Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Breakthrough Moment

It was one of those special moments that make it all worthwhile. I was working on my NaNoWriMo novel a couple of weeks ago. My story was far along, headed toward its climax, but I only had 20,000 words written. I had to get to 50,000 words. That’s the deal: a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I was stuck. I did what I always do when facing such a dilemma. I took a step back. I got away from my laptop. I did some intensive brainstorming.

What else could happen to jump-start the story? A new subplot? Add a new character? The story needed something else to happen, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Did the story need more action? Yes, that was it. How about another murder? Yes, that would work. After all, I was writing a murder-mystery and the first murder occurred way back in Chapter 1.

So the second murder was the kernel, but it couldn’t just be a gratuitous killing. There had to be a link between the second murder and the first one. This got my mind going. What was the connection? Ah, the same person committed both murders and both times for the same reason. So what was the reason? Once I figured that part out, I decided I needed to write the ending first. I guessed it would gain for me about 3,000 words. As of today, the ending scene has turned into several scenes and has clocked in at more than 7,000 words.

Once I developed the basic sequence of the “whodunit” part, I went back to the point where I got stuck and started filling in scenes. The milestones fell quickly: 25,000 words, 30,000, 35,000, 40,000, etc.

I reached 50,000 words on Friday, November 25, but I needed to keep going. The story wasn’t done yet. I’m at nearly 52,000 words today.

What’s the lesson? Let’s look at what I did when I got stuck:

  • Take a step back.
  • Get away from my work space.
  • Do some intensive brainstorming.
  • Consider all the possibilities.
  • Identify the best solution to breathe life into the story.
  • Develop the structure girding this new plotline.
  • Work on the ending first.

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass wrote about how to brainstorm a “breakout premise.” His advice was to “steer away from the obvious, seek inherent conflict, find gut emotional appeal, and ask, ‘What if…'” That’s great advice for any writer.

It doesn’t happen every day, but that breakthrough moment was magical. I felt giddy. Writers suffer a lot of angst and loneliness. Breakthrough moments make it all worthwhile.

Have you experienced a breakthrough moment in your work in progress or earlier works? What was it? What did you do to make it happen? 

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Sue Miller to the Rescue

It must be the NaNoWriMo effect, but writer’s block is on my mind these days. Last week, I wrote about the “creative pause,” the positive effect  a short break can have on stimulating your creativity. Stepping away from my work in progress when I’m stuck has worked for me. Try it sometime.

Another winning strategy for unlocking my creativity is to have a “go to” author to read. I have several, depending on the nature of the story in progress. In my NaNoWriMo novel, there is a romantic relationship between the main character and a woman who, years earlier, was accused of murdering his baseball teammate and best friend. Through a series of circumstances, the main character tracked down the woman years later and they ended up in a relationship. I was having trouble writing the scenes where the two characters were together. I turned to author Sue Miller.

There are few authors better than Sue Miller at writing these types of intimate scenes between two people involved in a complicated relationship. A lot of writing coaches and bloggers talk about authors who pay attention to the small, precise details that make a scene come alive and propel a story forward. That’s one of Sue Miller’s greatest strengths.

An author and creative writing professor, Miller has written a number of best-selling novels. These include The Good Mother (1986), Inventing the Abbotts (1987), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Lakeshore Limited (2010). She writes in the genre I like to read and the one in which I like to write. Her stories focus on families in conflict.

In an online interview, Miller lamented the decline in the number of novels that centered on families. “It seems both a more fragile and more important institution than it ever has been, more multifarious, more invented, as it goes along, more necessary. It’s been too easily dismissed as the subject or setting of serious fiction. American fiction in particular was for awhile pleased to think it had moved beyond the family, left it behind as a kind of low topic, suited only to women and children. But it comes around again and again…”

When I got stuck writing a scene for my NaNoWriMo novel, I drove to my local library and checked out While I Was Gone. The protagonist is Jo Becker, a veterinarian who is happily married to a minister. They have raised three daughters together and finally have an empty nest. Jo is content but feels somewhat unsettled, when a man from her past re-enters her life. He triggers memories of a time of personal upheaval, capped by the mysterious murder of her closest friend.

Read more about Sue Miller here.

Miller is among several “go to” authors I read, a list that includes Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and Alice McDermott. I have read and re-read their work, with an eye toward how they set up scenes, develop characters, move the story along, and deal with large themes.

Eight days to go and I’m at 46,200 words.

Do you have a ‘go to’ author you read when you get writer’s block?

