Sunday, April 30, 2017

Writing About Death

Kasie Whitener

I’m new to death.

Early in my life, death was a peripheral thing: it happened to my friends’ grandparents and to classmates I didn’t know very well. Though my family buried two cousins, we were all young and their parents’ grief was obscure and diluted for me.

As an adult, I lost one grandmother with whom I’d had very little contact and then the other who had been a dear friend. In the past year, my father-in-law has lost two of his good friends and the son of one of those friends. And now his sister, our sweet Aunt Carolyn Sue, has passed.

I write through death. I write because it allows me to get perspective on the emotions running wild within me. When I write, I organize words and sentences and paragraphs into a particular rhythm and tone. When I write, I have purpose and focus.

I wrote for my Nana, tried to memorialize her. I wrote about the one-year-later feeling when life has gone on without the person we’ve lost. I wrote about the worst day of someone else’s life. I wrote for one friend when her Nana died and for another when his stepfather passed.

My first novel is about a twenty-two-year-old kid whose best friend commits suicide. In that book, I wrote about death when it is shocking and confusing.

When I write about death, it’s usually from an arm’s distance. I am observing the way others process their grief. When I write about death I don’t try to understand it or rationalize it. I simply record what I’m seeing and infer what others are feeling.

Writing can be cathartic. It can help the writer expunge herself of emotion; simply bleed on the page and the work will be authentic. But when I write about death, I feel more matter-of-fact than emotional. All things that live must die; I know this and take comfort in it. To everything there is a season, a purpose, and then it is over.

My latest short story is about a man whose four-year-old son has cancer. In that story, the threat of the child’s death is the antagonist. When I write death as a possibility, I’m reminded how grateful I am to be human. I write that gratitude into my characters. I refuse to let them take their lives for granted: be more, do more, say more, feel more.

Characters die. They are not people. Their deaths provide motivation, complicate relationships, and force choices. When real people die, motivations, relationships, and choices all still occur. Loss changes us all.

Writing about death means writing about change. I’m getting more acquainted with the process. I’m learning to prepare for loss, to make time before to share what I can with the people around me: Be more, do more, say more, feel more.

I’m learning to write about death without cliché or hysterics. Capturing change and dignity are my purpose and focus. I’m new to death but I’m learning.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Strange Brew and Romantic Comedy

By Laura P. Valtorta                                     

STRANGE BREW. My favorite music venue, in South Austin, allows me to hear the strings on the guitars and every stroke of the drum brush. I can see the Purgatory Players in front of me. I feel like we’re friends. Strange Brew – a place with the best acoustics in my life and hibiscus tea, I love you.

On Sunday morning I insisted on walking to Strange Brew from Clara and Ross’s house. That’s another good thing – we can walk there and then sit through the free concert. Order peanut butter cookies and tea. Hear some great singing and practically crawl inside the guitars. Wonder about the percussion people, who are introverts.

My body swayed involuntarily to the music. Shared a peanut butter cookie. Felt my eyeballs roll back with the pleasure of the beat. Then it was time to leave.

Sadness. This place is so pleasurable I fear that fate will drag it away. Usually when I like a restaurant this much, the place ends up closing. I hope that Strange Brew is the exception. It’s a sandwich bar/beer place/coffee shop/music paradise that pays big attention to SOUND.

STATESIDE AT THE PARAMOUNT THEATER. Every movie we’ve seen at the 20th Austin Film Festival has stood separate and apart from the others. We’ve seen four short documentaries and four full-length films. I can’t decide which was the best. Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley was the most moving. Girl on a Bicycle was the funniest.

Girl on a Bicycle is the story of an Italian tour guide in Paris who is affianced to a German stewardess but falls in love with a French woman with two kids. Jeremy Leven (writer-director) lives in France part of the time, but his French is admittedly not that good. Most of the story is in English. Girl feels like some of the modern lighthearted Italian comedies you see on the movie channel in Italy. Leven got financing from the people who produced the German masterpiece,The Lives of Others, a dark film about East Germany before the wall came down.

Girl made me laugh, and the story got funnier as the film progressed. Vincenzo Amato, as Paolo, the main character, captured the sweetness and funniness of Italian men.  He justifiably related everything in Paris to the Romans and to Italy. The funniest scene occurred when Paolo chased the girl on the bicycle through the narrow streets of Paris driving his double-decker tour bus. When he stopped the tourists ran away.

The movie really works because all of the main characters are from different countries. Greta (Nora Tschirner in a bad blond wig), is the best airline stewardess ever, especially when dealing with phone heads. My favorite character was Derek – played by Paddy Considine from England.  I enjoyed Louise Monot, who is a French model.

We need to get movies like Girl in wide distribution in the United States. People want to see funny comedies where kids are referred to as “small farts.” Was Leven listening to me?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dialogue Says It All

By Sharon May

If we do an internet search on how to write good dialogue, most sites have the same pointers – move action forward, reveal character, don’t make all the characters sound the same, come into the scene late and leave early, use simple dialogue tags and use them sparingly, and punctuate dialogue correctly. Good advice, but they don’t demonstrate how one writes good dialogue.

First, I would like to thank everyone in the Columbia II writer’s workshop for all the positive comments about my dialogue. I have always thought that I was horrible at it.  And, I had good reason to believe so. 

I took a theater class in college, and one of the options for the paper was to write a scene of a play. I shared my idea with my professor, and he seemed very excited that one of his freshmen was going to attempt the task. I’m sure he was quite bored with the typical papers he received. When I met with him to show him my feeble attempt, his disappointment was obvious. He didn’t say anything negative, but I knew he was thinking “how could such a great idea turn out like this?” Even I knew it was beyond horrible.

