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!

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!

Writing what we know vs. going where the writing scares us

A few days ago, wading through a tsunami of belongings at a storage unit, a thought about writing jumped out at me. There is a danger in writing what we know, and I was basically surrounded by the physical manifestation of it.

Over-writing, narratives loaded with enough detail to make the most patient reader wince. I’ve certainly read a lot of work like this and have produced computer files full of it myself. The problem with writing what we know and staying on familiar ground is this: we can end up like guides who know so much about their subject that they can’t get out of the way of the story.

When we’re writing about something we don’t know, something we’re not sure we have the CV to take on, we haven’t got that life’s worth of detail to immerse ourselves and our readers in. It’s like trekking toward a summit we’ve caught a glimpse of. We take only the bare essentials along, and don’t waste energy or oxygen on the unnecessary.

Yes, we have life experience. We have cultural, historical and personal perspectives we can layer insparingly. But we let the path and the scenery speak for themselves, because they are so new, so fresh, and so bare-knuckle present, we don’t want to obscure any of it.

 

My 2017 writing challenge

2016 was not a good year for personal writing goals. I started this year determined not to repeat that disappointing performance, and it didn’t take much analysis to see the problem. I had to come up with a new approach to writing, or more specifically to a writing schedule.

By the middle of January I’d decided what that new structure would be. In every month of 2017, I would submit at least one piece of writing or self-pub a story on Amazon. There are enough stories, essays, poems and novel chapters on my computer to fill a small library—if they were completed. They need to be revised, polished, finished, and sent out into the world, to see if they find a place for themselves.

This was one of those Ray Bradbury sort of concepts. First you jump off the cliff, and then you build your wings on the way down. In other words, I started with the conviction, not a clear sense of the follow through.

We’re not far into the year, but so far I’ve stuck to the schedule. The February deadline did stretch into early March to accommodate word choices that just did not sit right. The opposing force to deadlines is you can’t send something out until it’s right, or as right as your current skill-set allows.

Two short pieces are being revised for submission in March. There’s also research to do, looking into magazines and sites that might be interested in those pieces. At the same time, I’m working on longer stories to submit in future months. So it’s developing into a three-tier process.

What’s struck me the most over this past seven weeks has been the effect of setting monthly deadlines. These are arbitrary and self-imposed ultimatums, but they have somehow lodged themselves in my brain and refused to be ignored, displaced, or shouted down by whatever else might be going on.

A huge bonus and upside is I’ve spent a lot more time reading online and at the library, enjoying the work of other writers as well as the magazines that publish them. Who knows what the odds are, but there’s always a chance one of them would consider including my work in the publications they spend their own long hours curating.

The time all this has taken has felt monumental. When it comes to restaurant menus, clothes, office equipment, I usually know what I want after a quick perusal of the options. But give me a piece of my own writing to polish and complete and you might not see me for days. Days spent excavating through layers of rough patches and not-quite-right word choices. As soon as the first set of snarls is sorted out, more are revealed.

And speaking of that, I have a deadline to meet.

2016 review & gearing up for 2017

10-007-8-29-14-cropAs it drops toward its horizon and final bow, what stands out the most about 2016 is the time I have not spent furthering my own writing objectives. Not what you want to see in a year-end evaluation, but it’s a chance to do better today and next year.

First, a step back. I’ve taken the critique group/occasional course/read-all-you-can approach to writing instead of enrolling in an MFA program. Critique groups teach you how to write in a sort of apprenticeship manner, by requiring that you evaluate and comment on other people’s writing in order to receive feedback on your own. If you’re lucky, someone skilled in this practice is leading the group and setting the example. Over time you come to recognize the difference between useful and not so useful comments, and you learn about writing by examining the results of unseasoned skillsyours and everyone else’s.

This process reminds me of the watches and small appliances my father and I took apart when I was a child, and then put back together again with varying degrees of success. It’s a method of discovering how things work that requires a lot of hours and can lead to incomplete or not entirely functional results, but it’s an indelible way to learn.

Okay, so that being my learning method, 2016 was spent in a group that recently released a themed anthology. That project was invaluable as a writing experience. It was a good challenge and I enjoyed working with and learning from the other members. However, it basically inhaled all of the year’s writing oxygen.

I wrote a total of five stories for this project over the course of about eighteen months. Two were published in the collection. Instinct told me to pull a third story from considerationI want it to come to a more slowly developed final form instead of being freeze-framed to meet a deadline. One morphed into something that didn’t meet the anthology theme. One was declined. All of this work was done according to a set schedule of writing, which in itself was a good experience. It’s the polar opposite of my customary “let it sit a while and come back to it later” method.

Here is the downside: two stories intended for self-publication this past fall did not make the finish line. One was a political satire intended for pre-election reading. The other was a chiller intended for Halloween. Three other stories have been waiting for attention before they can jump back into the submission/revision cycle.

So 2016 resulted in a book that contains some of my work, something concrete. And, in the process of working on it, three new stories evolved, two of which I think have promise. But looking at the work that the anthology forced aside has thrown up some red flags (or yellow cards). It was a good learning experience, but I’m not sure I would do it again in the near future. At least not while I also have to work at something else for a living.

What to do differently in 2017?

One change is something I just began doing this week, using new software that stores tasks, projects and deadlines and sends reminders keyed to my priorities. That should help keep me focused on the most crucial goals, instead of trying to do everything (my usual MO).

A second change is the result of seeing my writing go through a significant improvement or two during the past year. Most of those changes came out of writing things I was positive I had no business taking on. So wherever that road leads, that’s where I’m headed. As more than one writer has pointed out, if a project scares you it’s a sign that you should be working on it.

Out and available:

Two short stories and one micro fiction piece in the anthology Chord & Discord, a collection of music themed stories. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories.

You can access the book’s Amazon page here

And access the B&N page here

coda-graphic-email-revisedCoda
Lila and Cole, an eight-bar blues tale

First time I saw Lila was at the Mint, over on Pico, back in the ’90s. She was on stage at an open mic night. It was the twenty-fifth or -eighth or some too-high number of nights spent checking out singers at L.A. clubs, and I was feeling older than God at that point, or at least as tired. But my band needed a singer up front, instead of me frogging away while I banged on a Hammond, so the search continued.

She introduced herself as a folk singer and did a song titled “The Dutchman” about an old guy in Amsterdam. It has a killer chorus about his wife Margaret who remembers him as he was when they were young. And, yes, as I found out later, it is a folk song—God bless Michael Smith and Steve Goodman—but Lila turned it into a torch so hot it left the walls smoking. Separate a tune from its original beat, pace it according to pain and longing, and you can send shivers through every heart in the room.

Eight notes in and I knew I’d found my singer. Her voice shot me right out of my seat and up to the side of the stage. Thin as a quarter note with lots of black hair and brown eyes, she had the finesse of Ella and the power to blow the roof off the building.

When she’d finished—even before she’d finished—people whooped and clapped, wiped tears away outright, or coughed and pretended their eyes were just irritated by their cigarettes.