Friday, August 29, 2008

The Unreliable Narrator

I watched The Sixth Sense again two nights ago. First, I suppose I should raise the obligatory red spoiler flag, although you'd have to have lived under a rock the past nine years to not know about one of the best plot twists ever put to film.

I'm fascinated with the unreliable narrator concept. I believe that we are the unreliable narrators of our own lives. Our experiences, emotions, values, fears-every aspect of our inner story is a veritable 64 Crayola box of shades and truths.

As my final pages loom, I worry about the predictability of my ending. Is it possible the story I've lived with for nine months, one as familiar to me as the scratches on my maple desk, is just as transparent to a new reader? Has the complete reveal of the story become so tiresome that I crave a mind-bending twist to wake up my weary imagination? I'm tempted.

In my previous novel, Chasing Midnight, I experimented with an unreliable narrator and it worked. Completely and, I hope, memorably. Will this become a signature of mine? Things not always what they seem?

Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan is the crown prince of unreliable narration. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis' character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, does not arrive at the truth of his own death until the movie's final scene. The audience feels the impact alongside Malcolm, a moment of ultimate identification and perfect oneness with the character. In Shyamalan's 2004 film, The Village, Lucas and Ivy prove unreliable as the truth about the community is revealed. The result is a richer understanding of motivation and character than if the story had been told from the elder's viewpoint.

Memento, Donnie Darko and an entire list of some of my favorite movies use unreliable narrators. It reminds me of old episodes of The Twilight Zone I would lap up when I was ten where the characters suddenly realized they were figurines in a dollhouse or part of a small microcosm in an alien world. Maybe a bit deus ex machina so prevalent in science fiction of the time, but the reversal of perspective is a theme I gravitate to. Even Lost has dipped its toes into this form of narrative twist. But do audiences ever feel betrayed?

Writers enter into an emotional contract with the reader in the first few pages and build a healthy relationship of trust. Just as writers want to create a tale worthy of the paper on which it's printed, readers want to immerse themselves in a story worthy of their expectations.

Is a twist so monumental that it has the capacity to upend every thread, every realization to that moment, the ultimate betrayal of that trust?

Chime in...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Six? I Have No Idea.

Who am I to stand in the way of web karma? Thanks to Melanie, I'll subject everyone here to a self-indulgent display of six unspectacular things about me. Maybe someone will realize we were separated at birth or that my simultaneous affinity for Sebastian Bach and Willie Nelson is wholly disturbing and block the Vortex feeds. Nevertheless...onward.

1. My musical tastes are polar. In one day I can wax nostalgic on Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings and remember long family car rides across the Texas panhandle when I was ten, then turn on the arena rock satellite channel and know every word of an Anthrax song. Top forty makes me want to pull my fingernails out with pliers. I use music to connect to my stories and characters, but I can't listen while I write.

2. I try not to eat while I write-it's distracting and messy-but if I do, it's either the heavier-than-a-brick lemon bar at Spot #2 or it's black pepper popcorn in a porcelain snowman bowl. Hey, it's hot here. A girl can dream, right?

3. My most hated chore is matching socks. Normally, I'm a patient individual, but it all seems so cyclical and pointless. I'd rather send the masses to kneel at the altar of the sock basket each day. Dig, people. Dig!

4. In most of my recent dreams, I'm back in college. I have no idea what this means.

5. I completely understand why the show "Wipeout" is such a hit. The host's sarcasm along with my propensity to giggle madly at the ungraceful, physical misfortune of others-and myself-has evoked tears at times. This, no doubt, comes from the same place within that has appreciated History of the World, Part 1 and Airplane more times than should be allowed.

6. My secret writing fantasy is to ghostwrite a series for beginning chapter book readers that is so wildly popular, movies and McDonald's tie-ins soon follow. The income stream will make me independently wealthy so I can afford a mountain cottage to hole up in and write commercial fiction.

Here's where I deviate from the rules. If you like, pretend I tagged you. If the thought of a meme saddled to your web persona like an albatross leaves you cringing and clicking your browser's back button, have no fear. Everyone here is off the hook.

