Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Number 2: Make A Difference

I started a "life list" the month I finished college. Sounds crazy, right? That all the aspirations of a lifetime could somehow line up single-file, in an orderly row and wait patiently, never lost or misplaced for the time when they could be scratched off. Everytime I clean out my desk or dust off my bookshelves, I find it. A tiny, black spiral full of random, silly accomplishments alongside dreams I hope will define me when I'm gone. I always check my progess to see if there's anything else I can cross off.

Not surprisingly, number one is "publish a novel".

Here are some I have left:

5. Set foot on or through all fifty states
8. Watch every Elvis movie ever made
9. Learn how to snowboard
13. Spend one New Year's Eve in Times Square
14. Be a contestant on a game show

This year I've been able to scratch through two, so far:

17. Fly a kite
7. Spend the night in a haunted house

What's on your "life list"?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Writing Detours

Life became crazy this week. Never a long stretch of time where I could let unhurried thoughts live in the short story world I'm working on. In a place where my characters were, literally and metaphorically, pulled to the side of the road, a strong mental image surfaced.

My hero paced, his boots kicking up the west Texas dust. Song after song played on the radio. An endless night stretched to day. I can picture half a dozen ways my characters passed the time until I could steal fifteen minutes to revisit them. Give them a line of dialogue or an action to hold onto before the long wait began again. As frustrating as it might have been for those two characters living and breathing in my head, it became almost unbearable for me.

Another thing that fascinates me is the detour stories take. Somehow, the structure of plotting and knowing what's on the road ahead frees my creative side to explore the characters and bring emotions riding to the surface. But in the microcosm world of a short story, the entire scope of a project comes into focus, and I realize my stories never really travel the exact route I intended--the end product, an organic materialization of something just beyond my control. It's then I ask myself the hard questions. Would the story have been better the way I'd intended to write it? Or, was the detour inevitable? Does the story exist somewhere within the writer, a completed work waiting to be mined using our writer's tools, thus making it impossible to become anything that what it is when the last punctuation mark is typed?

"Once you're into a story, everything seems to apply--what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you're writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you're tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized." ~Eudora Welty

Friday, May 18, 2007

Character Names As Symbols

I came across a perfect example yesterday of an author who used a character's name as symbolism. In Peter Abraham's A Perfect Crime, he named one of the lead characters, a man who discovers his wife in the throes of adultery, Roger. This character, screwed over in the literal and figurative sense of the word, makes for wonderful symbolic characterization the reader can sink into when they're grasping for a foothold in a new story. Even "Jolly Roger," the sarcastic nickname by which another character refers to him on page five, begins to carve out the nature of his character.

In Chasing Midnight, it's no accident that my cast of characters battles the death of the heroine, Emma Parrish, throughout the entire novel. Spelling it "Perish" would not only have been rare and less believable, but would have been too obvious--the equivalent of a symbolic gong instead of a subtle whisper of character.

In Chasing Destiny, the sequel to Chasing Midnight, the hero's name is Cole Renton. Cole is a man trying to escape the shadow of his father, the leader of a rogue, black organization intent on operating outside the lines in the interest of national security. A play on the dark connotation of "coal" not only conveys the hero's own past, but establishes his frame of mind in the novel's opening scenes.

When corralling your cast of characters and browsing your baby and heritage naming books, consider using a name that's not only a label, but also suggests something about the character. What about a salt-of-the-earth hero named Clay? A prostitute named Mona? You get the idea.

Can you think of any examples of character names as symbols?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Snapshots at a Kroger

The back pages of my manuscript are in a community box at the base of my desk, used for everything from hand-scribbled to-do lists to elaborate Crayola caricatures of our family in stick figure form. To reuse them sends my environmentally-aware Catholic-guilt side a message that the forest of trees sacrificed so that I could spin a 90,000 word yarn was not in vein. No one would doubt the critical nature of a grocery list with 30 items and only twenty minutes to spare.

Not one of these pages, no matter how torn or frayed, makes it past my internal editor. Standing at the refrigerated section of Kroger, frigid wind blasting my still-anemic Winter legs, I turn the list and reread a tiny snapshot of my story. Sometimes I adore what I find--barely able to recall that the words had come from me. Sometimes, I make myself crazy reconstructing a sentence, no matter how much it seems to have that "ring of inevitability", that it's always been that way and will until we're all reduced to ash. Most of the time, something interrupts my muse and I realize how crazy it is to revisit the same lines like a parent clinging to a child ready to begin a life of independence. Almost always, someone is there to break the spell--a gangly teenager stocking yogurt, a family member with more pressing concerns than the words that filled our character's world--and I'm grateful. It helps me see the forest past the trees between my fingertips.

