight in-between realm called “unemployment”.   Despite being required to appease the grim guardians of the weekly dole, I found this place to be heavenly, for in it I discovered the magical element of Time. Sweet, wondrous, delectable Time.

In that month I completed and submitted a novella, which I sold last month.

In a suspicious twist I found that I could sit and write for ten hours without blinking an eye, relaxed, happy, hell bent on productivity. This is in contrast to my self in the underworld, where I develop an expression much like a mole sucking on a lemon, with my shoulders raised to my ears, my back rounded, my vision blurred, succumbing more completely to pain and severe annoyance with every passing minute.

None of my co-workers have any idea that I am anything other than a mole sucking on a lemon. For in their world I move as a shadow, completely separate from the true self lest the authentic me becomes trapped in the mire along with the poor soul who owes part of her life to the day job, the other who partook of the persimmon seeds named Buying a House and Running Up Credit Card Debt.

There are some benefits to this separation of self from wage slave. When I’m not frolicking in the realm of unlimited fiction, Bloggish Thoughts return. I think about process. I think about how addicted I am to writing. I feel compelled to bitch about things publicly.

Also, when I am able to revel in the hard won reward of Time, I take to the page like someone crawling out of the desert takes to water. There’s no hemming and hawing about what to do with Time. Unfortunately this has made me somewhat unbalanced, somewhat desperate. There is a lack of balance in this type of existence, because I’m loath to let a moment go by without attending to the story. Play falls away as well as chores. The hundred year briar thorns devour my house while I spin at the keyboard.

There are certain dubious allies in my life who laugh at me when I whine about working in the “real” world. What they don’t understand is this loss of self, this shutting down and turning off of the spigot required in order for the writer to function in the bookkeeper’s world, or the dread that without constant tending the dream will die. I leave my treasure, my story, behind, unguarded, like a babe in the woods, ready to be devoured by indifference, exhaustion and the compelling urge to zone out in front of the TV.

Weighed down by darkness, I play a game with myself where I wonder what it would be like not to be obsessed with a dream and then I laugh, sometimes cry, because that would mean living underground full time, away from the sunlight of imagination. The trick, the answer to the riddle, is to never forget where to find the light. To never think that the filthy lucre for which I toil is the end goal or the ultimate reward. The elixir is the dream and the ability to keep walking toward it without ever looking back.

To The Exit by Soe Than Htike

To The Exit by Soe Than Htike

 

Fasten Your Seatbelt, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

By Stacy Allen

This week heralds the launch of my debut novel, Expedition Indigo. Those in the stands cheering me see my public persona: the happy, gregarious and friendly author who wants nothing more than to love everyone and everything. The reality is that anyone who has traveled the road to publishing understands how long, curvy, bumpy and dangerous it is. If you want to be a published novelist, put on your seatbelt and settle in for a very long journey. It has taken me over ten years to get this book published. Ten years.

Once we get to this published stage, it is generally frowned upon to speak of the negative aspects of authorship. We writers all laugh and joke about it, but in the dark recesses of bars and pubs, soothed by liquid courage, we commiserate with one another about the murky underbelly of publishing. We share our personal journeys with our writing brothers and sisters because we all speak the same language. And our personal journeys are not all that dissimilar.

Writers constantly hear “Write something you know. Write something that’s different. Write something that hasn’t been done.”

And so I did. I wrote an adventure novel about a female archaeology professor, and someone who is given a mission to go beyond the life she knows into a life she wants. Riley is absolutely confident when she is wearing the hat of a professor or an archaeologist. She wants more, she craves more. She is just afraid of more. She is afraid of failure. She is afraid of change. But she is courageous. Despite her fear, she forges ahead and hopes for the best.

Perfect, right? This hadn’t been done before, right? A thriller about SCUBA diving and treasure hunting? With a woman as the protagonist? I thought it was a sure fit and the publishing world would be scrambling to snatch up my series and pay me a zillion dollars at the same time.

Here’s what happened. They didn’t like Riley. They loved the story. They loved the action. They didn’t like Riley. They thought my dialogue crisp and realistic. They didn’t like Riley. They loved the international setting. They didn’t like Riley. They wanted more Abruzzi brothers and less Riley. Why? Because they didn’t like Riley!

Wow. When editors, agents, and even some early readers don’t like your main character, you’re dead in the water. Feedback came in. I made changes. I made tweaks. But I really wanted Riley to be female. And I wanted her to be vulnerable, but I didn’t want to her to be so vulnerable that she was the one that had to be rescued in the end. I wanted a heroine that could defy the odds. I changed Riley, over time, to someone less rigid and more likeable.