Have a great day!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Traditional or Enhanced?

Author websites have evolved. From the basic just the facts ma'am five page parking spot to a completely interactive experience that brings the author's work alive, who's to say what's most effective at snagging a potential reader's attention? Guessing here, but the closer the author gets to the saturated multi-media world, the more likely return visits translate into growing legions of fans.

Here are some I've stumbled across. Add your own and we'll take the tour together...

Random House's website for author Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and seven other novels, delivers the web browser a taste of his work. From what I can piece together, the site is most closely related to his book Rant, although it contains more information on the author than the book. Contrast that to Chuck Palahniuk's author site, which seems as over the top as the porn queen premise for his latest book, Snuff.

Lisa Jackson's Left to Die characters get their own webpage complete with a Darth Vader-ish metallic wheeze for ambiance. Is that Chris O'Donnell alongside an orange reptilian alien? Also available, a map of Grizzly Falls, Montana, the fictitious site of the novel.

Powerhouse Nora Roberts sticks to a more traditional web presence, the only bling a small inset commercial by Penguin Putnam touting her latest release, Tribute.

Cherry Adair, romantic thriller author, brings her T-Flac world to life. Ladies, check out her operatives.

I can't list websites without plugging Rae Monet's work, a designer who created the cover art for Love, Texas Style, and whose author sites are breathtaking. While different from her typical art, her design for Colleen Collin's romance/mystery/PI blend seems perfect.

What kind of author site is most appealing to you?

Next up: I've been tagged...six unspectacular quirks about me. Seriously? Only six?

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Author's Fingerprints

I ask because I don't know the answer. How much author voice is too much?

I know the strengths and weaknesses of my own. I also strive for deep point of view with each viewpoint character. I'm careful to select consistent vocabulary and tweak dialogue to match the character's perspective and background. But if someone were to dump my pages in a sacrificial pile in the middle of a room with a dozen others, the cadence and word choice and description would give me away every time.

One scene contains the deep viewpoint of a less-than-educated Dutch immigrant in the 1880s American frontier. Another, a gritty cop from the present day. I've invested hours exploring the language they'd have used, the patterns of speech, distinctive words and phrases to set them apart. I've calibrated metaphors to their experiences and history. But somehow, when I read it aloud, the song is the same. The notes are me.

Is this something to strive for or suppress?

Despite the playfulness that trickles into my blog posts, my earnest writing is dark, introspective, dense. I come from the school of writing that believes not everyone desires to read a four hundred page novel at the speed of a bullet, like a quick fix of an illicit drug with no lasting impact. When did consuming a novel become a race? Are we thirsting for such quick gratification that we can't wade in a bit and look around?

Sure, I worry about pacing and stringing conflict with the right level of tension-probably more than most-but when a note hits just right in a symphony, it should be appreciated-a blink, a tear, even a second glance to wade into its perfection. The unfolding text is, after all, one reason readers still choose to pick up a book before watching the same story on screen. For one moment during the novel's course, let me savor a new detail of the human condition. An image as breathtaking as the sunset I forget to indulge in each day.

Probably separate topics for two different days, but they both speak to a writer's desire to sneak into a room, lay out a puzzle and tiptoe away into the background. The question is: How much of the author's fingerprints on the pieces is too much?

And since Sherry outlined the perfect song for her hero's struggle, I give you mine.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dark. Light. Creativity. Laughter. And Bribes

It's link day because I proclaim it to be. Actually, I'm on a wicked self-imposed deadline, so enjoy these things I've been wanting to share:

It's not about the annoying sound byte of birds when you click on this, although that does add atmosphere. It's about the hauntingly brilliant mind that was Poe. Enjoy.

For readers who want to get their freak on-their control freak-the no-risk book selection tool. If only editors and agents calibrated this thing to market demand.

A feast for the eyes, to stir the muse.

And a comprehensive collection of the funniest beer ads ever created.

That about cover it? Dark, light, creativity and laughter. Yep, that'll do. Happy Thursday!

