Art, I made this, Maker

Art I Love – Knitted Hyperbolic Plane Headband

Years ago, my husband and I attended a panel about living with a writer. One of the participants said he has a writing hat. When he wore the hat, his spouse wasn’t allowed to interrupt him unless she was closely followed by a fireman with an ax and a need to evacuate the building.

Thus began the hat tradition in our house.

  • My writing hat is a purple fedora with a yellow band, saying Police Line Do Not Cross around the crown. The same rules about the fireman apply when I’m wearing this hat.
  • My playwriting hat is a crocheted yellow, orange, and lime green African kufi hat, with crocheted butterflies. Don’t ask why, crochet, butterflies and wild colors seemed appropriate at the time.
  • My maker’s hat is a pink engineer’s cap with Thomas the Engine and Proud to be an Engineer on the front.

Doing the household accounts is my least favorite thing. Going digital has helped, but not much. I decided I needed a hat, or rather a headband a la 1920s style to wear when I was dealing with numbers. A few years ago a mathematician at Cornell University did some work on crocheting hyperbolic planes. Here’s the link. So here’s my hyperbolic headband, designed to concentrate math rays into my brain.

2014-11-07 HyperbolicPlane

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second draft, Writing

Write the Novel – Letting Go

Writing a second draft isn’t a matter of tidying up. That comes later. The second draft is where we take things apart, cut away the dead wood, and reassemble the remaining pieces so that the seams hardly show. For the second draft, the questions for each sentence, scene, and chapter are not do we like this or is it fun to write?

Does it work?

The question is, is it working? Letting go of writing we love that isn’t working is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

Prologues don’t work. Neither do epilogues. For the second draft, ditch them both. Don’t panic. You still have copies of them and, if you decide later it’s absolutely necessary, add them back, but try at least one draft without them.

Here’s an unfortunate truth, the harder a scene is to write, the more likely it needs to be written that way. Other things that don’t work include long telephone conversations; scenes where people are cooking, eating or driving; monologues; too much back story; and expository lumps. All of those are writing the easy way out. Change backstory to context (See my earlier backstory blog), and rewrite everything else.

The Big Reveal

The big reveal in a mystery is two-fold: who did it, and, often more important, why they did it. We’re talking stakes. Large public stakes (what matters to the world in which the character lives) and large private stakes (what matters to the character). What’s wrong with these big reveals?

  • He forced me to end my pregnancy, and now I can’t have children.
  • I had to cover for him. He’s my real father (or fill in the relationship of your choice).
  • What no one knew was that there were two babies born that night. Identical twins, one destined to be raised with every advantage and one pushed aside to live in poverty.
  • I built this company from nothing. He was going to ruin it. I couldn’t let that happen.

If  your answer is the stakes aren’t high enough, you’re absolutely correct. All of these motivations have been used to the point of boredom. What we want is to keep the reader awake nights.

Is the ending untidy? — It should be.

I don’t mean those time we spend behind a closed bathroom door because we want to avoid keeping our significant other awake while we read until two or three in the morning. I mean those times we lie awake in the dark thinking of the implications the ending created for the character (private stakes) and the character’s world (public stakes). What we want to do is resolve the story without solving the issues.

Pro Se was an episode of Law and Order that I saw in 1996. That was what, eighteen years ago? It still keeps me awake.

A brilliant young man had a severe mental health condition. If he took his meds life was, as he described it, “I feel like I’m pawing through a wool blanket. I get so damn tired just holding on to reality.” He could go through a daily routine, washing, eating, etc., but he was incapable of any productive mental activity. He couldn’t concentrate enough work, read, or follow a television program.

If he stopped his meds he’d have a few productive weeks before he spiralled downward. By the time his spiral began, he was no longer capable of choosing to resume his meds.

He became so unstable that he picked a clothing store at random, and attacked everyone inside with a bayonet. The public stakes were huge: commit him to a mental hospital and, when he was released — as he inevitably would be — he’d eventually go off his meds and likely kill again. The private stakes were huge, too: the longer her was confined to a mental ward, the longer he took his meds, the less likely he’d be to function when he was released. It was a completely no-win situation.

In the end, he was ordered confined, with no possibility of early release to a mental hospital for between 6 and 18 years.

