Category Archives: All About Writing

Tips, ideas, inspiration, research and beyond on ways to write

A Story Begins with an Idea

Who is this man? Why is he dressed all in white? Where is he going? What is he waiting for? Is he alone? Is he from this time period? What is the time period?

The man was all in white dressed like an old fashioned milk man. He leaned against the bus stop waiting. He did his best to ignore the smell of pizza mixed with fast food and garbage. He was hungry and simultaneously nauseous, but he kept his discomfort well hidden.

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story always starts with an idea, but where do we get ideas when our imagination feels drained and exhausted? How do we generate good and great ideas? Many times we find inspiration from our dreams, and of course our lives, but sometimes nothing comes. It can be a frustrating moment sitting in front of your notebook or your computer as you look at the blank page or screen and nothing, nothing comes to mind.

Sometimes (most of the time) I need some help and the following 11 points help me to come up with new things to write about. I use them for exercise purposes like running to prepare for the marathon. I don’t keep every story or go with every story, I’m usually just running laps on the page.

I often set a timer for 10 minutes and pick something to write on for that amount of time. I try to extend the time each day to build up my writing endurance.

11 Sources for a Great Idea

  1. Your life- Well of course! Write what you know. It’s the classic go to. You are a world of stories.
  2. News stories events- In the movie Bad Education by Almodovar, the character who was a writer would search through news articles to find ideas for stories. The film goes into some personal journey for the character, but this idea is great. This is like a meta story teaching writers where to find ideas for writing. If you can make it relate to you great, if not, let your imagination tell the story.
  3. Historical events- I once had the idea to write a short story about a young man who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam. I had gotten the idea from reading real life accounts of American soldiers who fought in the Chu chi tunnels during the war.
  4. Fantasy- We’ve all been kids- remember sitting with your legs straddling a low hanging branch pretending it was your pirate ship, and the twig in your hand was your sword? You raised your sword as winged monsters flew towards your great vessel. Look to your dreams. Write them down and revisit them. There is something in your dreams.
  5. Memories-I say this also falls under your life although it could be someone else’s memory. It can be a brief fleeting memory- the story doesn’t have to be truthful. How truthful are memories anyway?
  6. A single image- at Write Around Portland, a place where I used to teach creative writing, we would often take pictures from magazine and add the image to a prompt. For example, an image of a single tree in a desert and then a prompt: “by this time next year”. Now write. You don’t have to use a worded prompt or magazines. You can use your own photos. The photo above is a picture I took from the hip many years ago while I was visiting New York.
  7. A philosophical idea- this could get one going on a really wild story- I love science and philospophy- since both have a belief that our universe is finite then our stories can be too.
  8. A situation- two men walk into a coffee shop together one is holding a child. The man with the child recognizes the woman behind the counter for some reason there is an uncomfortable tension. There are many sites that can give you a random collection of scenarios, characters and situations- you just put them all together in the plot generator.
  9. Adaption of another story- I’ve always wanted to do a film adaptation of Under a Cruel Star and also I want to write a story about the love affair between Nikolai and Alexandra before he became the Czar of Russia.
  10. Adaptation of other media- The news, music, youtube, twitter, instagram, another blog; media has gotten bigger and your access to ideas had also grown.
  11. Overheard dialogue- I once overheard a two women on a greyhound bus talking about how it shouldn’t be against the law to pick up road kill, after all it’s just a waste of good meat. Now imagine the story.

If you’re feeling a little unimaginative try one of these techniques to get you going. Happy writing!

 

Talking about writing

I’m returning to my drafts. This was something written …I’m not certain, maybe 2011. It was summer when the events took place; the conversation in the bar in New York. I don’t know the season when I wrote it or when I read the books I had mentioned, but I’m fairly certain I was in Portland, Oregon. So many mysteries. So much to review.

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I remember sitting in a bar in New York city, maybe three years ago, talking with my friend about writing. It was an English pub. The type you see all over New York and every major city. Some people may know the difference between an Irish pub and an English pub, (flags are a good indicator) but do they ever notice that the wood on the bar is different, I swear. I think English pubs’ wood finish (or the wood itself) are darker than Irish pubs. It was just an observation, but this is not about the difference between an English or Irish pub, it is about having a conversation about writing, in New York, and having this conversation over a pint of beer (something Belgium).