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The “Creative Pause”: Rx for Writer’s Block

Reading an e-newsletter recently, I came across the term, “the creative pause.” This term may have been popularized by Edward deBono, a physicist and a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. He described it as a deliberate break from a problem-solving activity to consider alternative solutions.

de Bono described it as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem — even when things are going perfectly fine — for “some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about” (Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas). He suggested these pauses can be as short as 30 seconds.

In his paper for International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely described creative pause:

“The ‘creative pause’ is defined as the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness.” (“The Creative Pause”, 1967)

In other words, deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, may help scientists, mathematicians, business leaders and writers solve problems

Numerous articles and blog posts recommend some form of the creative pause as the cure for writer’s block. When the words are not flowing, take a walk or leave your work space for a short interval of time. It’s worked for me. When my brain is locked up, there’s nothing like taking the dog for a walk or going for a vigorous run to get the juices flowing again.

You’ve heard people say, “I do some of my best thinking in the shower.” In a 2008 blog post, Cameron Moll posits the idea that thinking in the shower may be an ideal way to experience the creative pause. Moll cites several reasons: little opportunity for distraction, minimal mental engagement required, the white noise effect, and the change of scenery as a way to spark new ways of thinking.

BBC producer and blogger Hugh Garry talks about the science behind the creative pause in this post. Garry wrote that when we come up with solutions by using the creative pause, we are using the unconscious part of our brains:

“When we solve problems we not only use different sides of our brain, we are also using different bits of memory: our ‘working memory’ and our ‘unconscious memory’. Because we are more familiar with our working memory we tend to give it more credit for problem solving than our ‘unconscious memory’. Let me explain how they differ. Our ‘working memory’ is used to solve simple mathematical problems like simple addition, multiplication and conversions: calculating the cost in dollars of a £5 meal (if the dollar is $1.60 to the pound) is something our ‘working memory’ can cope with without having to resort to using fingers, a paper and pen or calculator. Change the cost of that meal to £5.37 and all of a sudden the ‘working memory’ is beginning to struggle. In fact, for most people it has probably fallen over.

Your ‘unconscious memory’ has an incredible ability to call upon stored information to help us complete challenges way beyond the capabilities of the ‘working memory’.”

–Hugh Garry, blog post, October 13, 2011

What’s the lesson here? Sometimes the best solution to writer’s block is not to sit at the computer and stew. The best solution is to simply walk away and come back later.

Do you use the creative pause? Where do you do your best creative thinking?

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Lessons from Joe Frazier

It was the stuff of novels. The relationship between heavyweight boxing icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was antagonistic, bitter and, at the same time, symbiotic. This week, the world said “goodbye” to Frazier, 67, who died on November 7. There was an outpouring of tributes this week at a service for Frazier in Philadelphia. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s will never forget the three epic bouts between Ali and Frazier, as well as their complicated relationship outside the ring. A would-be novelist would have a hard time in determining which one was the protagonist and which one was the antagonist, but it was a compelling and ever-changing story nonetheless.

They were polar opposites. Ali was charismatic, loud, and boastful, proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” Frazier was a quiet, humble man. Prior to their first fight in 1971, Ali demeaned Frazier, describing him as an Uncle Tom and the white man’s boxer, and worse things. Frazier quietly absorbed the verbal blows. On March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Frazier knocked Ali to the canvass in the 14th round, eventually handing the seemingly invincible Ali his first defeat. Ali avenged that defeat on January 28, 1974 at the Garden.

It was their third fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” that fans remember the most. Eyewitnesses called the October 1, 1975 bout one of the most savage fights in history, with each boxer pummeling the other for 14 rounds. It ended when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to send his fighter out for the 15th round, over Frazier’s strenuous objections. Ali attempted to find Frazier after the fight to apologize for all the awful things he had said about him over the years. He asked Frazier’s son to relay his apology to Frazier and he publicly apologized. Frazier bristled, saying Ali should have apologized to his face.

Over the years, Frazier became bitter about the way Ali characterized him. Ali seemed genuinely sorry as he reflected on his actions.

The full picture of Frazier was of a man of decency and humility. Frazier had lobbied President Nixon in support of Ali’s reinstatement as a boxer after Ali refused to serve his country in the military. He even reportedly loaned Ali money during the period when he was barred from fighting.

When I was growing up, I was enamored of Ali. He was hip, proud and provocative. He had a way with words. His famous motto, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became part of the American lexicon. Ali backed up his boasts with results. He was an outsized personality and his swagger captivated a nation that was reeling from Vietnam and Watergate.