Story resolved, issues not resolved. A great story often has an untidy ending.

Next Tuesday, November 4, we finish up this second draft series with Dawdle and Plant Seeds. The final purpose of a second draft is to slow down in some places and plant seeds for either future books, or for untidy endings if this is a stand-alone.

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Maker, Writer's life

Level Thinking – Polymaths and Imaginary Worlds

Michelle and Robert Root-Bernstein — he’s a physiologist and she’s an independent scholar in creativity studies — first came to my attention in 2009, when they were part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity at Michigan State University. This research shed light on children and early creativity.

Who were these people?

  1. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
  2. Dian Fossey
  3. Leonardo da Vinci

Most people would peg Dr. Oppenheimer as a scientist, or mention his connection with atomic bomb research. But it would be equally correct to say that he was a student of Greek architecture and classic civilization, art, and literature.

Before Dian Fossey studied gorillas, she was an occupational therapist.

Leonardo is hardest to pin down. Scientist? Mathematician? Engineer? Inventor? Anatomist? Painter? Sculptor? Architect? Botanist? Musician? Writer? Let’s call him a polymath, which describes a person knowledgeable in many areas.

What the Root-Bernsteins and their group discovered was that the degree to which children create the details of imaginary worlds can be an early clue to which of them will become polymaths as adults. Polymaths tend to become very, very good at what they do.

All children create imaginary worlds and unseen friends, but not all do it to the degree of J. R. R. Tolkein. He began practicing the creation of Middle Earth as a very young child. He was reading by age four, writing by five, and before he had begun his formal schooling, his mother taught him botany, Latin, and foreign languages. Throughout his childhood he took notes on all the places he visited; drew maps; invented flora, fauna, and languages; and probably spent more time in Middle Earth than he did at home.

Looking back, one thing I value from my childhood is that my mother believed in classes, even if she and I didn’t always agree on what the class should be. I wanted tap-dancing; she put me in ballet because it was more lady-like. China painting was a disaster, we won’t even go there, but I did manage to wangle a few ceramics classes. And no matter how much I pleaded, never, ever music because she’d had a horrible experience taking piano lessons as a child.

What these classes had in common is that I was forced to face the empty dance floor, the pristine china plate, or the amorphous clay lump. I learned at an early age to start anywhere because the first few attempts would go by the wayside as the real work began to emerge.

Those classes also fed the imaginary worlds that constantly spun out of my head. The garden creatures who lived in our back yard, under the fig tree, danced ballets in the moonlight, even if a few of them remained miffed that they weren’t allowed to tap dance. Drawing class turned into maps. Other classes segued—often by very complicated and tortuous journeys— into codes, ciphers, secret messages, puppet-kings, costumes, hand-decorated menus for special celebrations, high drama, and low comedy. Never a hand-painted china set, though. People in my imaginary kingdom were forced to content themselves with lop-sided ceramic bowls.

Later in life I learned I could go back and pick up those missed things from childhood. I took my first music lesson at age 30. I was never accomplished at music, but I had a devil of a good time and even wrote one small original composition, about 3 lines long. The instrument I took up was the bagpipe. Maybe there is something to be said for getting what you want to do out of your system before turning 30 because goodness knows what decisions you’ll make for yourself when you’re old enough to decide for yourself.

I recommend that every writer sign up for classes, preferably ones where the students start with a blank something. A empty stage. A clean piece of paper. A length of cloth. A chunk of wood. An untuned instrument. Something where you can start with the most basic of skills and build from there. It will do wonders for your writing. And if you’d like to come to my place for show-and-tell, the garden creatures and I usually have tea about four in the afternoon. Bring your tap shoes.

Michelle Root-Bernstein has a new book out this year, Inventing Imaginary Worlds, from Childhood to Adult Creativity Across the Arts and Sciences. Check out that book and her website about imaginary worlds.

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second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Build Emotional Muscle

If real estate is location, location, location, a novel’s second draft is emotion, emotion, emotion. Many writers, myself included, write the first draft focused on what comes next. The second draft is where we need to spend more time on why does what come next matter?