And the few times my list has slipped out of my control, blown to the dust bunnies beneath the snack food aisle? Maybe one day it'll show up on, a site devoted to publishing found lists. Maybe someone, somewhere will read the snapshot of my novel and the craving to read more will be stronger than their urge to gorge on the chocolate-covered Macadamia nuts hidden in their basket.

A writer can only hope...

Grocery store musak for the day: Hall and Oates

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Birth of A Workshop

Beginning writers often come into learning the craft as an endless stream of course studies to be mastered: POV, plotting, characterization, voice, never once stopping to gauge their own success in one area--irrespective of the others. The self-imposed pressure to become experts at all the components of writing can be overwhelming at times. Seemingly, seasoned, published authors have mastered every nuance of all the elements. But have they really?

What if these writers found the one aspect of writing they could excel, far above most who put pen to paper, and nurtured it. Studied it. Captured its light and savored its warmth so that when they pulled this glowing orb of talent from their writer's toolbox, it outshined the less glistening part of their stories. For the reader, attracted to the light above all others, it is this part of the experience the author draws them like drugged insects to an electronic zapper. What if this is the secret to success as a writer?

As important as it is for writers to fill in the gaps to their knowledge of craft, focusing on the areas their creative side short-changed them might make for a well-rounded read, but will it have the literary pull of a piece of work where one aspect of storytelling can only be described as outstanding? Which will be more memorable in the reader's mind? Which will drive sales of future books?

To this end, I'm focusing my study on the craft of writing into an area most closely resembling my light. The mere idea that it comes naturally to me makes it all the more fascinating to dissect it and learn how my mind can form a cohesive bond with experts in the industry. The unique blend of internal thought and external knowledge could produce something worth repeating.

As a writer, what is your "light"? What "light" do you appreciate in published works?

Friday, May 4, 2007

A Writer's Chi

Between projects, the inevitable moment comes where the writer longs to purge the old to make way for the new--the mental bookmark our creativity seems to crave. I had this overpowering urge to rearrange my writing space, my subconscious connection to the environment trying to speak to me, perhaps. I decided it was time to learn about Feng Shui as it relates to writers.

Immediately, I recognized ways I "tweak" my writing environment before I'm able to get into the creativity zone, without knowing why I was performing these rituals. What I thought was my neurotic mental block about seeing paper scraps on the desk under my monitor or pens with no caps in my drawer, now makes perfect sense. Intuitively, we all know what "feels" right, but here are some tips to help writers achieve maximum productivity and enhance their creativity:

1. Place your writing desk in a "power position." Ideally, facing south (fame area) or northeast (education and knowledge area). Opposite the office door is the best position. If that places your back to the door (a location you could feel threatened or unprotected), a well-placed mirror or reflective surface can accomplish the same goal. Having a wall behind your chair, instead of a window, provides symbolic support for your work.

2. Create a nourishing view. The smudges on my wall I'd longed to attack with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser were, apparently, zapping my chi. Blues, purples and reds are the colors of prosperity. Make sure what you look at each day feeds your creative spirit.

3. Clear clutter. Anything around your writing space that's stacked, unfinished (ha!-I know!) or disorganized is the equivalent of emotional constipation. File cabinets and file boxes are your friends. Use them and purge them often. Remove any broken objects. Those naked pens in my desk drawer? Out. See, I wasn't crazy. This rule doesn't stop with the physical, but extends to the cyberworld, too. Keep your inbox clean. Delete files and software you haven't used in five years.

4. As you enter your writing space, what is in the far left corner? This is your prosperity and wealth corner. If you have a stack of manuscript rejections or tax-deductible receipts shoved into a box there, replace it with something meaningful, peaceful, or something that reflects your goals.

5. To clear negative electromagnetic stress, take frequent breaks--which we all know, but do we actually do it until our butt numbs?--place a clear or rose quartz near your computer to absorb negative emissions (No, not the curses coming from you when your characters aren't cooperating). Place a live plant nearby--peace lilies and a cactus called Cirrus Peruvianus--is ideal.

I can't say how much of this will impact my writing until I reach my next "mental bookmark," but why fight it? If it works for Donald Trump, it's worth a try.

Your one thing from the list you plan to do to improve your writing environment...