And still they didn’t get her. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t just change the plot and make her a man. Because, then, you see, the book would be an overnight bestseller. Just change Riley to a man and the Golden Gates of Superstardom would open.

I pitched to editors and agents. Yes, it sounds fascinating. Yes, it sounds intriguing. Yes, please send me a chapter. On second thought, send me three. Maybe you could send the entire thing?

And still I believed in Riley. I believe that women can be vulnerable and at the same time be courageous in the face of danger. I made big changes to the manuscript, slashed chapters, changed scenes, added and deleted, loved all the feedback, really appreciated the critiques I was getting along the way, but still insisted that Riley was a woman and would stay that way.

And then, at a conference I had begun attending annually, Killer Nashville, something magical happened. I met an agent who loved my premise. An agent who listened to me describe my first book in the series, and my character. This agent was interested. She wanted to see the entire manuscript.

So I sent it. I sent it and wished and hoped and dreamed that this agent would give me a chance. I knew the manuscript would need work, would need changing, and I was completely open to that. When I pitched Expedition Indigo to Jill Marr at Killer Nashville, one of the most important points I wanted to get across to her was “I want to write books that people want to read. I am willing to listen to feedback. I am willing to edit.”

Her feedback was awesome. The magic words I received from her were “You have a good book, but we can make it a great book.”

I did a double-take. A good book? And even possibly a great book?

I was stunned. Someone believed in my story, in my character. A powerhouse agent, working at one of the most reputable, star-studded literary agencies, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, loved my concept, my character, my story and my writing!

That was, I am not joking, four years ago. It took edits, and more edits. Jill is a brilliant agent, and when we thought it was ready, she sent it out. And it came back. And we went through it again. And we sent it out. And it came back. And every time it came back, I worked at sharpening the story. Fixing logic errors. Changing things, deleting things. And I kept changing Riley’s personality, subtle changes here and there, making her nicer, less hard around the edges. I listened to my agent, and I trusted her.

So here I am, a published novelist, with a Romantic Suspense series. I have five more books planned. The second in the series is completely story-boarded and about 1/3 finished. I learned so much with this first book, that the second is going to be, from a procedural standpoint, considerably easier to write than the first.

I am grateful I stuck it out. I am grateful I happened to catch the attention and support of an amazing literary agent. I am happy we found a Publisher who loved my story, my series concept, and my female protagonist.

Connect with Stacy:

Expedition Indigo on Goodreads

Author page

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Riley’s twitter

stacy@stacyallenauthor.com

Fiery Seas Publishing

Making Waves with Particles, by Eric M. Witchey

Image

Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey

(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)

Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.

The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.

Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.

Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.

Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.

Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.

The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.

A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.

Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.

For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.

The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.

 

Reunion

Eric M. Witchey

 

The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.

A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.

He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.

For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.

He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.

Like Sussette.

She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.

But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.

Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.

The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.

He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.

It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.

He must have been like that. Must have been.

What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.

The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.

A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.

A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.

Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.

The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.

By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.

In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.

All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.

All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.

“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.

She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.

“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”

It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.

Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”

He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.

He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.

The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”

Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.

Ball?

Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.

And running and jumping games.

He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.

Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.

Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.

Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.

Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.

“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”

“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”

“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”

Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.

He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.

Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.

He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.

Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.

His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.

He screams and struggles to get up.

“Heat stroke,” a voice says.

“Hysterical,” another says.

They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.

He fights, but they hold him.

“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.

One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”

Gordon manages a nod.

“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time.”

He nods.

“Do you know where you are?”

He manages one word. “Reunion.”

“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”

Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.

“Stay with me,” Zach says.

Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”

“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”

“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.

Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.

“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”

“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.

Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.

“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”

Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.

“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“You’re here.”

“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.

“I have to leave,” Gordon says.

“I’ll explain it to them.”

Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.

“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Why?”

“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”

“I’m not sure––”

“Just for one day.”

Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”

Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.

When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.

 

 

When Should I Write?

When Should I Write?

by Eric M. Witchey

At a recent conference, I mentioned a number of brain-based techniques I use for production. Several people asked me the perennial question, “When should I write?” I wish I had the answer to that question. I wish it were an easy answer. What I know is that there are two kinds of people… Since there are two kinds of people, there are also two kinds of writers. I know careful, thoughtful writers and intuitive, insightful writers. Of course, I also know that any time I talk about two kinds of anything, I’m getting it wrong and tossing out an entire world of insights that might be useful.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, works from an exclusively cognitive or intuitive position. The most hard-core researching, obsessive, analytic writer still has moments where “it came to me that….” The most touchy-feely, woo-woo, let the muse flow through them, channeling characters writer also has moments when they look at their own prose and make conscious decisions about how to revise based on experience or principle. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

The cold, hard facts are that no two people are exactly alike and no two stories require exactly the same mix of cognitive and intuitive attention. This morning, I wrote a short story in less than an hour. Last week, I wrote a short story of the same length (only 1500 words). It took me twelve hours, including a lot of research, analysis, and revision. Writing fiction always requires a mix of analytic and intuitive skills.