My heroine is a young woman, Marcie, whose best friend, Lorraine, recently died from a poisonous spider bite while on a Caribbean vacation. The island’s police department’s opinion is that her death was a tragic and unavoidable accident.  Neither Lorraine’s mother nor Marcie believe that. Marcie has been interviewing Lorraine’s co-workers who were on vacation with her, and she’s sure Lorraine’s death had something to do with a research project Lorraine’s company is doing.

A sub-plot is Marcie ditching her current boyfriend, who’s a jerk, and getting involved with a police constable she meets in the course of her investigation.

——-

I’m working on the second draft of the scene where she breaks up with the boyfriend. Here’s how it played out in the first draft:

Marcie works at a small manufacturing company in an industrial area. She has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone, so she calls a couple of friends who live close to where she works, but neither of them can come and help her. She calls her boy friend, whose watching a hockey game, and can’t be bothered. This makes Marcie so mad that she throws caution to the wind and leaves.

The business has an alarm system, with a time lock and an over-ride code, so people working late can get out, but once the door has closed, they can’t get back in again. When Marcie gets to her car she discovers she has a flat tire. She has to walk all the way home. By the time she gets there, she’s so angry at her boyfriend that they have a fight and break up, thus paving the way for her to meet the constable a couple of chapters later.

——–

How did I do in the first draft?

  • Does this scene connect in any way to my main plot, solving Lorraine’s murder? Not really.
  • Are there high stakes here? Breaking up with her boyfriend is important to her, but will the reader really care?
  • Is Marcie behaving consistently? No. She’s afraid to walk across a parking lot alone, but willing to walk several miles to get home?
  • Is Marcie showing that she’s a tough, smart heroine? Not really. She has a cell phone. Why doesn’t she call a cab? Or AAA or a garage to come and fix her tire? Come to think of it, if she’s that worried, why does she leave the building in the first place? Spending the night on the receptionist’s couch might not be comfortable, but at least it would be safe.
  • How’s the emotional quotient? Not terrific. She gets mad and does something stupid. Then she gets mad and does something likely stupid. Not much range there.
  • Is there anything else about this scene I don’t like? Phone conversations are notorious tension killers and I have three of them – two with friends and one with the boyfriend.
  • Is there anything about this scene I like? I do like the one-way alarm, that she can get out of the building, but not back in. That forces her to take action.

Fixes for the second draft

  • Find a way to relate this to the main plot.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Expect Marcie to behave consistently, and act like a tough, smart heroine.
  • Raise the emotional quotient: give her more an emotional range, and varied responses.
  • Make the phone calls much less a part of the scene or delete them all together.
  • Keep the one-way alarm.

Second draft rewrite

Marcie has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone. She considers spending the night on the receptionist’s couch, but she’s emotionally drained after spending all day talking about Lorraine, and she wants the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. It’s a wide open parking lot and her car is parked under a light. She could see if anyone approached her. She calls 911, explains the situation to the dispatcher, and asks her to stay on the line until she’s safely in her car. The dispatcher isn’t keen to do this, but Marcie stands up for what she needs, and the dispatcher agrees.

When Marcie gets to her car, she’s horrified to discover that her car is full of snakes. She screams.

The police dispatcher gets a lot more interested in what’s happening. She’s sending a patrol car and advises Marcie to go back inside the building, which she can’t do because of the one-way alarm. She sees an unmarked car turning into the gate at the far end of the parking lot. It has a flashing red light on it’s dashboard. Relieved, Marcie commends the dispatcher for getting a car to her so quickly.

The dispatcher says she hasn’t yet dispatched a car and, in any case, it would be a patrol car, not an unmarked.

Marcie runs for her life. The car speeds up and aims straight for her. She manages to hide and hears a siren approaching. The person in the unmarked car pulls a U-turn in the parking lot, and crashes through a wooden barrier to get away. The patrol car tries to follow, but the car gets away. The patrol car returns.

The dispatcher convinces Marcie that this is the officer she dispatched, so Marcie comes out of her hiding place. The officer, who’s going to be the new boyfriend, is very kind to her. Together they go back to look at her car. Not only is it full of snakes, but there’s a note taped to the steering wheel. “There are a lot more where these came from. Stop asking questions.”

Now that has emotional muscle.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 21, for our next instalment about second drafts — how to knead a story like a baker kneads bread. It’s vital to make raggedy bits come together.