My friend is a good writer, an intellectual writer, he went to Grad school. There is no tone of cynicism in the above sentence. He worked hard, and has always been an intelligent critical thinker. He worked hard to get into and out of Grad school. It was the subject of Grad school that garnered the conversation about writing. I was in New York to see another friend’s art opening. She had just Graduated from Pratt’s MFA program in painting. I was there to see her art show, but also to check out some grad schools for myself. I went to Columbia and sat on the green lawn of the white college with its false Corinthian columns and early American colonial moldings. I knew that Kerouac and Ginsberg had dropped out of this very prestigious school (well Ginsberg graduated, but not without a suspension first). For me, the school symbolized everything not “meant” for me: “Ivy league, rich, and prestigious”. I’d never get in, and if I did I’d never be able to pay for it, and honestly, it wasn’t about the program as much as it was about the name. Still the school was on my wish list of desired schools, along with Brown another not “meant for” me school. I also visted to the New School and spoke with an entrance advisor and she gave me a tour. It was spread out among Greenwich in lower Manhattan and felt very urban. Although, it has its own set of prestige it wasn’t Ivy league which felt more accessible. Both Columbia and The New School are great schools, but I didn’t apply to either. I didn’t apply to anything. I have a lot of hang-ups when it comes to education, and my ability to get into a program, and then my ability to pay for that program tends to get ahead of my attempts at trying. Plus, I am an excellent self saboteur. All I need is a few moments in my head and voila the dream dissipates into apathetic wishes! Still, at the time that I was in New York I was telling myself that I was actually going to apply, and I wanted to talk to my friend about his experiences as an MFA writing student.

Back to the English pub in New York. My friend, who went to the New School,  had mentioned that while there he really felt that he was finding his voice. This subject of voice had come up a lot in my writing classes as an undergrad.  Voice and audience. A lot of the time this is what is talked about, isn’t it? What are you saying, how, and who are you talking to? I think in many instances this is not too difficult when you are dead certain who your audience is and what you are writing. Say it’s an essay or an argumentative paper, or maybe you are a genre writer, and you are writing a romance; a thriller; a mystery or so on, and you have a formula that you follow, and a voice that makes your formula unique from other formulas. You’ve got your voice. But what if you don’t know? Or worse yet, what if you don’t want to have to even abide to an audience or have a set voice? Is that ignorant? Naive?

I’m reading Let the Right One In, (the English translation), and I have been noticing the simplicity of it. Small short simple sentences, short chapters and short descriptions. I’m reading through it fairly quickly, and I am a slow reader. It is a genre story a vampire story which is a popular genre, but it has its own unique voice, and is creepy more than scary -so far-. I am also reading The Grapes of Wrath. The sentences are long and descriptive. The chapters are long and it is taking me forever to get through, and not because it isn’t interesting in fact, it is riveting and beautiful. But it takes longer, Steinbeck is in no hurry (and why should he have been, reading was what people once did for entertainment).  It has taken 160 pages before the Joads have even left for California and that is what the whole thing is about; the dream of California. It has taken 103 pages in Let the Right One In, and there has already been two murders, some terrible information about child prostitutes, and horrible school bullies. Don’t for a second think I am comparing the two, there is no comparing, but there is a definite difference in style and who the writers are talking to. So, as a writer am I supposed to pick between these audiences? “Obviously”, in this fast paced marketing world no one wants to take the time to read, The Grapes of Wrath, but I don’t completely believe that because I am taking the time to read, The Grapes of Wrath. I am also reading, Let the Right One In; who so far in the vampire genre tears the throat out of Twilight, but John Ajvide Lindqvist (it may or may not be translated) isn’t Stephenie Meyer and their audiences are not the same.

All this rambling is coming to one thought, why can’t I write to both? I am obviously reading both. I read Jane Eyre, and I loved it, but, I also loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also like to read the Walking Dead graphic novels. Why do I have to pick this magic solo audience? So I can make money? This shit just tears me up. I know when I meet with my “teacher/mentor” in September I am going to have to say who my audience is and possibly talk about voice. I hate it. I just want to write short and long descriptive sentences that tell a story that may or may not appeal to people, oh and yes I’d like to make money so that I can write another story with long and short descriptive sentences that may appeal to old and young audiences alike or may not be liked at all. The truth is and the reason I struggle is because I haven’t found my voice and I think the real frustration lies there.

What did I learn from my writing conversation in New York? That my friend is awesome and knows his voice, and I assume he has a good concept of audience. I also learned that I have far too much of a hang up about it. A hang up that impedes the process of finding it. I know I can never market my writing if can’t tell someone what the hook is. I have to stop worrying so much about the market and the audience because when I am worried about the market and the audience and who is even going to bother reading the shit I write, something happens, and what happens is I don’t write.