* * *
Sherry Davis, Vortex regular and member of the flip flop sisterhood of critique, is celebrating her August e-book release, Here Comes the Bribe, from The Wild Rose Press. Here's what reviewers say:

"I shed tears. I laughed. I thoroughly enjoyed this great story! (5/5 hearts)"
~Brenda Talley, The Romance Studio

"Had me captivated from the very beginning. (4 books)"
~ Jasmine, The Long and Short of It

"A fun, romantic read. I would love a sequel! (5/5 hearts)"
**Reviewer Top Pick**
~Diana Coyle, Night Owl Romance

more reviews...

A single administrative assistant accepts her temporary boss’s offer to masquerade as his fiancĂ©e to keep his matchmaking grandmother out of his personal life and out of the way while he negotiates a high-profile merger for his family-owned company. In exchange, she’ll get the down payment for the loan she needs to keep her ex from selling her condo out from under her.

But neither of them counted on the lines blurring between real and pretend--or for the temporary arrangement to leave them both longing for something more permanent.

Sherry is a huge part of who I am as a writer. She's as talented spinning an intricate urban fantasy as she is tapping into that rare dark humor I can only aspire to. Today's most valuable link.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Tale of Fabritzio and the Seed

Everyone on the alphabet rug. It's story time here at the Vortex.

Envision a genius named Fabritzio. I'd give you my image, but he's SO not wearing a Members Only jacket. He's a physicist specializing in quantum entanglement and has discovered time travel (and you thought suspension of disbelief of the hot Italian scientist was difficult). In the present day, he has a wife, two daughters and a Boston Terrier.

On a muggy August day, he steps into his time machine, returns to his 1980 Ivy League life and re-discovers his first love. After many failed attempts to return to the present day, his carnal nature takes over. Is it infidelity?

This time, poor Fabritzio stumbles upon his future wife in a coffee shop in New York. It's 1985, the year they first dated. After a whirlwind day of strolling violinists and mind-numbing conversation, Fabritzio remembers the exact moment he fell in love with her and they consummate their relationship while she's still seeing his twenty-two year old self. Did Fabritzio cheat on himself?

A result of kicking his own ass, Fabritzio plummets back into 1920's Iowa. In a cornfield, he's rescued by a beautiful young woman and grows to accept he'll never return to his future life. He pledges his undying love for her only to find out she's his grandmother. Is it incestuous if he hasn't yet existed?

What if Fabritzio had taken his wife with him? In 1982 Alps, while each were backpacking through the countryside with their previous spouses, they steal away to a secluded cottage. Is it adultery?

Thus, the complex beauty of time travel. Where other authors would be sentenced to a small print run at some obscure house for injecting these taboos into their novels, all of these internal and external conflicts are completely plausible and accepted in time travel. The ethical challenges characters face can be staggering; the choices laid out, the deepest measure of human nature.

If a side order of taboo in time travel is to your liking, here's two to get you started:

As for Fabritzio and his Captain Kirk panache for spreading his temporal seed, his ultimate punishment will be the forever kind of clinch-cover, waxed man-titty pose on my time travel series on the NY Times list. Futuristically speaking, of course.

On second thought, you can have him.

* * *
This week, look for a smidgen about my CP's new release, Here Comes the Bribe, an answer to the question: How much author voice is too much? and a fun tour through the new generation of author websites. If you've seen a fantastic author site lately, send me the link: so I can include it.

Today's brain niggle: "Never Too Late", Three Days Grace

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Productivity

Enough said about today. I have to go get my stuff done...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Frozen Pole in Brain-Land

Words are at a premium around here. When I've had a particularly grueling writing session, where characters fall apart, fall in love or fall over a cliff, my tongue feels like it's attached to a frozen pole in brain-land. Even my cat's name escapes me. Why is that? Is there a finite number of words available to us in a twenty-four hour span? Granted, women bankroll more in a day than men, but at some point, I simply run out. Every three or four words, my train of thought sizzles apart.

"You're tired," you say. "Take a day off. Tomorrow the well will be full."

I can't be sure. At a project's end, the mind is parched.