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Writing

Write the Novel — Strengthen Our Voice

I quoted this last week, but it bears repeating.

“You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.” ~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press

The second draft is where we strengthen and enhance our writer’s voice. What is voice? It’s the qualities we embed in our writing to such an extent that a reader familiar with our work, faced with several sample paragraphs, could invariably tell which one was ours.

At the simplest level, voice is our writing style

Do we hold ourselves to a high standard of correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

How do we construct sentences and paragraphs? How frequently do we use simple sentence verses longer, more complex sentences? No one is going to confuse Ernest Hemingway’s voice with that of Bulwer-Lytton.

How often do we use or avoid using qualifiers and distancers?

  • A qualifier is a word that hedges our bets: She was pretty good at tennis./She was good at tennis.
  • A distancer is a word that puts distance between the characters and the reader: If Dennis were going to steal the truck, Tom imagined he would do it tonight./Dennis would steal the truck tonight.

On and on through the hundreds of choices that writers make as we craft words.

At a deeper level, voice holds out a promise of more to come

It’s the way we pace a story, what we tell, and what we withhold.

It’s how fair we play with the reader. Are we honoring a fair contract with the reader, one that shows enough that the reader has an ah-ha moment of recognition that she/he knows the character, but still leave enough room for the reader’s imagination to flourish?

It’s the degree we’re open and honest with the reader. If we’re faking it, readers will know.

At the deepest level, voice represents our values

What’s this story worth to us? What’s our audience’s respect worth to us? Where have we let something slide as good enough in the first draft? How much effort are we going to make to turn good enough into above and beyond expectations?

How bang-on is our research?

Is our character development deep and convoluted enough?

Are our characters saying, doing, or thinking things they would never say, do, or think? It’s important to differentiate between what we believe and what our characters believe. I might have a sad, but realistic, understanding that justice is rarely done, but if my character absolutely believes in justice then my voice when I write that character has to reflect that.

Think of voice like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, but in a nice way. It’s what forms and sustains the story we want to tell.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 14, for the next part of Second Rewrite — Building Emotional Muscle.

For those of you in Canada, Best wishes for a marvellous Thanksgiving next Monday.

Can hardly wait for the pumpkin pie next week

Can hardly wait for the pumpkin pie next week

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Art, Journaling, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life

Level Thinking – What Older Creatives Need

The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.

A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.

Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently.  During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.

Mid-Live Reevaluation

The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.

As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.

New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.

This is where I had my ah-ha moment.

How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.

Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.

It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.

Liberation

The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.

Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.

Summing Up

The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.

Encore

The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”

Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”

The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.

I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.

“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author

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My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – The Second Draft

Here we are, standing at the beginning of the second draft. What I call the draft zero — the unfinished manuscript — magically turned into the first draft the moment we wrote The End.

That first draft is a skeleton, a clanky bunch of bones, which at least has the merit of hanging together, and gives us a structure on which to drape the second draft. The key to writing a great second draft is to add both physical and emotional muscles to the story.

The difference between a completed first draft and a completed second draft is the difference between a newborn baby and a two-year-old. At least with a newborn, she stayed where we lay her. So, for the most part, do first drafts.

Two year olds are highly mobile, learning to coordinate their actions, speaking for themselves, developing new interests, and learning impulse control.

For them, experimenting with art materials is far more important than the end result. Coloring outside of the lines may result in interesting results on tables, walls, and themselves.

They have difficulty with choices. They imitate life through dramatic play, relying on facial expression, gestures, and body movement to aid communication. They dawdle on a walk and pick up little things. They have a great command of the words “No!” and “Mine!”