I didn’t come to this conclusion while I was in the bar in New York, three years ago, I came to it right now, because I was thinking, about the incredible structural differences between the two books I am reading and the fact that I, a non intellectual, non ivy league,  low-income woman from the foothills, is reading both books and enjoying them both. Perhaps just perhaps, our commercial marketing world does not give the audience much credit for having a wide range of interests, but that is not their job.

Anyway, and but, for the sake of POSTERITY, and bringing this post full circle let’s say I did have this conclusion in the English pub in New York. Better yet, how about I had it after I said good-bye to my friend, who is currently living and writing in another country, as I stood on the platform in the subway station. I watched my friend’s train leave and between wondering which train I needed to take to get me back to Brooklyn, I thought about how I need to ease up on the worrying about the market and the agents and just focus on the love of writing for writings sake. I like that visual better because when I put it in that setting it seems so much more profound. They say you can rewrite your history. So I just did.

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Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs talking, talking, talking and discussing.

 

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I originally wrote this post in 2014, but I never posted it. So why am I posting parts of it now, a little over five years later? Because I didn’t do what I said I was going to do, and that, in and of itself, is why I have failed and continue to fail as a writer.

True failure is inaction. Good writing, bad writing, it’s all writing and that takes action; takes courage; that takes faith; and gumption; and effort; and stick-to-it-ness otherwise known as endurance. Failure is not about the verb to try. Failure is: talking about it, and then fucking it off. Failure is giving up on the race before you even leave the house to get to the track.  I failed. I failed myself.

Reading while on break from my waiting tables job.

We are all our own worst critic, but I’m not trying to just beat myself up and take a look in the mirror and say, “Look at you you are a failure!,” And then start crying myself into a deep depression. I’m not into self-flagellation at the moment (I do have my moments). What I’m into is dissecting this illness, and yes to me to constantly choose to fail by not doing is a sickness (my definition), and try to combat it. I dissect it by looking at what I said I would do, but didn’t do. And take it from there. I believe this is called self-reflection.

Let’s Get Started

It is interesting that I wrote this, according to the time stamp, in 2014, because the event took place in 2008. Writing this in 2014 was six years later yet, the narrative is written as if it is in the present. I’m not sure what was going on in my head at the time. Let’s plunge into the tale.

I quit my job to finish my book. What really got me started on this whole, take control of your life-just do it attitude, was a book. I’m sure a series of events in my life, and aging, and all that life stuff had a factor, but what finally solidified it was a book.

This was true. I did quit my job in 2008. It was also true that I had decided that I wanted to hold off looking for a job for two months so that I could finish a book that I had been working on for about 8 years. I remember this decision distinctly. I was working at a software development company as a receptionist. I made decent money but I wasn’t really into the lifestyle of the office worker. I had saved up some money and I was in a position to take a break. I’d never had that opportunity before, so I thought the time is now. Timing is everything.

It was Ariel Gore’s How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. I thought the title was funny so I picked it up. I didn’t expect any miracles or expect anything I didn’t already know, but while reading it I was struck with a now or never kind of thought. I mean Ariel started writing as a teenager and nothing stopped her or anyone else that wanted to be a writer for that matter. So as soon as I finished her book I made my decision. I’m quitting my job and I’m going to be a writer.

This is true. Gore’s book did inspire me to take the jump. She had travelled and her book was about her life traveling. I had traveled and my book was about traveling. Seemed like kismet.

Alright. I say a lot of shit though. So the next steps? I decided not to tell my parents. I’m an adult, I don’t have to tell them anything, but sometimes I have this deep wish that they are going to be supportive towards my ventures even though I know they wont. In their own special unique way they will fill me with fear and doubt. So I dashed the fantasy of a supportive family, and kept my mouth shut.

So, this is where stuff get’s a little sad. I didn’t tell my parents, who were not together and hadn’t been for over 40 years’ at that point. I didn’t tell them for different reasons. My father wouldn’t have called me foolish or stupid exactly, but his disapproval would be along those lines, and at the age I was at the time, I felt tired of his disapproval and I didn’t want to deal with it. My mom, well, that reason was more complex. I grew up raised on welfare and we never had any money. My mom had spiraled back into drug addiction and poverty which led to her eventual disappearance which was because she was homeless for three years. After time she managed to pull some semblance of structure back into her life and she returned to NA and found a home through section 8 housing and life was just tough, but she was coming out of it. She felt secure knowing I had a good, practical, stable job. How could I tell her that her only child was about to quit a good job just to chase a dream? It was immature to not just be honest.