Over the years, my admiration for Ali has waned somewhat and my respect for Frazier has grown.

What lessons can we draw as writers from these two legendary boxers? One is that words matter. Ali claimed at the time that he demonized Frazier to promote greater interests in their bouts. He really didn’t mean those terrible things he said. I believe him, but still, Ali’s insults hurt Frazier deeply. Whether it’s the spoken or written word, we must take great care not to hurt people. Another lesson is the way the two men grew as individuals from their heated rivalry. I believe they had made peace with each other by the time Frazier died and Ali’s glowing praise of his fallen rival is testimony to that. Finally, we’ve learned that victory comes with a price. Their dignity and their physical health suffered as a result of their rivalry.

So now one rival is gone and we bid farewell to a good man, Joe Frazier. Rest in peace, Joe.

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Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

National Novel Writing Month is at the halfway point. I’m closing in on 30,000 words. I’m nearly 5,000 words ahead of where I should be. So why am I so worried?

I’m running out of scenes. My story is headed rapidly toward its climax and I still have 20,000 words left. I vowed from the beginning I would not concoct scenes strictly to “pad” my word count. That is, I would not create meaningless scenes just so I could reach 50,000 words. I’m sticking to that promise, but I find myself wracking my brain to come up with realistic scenes that fit into the narrative. I’ve come up with a few good ones that still need to be developed.

My dilemma got me thinking of this question: How many scenes does it take to finish a novel? A quick research project on the Internet yielded a lot of theories but no clear answers. Randy Ingermanson, who maintains the site, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/, wrote a thoughtful post about scenes. Here’s what Randy wrote in part: “There aren’t any rules on the scene length, as long as the story works. You should write the scenes to the right length for your story.

“I would guess that most novels have anywhere from 50 to 200 scenes. It might be an interesting exercise to go through some of your favorite novels and count the number of scenes. But a far more interesting exercise is to look at individual scenes and ask why the author wrote it that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little. How would you have written the scene differently,” he wrote.

Building on Randy’s suggestion, watch your favorite sitcoms or TV dramas and count the number of scenes. Or watch your favorite movie.

Raymond Obstfeld, in his excellent book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, offers this advice on scene length: “Nothing about writing is exact, which is why it’s an art, not a science. Although the best length of a scene depends on its purpose, there’s no rule that any particular purpose should be a specific length. The importance of a scene is not a guide either. Sometimes the most crucial scene in a story may be the shortest to give it the most impact. Therefore, when we discuss length, don’t think of pages; think of attention span. Specifically, “long” is when the reader’s attention span wanders and he either wants to skip ahead or stop reading. “Short” is when the reader feels frustrated because he didn’t experience the scene so much as get a synopsis of events.”

Ian McEwan’s fine novel, On Chesil Beach, presents an interesting case study. The focal point of the novel is a single night: the wedding night of the main character and his new wife. Both are virgins and both are terrified about their lack of sexual experience. The scene plays out over multiple chapters, with flashbacks that describe both characters’ upbringing and their courtship. I haven’t counted the number of scenes in On Chesil Beach, but one single scene played out over the course of the night is the lynchpin of the novel.

My scenes tend to run about 1,500 words, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. One crucial scene in my first novel extended over several chapters and ran about 7,500 words. Using the 1,500 word rule, if you take a 90,000 word novel and divide it by 1,500 words, you would need to come up with 60 scenes. So I guess I’m looking at a total of 33.3 scenes for a 50,000 word novel, but there are no rules.

How do you approach scene development? How long is your average scene? And does it matter?

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Book Review: “The Year We Left Home,” By Jean Thompson

I decided to read this book based on a review in The Chicago Tribune. It attracted me because the subject matter was similar to that of my first novel, Small Change, which centered on two families in the Midwest over a period of 30 years. As it turned out, The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson was dissimilar to my book in style and tone, but was a real treat.

Thompson is an acclaimed author of several short story collections and has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other universities. She is a National Book Award finalist.

The Year We Left Home focuses on the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa. It covers a lot of ground in terms of time (30 years), geography (Chicago, Iowa, Italy, Mexico, Reno and Seattle), and events, on a personal and a national scale. Thompson uses alternating points of view for each chapter to great effect, with much of the story told from the perspective of Ryan Erickson, the second oldest of four children.

