Tuesday, December 09, 2014

WRITER TO WRITER: 12 Possibly Relevant Tips at Year’s End

  1. Do not take your moods too seriously (exclusions to this rule include clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and the like; if any of these apply, seek expert help and do not skip your meds!) because the dark hole you inhabit today may well presto-change-o to a snowy peak tomorrow, and either way, you still have to face the blank page and write the next paragraph/page/chapter/repeat.
  2. Do know what makes your skin crawl, your stomach turn to mush, and your brain freeze because chances are at least some of your characters share your fears and, writers, this is useful knowledge.
  3. Do know what fills you with anger and despair, catch the passion and use it in your stories.
  4. Know who and what you love, get some of it every day, and be sure to share with others.
  5. Know there is time (there is always time until you are under dirt and you probably wouldn’t be reading these rules if you are under dirt so there is time).
  6. If you want to go faster, slow down.
  7. Know that there may be a part of you fighting to keep your stories from the world, and that same part of you will not fight fair, and you must learn to listen, acknowledge, and set very firm boundaries because chances are, that part of you is not a grownup and is terrified for your well-being and lives in a very early and primal place in your psyche.
  8. Remember, not everyone faces the same inner-demons but everyone faces at least one big ole’ hairy-scary so know you have company and be as brave as you can.
  9. Laugh loud and when people look at you, laugh louder—as long as you are not being cruel, laughter is always appropriate.
  10. Honor the Winter Solstice as a time to rest, go deep, be very still, and nourish yourself—preferably with chocolate and possibly with tequila.
  11. Never forget Kurt Vonnegut’s 6th tip: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
  12. Oh, and ditto his 7th tip: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” For that matter, even if you’ve heard them a hundred times, listen again to his 8 tips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyQ1wEBx1V0

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The View from Here: One Writer's Thoughts on Viewpoint

Any in-depth discussion of viewpoint or point of view (POV) is a complex undertaking because viewpoint is perhaps the most intricate element of fiction. Because in this blog, I aim for simplicity, I will cover a few basics, and, with the examples interspersed, encourage you to register and reflect upon your impressions.

For the moment lets consider point of view as the person and perspective used to narrate the story. More simply yet profoundly put by author and teacher Janet Burroway, viewpoint is the vantage point from which a story is told, and “…it is finally the relationship among writer, characters, and reader…”

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. From ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain:
How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged. Every morning the sun was up long before they were, making a mockery of the flimsy summer curtains that hung limply at their bedroom windows, a sun already hot and sticky with promise before Olivia even opened her eyes. Olivia, as reliable as a rooster, always the first to wake, so that no one in the house had bothered with an alarm clock since she was born three years ago.From CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

In creative writing 101 the possible viewpoints are categorized as first person (I; this narrator may be central or she may be peripheral), second person (you, not commonly used), close or limited third person (she/he; the viewpoint belongs to a central character), and the third person omniscient (authorial voice or persona created by the author to allow an overarching viewpoint encompassing convincing shifts of viewpoint between multiple characters). They each have their strengths and their limitations.  Let's take a few moments to consider them one by one. 

1st person: 
My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.From CROW LAKE by Mary Lawson
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.From TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

2nd person:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.From BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney

Close 3rd person:
The girl gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Her fingers were pale where knuckles stretched skin, her arms were thin as sticks. Bones--not flesh--defined her body. Toes on toes, her bare feet pressed the accelerator flush against the Honda's floorboard. Her head scarcely topped the dashboard, but she saw the narrow horizon of blacktop change suddenly to desert and barbed wire. From A DESPERATE SILENCE by Sarah Lovett
Omniscient/authorial 3rd person:
TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN; AND OF THE CIRCUMSTANCE ATTENDING HIS BIRTH. Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse, and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.From OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens

The choice of person—who speaks—will be your primary viewpoint or POV decision. There will be other choices having to do with distance or intimacy of tone, degree of omniscience (in 3rd omniscient), form (written story, reportage, confessional, etc.), and reliability of narrator.  But the most important consideration for now with viewpoint is that, within the first words, paragraphs, pages of your story, you are making a contract with the reader and you risk losing your reader if you decide to break that contract later in the narrative.

One final point about POV or viewpoint when using a peripheral narrator, a character telling someone else’s story—the character perceiving the story should be the character most effected by the story. (Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby: he tells the story of Jay Gatsby but at the end it is Nick who is alive and profoundly changed by what he has witnessed and relayed to us, the readers.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”From THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A few words about "voice": your voice as a writer is distinctly recognizable, a combination of tone and style that let's readers know you are you. Keep writing and don't worry about finding your voice because it's already yours. To quote Janet Burroway once more, "Worry about saying things as clearly, precisely, and vividly as you can. Make your language as rich, flexible, and varied as you can make it. In other words, seek to voice, and your voice will follow."

Consider more viewpoint selections below, and as you read--from the first word onward--register everything you can about the viewpoint the author has chosen:

Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division, rose when he saw me, and I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body. He rose—his breeches purple, his crimson cap cocked to the side, his medals pinned to his chest—splitting the hut in two like a banner splitting the sky. He smelled of perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots. From "My First Goose", THE RED CALVALRY STORIES by Isaac Babel
Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, and offered the day to God.Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself, calling her to search for something unfelt, unknown, and unimagined. Her spirit responded to this call with an algorithm of longing. Every moment of being contained an indivisible—and invisible—denominator.She lit a candle and faced the plain wooden cross on the wall. It had no corpus because, in spirit, she belonged there, taking Christ’s place and helping relieve his burden.Suffering borne by two is nearly joy. From LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman
Manuel and his wife were poor, and when they first looked for an apartment in Paris, they found only two dark rooms below the street level, giving on to a small stifling courtyard. Manuel was sad. He was an artist, and there was no light in which he could work. His wife did not care. She would go off each day to do her trapeze act for the circus. From LITTLE BIRDS by Anais Nin

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and endings, thresholds, doorways and gates, is most often depicted as a two-faced guy because he is looking to the future and the past simultaneously.

