I’m Back After an Interruption From Real Life

Those who follow this blog may have noticed I haven’t posted any new material in months. There’s a good reason. I was in the throes of a prolonged job search and career transition that consumed much of my time. At the same time, I was holding down a full-time job with numerous responsibilities.

Given these demands on my time, I had to prioritize. Of my two writing priorities, my work-in-progress took precedence over my blog. I managed during my career upheaval to add about 30,000 words to my novel-in-progress. My word count is up to 88,000 and I am headed toward the finish line.

Sadly, my blogging output the past few months is at zero words. Blogging about fiction writing is important to me. I view it as an integral part of my self-development as a writer. I use my blog to pass along lessons learned to new fiction writers, but it serves a more significant purpose. I also use my blog to reflect on my experience and explore topics related to fiction writing.

I’ve noticed that a number of prolific bloggers have burned out in recent years. They either lost that fire in the belly or perhaps they had written everything they had intended to say. I vowed to not let that happen to me and, yet, I have rarely blogged since the beginning of 2017. That is something I intend to change.

My career situation has resolved itself. A huge weight is gone now. For better or worse, I plan to return to a regular schedule of blog posts for the rest of this year and beyond.



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Book Review: A Man Called Ove, By Fredrik Backman

The first line of Fredrik Backman’s surprising breakout novel, “A Man Called Ove,” seems at first blush quite unremarkable: “Ove is fifty-nine.” The second line is equally dull: “He drives a Saab.” As this unique and quirky story unfolds, the reader discovers these seemingly pedestrian lines are packed with meaning.

Fifty-nine is not old in today’s world. For many, it is the beginning of a phase of life when they can leave their job behind and enjoy life, checking off things on their bucket list. For Ove, fifty-nine is the end of the line. That becomes clear early on. His wife has died, he has lost his job, and life has no meaning. And so he plots his suicide. But every time he tries, something happens. He is interrupted by a neighbor during one attempt. He wants to throw himself on the train tracks, but ends up saving a man who has fallen onto the tracks instead.

Ove is a disagreeable sort, a petty tyrant who walks around enforcing silly rules he has imposed upon his condo association neighbors. Then he has an epiphany, thanks to his neighbor, a young pregnant woman named Parvaneh.  Ove meets Parvaneh, her earnest but clumsy husband, Patrick, and their two daughters when they accidentally knock over his mailbox while backing up a U-Haul. Ove wants nothing to do with Parvaneh, but she sees something in him. She recognizes he needs to be useful to other people and she relies on him for rides, since she doesn’t drive. Then she prevails upon Ove to teach her how to drive, a hilarious section of the novel.

Backman skillfully interjects Ove’s back story through flashback chapters that give us insight into his character. One of the most tender is the story of how he met Sonja, his wife. He spotted her on a train one day and then he invented an excuse to ride the train in the morning to the city where she worked, return on the train with her in the late afternoon and then go to his night job.  When Sonja is paralyzed in a bus accident and they lose their unborn child, Ove takes care of her for many years, retrofitting the kitchen counters so she can reach them from her wheelchair and carrying her up the stairs each night. This is far from the rigid, authoritarian Ove we meet in the early chapters.

Two key turning points convince Ove that life is worth living. He takes in a stray cat whom he had scolded for urinating in his plants. The cat becomes his constant companion. Then, he finds out that a neighbor with whom he has feuded for years, Rune, is about to be institutionalized for dementia. He organizes his neighbors to come up with a plan to keep Rune in his home with his devoted wife, Anita. This was the most touching chapter in the book.

In Ove,  Backman has created a unique character with a strong voice. Ove values self-reliance and hectors people who can’t do things for themselves. Yet, he discovers the world works because people are interdependent. He decides he wants to live because his neighbors need him. What a valuable message.

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Book Review: “Evenfall,” by Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski’s debut novel, “Evenfall,” is a beautifully rendered, bittersweet tale of love and loss. Wrapped around the three vivid point-of-view characters and a strong supporting cast, which includes the setting, is the powerful theme of how the tough decisions of the heart that we make can have cascading effects that haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Speaking of haunting, one of the main characters, Frank Wildermurth, is a ghost. Andie Murphy, his 33-year-old niece, has returned from the implosion of a three-year relationship in Italy to settle her Uncle Frank’s estate in rural southeastern Connecticut. Andie’s aging aunt, Gert Murphy, a no-nonsense woman who drives her crazy, is living in the cottage.