I told my friends, my best friend, and all my acquaintances. All approved. Still, I didn’t really believe it. I could still back out.

I did tell my friends and now, reading this I feel a little embarrassed about it, but wait a moment… I’m over it.

While on a train ride back from visiting my friend in Seattle I shared a seat with a man. I had my laptop out, and I was staring blankly at some words I wrote-AGES ago. He asked me if I was a writer.  “Yes”, I told him, “unpublished.” I added, as an excuse. I was preparing all my disclaimers- but I first told him about my decision to quit my job, and write full time for two months. He pulled out a book from his bag and tapped the cover- “well that’s me”, he said, “I’m a writer and if you have any questions we have three hours together to talk”.

This all really happened.

His name was David Guterson, and I did know who he was. He was indeed a writer. A published writer. His book Snow Falling on Cedars had been made into a movie a few years ago. I had seen the movie, but never read the book. Here on the train, at the moment I had decided to quit my job to be a full time writer, I had a famous writer at my side for three hours, and I had nothing writerly to ask. What I did learn was that he was a nice man who had five kids, and they were all homeschooled. He himself was a teacher, and his wife did the homeschooling.

I still haven’t read read his book. It is in my reading future. I promise myself. Not for him, but for me.

One word of writing advice he gave me was to make observations.

This too is true.

Tell me about that man.” He said nodding his head in the direction of a man that was talking on his cell phone.

“I can only see a part of him,” I had said, “but he is very black. His skin is dark like pure chocolate, and it is smooth and shiny. He works out or he does something physical that he uses his arms. His muscles are defined and big. He is wearing a tight solid black t-shirt and he has a gold watch. He is eating bright red licorice. There is something intriguing about him, about the cadence of his talk. He sounds charming. He is talking to someone, a person he is dating or married to. I have the impression he is a straight man, but I don’t know for certain. The strongest part of him as an image are all the colors; his chocolate skin, which isn’t actually black but a deep dark brown, and the black t-shirt, his gold watch, and the bright red licorice that he isn’t eating but holding like a pointer in his hand.”

This is what David Guterson told me to do. To observe. To watch and to listen, and then find the way to put the images and the thoughts onto the page. 

What’s interesting to me about revisiting this writing from 11 years ago, is that I can’t remember what David Guterson looks like. If I were to look him up or see him on the back of one of his books, I’m sure I’d remember, but just trying to think back to that time, I can’t picture him at all. He was white, average build and height, and maybe dark blonde hair, but I don’t know, I’m just assuming. Who I do remember in vivid detail is that black man on the train. This is crazy to me. I observed that man for a total of 5 to 10 minutes, and although I had noticed him earlier because as I recall he did have something noteworthy about him, it was still a short observation from 11 years ago. I sat on a train next to a famous writer and spoke with him for three hours. I sat side by side with this man talking for three hours, and I can’t remember his face. So, there’s something special about observing for the sake of writing. It emblazons an image and perception onto your mind-as a writer this can not be taken for granted. Its a necessary exercise.

My next day at work I told them I was leaving in September.

Oh boy, do I remember this. My first work free day was September 8th, 2008 and my new writerly self turned on NPR to the news that the financial markets had dropped 20% and it was the start of the market crash of 2008. I was not able to find a job for 6 months and the job I did finally find was a miracle job, but that’s another story. To make a long story less long; It was bad timing.

I’m not being completely honest about being a failure. According to my previous definition of failure I didn’t fail at my initial intension for quitting my job. I did finish my novel during this time. I sent it to two, maybe three places, but after three rejections I put it away. I gave up on the publishing part. So, perhaps this isn’t about the failure to write but the failure to publish. Intention matters. Later, I gave up not only at publishing, but writing too. And, that’s the biggest problem for now.

The last time I wrote on this blog was June 18th 2018. Over a year ago, and I’ve done many extended breaks through my writing life. I think at this point I don’t even want to be a writer in the published sense, but if I can just consistently write daily for at least a year, if I can do that I will be accomplishing so much. Beyond that year, I’ll worry about later, but for now just to be consistent and to take it seriously, truly seriously regardless of publication or notice that would be a huge accomplishment. Hell, I’m self published on this blog, that’s enough; but let’s make this a routine. Daily.