Have you ever notice that doctors tend to miss the fact that all bodies are built differently? Each of us has different thresholds for pain, sensitivity to light, fears, and anxieties. Did you ever wonder how anybody gets good healthcare since all treatments are designed to provide relief and improvement to the average patient as determined in clinical trials?

Doctors are lucky. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to trust them to know what they’re doing. Readers will not tolerate a story based on statistical averages. Each of us is different, and each of us must modify our writing processes and practices to fit our own body, mind, and lifestyle. If we don’t, our work will not be tolerated by our readers.

Certainly, we can modify our lifestyles to support our writing habits, but that’s a life management class. In this blog entry, I want to make sure of two things. First, I want to make sure that writers empower the person who knows their psychology and physiology best. I want them to put that person is in charge of how and when they write. So, you, and only you, must evaluate your performance and make adjustments as needed.

While we can engage in cognitive and intuitive workouts to build both sets of skills and improve the communication between the parts of the brain that engage during the different modes of work, we each still have to bow to our own, personal work styles, experience, and developmental quirks. Since no two of us are the same, nobody can really tell us exactly how the mix should work for any one of us. The only person that can make that determination for a writer is that writer.

Is analytic work easier for you in the morning, the evening, or the afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it. Is intuitive work easier for you in the morning, evening, or afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it.

We can take some guidance from study statistics that report physiological averages.

The averages say that intuitive work is easiest in the first 90 minutes after we wake up. If you need that time to write but fill 90 minutes with a shower, making breakfast, making coffee and reading the paper, you’ve lost that optimum time forever that day. If that’s your creative time, you need to ask yourself what you can do to take advantage of your best creative brain state right after sleeping. You may even ask yourself when (and if) you can take naps during the day in order to restart that brain state.

The averages say that our cognitive skills are strongest in early and late afternoon. Mine simply are not. I’m stupid as hell in the afternoon (except when I’m teaching because then I’m hyped on adrenaline and caffeine). Should you be doing your plot analysis at 2pm? Should you be doing your editing after 1pm? I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that experimentation will help them decide what will work best for them.

The averages say that our repetitive task skills are least interfered with by other influences in the evening. Uh, that might be a great time for spell checking, eh?

I can’t answer the question, “When should I write?” I can tell people when I write and why. My personal physiology and schedule work something like this on a perfect fiction writing day:

  • AM 6:00 to 9:30: Protein (one egg), vitamins, speed writing warm-up (imagination exercise and technique practice). I then engage in composition for current projects.
  • 9:30: meditation. Email check and respond. Shower
  • 10:00: small snack. Often, it’s a handful of nuts.
  • 10:10-12:00: Some composition. Some revision.
  • PM 12:00-12:30: Lunch (protein). I eat light and avoid carbs at lunch unless I plan to stop working. If I snack, I snack on jerky or nuts because protein allows me to stay alert. Carbohydrates put me to sleep. Different people respond differently.
  • 12:30-2:30: Email check and respond. Revisions.
  • 2:30: Nap or Exercise if I can. The time for this varies throughout the year based on my needs.
  • 3:00-5 or 6: Revisions and/or technical writing/course development/article writing.
  • 5 or 6: Relax, prep dinner, eat.
  • 6:00 to bedtime: Household activities, reading, movies.
  • 10:30 or 11:00: sleep.

I manage my writing to match the fact that my brain is at its most creative early in the day. Even after a nap, I don’t get a full reset of my creative powers. The later in the day it gets, the more I move toward revision and analysis type tasks. Good food and a good night’s sleep are a critical part of my time management. Naps and meditation are part of my productivity process. Loading my brain with writerly thoughts and happy thoughts before bed is important to me. I often skim through silly web sites like I Can Has Cheezburger just before sleep. Exercise is important, even if it’s only a walk to the post office, and only injury keeps me from it. I know these things about myself, so I plan my day based on my experiences with my own mind and body. Only you can know yourself well enough to plan your writing day.

Remember that I said I wanted to make sure of two thing? The second thing is that I want to make sure that you, my dear writer friend, take time to seriously answer the question, “When should I write?”