Here are five things two year olds can teach us about writing second drafts

  1. Learn to speak for ourselves — the second draft is where we strengthen and enhance our writer’s voice. “You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.” ~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press
  2. Experiment, experiment, experiment — the second draft is where I always write some scenes I know will never make it into the finished book. The first draft freed me from being bound by “what happens next.” I know what happens next, at least one version of it. That means that I can explore more character dimensions. If real estate is location, location, location writing is emotion, emotion, emotion. Yes, this happened, but what does it mean to the character?
  3. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate — If you’ve never done it before, bake a loaf of bread. Seriously. As writers we need to literally feel the difference that kneading makes. “Beginning with a lump of dough not entirely of a piece, somewhat raged and limply-lying, commence kneading.” ~ Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book. That line has stayed with me for forty-four years. It is a perfect, succinct description of writing.
  4. Make hard choices — resist no and mine. Sorry, ducks, but Philamenia may be our favorite character, but she’s not working in this story. No way, no how. We’ve got to put her aside. Yes, it’s going to be tons harder to write Walter’s confrontation his boss instead of having Walter describe it to Cecily in the coffee shop, but it’s also going to be tons more interesting. Trust me, the reader has gotten the bit about Cecily and the lottery ticket by the end of the second chapter. Take out the other five times she retells the story.
  5. Dawdle. Pick up things along the way — If we’re writing a series, begin to lay down seeds that will sprout in subsequent books.

In the next few weeks, we’re going to explore voice, building a story’s emotional muscle, kneading the story into shape, hard choices, and dawdling.

One, final thing. It takes a village to raise a two-year-old. It takes a village to raise a writer, too. If we’re committed enough to this story to be into the second draft, it’s time to find other trusted people with whom we share. If we don’t have them already, the second draft is a perfect time to find a critique group or individuals who will read what we’re writing and give us honest feedback.

Next week, October 7th, we’re looking at Second Draft — Strengthening Our Voice.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Clean the Slate

I can’t promise this week’s blog is going to be fun. In the writing process, there is occasional scut work that is just plain boring, but still needs to be done.

But first, congratulations. We’ve finished our first complete draft. That makes us 1 in a 1,000. Out of every 100 people who say they want to write a novel, only one starts. Out of every 100 who start, only 1 finished a complete draft. So what we have to do first of all is rest, recover, and reacquaint ourselves with our family and friends, sometimes with ourselves. Take time for that and have a great time celebrating.

Do not, absolutely do not, immediately jump into the rewrite, also known as the second draft. This thing, whatever it is becoming, needs time to sit for a while without our attention. The words need a break as much as we do. About three weeks should do it.

I hate to mention this, but there is a lot of housecleaning to be done, and I don’t mean those dishes and laundry that accumulated while we were in the final push to finish the first draft. By this time, we have a much clearer idea of what this story is all about than we did when we started. Some things we thought were going to be important turned out to be either minor, or a bad idea after all. Some things we had no idea would work now make up a major part of the story.

But before we touch anything, make a backup of the entire work. Every single thing related to this project. Make at least two copies on DVDs, what I call my away copies. One of them goes to a friend here in town. The other one goes to a friend in a different city. The in-town copy is for that frantic reboot when my entire system crashes. The out-of-town copy is for that natural disaster when I have to evacuate without my computer.

As a final safeguard, compile a complete copy of the first draft in .doc format, stick it on a thumb drive, and take it to a copy shop to have it commercially printed. I’m always a little dismayed at how small the file is. All that work and it fits on something I can hold in my hand, with lots of room left over.

After the backups, start with a good office cleaning. For those of us who write in coffee shops or other places, also need to clean out our purses, brief cases, laptop cases, etc. Wherever we store background material, whether electronically, or hard copy, or both, make sure we can find the important stuff that we’re going to need in the second draft. Put everything else in a folder or the back of a filing box, and let it go, for now.

Check for updates on all the writing-related programs we use. Update/upgrade the software, if needed. Run a maintenance program like TechTools or OnyX. Verify and repair permissions. Empty the temporary download folders. Maybe even clean the mouse and keyboard. In short, make neat.

If we didn’t start one for our first draft, now is the time to set up glossary and style sheet files. See my Glossary and Style Sheet blog for more details.

Finally, if people read and commented on any of the first draft, set up a single comment file so that all comments are in the same place. Word allows us to import multiple files, with comments, into one file, which is a great and handy thing to have.

That’s it. We’re rested. Our office is clean. Backups are safely tucked away, and the gerbils inside our computer have been dusted and polished. We’re ready for the next great adventure — the second draft.

Next Tuesday, September 30 Write the Novel — Let the Emotions take over. The second draft is all about buiding emotional complexity.