What does this have to do with short stories? This is a workshop. The Short Story workshop and figuring out a way to get back to writing is the part of the workshop. I have started and stopped so many times it’s unbelievable. My intention is to do a timed writing daily, and to start small. In fact I had already started. I started a week and a half ago. I started with a timed 3 minute write, and I’ve written every day slowly building that time. Today was 15 minutes. I included editing this blog post as a part of that 15 minutes. Tomorrow with be 16 minutes. There’s no excuse not to sit down for 16 minutes. What’s 16 minutes? For a writer trying to get back to writing 16 minutes is a life line. Intention matters. Intention really matters.

Researching Characters- An Example of Diving into the Rabbit Hole

In 2011, I was in a writing program called the Athenaeum through The Attic, a writing school in Portland, Oregon. I focused on my novel Zizkov as my “opus” of the writing mastery program. (If you want to check it out you can go to the category labeled The Novel- Hello from Zizkov, and that will I give you a general idea of the style.) I remember one of my teachers telling me that he never published his first novel. He wrote it. Put it in a drawer, and basically never looked at it again. I had thought at the time, “oh no, that will not be me. This baby’s gonna see the world.” Yet, it turned out to be me, but I think today I understand his point. It’s the lesson of writing. So, why am I writing this now? Well, I have been going through many old blog postings and cleaning house. I came across a post on researching characters for my novel. Since, I have been spending tie here breaking down processes and techniques and methods for writing (particularly creative writing) it seemed that this was a perfect platform for that old post.

It follows many of the points I had made on my blog posts about character development. It’s very detailed, and if I may say, rather impressive. I was surprised with the research I had put into building backstory and characterizations. Admittedly, I do enjoy research, and as some writers have pointed out research can be a distraction or form of resistance to writing your story. So be aware. That said if you read Game of Thrones you know that George R. Martin puts some serious time and research into his characters. Epic amounts of time equals epic stories.

Asking the questions

In the first part of this old post I reflected on some questions I needed to answer about the time and place of the setting (Prague) and what it would have been like to be a young person during that period.

I know a lot about Americans living in Prague since I was one of them, but I have some Czech characters to write, and where do I get the perspective on them? This has posed a challenge in the sense that, sure it has been easy to find a lot of books on Prague, and the Czech Republic which gives one a basic understanding of what it was like to be there between the year’s of 1939 to 1989, but what if you were too young to really know what it was like to live under an oppressive regime? Your parents did; your grandparents did; you know your history; but by the time you became a young adult it had already been 10 years of a new democracy.  The main Czech character is 24, and would have been 13 when the Velvet Revolution took place. My huge question is: what was it like to be a teenager growing up in a new democracy with opportunities? Opportunities your parents and grandparents never had, yet at the same time, experiencing an overwhelming flood of consumerism, and influx of foreigners, and a struggling economy. What would that have been like? (2008)

The Character and the Research

Next I wrote about one of the characters for my book. A character based on a real person I had met the first time I had lived in Prague. This real person’s history gave me a starting place for my first round of research.

My story is fiction, as I mentioned before, but the characters are based on real people. I remembered a conversation with the woman that Zuzana is based on; she had told me that her father was a member of the Czech Philharmonic– this is a very different upbringing from someone whose father worked in an industrial plant (which is where many people worked). So I started with music. I went back through Czech History dating all the way back to the 5th century when Bohemia and Moravia were first formed through separate tribes. No, I do not expect my characters to know this far back into their own history, but I felt that if I wanted to avoid making stock characters of Czech people why not know the birth of those people? I skimmed of course until I got into the 20th century, and along my journey through Czech/Czechoslovakian history I found what I wanted to latch onto- it was called Charter 77 and then something called the Jazz Section. (2008)

Imagining the Characters

At this point I imagined a scene with this character and the history of her life. I even included a little quote from the book that I had written at the time.

As I would go for a walk, I would imagine the main character’s, Annabelle, conversation with Zuzana as they visited a small town outside of Prague. On these walks Zuzana would to speak in my head, and she would tell me the story of her family. As soon as I’d return home I’d sit down and hand write out Zuzana’s family history dating back to her grandparents on both sides: When they were born, how they met and married and the years Zuzana’s parents were born. From there I moved onto her siblings and so on. It was a lush history that took me through 6 decades of Czech History. Will I write any of this history down in my novel? Hardly, but without a doubt I know who Zuzana is and why she is the way she is, and although a small character in the book she is a rich and beautiful character. (2008)