When young Cort McAllister shows up at the estate one day, the Murphy women put him to work doing odd jobs cleaning up the ramshackle estate property, called Evenfall. Andie remembers Cort as the little 11-year-old boy she used to babysit, but now he is a strapping, handsome young man and sparks soon fly between them. The budding relationship is complicated when Andie’s ex-boyfriend, Neal Roberts, shows up and tries to win her back.

Aunt Gert is tempted to get involved, though it’s against her nature. “Gert’s made a lifetime out of walking away, out of keeping herself to herself, avoiding other people’s troubles,” she reflects at the beginning of one key chapter. Indeed, many years earlier, she had walked away from a love struck Frank and enlisted as a nurse in the war.

Meanwhile, Frank is a spectral presence who is still grappling with the decision he made years ago to choose Gert’s sister, Clara Murphy, over his true love. Michalski skillfully handles the story’s paranormal aspects as Frank’s presence is subtle and there is no over-the-top magic here to cloud the story.

In the end, Andie must follow her heart, a lesson Frank learned the hard way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I highly recommend it.





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Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, Part 3

In my two earlier posts on Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, I wrote about the importance she attaches to the writer figuring out the main character’s back story, developing that “what if? moment, and identifying her misbelief, which she will have to overcome during the course of the story.

I discussed the “origin scene,” that pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life when the misbelief took root. The misbelief will ultimately prevent the protagonist from achieving her deep-seated desire. Cron recommends that the writer develop three scenes in which the misbelief has kept the protagonist safe from harm and the moment when the plot forces her to go after what she wants. This is the key moment when life no longer allows the protagonist to put off going after what she wants. This comes in the form of an external event that forces the protagonist to confront her misbelief

This is where the Story Genius blueprint comes in. The blueprint is actually a scene by scene progression of the external plot, driven by the internal struggle that each event triggers in the protagonist. All of the work the writer has done to develop the protagonist’s backstory, deep-seated desire and misbelief and the origin scene comes into play here. The key to the blueprint is to develop a series of Scene Cards. Cron provides a useful template. At the top of the page is the Scene #, followed by the Alpha Point, and two subplots (if needed). The template then has four quadrants. In the upper left is Cause (what happens). In the upper right is Effect (the consequence). In the lower left under Cause is a quadrant labeled, Why It Matters. And the lower right quadrant under Effect, is labelled, The Realization, followed by, And so? The upper two quadrants relate to The Plot. The lower two quadrants relate to The Third Rail. Note that the Scene Card is based on the cause-and-effect trajectory, which will propel the story forward.

The Alpha Point is the key role that the scene will play in this cause-and-effect trajectory. It ties to the action of the plot. It answers the question, why is this scene necessary? What is its function? Each scene must have a specific alpha point. If it has more than one, then these should be filled in under the two subplot lines.

The Cause side of the blueprint is what happens in the first half of the scene. The third rail part of the quadrants relate to why what’s happening matters to the protagonist. The Effect side of the quadrants deals with the external consequence of what takes place in the scene. The third rail deals with the internal change, the realization the change triggers in the main character, or the key character in the scene. This must lead to action, which is what the protagonist does next. Each scene must cause the character to change her plan in some way. The “And So?” section is where the writer will record what must  happen next as a result of this scene.

“Remember, your goal is just as much to be specific about your protagonist’s inner struggle as it is to be specific about what will happen in the scene,” Cron writes. “The two are linked, and each is neutral without the other. Your protagonist’s internal agenda is not simply what gives emotional weight and meaning to what’s happening up there on the surface; it’s also what drives the decisions she makes, and therefore the action.”