The thought of not finding word perfection when I need it is disconcerting. When I re-read a scene back at page 49 and the words weave a perfect tapestry, when I can't even remember writing it, I fear those words floated to the well's surface and what's left beneath at page 300 is muck and the acrid taste of a writer who's grown weary.

At moments like these, the only thing I know is to pick up a novel. Something amazing and revered and of the highest caliber, and gorge myself on the words. A literary feast of nouns and verbs I haven't laid eyes on in awhile. Old friends I hope will become close enough to sneak into my own story in a moment I least suspect. They can be simple and occupy the Neighborhood of Make-Believe from thirty years ago. They can be as dense and mysterious as a NY Times Crossword, but they must be there for me when I need them.

As I write this, I'm reaching for the American Heritage Dictionary. A quick academic fix. The book falls open, at letter I: incite and incoherent. One I've used in my current novel, one is the perfect description for every utterance from my lips today. Does this mean these two formidable words are lost to me? Spent away because they've come and gone? Are words just currency we try to hoard but overspend when we've used more than our share on the page?

Words are the inception for writers. So why, at at a book's end, do we feel we've exhausted every last one? Abused some to the point they'll never return? Convinced the perfect ones they couldn't possibly rise to the surface like the ones who came before?

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." ~ Mark Twain

Someone else adores this quote like I do and has started a website devoted to helping young writers.

Here are some other thoughts about words:

"A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."
~Emily Dickinson

"A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought, and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."~Oliver Wendell Holmes

"For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word." ~Catherine Drinker Bowen

"If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams--the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." ~Robert Southey

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ten Things a Romance Novel Hero Would Never Say

Its Monday. Time for fun and another interactive day here at the Vortex.

My theory on what women want can be summed up in two words: romance novel. Not necessarily for the hero's bulging biceps and rogue tendencies, but for all he doesn't say. By and large these stories are written by women for women. Where else can men get a comprehensive study like that--Men's Health? Yeah, right. Way off. Way.

So, we collectively offer up ten heady doses of reality, ones that chase away any notion of fantasy. I'll start.

Ten Things A Romance Novel Hero Would Never Say:

1. "I'm taking the Browns to the Superbowl." And he isn't talking football.

Who's next?

More Longmire Does Romance Covers

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mental Flow

The only psych classes I had were on the minds of children, so the idea of mental flow and how to harness it fascinates me. Defined, mental flow is that state of deep concentration when the conscious mind stops telling you why you can't do something and lets the rest of your mind and body get it done. Finding flow is essential to any creative pursuit and the secret ingredient to being a successful professional.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of The Meditative Mind, there are five key elements to mental flow:

1. Merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on task at hand
Counting on flow to just happen is like waiting for the migration of a rare butterfly. Make a conscious effort to create an environment where flow is more likely and know what those cues are in yourself. Some walk in nature for twenty minutes. Professional race car drivers participate in elaborate rituals before taking to the asphalt at 200 miles per hour. Become a creature of habit.

2. Focus of attention in a pure involvement without concern for outcome
Goals must be clearly defined, either consciously or subconsciously, but being overly-concerned with the end product is a barrier to creativity. Extreme deadline stress can be crippling because it doesn't allow the superego, the one who controls self-criticism, to step aside.

3. Self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity
Giving yourself permission to drop away for a time is important. Flow typically happens after fifteen minutes of uninterrupted study, but can be lessened with the right techniques. If you're having trouble accessing that part of yourself or you thrive on a sense of control, try twenty or thirty minutes of meditation once or twice per week. With practice, you'll find that superego suppressed enough that you'll be able to step in and out of flow easily.

4. Skills adequate enough to meet the demand
Without knowledge for the subconscious mind to draw from, flow is impossible.

5. Clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response
Situational cues can guide reaction. This is especially true of athletes and other professions where the physical body is the primary instrument for success.

Here are some ways to increase mental flow:

*The shorter the lag time between flow sessions, the more likely you'll be able to access that zone.
*Hunger and excessive fatigue kill flow. Power up with the right body fuel and come to the session rested.
*Phone calls and shared workspace are enemies. This is the primary reason everyone at Microsoft has their own office. Workers do not go into each other's space. Email is the primary means of communication because it's non-invasive and can be attended to when flow drops away.
*Find out the time of day when flow comes easier to you. Schedule less creative tasks during alternate times.