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My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level thinking – Habits for a Project’s End

“–30–. Slug it.”

I love old black-and-white movies about newspaper reporters, the guys with hats tipped back on their heads, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, who grab candlestick phones and say, “Give me copy.”

–30– means the end of a story and a slug was a line of hot metal linotype. To slug a story was to send it to the linotyper to be set. If you ever have a chance to watch Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, don’t miss it. Sorry, no link. It was on YouTube in the past, but it seems to have been removed. This documentary tells the story of the last day the New York Times printed on hot type and the first day it printed with computer-generated type.

In any case, we’re done. Deadline met. Story/article/book winging its way, probably electronically, to its destination. Now what? In this third blog about building habits, I’m writing about the down time a writer needs after finishing a huge project.

We are in shock. Not “shock” neatly enclosed in quotation marks as in, sort of like shock. We are in real shock. Run through this list: anxiety or agitation/restlessness; confusion; disorientation; dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness; pale, cool, clammy skin; sweating, moist skin; rapid pulse, and shallow breathing. Yep, that pretty much the way I feel on Deadline Day +1.

We’re not leaking blood. At least I hope we’re not. I assume we already poured all we could spare into those final pages. But other shock biochemical reactions such as not enough oxygen in our cells, lactic acid accumulation, changes in blood pH, electrolyte imbalance, catecholamine depletion, and disturbances in blood circulation actually exist after several days/weeks of intense periods of pressure, sitting, creating at a computer. If we’ve been consuming prodigious amounts of caffeinated drinks and less than the recommended quota of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, add caffein overload and constipation to the list.

Way back in nursing school [Florence Nightingale was in the class just ahead of me] the watchwords for treating shock were quiet and warm. Maintain a quiet environment and keep the patient, er writer, warm. Recent research coming out of Texas is now indicating that if someone is in shock in a hot environment, it’s more beneficial to cool them rather than warm them. See, nothing stays the same.

So, Deadline Day +1(the ideal): breathe, sip water, take a walk, stay quiet, and cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +1 (the actual): attend an all-morning meeting for our day job; bake 3 dozen cupcakes for the class Halloween party; wash seven loads of laundry; go grocery shopping, cook a real meal instead of ordering pizza again; clear the e-mail backlog (home and day-job); take the dog to the vet, and the kids to soccer practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Guilt. My boss has been so understanding about me needing to meet this deadline. Ditto my significant other. Ditto my kids. Ditto my friends. They have ALLOWED me to be a writer. I OWE them. I can’t BE PERMITTED to take one minute more than that needed to meet the deadline because if I do I will be A BAD PERSON. After all, it’s not like writing is a REAL THING, or a writer is a person with REAL NEEDS.

Can we rethink that?

Remember last week when I suggested lying in our voice mail message about when our real deadline is. It’s really October 22, but we say it’s the 31st. We need to realize that Deadline Day isn’t the day we hit send or frantically rush to catch the last Purolator pick-up. Real Deadline Day is that day plus at least three days. If we can swing it, plus seven days.

If we’ve got a day job, don’t rush back to work. Use vacation time, or flex days, or mental health days. In the grand scheme of things it will not matter if we miss one important presentation, no matter what our boss says to the contrary. If we’re not fortunate enough to have any of those options, call in sick, because if we aren’t now, and we race back to work, we will be sick within a week. “Life isn’t fair. I finished this horrendous deadline last week, and now I have a terrible cold.” Duh!

Deadline Day +1: breathe, sip water, take a walk (maybe take two walks), and stay quiet. Cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +2: take another walk, pick one undone task we really like to do. Since I love playing in warm, soapy water, my thing is usually to do the dishes. Also, pick one thing that’s fun. This might be a good day to take the kids to something you all enjoy, or cook supper for the sig other.

Deadline Day +3: start easing back into a regular schedule. If three days are all we can manage, regretfully so be it, but at least we’ve had three days.

Deadline Day +4 to +7: if we’re fortunate to have this kind of time, go for it. Build ourself a recuperate and recover ramp back into real life. We’ve worked hard. We deserve it.

“A big piece of writing is a little like a big storm. It leaves you shaken and disoriented and things need time to settle down. You don’t want to talk with your friends and sound like  you just went through an alien abductions. … You don’t want to reenter the world until the world has more in it than you and your capital-A Art. I like [a few days transition] to let the dust settle.”