With those thresholds, gateways and passages in mind, take a moment in the present to listen to Mac Barnett's delightful, funny and provocative TED talk. You might just get a whale of an idea!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Always End With a Smile~and Other Writing Lessons from Puppy Class

Last week my daughter and I and our 10-month old recently rescued puppy, Jazz, all graduated from 'Puppy Basics'.

Jazz, who is 13.5 pounds of clever terrier-plus-guess-what, and my daughter, who is wise and a few days shy of her 11th birthday, breezed through the lessons: relax, sit, stay, off, down, lineup, come, and leave it. I did fine, too, as I am fascinated by animal behavior and what it teaches us about ourselves and others.

At the end of the class, as is her custom, our instructor Judy reminded us to generously praise our dogs and ourselves because the most important rule is, "Always end with a smile!"

"Your puppies crave approval," Judy reminded us repeatedly over the six weeks of classes. "You want to set up a success model for their training. Praise and treats are powerful reward messages and your dogs learn quickly because learning is fun!"

As we enjoyed our success at the end of that class, I made a mental note to post a blog about reinforcing success when it comes to writers and their creative projects.

Everyone, whether canine or human, wants to succeed at whatever the task, and praise, treats, and smiles reinforce and reward a job well done.

Simple formula: task accomplished = reward.

And judging from the wagging tails and big smiles all around the class, task accomplished = reward is also a powerful formula for success.

The need for a reward at the end of a task accomplished may be even more important for writers and other creative people who often work in solitude.

If you spend hours alone at your desk or easel, working with words, paint, or clay, you want to set up your very own simple system of task accomplished = reward.

1) Decide what you are going to accomplish today (or tomorrow) when you sit down to work.

2) Don't make your task too big or too small (think Goldilocks); make it doable in the time you have.

3) Accomplish your task--whether you set out to draft 500 words, edit a chapter, sketch out your basic shapes on canvas--do so without judging your results. You will come back to your work tomorrow or the day after.

4) Reward yourself for task accomplished!  Tell yourself, "Good job!" Eat a chocolate. Watch 15 minutes of your favorite binge TV, go for a walk--make your rewards tangible and pleasurable!

5) Throughout the process, be aware of your intrinsic rewards: the pleasure you take from your self-expression, the anxiety released because you did not procrastinate, freedom from self-attack, ease because you put one foot in front of the other and showed up at the page or palette.

One final word on Always End With a Smile: There is no failure, only "oopsies".

No one gets it right every time. During 'Puppy Basics', Jazz and the other puppies sometimes missed commands and so did their human owners. Judy made sure we all selected a word we would use for those tasks not quite accomplished. My daughter and I chose "Oopsie!"  It's a word we use for ourselves, too.

If I'm not thrilled with a paragraph I revised or a plot point in a story I'm developing or the lead for an article, then I tell myself, "Oopsie!"  The paragraph will be there tomorrow when I come back to work. As for today, I accomplished the task at hand, and I've earned myself a nice piece of dark chocolate with almonds and a true smile!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


When I was nineteen I started a business with a partner and we called it “Hat Trick Hats”. We wanted to be portable. We sold our hand-stitched leather creations on the sidewalks of Santa Barbara and on the Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco. We wanted to be free to make our own designs and decisions and we accomplished both. We needed to make a living and sometimes we actually ended the month with a financial surplus! Of course that money was quickly spent to replenish our supplies to make more hats. Our goal was never to get rich—and we weren’t disappointed. We did want to have fun—and, happily, we were not disappointed on that front, either. Eventually, we moved on to new creative endeavors but we are still friends and we both remember that business fondly, in large part because we accomplished our most important goals.

As a writing coach and mentor I encourage my clients to name, clarify, and hone their goals. I also ask them to identify the meaning they attach to reaching those goals. I ask myself those same questions. When we understand what we want and why we want it, we don’t lose our way. We can use what we know to stay on course for days, weeks, months—whatever it takes to reach the finish line.

As a story coach, I work with writers to structure, strengthen, and develop their stories and the characters who drive those narratives—from the opening event, through major turning points to the climax and the resolution. I ask writers to explore the dilemma at the heart of their story: What is the protagonist’s driving goal and the meaning she attaches to that goal? How hard is she willing to fight to reach her goal? What does the moment look like when she realizes she cannot attain what she wants? What discovery makes her truly surrender what she wants so she can begin to understand what she needs? In fiction there is a disconnection between what the character wants in contrast to what she truly needs.  (Okay, often that’s true in life as well, but we’re talking about storytelling now…)

As the writer, the exploration of these questions and other will help keep you motivated and on course through the first draft and the revision. When you delve into these questions and let them resonate through the story world you are creating, they will serve as your story compass.

As a working writer with seven novels published by major houses, I look for ways to expedite my own story development and writing without getting in the way of my creative process.  I love sharing my (sometimes hard-earned) knowledge with other writers. If I can help keep you on course—or guide you back when you feel you’ve lost your way—then we are both much closer to reaching our goals.

Cheers and happy writing, Sarah