Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Latest Addition


Dean and sister, Sharon
Dean’s adventuresome spirit has led him from stints in the Caribbean, where he spent nine years, to Berkeley and San Francisco, where he spent over ten years.  He has spent much time up and down the west coast, and currently lives points east.  His passion is for science fiction, both near and far-term, although he also writes dark fantasy, action-adventure, and metaphysical non-fiction texts. 
His initial sci-fi book is expected out in early 2013.  It is the first in a series of tomes, reminiscent of R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Peter F. Hamilton’s larger works.  He plans to “rest up” afterwards by releasing smaller, more standard-sized sci-fi novels over the course of the year.  He participates in several critique groups, both in Columbia and online.   

Advice to a Beginning Writer

By Dean Croke

"Get into the flow," as Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi, author of  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, would say. Put aside your hyper-rational mind. There'll be room for that later come time to polish your work.

That said, if you're seeing the movie play out in your head vividly, and it's so real and captivating, this doesn't mean it's ready to go. Just that these scenes will likely make it into the book. They feel right on some level to you. Now it's a matter of making them make sense to the reader.

Now's a good time to pick up a book on narrative structure and see how the pieces you put down on paper fit together, how to glue the scenes together, and what missing pieces need filling in.

When you move from that "flow state", which is very right-brained incidentally, in which patterns are entirely clear to you, into "editing state", which is more left-brained, you begin to see how the reader might need more hand-holds, and suddenly how what was so obvious to you leaves the reader entirely lost.

Without three-act structure your reader is lost. But three acts is a lot more than beginning, middle and end. Did you know there are 15 chief beats that a good story must have according the Save the Cat by Blake Snyder? That's not a typo, the number really is 15. Now how many of those are in your story? If any of them is missing, your story won't feel right on some level. Your reader won't feel entirely satisfied, even if he can't articulate why.

You can read a million books on narrative structure and learn something from each of them, but not everything you need. Or you could read one very terse book, and even just a small section of that, and get what you need. Total investment of your time: 20 minutes. It's worth it. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Save the Cat. So next time I ask you, where is your "all is lost" moment, you'll understand what I'm asking.

When I mention that your mid-point is a "false high" and so is your "act two climax", you'll understand why that's a problem.

And if I appear flummoxed by why you didn't start your story with a "hook scene", you'll go, "Oh, my God, you're right!"

Or if I say I can't tell the difference between your "fun and games" section and your "the bad guys close in" section in Act Two, you'll know right away what I mean and how to fix it.

Did you know that Act Two is an upside down universe relative to Act One? That the general three act structure follows this pattern: 1) thesis, 2) antithesis, 3) synthesis. So if I can't tell much difference from your act two world and your act one world, you already know that's a big problem.

Did you know that before your hero can enter Act Three, he has to make a decision on a strategic approach to winning the day? And that decision is based on lessons learned from the B-story? Not only does the theme usually come out in your B-story, that's where your hero gains a lot of the strength to overcome increasing obstacles throughout your story.

But again, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know if you've read Save the Cat.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vision Board for Writers

By Leigh Stevenson

I have created a Vision Board. I reveal this at the risk of sounding woo-woo to the uninitiated. My reason is not so much to “bring” the things on my board to me as it is to remind me of what I want to explore and create space for in my life. It has become a kind
of visual list.

All it requires is poster board, scissors and a few old magazines. If you are artistic, you can create your own drawings. You add to your Vision Board those things that elude you. Those things you never seem to have time for. Place it where you can see it on a regular basis.

As writers we are always dealing with the written word. That’s a given. To add depth and texture to writing, I believe in using all the senses. Thus I have my visual reminder. Some of the aspects of my board represent making time for friendships; reading books in all genres, not just my own; traveling; and exploring poetry. And as is, I believe, the way of the Universe, my life and my writing somehow now encompass these things.

One reminder from the Vision Board that has given me great pleasure is poetry and newly discovered poets. My mother was a poet and writer, and although I’ve been around poetry all my life, my knowledge of it is limited. There are the old favorites; Shakespeare (Goes without saying. The man wrote in iambic pentameter), Dickinson, Keats, Whitman, Rumi, Frost. The list is endless. But what has been a revelation is the newly discovered poets. Among others new to me are Ann Michaels and Mary Oliver. Their words astonish, surprise and often transfix me. Bonnie Stanard, too, of our own Columbia II Writer’s Workshop is not only a novelist but a very fine poet. Her images are fresh and haunting.

So, I must recommend the Vision Board. If only as an interesting exercise, it may have value for you. At best, it could create space for things you didn’t know were missing.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer’s Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capture the Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose, Part II

By Shaun McCoy

In part I of this article we discussed how human relationships can be revealed by showing differing levels of reciprocation.  This article will take reciprocity one step farther by adding indirect speech.

When two people have different expectations of reciprocation we find conflict, and to cover up that conflict we find indirect speech. Almost everybody uses it, and readers intuitively recognize such cover-ups as natural sounding conversation. So let’s take a look at a real life example. 

Joe Bastianich was minding his own business, working for a paper reviewing restaurants in New York, when he was ordered to attempt to bribe maitre d’s to see if he could get seated without a reservation. Even though there was nothing illegal about such a bribe, Bastianich reported that he was extremely nervous about attempting this assignment. What he found was astonishing. Twenty dollars was about all that was required to get seated in even the finest of dining establishments. What is of interest to writers, however, are the things that Joe found himself saying as he offered the bribe. 

Upon being told that there were no seats available and that a reservation would be required, Joe would hold out his twenty dollar bill and say: “Could you check again?” or “Is it possible one might have just opened up?”