When the women get off the train in the small neighboring town, Zuzana tells Annabelle that when she was a girl her mother moved her and her two brothers to live here.  It was after her father was arrested. She says: My family is of a long line of teachers and musicians. It is almost expected that myself and my brothers will also be teachers or musicians but now that Czech is open, my brothers do not agree. They both have left  the Czech Republic. Which no one has done since before 1930. Even before the war I don’t think anyone had wanted to leave. Not from my family. It is good in Czech to be a teacher or a musician, at least it was.” (2008)

The Music, The Books, and The Research Links

I ended with sharing what music I was listening to at the time to help influence my writing. I also wrote about who I was reading at the time, again to help influence and inspire my writing. Then I added many links to the research on the history of Czech jazz and music subversion during the communist era. If you have the time allow yourself to fall down the rabbit hole. There’s some fascinating stuff there. Maybe you’ll find yourself inspired to write your own story.

Since I was basing a lot of Zuzana’s family history around the music of Jazz, that was what I decided to listen to while I wrote- so once a again thanks to pandora.com, along with this line of incredible musicians; Charlie Parker, John Hendricks, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Al McKibbon, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Thompson, and  Joshua Redman.

And of course,  always following with Mr. Stephen King’s advice, I’ve been reading. My reading material has been of course from Czech writers. I just finished Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal- it is a perfect book for a lover of books. The main character/narrator compacts trash and has spent his 35 years saving books from the hydrolic press, he has been unwittingly educated. It is a beautifully written book and at some parts disturbing, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

“I can be by myself because I am never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link about the 1986 trial when seven people of the Jazz section were arrested.

An article on the Prague Spring of 1968

A blog with music info (among other things) in Prague specifically and the Provakator a webzine that the blog spot mentions in a post. And lastly an article about the The Plastic People of the Universe another dissident musical group out of the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia

How ever you go about your writing, taking the time to do some serious development on your characters will make your characters more believable. The degree of that development is up to you, and as you can guess you can get lost in it, but don’t skip it.

Keep writing those stories.

Journal Writings as A Resource for Inspiration

This is an old post from a blog I wrote back in 2008. It’s interesting to me because I have not been journaling as I had in the past, and only recently I had tried to return to the practice. I’ve been working through my old blogs, and deciding if I’ll keep them and what purpose they serve. This blog is of course all about writing. I decided to repost this one here because it is about an source of inspiration which can be yourself. It was many years ago, but some of the concepts and the feelings behind the post remain. My friend is still dead, the relationship is long over, my cat is long dead, and now I can add my mother to the list of losses, but that is life. These losses are our stories. Go journal. Collect your life. You don’t have to make a book of it, but perhaps you will inspire yourself to be the best of you.

(Originally written and posted, November 24th, 2008)

I’ve been journaling since I was 15. My first journal was given to me by a friend from high school. I’m sure I had “dear diaries” when I was younger, but honestly I doubt I wrote much in them aside from what I was going to name my latest cat. My journaling started with that 15 year old birthday present.

There have been a lot of losses for me lately, and after looking back on my life with a great deal of perspective, I have come to realize that these losses actually count and mean something to me. My friend died, I’d been tangled in a complicated and heartbreaking relationship, and my cat, thankfully still living and appearing comfortable, has been diagnosed with cancer, so although alive, she doesn’t have much time left. These things have weighed, and are weighing heavily on my mind. My sadness is real yet it’s refreshing. It’s something I can deal with: I’m alive.  I find that each thing, among with my general reflections on my life, so far, have given me a value that I had never before noticed. What has all this to do with writing? We’ll for me, everything. As a writer, a portion of my tools are the events that mold and aid to direct my life, they are the essence of where I begin to write. I don’t know why any of this is coming to light to me just now, and it certainly isn’t easy, O’god not easy at all, but I think it has had something to do with love.

Three days ago I awoke with a sense of anxiety and I couldn’t figure out why. I felt overwhelmed with the need to get rid of things, like photographs and more importantly journals. My nearly 20 years of journals, my purges of teenage angst, woes, and heartaches, my twenty’s failings, and my newly thirties confusions. I felt that I needed to go through them first to see if there was anything worth keeping. In the beginning my journals were very introspective, but as I grew and became more interested in writing and as I studied the craft of acting, which forced me to view the world more outside of myself, I found that every once in awhile my journals would reflect these changes and occasionally I would write something worth keeping- something to work on later. I threw away so many pages of my past. It wasn’t like a denial of who I was, but more of a conscious decision to not think and react to life the way I had and have in the past. There wasn’t much to save, and this is not to insult myself, this is fine, more to recycle, and less to carry, but there were a couple of meaty gems, and I was able to look at them through new eyes as if I was some random reader that came across some new sentence that I found interesting or powerful. This is a pretty exciting sensation it’s like stepping outside of your body to look at yourself and then to think, hey I’m not that bad, in fact I’m pretty interesting.

