A quiet place to write

What’s the resource you most often wish you had more of? For a lot of writers, time is at or near the top of the list. Publication, income, a nicer this or that—all good, sure, but the first step is getting the story on the page, and writing is a thoughtful, time-intensive art.

To make it all even better there are days when it feels like you’ve got the fabled room full of chimps in your head instead of one calm, coherent adult. Whatever our sessions are like, most writers I talk to share my sense that there’s never, ever enough time.

Retreats are one way to give yourself a little more of this irreplaceable resource, and there are a lot of organizations dedicated to providing writers with space and time for their work. Some charge fees and some don’t. Some have an application process, especially if the time and space they offer is very low or no cost. A big plus is there are retreat locations across the globe.

Here are two places to do some research. Throughout this post, I’ve used the URLs instead of links in case the sites change their pages around. If that happens you can still head to their home page and check things out from there.

Alliance of Artist Communities http://www.artistcommunities.org/residencies/directory

Poets & Writers database https://www.pw.org/conferences_and_residencies (please subscribe to P&W if you can, it’s a great resource!)

If you like to hike and live in or plan to travel to the U.S., there are a few Federal forest cabins available, depending on the time of year https://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations/

The U.S. states of California https://www.reservecalifornia.com/CaliforniaWebHome/Facilities/SearchViewUnitAvailabity.aspx  and Idaho https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/activities/cabins also have cabins, and the time of year is a factor here as well. Other U.S. states and other countries may have similar options.

There are also do-it-yourself options that range from are you serious? to affordable. For example, checking into a hotel, B&B, Airbnb, or motel in some quiet place for a few days. Some monasteries have facilities for guests.

I regularly set aside a day to write at a nearby library where they have individual desks as well as long tables with space for several people. Another thing that’s worked for me is driving to a quiet park that has parking spots with a view of the water, and then I just set up in the back seat with my computer, a great view, and maybe coffee or water or something to eat. Of course, there is always the classic coffee house writing session, with or without caffeine.

Whatever kind of environment works best for you, I hope some of the ideas and links here will be useful in finding more time to write!

can’t say we haven’t had plenty of notice…

From the preface to a book I just started reading, published in 1864:

“The object of the present volume is: to indicate the character and, approximately, the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit; to point out the dangers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic or the inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions ; and, incidentally, to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life…”

The book this prefaces is

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh

like I said, published in 1864

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

A few years back, probably around 2014, I heard an interview with a woman who was (I think) a U.S. House Representative, and who fumed at the irresponsibility of Central American parents who allowed their children to take the perilous journey north to the U.S. border, leaving them “for us to deal with,” or words to that effect.

For me, this was the voice of a suburban U.S. parent who doesn’t understand why the neighbors keep letting their kids play out on the street after dinner instead of keeping them home. It reduces the pain and terror in Central America to a question of parenting styles.

In other words, it was the kind of remark you can only make when you have a few basic facts and none of their context—on the order of a classical music lover blasting Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan because their music doesn’t sound like Mozart.

Had it been published at the time, I would have sent the offended and uncomprehending (traits that hang out together a lot) House Representative a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s (@ValeriaLuiselli ) book, Tell Me How It Ends . Because in this book we are allowed to witness some of the stories Luiselli herself heard during interviews with those very children at the Federal Immigration Court in New York City. We are also given a chance to see the system that children have to find their way through.

It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The structure of Luiselli’s book is the list of questions translators are tasked to ask each child, whose answers must then be translated and written down. Translators then discuss the interviews with volunteer attorneys who evaluate each child’s situation against the parameters laid out by statutes regarding what is and isn’t grounds for asylum.

My description conveys the outline of the book but doesn’t approach the breadth of its content or the effectiveness of Luiselli’s writing. For balance, the following quote gives you a hint. After several pages describing the maps and stats of the ways and places that people determined to survive find death instead of help, Luiselli writes :

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories … Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

For me, this quote goes a long way toward describing the origin story of this short, intense book and the reasons why we all need to read it. You can buy it here .

Blues for Paris

I studied photography in Paris a couple decades past, and at one point decided to take long-exposure night-time shots along the Seine. After living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I already knew Paris was nowhere near as threatening an environment. And I’d been out at night there on my own, at concerts, plays, talks by photographers, always traveling on foot and by Metro. Still, I was wary about shooting after dark in a less populated spot.

The first time I set up my tripod on the Left Bank, near the Pont de Archêveché, my immediate surroundings were quiet and calm. Light rippled off the water. I sighted and framed potential shots and, with all my other senses, read the atmosphere for signs of trouble.

People strolled past, talking quietly, the flood lights of a bateau mouche spread their streak of daylight across both banks, music bounced down to the river from cars passing by.

There were no red flags, just peace and calm. And its epicenter, I finally realized, seemed to be Notre Dame, buttresses like wings spread out behind her, the spire with its watchful figures, her towers looking west.

My eyes to the viewfinder, vulnerable on all sides, that sense of a guarding presence calmed me down and let me work.

There are claims that buildings are simply enclosed air, objects built from inanimate materials, but I don’t believe it. Buildings are memory boxes, repositories of the voices, footfalls, and lives that have sounded within them.

