Protecting Your Space To Write

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Writing can be a passion in the abstract but a phantom in reality. I love to write, you might say. Perhaps your mantra is “I must write to be a whole person.” Whatever your ideal of writing, we must all put it into practice. This blog article is a reality because I’ve applied my fingers to my keyboard. It’s a bit of a miracle to create something where there was just an idea and a passion moments earlier.

Writing AloneWe all must recognize that writing requires protection, however. To make progress on anything you’ll want to protect the time you need to achieve and finish it. My writing workshop is getting a new table for students this spring. The floors were transformed in our renovation, and now it’s time for the writing table to get a revival, too. To create this table my carpenter-friend Steve and I must estimate the time we’ll need to bring the table from a desire to something you can lean against with your forearms, hands on keyboard or pen scratching upon a notebook.

“How long will it take?” I ask him this morning, after our weekly Mexican breakfast.

“Not more than a day.”

“Eight hours then?”

“Easily that.” He’s from Liverpool, and they talk in that voice.

“So, we can do this on a Sunday. Which one?”

We’re building a table, but now it’s really going to happen, because the Sunday of March 1 has been protected. In the same way, a novel or an essay collection or a memoir moves from passion to reality. What it requires is for you to protect the time needed to create it. More

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Serve the drama first

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The right set of facts are those that serve the drama of the story. We read and watch documentaries to educate ourselves. If we’re lucky, they entertain us. This surfaced during a chat about the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson — the Carl Sagan of the new generation’s Cosmos — and how much he dislikes the movie Gravity.

But any dramatic feature that fails to entertain, because it gets busy teaching us physics — that’s a misguided effort. Listening to him on Fresh Air (especially at the 30:00 mark calculating his response time to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show questions), will give you an insight into how and why Tyson became the man he is today.

It’s hard to imagine the original Carl Sagan, who wrote the orginal Cosmos series, being so persnickety about such details as presented in a drama. Along with his wife, he wrote the novel Contact, which was adapted into a stellar movie. I doubt Tyson will be authoring novels, but everybody can learn something new. Even if it’s just storytelling basics.

Haiku Deck love most

I assembled my first Haiku slide deck today, using this subject as a starting point. (Click on the image above to see the deck, a summary of what makes writing effective.) Yes, it’s what I’ve preached since I started the Workshop: attend to Meaning, Sense, and Clarity. As artists, we make meaning. We’re driven to this mission, cannot stand a life without meaning-making.

And as readers we care the most about drama. Miss a point of technology or history and it might spoil that moment of a story. Stumble while creating the drama — because you’re too busy attending to the laws of physics — and you might as well be producing a documentary, or writing a nonfiction book.

The same rules apply to writing stories about time travel. Rian Johnson wrote Looper, one of the best time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. When I heard Johnson talk at the Austin Film Festival about writing time travel, he agreed with fellow screenwriter Robert Orci, co-writer of the Star Trek reboot. Nobody knows how the physics of time travel work. But as humans, we recognize and connect through drama.

Respect the science, sure. But revere the storytelling.

The Four Character Levels

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Peter Dunne, movie and TV writer who’s won Emmys and a Peabody award, has a great book in Emotional Structure to let you explore and define and show your characters’ emotions. Dunne talks early on about the Four Character Levels:

1. Individual: The outer layer, what is shown to the world
2. Familial: The belief system, secrets, seat of guilt
3. Social: Cultural, other-oriented, obligations and changeable
4. Emotional: The real deal, what the character really feels — whether they are aware of it or not.

In 11 pages which Dunne writes very early in his book, he breaks down how these levels show how your hero relates to the world. You can work on these things using the book’s exercises. Great stuff.

“Trust your growth,” he says to inspire us. “Every time you create a character or write a scene you grow, too. Just as you ask your hero to trust his process, you must trust yours.”

As I polish Viral Times in its extensive revision, I keep these levels in mind for my characters. Dorothy Bezder shows up in Chapter Six, to introduce a character she loves who is capable of great violence, all in the name of a vengeful god. What happens to Dorothy after Six? What are her levels?

Artist’s choices for me.