Cron recommends the writer start at the beginning, naturally, and develop the first scene, knowing it will be rewritten many times. Then she urges the writer to jump to the end of the story. Why write the end so soon in the process? The reason is that it will help the writer to figure out what must happen between the first page and the last page to ensure the protagonist must really work hard to earn her “aha” moment. The end writers must seek is not just a resolution of the plot, but what the protagonist realizes about herself, that transformative moment when she must overcome her misbelief. How to get that moment right? The protagonist must work hard to earn this revelation. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen at the end of the story, but rather when the character summons up the courage to fight an all-out battle to achieve what she wants. In any case, the writer must put the reader in the middle of the story. “Your goal as a storyteller isn’t to tell us what your protagonist realizes; it’s to plunk us into the event that causes her to have the realization in the first place,” Cron writes. The reader must be inside the character’s psyche.

Here are the questions the writer must answer in working out the ending of the story:

-At the end, will your protagonist achieve her external goal?

-What will change for your protagonist internally?

-What will happen externally in this scene that forces your protagonist to confront, and hopefully overcome, her misbelief?

So, with the beginning and the ending of the story worked out, the next step in the blueprint is to make a Scene Card for each scene. Specifically, writers should write the first five Scene Cards, keeping in mind the cause-and-effect trajectory. The first five scenes  set up the story and put the balls into motion. And this should be done in chronological order. “The Scene Cards will help you layer your scenes so each one has maximium power, urgency and believability. They enable you to envision the multidimensional aspect of your novel in one fell swoop,” she writes.

Organization of materials is part of the blueprint and Cron recommends setting up the following folders (either electronic or hard copy):

-Key Characters and their story specific bios.

-The Rules of the World. This is where the writer keeps track of the logical framework of the world in which the story is grounded.

-Idea List. This is where the writer puts those ideas that are too fuzzy or conceptual.

-Random Scene Cards. Put any scene that the writer can envision that has an Alpha Point but doesn’t seem to connect to the Third Rail.

-Scene Cards in Development. Arrange these cards in chronological order and number them.

Next, the writer uses the character’s past to set up the plot. The writer plumbs the protagonist’s past to create a cause-and-effect. Each event should cause the next one to happen, creating an escalation. Each event must tie to an internal change that it triggers in the protagonist, which in turn leads to the next event. At this point, Cron recommends the writer draft a brief overview of the novel as it stands, even if it’s just a rough sketch. Look at the sketch and pinpoint the moments that challenged the protagonist and caused her to act. List each potential scene, plot point, and storyline that springs from the sketch and begin to develop them. This will allow the writer to build a number of potential scenes. Add them to the Idea List. Ask what secrets does the protagonist have? What lies has she told? To others? More significantly, what lies has she told to herself? What external obstacles has the writer planted in the past that will keep the protagonist from her goal? Write Scene Cards for these ideas.

Following all of these steps in the blueprint will bring structure to the story, but to guard against developing a series of random plot points, the writer must then ask, “why?” Each plot point must relate to the story logic and therefore each must be tested by asking this question. “The “Why”–the reason something might happen, can happen, does happen–is what creates your novel’s internal logic, so that things add up, and your reader can eagerly anticipate what might happen next,” she writes. This is the test that must be applied to the plot ideas that have been developed.

What if the writer follows the blueprint and still encounters gaps or dead ends? Cron advises the key is to add conflict. Making it harder on the protagonist will fill in the gaps. “In fact make it worse than he imagined it could possibly be–worse than you imagined it could be at first blush.”

The final two aspects of the blueprint relate to secondary characters/subplots, and writing forward. Secondary characters must have a connection to the protagonist’s misbelief They either challenge or reaffirm it. Like the main character, secondary characters have agendas, but their agendas must help facilitate the main character’s story. Again, keep in mind cause-and-effect.

Writing forward means taking the Scene Cards for scenes 2 through  and writing those scenes. When the writer finishes writing the first five scenes, she should have dozens of Scene Cards in development. These should be in chronological order.  There will be a lot of writing and rewriting and the writer will eventually experience that feeling where the characters take on a life of their own.

The writer’s biggest challenge at this point is to put the reader in the protagonist’s mind, to make the invisible, visible, as Cron puts it. “When it comes to your protagonist, you can, in fact, read his mind. The trick is to give the reader the same experience.” The protagonist must react internally to everything that happens, in the moment. and must draw a conclusion that affects what he’s doing or how he interprets what’s happening.

This closing bit of advice summarizes how writers can best use Cron’s blueprint: “Understanding what [the protagonist is] struggling with will tell you what those conclusions will be, and what she’ll do as a result. That’s what unites the story and the plot, and what moves them ever forward.”