How do you find your flow?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Life, Reduced

I'd sat down last night with every intention to post, but as is the case with me, I need time to digest and meditate on the topic at hand. So it comes to you at 4 am after a day spent in the microcosm of a hospital. A loved one's routine, yearly it seems, outpatient trip through the medical maze. This time it netted a powerful idea.

Maybe the idea wouldn't have glistened so brightly had I not found it in the surgical waiting room, where our human experience is reduced to life and death. And The Price is Right. Where for a short burst of time, strangers come to know exact shades of expression in each other, and through the sheer intimacy of unspoken fears, the room becomes a lifeboat. Phone-liason volunteer at the helm. Enough coffee to float us and enough look-at-my-celebrity-baby magazines to carry us straight to the bottom. Life reduced.

In yesterday's USA Today, a columnist outlined his experiment with simplicity. Over the course of a year, he pared down his life. His original goal was to reduce spending, but the idea overflowed with the unintended consequences of happiness and gratitude. The rules were simple: 1. purchasing books and music are allowed. They nourish the mind. 2: purchasing gifts for others is allowed. 3: Accepting gifts is okay. 4: Never buy anything for yourself. 5: One year.

My first thought was: only a writer could pull this off. A writer could knock around the house in hole-infested briefs and find creative ways to skirt the rules. The job already lends itself to poverty and a socially-acceptable form of insanity.

Then, I considered the families who checked out of society and went back to live for six months in nineteenth century conditions for the PBS series. The idea always appealed to me. I couldn't help wondering if I had the strength to shed my pest-controlled, central air-dependent life. Always, the families re-entered the present time closer for the experience, their souls richer.

I don't want for anything, save the love and health of those around me. Everything on my cork board cannot be bought. I am blessed beyond belief that I have the time and luxury to lament over rejection slips while others can't make their next house payment. So, what if a family could learn to want for nothing in the climate of excess we live in? What if at the beginning of that year, we pared down to the essentials and material things with meaning and memories--the basics of everything we loved and entered into the experiment with garage sales and charity donations? What if we spent the year recapturing the joy of giving, the art of thankfulness? Is it possible? Would my family detest me or would we emerge on the heels of one of those life-lessons that would forever change our fabric?

Life reduced. Without the bling of a showcase showdown or the misguided beacon of those celebrity magazines. A lifeboat to find our true selves.

Could you do it?

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Challenge

"Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right." ~Henry Rod

I have a cork board in sight. Little more than the size of a boot box, but littered with visual representations of my aspirations. I'd cluttered my monitor with post-its once upon a time, but time decayed the adhesive and some became lost. Some call it a goal board, but that's hardly magical. Maybe it's some incantation of The Secret, an experiment to convince myself there is a force at work for or against us greater than anything we can understand. The cork board required effort. The purchase, the great hunt for thumb tacks in my desk's jungle drawer, the seeking out of images and words to capture a future reality that fills daydreams. Minimal effort, compared to the road traveled to get there, but something more than thought. The permanence of words and actions.

One of the most powerful forces we harness in life is belief. In others, yes. In ourselves, more. It takes a quiet mind to dig down and find our definition of success. What a tremendous leap of faith to take that definition and own it. Shout it from the rooftop. Tell our family. Post it on a board. It makes our dreams vulnerable, a bullseye for cynics. Most importantly, it stands as a monument to ourselves. A Pavlovian reenforcement we will someday come to know as truth.

I can't tell you what's on my board. The contents are too raw, too familiar. Nor do I want to know what's on yours. I do want to share the process. I challenge each of you to begin gathering symbols, ideas, photographs and find a place for them you see each day. If a board doesn't work for you, try one of those travel coffee mugs that are a fillable blank canvas for decoration and drink from it each day. Try the inside of your closet door or a bookmark. Anything goes, as long as you lay eyes on it each day. Add other ideas here. Together we'll find out if there is magic.