~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

That’s my –30– for today.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 23 for another look at finishing a project — Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. Now what?

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Flash Symbols

We select ties, scarves, jewelry, shoes, and socks or stockings to bring clothes together into a look. We need to do the same thing with flash symbols, also called associative devices. These are micro-details that reinforce theme, plot, character, or other major story elements. They may appear as props, analogues, parallels, reversals, setting reuse, and sense of time.

Flash symbols should appear early in the story—bonus points if we get one into the first paragraph—and reappear frequently.

Don’t worry too much about flash symbols in our first, unfinished draft. The first complete rewrite is a good place to add them.

Props

Physical objects to which the characters relate in a special way. Cliches: coffee machine used as comic relief; junker cars that break down at the crucial moment. Ditto: electrical devices that aren’t charged and unlovable animals taken home by the protagonist, with which they form a love-hate relationship.

For a list of props that can be used in new ways, see Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.

Analogues

Analogues are stand-ins. In their most basic form they become cliches. Hot red sports cars stand in for sex. A chocolate malt stands in for innocence. When their meanings are woven deeper into the story, they become more effective.

In Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses geography. Mountain are pure, clean, affirming places; plains and valleys are the struggle of being human. Whenever Frederic and Catherine are in mountains, good things happen to them. When they descend into valleys, bad things.

Parallels and Reversals

Parallels are the symbol equivalent of sub-plots, running alongside the main plot. They often involve secondary characters, and contain reversals. One couple gets engaged; another couple breaks up.

Major events at the climax should be woven in, in microcosm throughout the novel. Parallels and reversals need to be used to preview the climax. There’s a fine line between previewing the climax and telegraphing the ending.

Slapstick comedy telegraphs. As soon as the huge, cream-covered birthday cake appears, the audience knows someone is either going to fall into it, or throw it at someone.

Setting Reuse

Avoid settings there for the writer’s convenience. The most over-used settings are people sitting at a table talking and/or eating and the protagonist alone in a car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Settings like these are boring, made doubly so by the character lapsing into internal musings.

Revisit the same places throughout the book and twist the setting each time so that it means something different. This is particularly important for the place where our climax takes place. The climax isn’t just the big thing. It’s also small things that will never be the same again.

In the final scene there should be a memorable object. Plant the same object or its analog at least twice elsewhere in the novel. If twice is good, how many more times could we plant it? Give its meaning a slightly different twist each time? Allow the protagonist to see something in that final setting that others miss. He or she alone — and the reader, of course — recognize the significance.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t just draw the mountain, he sculpts it in mashed potatoes. At the movie’s climax, it’s essential that he knows the mountain in three dimensions.

Sense of time

Do characters in historical books have values and behave consistently with how people believed and acted in their particular time? It’s critical that they do. Time periods that a reader knows or is interested in attract them. They will know when we get it wrong and it will turn them off. Fortunately, many writers chose time settings that they lived through or know well. If that’s not the case, the solution is research, research, research.

When writing in another era, it’s far more important to know how people thought or acted than it is to know product brand names or television shows. Use primary sources whenever possible. A primary source is one written, filmed, or made by people living at a certain time. They include diaries, works published at the time, scrapbooks, postcards, photographs, films, and physical objects. Interviewing people who lived through the time is also good, but be sure to allow for memory distortion.

In the same way, once we’ve written a good character introduction, determined theme, or tuned into what props, analogs, and settings work for this book, we’ve set ourselves on a path. We know that it’s highly likely we’re going to stray from this path as the book unfolds, but at least we’ve taken the first step out of the door.

For further exploration

I’d love to write about black moments and managing micro-tension next. Learning about them moved my writing to a new level. However, all of my notes come straight from a Donald Maass workshop, and I’d rather you let him explain it to you. Once more, I recommend  The Fire in Fiction.

Hope to see you back on Thursday, September 18, for the third part of our habits’ discussion — Habits for Ending: we’ve finished a huge project. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!

Strangely enough, next Tuesday, September 23, there is a companion blog We’ve Finished Draft Zero — Now what? How to tidy up and get ready for the next draft.

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