There are some journals I haven’t touched. Some are from when I traveled and I have plans for them so until that time they sleep quietly on a shelf. Then there are others that I am not ready to open and don’t know if I ever will. There will probably be new journals to fill. Notebooks to collect my ideas, random images and weird sentences, dialogues and gems from the past- already in three days I’ve gone back to these notebooks and scratched and re-wrote added and subtracted. I feel like I’m working. To me I imagine my notebooks to look like the pages of some artist’s sketch book except instead of lines making images I have words making images. I’m just there to enjoy the process. I wrote in a post, about the disillusionment of parents, that I just wanted to open myself up like a chest and carve all my insides out, or to scream so loud that I shatter my reality into tiny particles of dust, and I think in the past three days that is exactly what I have been doing. As a result, I think my writing has gotten better. When I look back on my posts and previous writings, I feel like my descriptions and voice have become stronger more direct, and it hasn’t mattered so much to me whether anyone reads them as much as whether I am clearly saying what is on my mind.

 

It seems as if I am always looking back with new eyes. Thankfully. 

Dialogue- How to Write it. Some Advice from Old Professors

For some writers writing dialogue is the worst part of writing. they feel like they just are not able to write a believable conversation. This along with all techniques of writing is a practice, practice, practice, and read, read, read, exercise, but a few tips on how to write good dialogue is also useful. As with everything in crafting your writing there are techniques. I taken many writing courses in my past (my present not so much), and I’ve collected and kept most of my notes. I took writing courses in the 90’s at Chico State California University, and in the 2000’s at Portland Community college and Portland State University. Many of these notes on dialogue are taken from various writing courses. I’ve carried these notes with me over the years, and looked back to them from time to time to give me some advice or insight into my writing. Unfortunately, I can’t attribute which part came from which professor as everything slowly over the years mashed together. 

Why use Dialogue?

Dialogue can be used to move the story forward. It serves a purpose, y ou want it to revel tension between characters. Ideally. (But, you can do whatever you want.)

Use dialogue in creative non-fiction if:
A) It focuses on a moment of explicit tension between people-or
B) It focuses on a moment of suppressed tension between people-or
C) The dialogue revels someone’s character, either through expression of what they believe, or through their idiosyncratic way of stating something.

One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is to avoid meaningless preamble to a real exchange (unless you feel that it is essential to the story to put in meaningless preamble- kind of like David Lynch putting a white horse, a giant, and a dwarf in Twin Peaks- what was that all about?) For example read the boring exchange written below:

“Hi. It’s me.”
“How are you?”
“All right. How are you?”
“I’m all right.”
“What are you doing?”
BORING
Yes, sure people really do talk like that because let’s face it most of the time we have boring interactions called polite fiction, but no one wants to read it (unless you have a true purpose for it).

Get to the point:
“I want to talk to you about last weekend.”
“Last weekend never happened.”

OOOO Tell us more.

There are three possibilities for how dialogue can be delivered:
A) Summary dialogue, or the brief report.

It’s efficient and suggests conversation, but doesn’t give much of a sense of how things were said:

Mary said that she had never seen Star Wars and she was happy about that decision.
Mark said he was destroyed.

Literally destroyed, but not literally because then he would be dead and wouldn’t be able to say anything.

B) Indirect dialogue, which is more detailed than summarizing but is not directly quoted:

Mary said that she despised Star Wars and everything it represented so much that she had destroyed Mark’s entire video collection, and he deserved it. After all, he had begun to call out for Luke Skywalker when they made love, (what?) and why should she put up with that? Mark said he was crushed; he had no idea she was so upset, and saying he called out for Luke Skywalker was a slanderous lie.

(Yeah, he didn’t call out for Luke Skywalker while they were making love he called out for Han Solo)

Video collection probably gives an idea of how old these notes are.

C) Direct dialogue, the most dramatic form, happens in real time as opposed to the other forms:

“I’m so sick of your love affair with Star Wars I could scream,” Mary screamed.
“I’m so sick of you!” Mark screamed back.

You can intermix the three types, with good effect.

Some extra notes on dialogue:

The writer Jerome Stern says that adverbs in speech tags sound corny.