Most artistic feat today: paper monsters

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Master of Suspense

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."
~Alfred Hitchcock

Last night, I watched director's commentary on a DVD from one of my favorite movies, Somewhere in Time, and Jeannot Szwarc referenced a technique used by Alfred Hitchcock to increase the tension. According to Hitchcock, the audience must earn the right to the character's first meet, an idea that seems to be grounded more in romance than murder thrillers. When Richard Collier is finally transported back to 1912, he must endure being caught in the wrong room, ignored by the play's cast at large, barked at by the director and must dodge the advances of an amorous cast member before the audience is rewarded with the moment he first meets Elise McKenna. The technique, so simple and effective, made me wonder which of Hitchcock's other tricks might translate into the author's relationship with the reader. Here are a few tidbits:

1. The Mind of a Reader
According to Hitchcock, nothing is more important than how each scene engages an audience. Every aspect must reel them in. Characters tease and pull them along, leaving them desperately wanting more. Readers come to our pages because we provide them a safe element of danger, much like riding a rollercoaster. At the final page, a writer's greatest achievement is when the reader comes screaming into the station, smiles with delight and heads straight for the nearest bookstore to devour anything else the author has written.

2. Emotional Framing
Hitchcock often played with the audience using the "theory of proximity." His shots zoomed in on details and relaxed in far away angles, every movement a calculated control of the audience's intensity. When staging scenes, writers can use the reader's physical proximity to the characters and the character's proximity to each other to tap into that intensity.

3. Visual Storytelling
This one could be a stretch from screen to page, almost counterintuitive, but Hitchcock preferred using a succession of images or details to tell the story rather than relying on dialogue. The element of reveal, an art in itself, captured the audience far better than a hoodwinked detective laying out the pieces. In a publishing climate where the white spaces of dialogue are king, visual storytelling can give the narrative that does remain on the page greater impact.

4. Dialogue Means Nothing
"People don't always express their inner thoughts to one another," said Hitchcock. "A conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs." He accessed this through the actor's eyes. Writers access this through subtext. The focus of a scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. The power lies in drawing the reader's attention to everything else that shows truth.

5. Characters Break Cliche
Hitchcock always gave audiences the opposite of what they expected. Dumb blondes who were smart. Cubans with French accents. Rich criminals. Unexpected personalities cemented the bond between character and audience.

6. Two Things At Once
Another technique Hitchcock used to build tension was to have two contrasting or unrelated situations playing out simultaneously. While the reader is focused on the momentum of one, they are diverted by another. Jack Bickham cautions that while it is an effective technique to increase dramatic tension, the writer must use it sparingly to avoid frustrating the reader.

7. Exploit Trivial Character Traits
Hitchcock observed that in moments of crisis, people invariably do something trivial. Light a cigarette. Make a cup of tea. One small detail can add considerable tension and offer insight into character. The more awkward and fresh the detail, the better. Hitchcock often looked to exploit elements connected to a character's location.

8. Sunlight Abounds
Hitchcock loved the juxtaposition of the norm. He contrasted the darkness and drama of his story with settings of brightness and apparent happiness. In North by Northwest, he drops his protagonist on a sun-drenched field of wheat only to be hunted by a crop dusting plane. In this way, the drama is even more vivid and the writer avoids cliched settings.

9. Surprise and Twists
Hitchcock's rule: The story must never end the way the audience expects. Never. Lead them in one direction, then pull the rug out.

10. Humor Adds Tension
The delicious irony Hitchcock often put his characters in is his own form of humor coming through. He envisioned the worst possible thing that could go wrong for the character and built his stories from that irony.

As writers, we know most of these things, both intuitively and through the learning curve we've traveled. For me, reminders of those tiny little nuances that lay at the bottom of my bag of tricks are like a shiny, forgotten penny. Okay, maybe something that spends better, but priceless nevertheless.

"I am scared easily, here is a list of my adrenaline - production: 1: small children, 2: policemen, 3: high places, 4: that my next movie will not be as good as the last one." ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Nice to know even the greats shared that fear.

What's your favorite Hitchcock moment and why?