What odd things to say while offering a bribe. It’s not like he could pretend that he wasn’t offering the money! His words were indirect speech, a cover up for his request for a different level of reciprocity. By offering the exchange, Joe was trying to attain an exchange reciprocity.  Joe’s questions, however, maintain the fiction and feel of the maitre d’s dominance.

Now let’s take a look at indirect speech in fiction.

In the movie Fargo, Steve Buscemi is cruising down the road when he gets pulled over by a police officer. Steve hands the officer his wallet, ostensibly to show his driver’s license, but leaves a fifty dollar bill edging out of his bill fold. I’ll paraphrase below:

“I prefer to handle these matters as quickly as possible.”

He does not say: “Hey, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you make this ticket go away.” His speech maintains the fiction of the policeman’s dominance while he attempts the exchange. 

Indirect speech can cover up any level of reciprocity mismatch, and the speech doesn’t always have to be verbal. A wife in a patriarchal relationship might start vacuuming while her husband tries to watch football on TV. Passive aggressive behavior is almost always indirect speech, and in this example, maintains the fiction of the patriarch’s complete dominance while the wife secretly claims via her vacuuming that she has a right to be angry or ask for attention.

Let’s imagine a girl flirting with her waiter, or a boy with a crush on a girl on an elementary school playground, or a person assigned to torture a prisoner of war. What kind of indirect speech might these people use to cover up the relationships they really want to have?

If your sympathetic guard watches your prisoner be tortured, let’s say in Siberia, and then gives the prisoner a blanket, we might be touched. But imagine how much more poignant this scene becomes when the guard lies, saying “I hate dogs like you” while handing the blanket over. If the reader knows that the statement is a lie and sees that the guard is using indirect speech to cover their true feelings, the scene is no longer merely touching. It suddenly becomes real.

Watch for indirect speech in real life, you’re bound to see it at least once a day. It is yet another valuable tool for making your dialogue snappy, powerful, and realistic.

But wait, is there more? What other gems does cognitive psychology have to offer the writer? Find out in the exciting sequel: How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer’s Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capture the Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose, Part III

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Writing Non-fiction with Panache

By Chris Mathews

Writing non-fiction does not have to be a dry, pedestrian venture. In fact, in today’s internet world, original ways of approaching real-life events can make the difference between prose that touches people and prose that bores.

In the piece that follows, I tried to inject the simple act of doing a project with my grandchild into a piece that captured the frustration and joy of the experience.

Excavating the Triceratops with Poppy and Granddaughter Sidney Grace

 On Saturday, August 18th, in Ridgeland, South Carolina, Poppy and his granddaughter Sidney Grace Mathews unearthed and reconstructed a triceratops, defined by Wikipedia as a genus of herbivorous ceratopsid dinosaurs which lived during the late Mesozoic period. Forget that scientists now think that this famous, fearsome three-horned triceratops was actually a younger version of the torosaurus. Forget that Ridgeland, South Carolina has never been known for its tarpits (in fact, it barely has a ridge). Forget that this monumental achievement will never be displayed in the Smithsonian.

Poppy and Gracie dug out a triceratops together, using only a small blue, plastic spade and brush. Gracie did most of the brushing, Poppy scraped with the spade. This joint expedition took place in the Mathews’ den atop a glass coffee table.

The team of Poppy and Gracie unearthed this find by extricating a clay egg enclosed in vacuum-sealed plastic labeled Dino World Fossil Kit. Excavating instructions were listed on the back in both English and Spanish:

1. While over an easily cleanable surface or newspaper, remove the dino egg from its wrapper. MarMar, grandma, suggested the kitchen table as the perfect location for this expedition but Poppy wanted a challenge, so he placed a poster sized “No Diving” sign on the clear glass wood-rimmed table.

2. Make sure that the egg is firmly held in place. Carefully, remove dirt using the excavating tools provided (the previously mentioned spade and brush) Wanting results, Poppy left out the “carefully”. After shaving slivers for a short time, he squeezed the clay to smithereens. Gracie reveled in the clay, fragments cascading off the table and onto the carpet, leaving her looking like a street urchin. Feeling the exhilaration of risk-takers, the two opted not to “WEAR EYE PROTECTION” as posted at the bottom of this step.

3. When done removing dirt, clean fossils using the brush. It is very important to remove all dirt from holes that are used to connect pieces to allow a more secure fit. Poppy discovered this important fact as Gracie brushed off the pieces and he tried to force the tiny nubs into the dinosaur’s torso. 

4. Never force the pieces together. If they are not fitting, check for dirt in the holes. Poppy jammed the nubs of the legs into the tiny holes, but only managed to reconstruct a three-legged Triceratops with tail and horned head. Each time Poppy wedged the last leg in its hole, another leg fell off. The plastic legs matched the light tan carpet exactly so finding one that dropped was not easy. After twenty minutes of dropping, picking-up, and twisting legs, Poppy had taken on the demeanor of a mad scientist. Sidney Grace, however, did not lose confidence in Poppy. She just kept playing with the clay, spilling a few crumbs on the carpet as MarMar gleamed with pride at the two with a look of “I knew it wouldn’t stay on the table”.

Finally, after blowing profusely in the holes and delicately washing and blow-drying these tiny orifices, Poppy assembled the Triceratops on four legs. Sidney Grace was impressed, even though Poppy failed to mount the two back legs in the two holes provided on the plastic stand shown in the illustration, deeming the stand “for nincompoops”. After the two proudly gazed at their tiny monstrosity, Marc, Sidney Grace’s dad and Poppy’s son, proclaimed “naptime” for the smudged-face waif.