During my time in Paris I passed Notre Dame on foot, on buses, ate my lunch in the square at her feet. Within her walls and in her deep quiet, I lit candles for my parents. She stands at the center of Paris like a guardian spirit keeping watch over her city and people. Her roots are centuries deep and she misses nothing, because the world comes to her with its news, sorrows, and triumphs.

And now the world is coming to her again, with aid and prayers for her restoration.

Writing a Synopsis

I recently applied for a fellowship that required a novel synopsis. For someone who’s completed their novel, this might not be difficult. In my case, the book is under construction and written only through the first half. I know where it’s headed and how it ends, but telling the story of that second half before having worked out all the specifics, beats, twists? Talk about a sobering experience.

The first step was going online to get information on the elements and requirements of a synopsis. Right away there were two issues to sort out. One was the intermingled use of the terms ‘outline’ and ‘synopsis,’ sometimes within the same entity’s requirements. The most frequent definitions I found were: an outline is something writers create for themselves; a synopsis is what you send to others as a depiction of your book’s contents.

Also, some sites advise that you write the synopsis in the same voice used in the book, while others tell you it should be in business-style prose. After quite a bit of hunting around, the former turned up much more often and I went with that option.

One of the articles I found most helpful was on Jane Friedman’s site. Examples that helped were on a no longer active Miss Snark page, where I searched for the word “fiction” because there were so many examples from several types of writing.

The basic elements are:

  • write it in present tense and third person

  • create a narrative using only the primary characters and conflict(s)

  • show how the plot’s layers carry the narrative through the end

  • reveal the major plot twists and the ending, counter-intuitive as that may be, so the judge, editor, or literary agent can evaluate whether the book delivers on it promise

  • check the guidelines you’re writing for, but often a synopsis is no more than two pages and can sometimes be single-spaced

And now for that second step, getting it done.

In the beginning, it felt a little like drawing a map before I’d traveled through the territory I was sketching out. Immediately, though, it became an interdependent process with writing the book itself, since working through all the demands of the synopsis showed me ways to improve the opening chapters of the story and build a better foundation for it.

All of this required a much deeper analysis of the entire book, the characters, their history, the story’s events and plot points—everything. In the abstract, pre-synopsis, it all made sense. In fact there were gaps, dropped threads, and an assortment of other issues. Summarizing the story forced me to weave together all of the elements in ways I’d planned to tighten up when I got to the end and could look back over the entire story.

Now that it’s done, I know what an important exercise and tool writing a synopsis is. If your story doesn’t make sense at elevator pitch length, it probably won’t hold together in the writing either. Better to know that up front. It was a challenge, but I’m glad for the experience.

So this is where I have to laugh at myself a little. A few years back, a writer I knew regularly told me to always write a synopsis, even for short stories, and to write the synopsis first. Back then I could not see how it would help any part of the process. Now I get it.

One more writing lesson learned.

a fiction writer studies screenplay structure

A gifted writer I know once gave me this advice: the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenplays. They’re action and dialogue segmented into the building blocks of scenes, and each scene is there for a reason. Studying them had forced him to look at, and cut out, the slack and excess in his fiction work.

I finally decided to follow his advice. Up until now I’ve only written short stories. Then one of them morphed into something the size of Texas. But realizing it had the potential for a novel-length work was like standing at a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see that other side, sort of, but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I devised a screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.

Worksheets

The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates can feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that), but reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. The templates can also provide scaffolding for creating your own plot.

29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page, from Writers in the Grove)

Plot worksheets for writers (KM Editorial)

The most useful exercise was creating my own beat sheet for the film Michael Clayton. I watched it with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting pause involved here), and wrote out the beats into the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture, and gave me a concrete sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.

Reading

The second phase involved books about screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. I read five books but will highlight the two I found most helpful.

The first is Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure. He addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates easily to writing fiction. In addition, he examines theories of storytelling and structure from Aristotle’s Poetics through Robert McKee. That section alone saves you reading about six other books, which is no small gift. There are exercise sheets to prompt your own scrutiny of films (that could also be used for fiction) as well as a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that include an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to analyze other films or fiction.

The second book is by Karl Iglesias and is made up primarily of verbatim advice, broken down by topic, from about 20 career screenwriters. Its focus is firmly on writing and story structure. A little time is given to dealing with studios and the film business. The advice is realistic and helpful, including references to books and teachers that had most inspired the screenwriters who were interviewed. The book’s title, 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters (2d edition) is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.

Favorite writing tip:

“doing the 20s”
One screenwriter in
101 Habits lists or sketches out 20 ways that a scene or plot point could be done, then picks the best. “If you make yourself write twenty ideas, not worrying about whether they’re any good or not, often the ninth or tenth one will be golden because you didn’t settle for the first thing that popped into your mind.”

The lesson for me: the first thing that pops into my head is likely to also be the first thing that pops into a lot of people’s heads. Coming up with 19 alternatives will take each of us in a different direction, along our own neural pathways, and is a much more likely way to arrive at an interesting, as opposed to predictable, story.

Most helpful structure tip:

Decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.

My take: at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, is an essential point you want to make or explore. That’s your theme. Don’t include an event or character that doesn’t relate, reveal, or lead to this core concept.

And that brings us back to the taut economy of screenplays, which is a good reason to study them!