The story begins in 1973 at a festive occasion, the wedding reception for the oldest daughter, Anita, who has just married Jeff, a banker from Denver. The joy of the event soon gives way to grim realities. Ryan leaves home to pursue an academic career, but his plans are derailed. Chip, his
cousin, is an addled Vietnam veteran who drifts from city to city, haunted and unsettled. Anita is trapped in a bad marriage with an alcoholic husband. Her younger sister, Torrie, is involved in a tragic accident. Their brother, Blake, stays in town, but wonders what his life might have been if he left town. Their mother, Audrey, struggles to adjust once her children leave home.

Ryan often feels like a detached observer, looking at his family from the outside. Thompson illustrates this perspective with great skill. In an early scene, Ryan is in a car getting high with Chip during a snowstorm. Ryan looks at the snow outside and observed:

“It reminded him of a snow globe, one of those pretty scenes under glass, and then he had the sad, stoned thought that he was outside of the snow globe, looking in. Just as something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people presumed he was.”

As the family members struggle with personal challenges, Thompson chronicles major trends facing the nation, from wars and farm foreclosures to recessions and the technology boom-and-bust, through the prism of the characters.

Each chapter covers a key phase of one of the family member’s life. The chapters function like short stories—each with an arc—yet each chapter flows seamlessly into the story as a whole. Thompson’s prose is simple, but packed with emotional power. Each family member leaves home, but
never leaves the family for good.

Thompson has an insightful, uncluttered writing style. Her simple prose belies the complex and conflicting emotions of the characters. The Erickson siblings, especially Ryan, are both eager to break away from their nuclear families, but find themselves pulled back by the enduring
ties.

The Year We Left Home was one of the most enjoyable and well-crafted novels I’ve read this year.

What are you reading now? How do you like it?

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Anatomy of a Story Premise

I promised to share the premise of my Nanowrimo novel, so here goes. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by a phenomenon known as “Steve Blass Disease” or “Steve Sax Syndrome.” This strange malady has afflicted elite professional baseball players. It is defined as a player’s sudden, inexplicable inability to make an accurate throw. I first encountered this phenomenon when it happened to Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although I’m not a Pirates fan, I followed Blass’s career because he grew up in my native state of Connecticut.

Blass was a very good pitcher, but he reached a new level when he won two pressure-packed games in the 1971 World Series as the Pirates overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to shock the Baltimore Orioles and win the world championship. In 1972, Blass had his best year ever, with 19 wins. In 1973, it all fell apart for him. He could not throw the ball over the plate for strikes. That season he walked 84 batters in 88 innings. By comparison, the previous season he walked 98 batters in 239 innings. He gave up an average of nearly 10 runs per nine innings.

He tried everything. Doctors examined his arm. An optometrist examined his eyes. He tried psychotherapy, hypnosis, and even Transcendental Meditation. Nothing worked for him. Two years later, Blass retired from baseball at the age of 32. He went on to become a broadcaster for the Pirates. He never found out the cause of his throwing problems.

There are numerous other examples. Steve Sax was an All-Star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers before he lost his ability to make the short throw to first base. Sax is one of the few who recovered and went to lead the American League in fielding percentage in 1989. Other players who suffered from this syndrome included Chuck Knoblauch (an All-Star with the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees), Mackey Sasser, Mark Wohlers, Dontrelle Willis, and Rick Ankiel. An excellent all-around athlete, Ankiel converted from a pitcher to an outfielder while with the St. Louis Cardinals. He now plays for the Washington Nationals.

I’ve always wanted to build a novel around a character who suffered from Steve Blass Disease. About ten years ago, I started playing around with a plot in my head. I went through a number of possible story lines. I decided the character’s throwing woes would  be triggered by a murder, specifically the murder of his closest friend and teammate. So then I had to figure out what events might have precipitated the murder. There had to be a girlfriend involved. There would be an argument. There would have to be other suspects–the kind of “red herrings” mystery writers use so well.

So here’s the premise: Rick Walsh and Angel Velasquez are bonus babies signed to big league contracts with the Boston Red Sox. One night, while the two are playing for the Red Sox’ triple A farm club, Walsh, a pitcher, returns to their apartment to find Velasquez dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The gun was found in Angel’s hand, but Rick refused to believe it was a suicide. The case was never solved. Traumatized by the killing, Walsh lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate and it ruined his career. He developed a speciality as a consultant working with troubled young pitchers, having been through this ordeal himself. Twenty years later, he is summoned to assist a pitcher, who leads him back to the murder case and the prime suspect.

This story is totally outside my genre but I am having so much fun with it. That’s the beauty of Nanowrimo.

Have you ever written anything outside your genre? How did you like it?

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