For example: “she said kittenishly; he responded sneeringly; she hissed angrily.” If the dialogue is well chosen, the feelings of the character will be clear. If it isn’t no amount of adverbs will help the reader feel the character.

So listen to Jerome Stern unless you are writing a detective or a romance novel then keep the adverbs because it just wouldn’t be the same with out them. Here’s a nice blog post that high lights some of his views on dialogue. You can also read one of his books on writing. 

A good way to “tag” dialogue so you don’t have to say “she said/he said” is to follow the lines with an action or a thought by the speaker:

“Did you really think I’d be willing to spend my life with a Star Wars freak?” Mary pulled off her engagement ring and threw it across the room.

Or you can write like James Joyce and really confuse the hell out of your readers as to who is really talking. “Is this the narrator or the speaker?”:

Stephen looked down on a wide headless caubeen, hung on his ashplanthandle over his knee. My casque and sword. Touch lightly two index fingers. Aristotle’s experiment. One or two? Necessity is that in virtue of which it is impossible that one can be otherwise. Argai, one hat is one hat. -Ulysses,pg. 192

But you should probably know what you are doing before you make the readers work so hard.

Point of View-What is it? How Do I Pick it?

What is a point of view? He said, She said? It’s all about perspective. You have to pick a point of view from which to tell your story. 

A) First person point of view happens when the person narrating the story is also a character in the story. “I woke up. I had this feeling. I am telling this story.”

B) Second person point of view happens when the writer chooses to refer to the main character as you. “You wake up. You have this feeling. You are telling a story.”

c) Third person point of view happens when the characters are reported on by a narrator who is not present in the story. Characters are described, and are called by names or he/she. “He woke up. She had a feeling. Sara wrote this story.”

  • Omniscient third person means that the narrator sees and knows all of the characters thoughts and actions in a god-like way. Sara woke up with a feeling of unusual dread. This was not the first time she rose with anxiety. Pete pretended to sleep as he felt her shifting beside him. He was tired of her anxiety attacks. He didn’t know how to deal with them. It was better for him to not respond. Sara watched him sleeping. She wondered why he no longer woke up with her like he used to. He used to be there for her. 
  • Partial omniscient (limited) third person means that the narrator tells about the thoughts of only one character. There are some things this narrator doesn’t know. Sara woke up with a feeling of unusual dread. This was not the first time she rose with anxiety. Pete remained asleep beside her. She stared at him as he slept. She wondered why he no longer woke up with her like he used to. He used to be there for her.
  • Objective third person narration means that the narrator does not allow himself/herself access to any thoughts or feelings, but describes only actions including dialogue. This is sometimes referred to as minimalism. Sara rose quickly from her bed. She was visibly shaken and put her arms around herself as if to comfort herself. She sat still for a moment and then looked at Pete who was still sleeping. She stared at him for a moment. “Are you awake?” She whispered. He didn’t move or make any sound. “Do you hear me anymore?” She whispered. She sighed softly. Then looked slowly around the bedroom.

Choosing a point of view also involves determining which characters in the story you want to tell has the most interesting vantage point, in your opinion. Sometimes, you can only find the viewpoint after telling it from numerous characters’ viewpoints. I once wrote an entire story in first person POV then switched to third and then back to first. That was a nightmare. Maybe don’t write the entire novel before you decide the POV is all wrong.

With the view point you have to choose your tense. The basic choices are past and present tense. Past is the most common and useful tense but present can add immediacy and excitement to a story. So what point of view will you pick, and how do you know if it’s right?

It’s all about how you want to tell the story, and how you want the readers to receive your story and feel about your characters. Do you want them to know they are reading a book or do you want them to forget they are reading a book? Do you want your voice to be heard or do you want to create a new voice as a narrator? Who is driving the story? Who is telling the story?

There are many resources from which to read for ideas as to how you should approach the point of view, but at the end of all the research you are ultimately the one to decide. Below I’ve added some links to blogs/articles that say much of the same things I am saying but also elaborate in other areas of the subject.

At this Writer’s Digest post if you scroll to the end of the article they have some nice tips on how to choose your perspective. They also use the terms 3rd person close and 3rd person distant, but those are the same as omniscient and objective. Different terms for the same things.

At Ink and Quills she goes into a couple other terms I had not heard of before in my old days of University. These include Deep Point of View and Multiple View (although I have heard of multiple just not deep).

On The Balance Careers blog you can find a nice writing exercise to use to play around with POV. It suggests you use something you’ve read which is great, but you can also use something you’ve already wrote. Write it in a new POV and see what you think.

 

See ya!