Story Genius is based on a complicated, but highly useful blueprint that I found impossible to describe in a single blog post. I hope writers will find as much value in this three-part post as I found in this game changing book.









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Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, Part 2

In my initial segment on Story Genius, this game-changing craft of fiction book, I discussed Lisa Cron’s definition of story and the importance of identifying the main character’s “misbelief,” which will present challenges in her quest to achieve her goal.

Let’s review. Story, Cron wrote, “is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” Writers must understand that story is “about what happens internally, not externally. Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels.”

Armed with an understanding of what story is, the writer’s first challenge is to define the point of the story by drafting a “what if” question. The question must be specific, personal, have high stakes, and lead to internal conflict. She gives the example of Romeo and Juliet. What if two teenagers fell madly in love, only to discover their parents were mortal enemies?  This ‘what if’ question should tell the reader what the point of the story is and why the reader should care.

Next comes the “who,” that is, developing the main character, or the protagonist. The protagonist arrives on page one with a fully formed world view, which the writer must know cold. “The point is, your protagonist doesn’t start from ‘neutral.’ He starts from a very particular place, with  very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.”  She urges writers to write a paragraph or two that sums up who the protagonist is at the moment the story begins. Writers should focus on who is this person on the inside. What do they believe? What do they want?

After the “Who” comes the “Why,” as in, why does your protagonist care?  The why relates to the protagonist’s internal struggle. She explains, “So, how do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear). It is from those two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame.”

The main character starts out with a deep-seated desire (something they badly want) and a defining misbelief that stands in the way of achieving that desire. These two elements are the story’s third rail that everything that happens must touch. So what is it that the protagonist wants? It can’t be something universal, like world peace or happiness. What your protagonist wants must be difficult to achieve and in conflict with her misbelief. That’s why it’s so important for the writer to define the protagonist’s misbelief.

Once the writer knows the character’s misbelief, it is time to go backwards and define the protagonist’s worldview. The character’s worldview is based on her past. The worldview is the character’s decoder ring, how she makes sense of the world around her. This is where the Origin Scene comes into play. The writer must envision a moment in the protagonist’s life when this misbelief took root and then transform that moment into a full scene. This is the Origin Scene.

Now it is time to track how the protagonist’s misbelief has skewed her life, by developing three story-specific scenes focusing on crossroad moments. These scenes will track those moments when the misbelief keeps the protagonist safe up until the moment when the plot forces her to go after the thing she wants. These scenes will help the writer to establish the cause-and-effect trajectory that underpins the story. “By establishing the moments in your protagonist’s past that are relevant to the story you’re telling, you’ll have the material from which to build a solid blueprint.”

Cron points out that the cause-and-effect trajectory doesn’t necessarily dictate what will happen in the story, but rather “it just lays out the possibilities of what might happen. But–and this is the point–it’s essential that each one of those possibilities could legitimately be caused by what came before.”

Next, she urges the writer to write three turning point scenes in this trajectory. These scenes will take place in a linear fashion. Each scene will capture a time in the protagonist’s life when her misbelief led to a major decision. These decisions will change the character’s external life, increase the stakes, and be part of the story-specific trajectory that leads to page one of the novel. In each scene, her misbelief will prevent her from getting what she wants.

Now we are well along the way of building the blueprint for the novel. Next comes the “when,” as in the moment when the story starts. As Cron puts it, “The simple answer is that it starts when life will no longer allow your protagonist to put off going after that thing he’s long wanted…” In the next post, we will get into the heart of the blueprint, by identifying the problem or external event that will force the protagonist to confront her misbelief.


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Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron (Part 1)

I have to say this right off the bat. This book was a game-changer for me. I was struggling with my work-in-progress. Something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, forced me look at my story in a new way.

Story Genius takes such a comprehensive and logical approach to writing that it cannot be summarized in one blog post. It is a logical and methodical blueprint for writers. Since I cannot do it justice in a single essay, I will devote several blog posts to this valuable resource for writers.

Cron devotes a lot of the early chapters to describing what “story” is. “Story is about what happens internally, not externally,” she writes “Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels. We don’t come to story to watch the events unfold; we come to experience them through the protagonist’s eyes, as she struggles with what to do next.”