While I may now believe that my dialogue is pretty good, I still don’t think I can write a play. The stakes for dialogue are higher in a play; it must move action forward and reveal character without the help of narration. My dialogue is just not that strong.

What changed in forty years to improve my dialogue? Obviously, experience is a reason. But I think the real key is that now I know my characters well. I have met them along the roads of Appalachia. They were neighbors, family, friends, former classmates, and shoppers at the grocery store. We may have had various levels of interaction when I lived there, but now I spend my days and nights with them to learn what they will think and say. (I still need to spend more time with them to determine how they will act when they speak.)

I enter their minds when they converse with one another, leaving my reality behind. Through them, I gain experiences I will never have and say words I will never say. Hearing their responses, I drift further into their world, awaiting their next word. I am in awe of my characters as they interact, often surprised as the words reveal themselves and drive the story in unexpected directions.  

Knowledge of the characters is essential to knowing how they will speak and how they will react to others who are speaking. It’s not simply knowing their backgrounds and demographics, it’s about finding their souls, looking deep inside to find what motivates them. To write dialogue, just dive into a conversation with a couple of characters who are in conflict or who have an agenda. The better you know them, the better the dialogue.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Revision: Examining Pace

By Jodie Cain Smith

In order to create the work I want, hooking the reader from page one all the way to the captivating last page, I designed a list of questions to be asked throughout revision. Revision is a daunting task, but my questions may help you when you’ve “The End” only to realize you must begin again.

Does the opening swiftly delve into the story while immediately revealing the lead character? Does the reader feel interested in the lead character from chapter one?

What I discovered with a read of my current work is that the use of a clever device distanced the reader from the lead character. For a more impactful opening, an active reveal of the character’s personality and main problem would be more effective and draw the reader into the story. In writing the rough draft, I had forgotten the reader is investing precious leisure time in my work. I must honor that time.

Have I prolonged outcomes?

Prolonged outcomes are why a reader will read to the end. It is my responsibility to create a problem complex enough to require 300+ pages. Then, I must reveal the solution to the problem over the entirety of the work. Every chapter, every page even, must move the story forward.

If I ramble on for 150 pages before revealing my lead character’s essence or struggle, the reader will feel abused and abandon the story. Leaving breadcrumbs and personality reveals throughout the story is far more compelling than a forty-page physics lesson (Angels and Demons), fifty pages on the construction difficulties of a library in Chicago (Devil in the White City), or 100 pages on the political landscape of Oz (Wicked).

(So, yes, I may be exaggerating a bit and have read every book in the Wicked series because Gregory Maguire is a genius, but you get the point:  Get to the story and make it last until the bitter end!)

Have I used an economy of words?

An economy of words in novel writing is not brevity. As I revise, I must examine every action scene to ensure that my character’s survival is all that is on the page. Short sentences and even fragments will move the character from terrifying event to death-defying feat. When running from a bear in real life, no one stops to think of the emotional impact of the bear tearing into flesh, so why would my character stop to ponder anything? She must RUN, RUN!

The same goes for annoying little pop-ups of every rough draft:  overuse of dialogue tags, adverbs, lazy verbs, and passive voice. Cut or revise these in order to speed the pace. Intentional sensory phrases and energetic verbs add punch. Long, cluttered paragraphs and linking verbs (would have, begin to walk, started thinking) weaken tension and slow the pace.

What other questions do you use to set the pace of your work? Share your knowledge here. Yep, I can use all the help I can get. Like I said, revision is hard.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Luxury of Wasted Time

By Kasie Whitener

Every now and then I have what I call a Bell Jar Day. I curl up on the couch and waste space for six or seven hours. My mom used to call them mental health days and I know I need them. I also know that they’re wasted time.

In stories, there is no wasted time. The only minutes that appear on the page are the minutes that relate to the story. It’s this economy of time that turns people into characters. Real people stumble over words, miss opportunities, and waste time in front of the television.

Characters are actors. They do things and say things to push and pull at the plot of their existence. They enact vengeance and seize power. Characters have no time to waste.

A typical Bell Jar Day begins with first breakfast and me queueing up whatever shows I have DVR’d from the last week. I crawl into my mermaid blanket and stretch out on the love seat facing the TV. I check my phone for any new emails. Nothing urgent.

If I’m a character, the email box has some urgent missive in it. Something to change the course of my day. Something that makes today different from any other day. But I’m not a character. I turn the phone face-down on the table and click play on Shadowhunters.

As the day progresses, hours gobbled up like white dots in Pac-Man, I realize there are things that need to be done that I’m not doing: Shower, library, grocery store.

If I’m a character, I’m well into some hard place now. I’ll have to make a choice that will have consequences. Others will be affected. It will determine how I spend the rest of my life, not just the rest of my day. But I’m not a character. I make second breakfast.

I often tell stories that juxtapose two different incidents; only after the second one occurs does the first find meaning. What was a passing conversation becomes a pivotal moment. My characters are haunted by that past moment in the present. Their actions now are informed by it, their urgency created by it. Will they make the same mistake they made before?

Toggling between the time periods is tricky. I sometimes use spacers and sometimes the past-perfect tense, depending on how close the incidents are – can they be confused for one another? I like an intentional confusion in certain places, being unsure as to when the character uttered a specific phrase.

Economizing the time characters spend in the story can be tricky, too. Editorial questions like, “How does this contribute?” and “Can this be learned another way?” tighten a story’s superfluous scenes into sharp, intentional interactions.

Short story characters aren’t permitted Bell Jar Days. In films and TV it’s a montage of laziness, light moving through a room as the character lays on the couch. But in stories, elapsed time is the spacer. It’s the blank space between sections of the story, referenced but not shown.