She provides writers with a useful definition of story: “A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” It is the internal change that writers need to focus on. The main character’s internal struggle is the “third rail” of every good story. She describes it as the “live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.”

So the writer starts with the internal struggle, which Cron defines as the conflict between what the protagonist wants (her desire) and the “misbelief” (often a fear) that prevents her from getting it. And this is where I got hung up in my work-in-progress. I never identified the protagonist’s misbelief–at least in the first three or four drafts of the work. If I didn’t know her misbelief, how could I possibly know what she really wanted? I ended up with a story that was a series of events, with struggles along the way for sure, but the transformation lacked potency because I hadn’t clearly developed the internal meaning and story logic.

Another point Cron makes is that meaning in a story emanates from emotion. “It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning. This emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit, straight from the protagonist to us,” she writes.

So at the outset, Cron urges the writer must ask these questions:

1. What does your protagonist want?
2. Why does she want it?
3. What will getting it mean to her?
4. What are her misbeliefs? (It is a misbelief, but it feels so true).

What she calls “the origin scene” is the centerpiece of the story. That is the scene when the protagonist’s misbelief takes root. It is crucial. It must be a full-fledged scene that has the protagonist go into it believing one thing and then her expectations are not met. Her viewpoint changes as a result.

In my next post, I will explore how Cron explains where the writer should take the story once the misbelief has occurred








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Book Review: “Heat and Light,” by Jennifer Haigh

Energy policy (including the practice of hydraulic fracturing  or “fracking”) is the subject of heated debate in the current political campaign. Proponents hail fracking as a new source of inexpensive domestic energy which has reduced reliance on foreign oil. Opponents point to harmful impacts on the environment and the possibility the underground drilling may have contributed to earthquakes in some regions.

The brilliance of Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel, Heat and Light, is how she brings this controversial subject to a human level. The story is set in the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Bakerton, a crumbling community reeling from the collapse of its coal mining industry. A Texas energy company comes to town with the promise of hopes and dreams. A slick young salesman convinces land owners to sign leases to allow drilling under their land, holding out the lure of easy money. The struggling families are easy marks.

One of Haigh’s central themes is how desperate people chase false hopes and dreams. Rich Devlin leads a large and diverse ensemble cast. Rich works as a correctional officer while he dreams of raising the money to start a dairy farm on the land he inherited from his grandfather. He jumps at the chance to sign a lease. His fragile wife, Shelby, is prone to drama and is constantly taking her daughter, Olivia, to the emergency room with vague ailments. Later, Shelby will claim Olivia’s illness is related to pollution of their well water from a leak of chemicals used in the drilling process.

Rena Koval and Susan “Mack” Mackey, a lesbian couple who are neighbors of the Devlins, manage an organic farm. Concerned about environmental impacts, some of their largest customers cancel contracts when they get wind that drilling is going on in their area. This propels Rena to invite a geology professor to town to rally support against the fracking project, which complicates her life when she becomes smitten with the professor.

Shelby’s spiritual counselor, Pastor Jess Peacock, faces her own struggles. Lonely and adrift after the death of her husband, Pastor Wes Peacock, she finds solace in an affair with Herc, who is part of the drilling crew and fails to mention that he has a wife and family back in Texas. Wesley’s back story is the most powerful. Stricken with cancer in his mid-30s Wesley becomes convinced his illness can be traced to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. As a child, his family lived near the damaged nuclear reactor.

Rich Devlin’s dream of a future as a dairy farmer turns into a nightmare when he learns his family’s well water is contaminated. A lawyer tells him that his land is most likely worthless. Meanwhile the Texas energy behemoth that is bankrolling the fracking venture is hemorrhaging money.

Haigh has conducted an impressive amount of research into the process of fracking and the equipment and processes required to drill underground. There is also a chilling chapter told from inside the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the day of the disaster.

Her prose is clear and sobering, but never flowery. She writes of the region’s dependence on energy, “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But, cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”

At another point, she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”

Haigh skillfully weavers numerous subplots and supporting characters into the story. “Heat and Light” is the most ambitious and satisfying work yet from this talented writer.



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