Different Arts, Different Behaviors

As a writer, I fly solo. That’s kinda the name of the game. The decisions made are mine and mine alone. It’s me and the keyboard, my imagination, and whatever command of language I happen to have at the time. If I want to adjust point of view, setting, character, or anything else, I can do it and not have to answer to anyone. 

There are times as a writer where I take in other people’s opinions. The most obvious example is my writers group. I submit pieces and they make notes and hand them back. In return, I do the same for them. And it’s rather satisfying to suggest to other people what they need to do to correct their story. (They should always, always listen to me.)
However, what they do with what I say is entirely up to them. After all, it’s their name on the title page. My name may or may not show up in the acknowledgements page. (Thanks, Fleur!) 
And I can take or leave their suggestions without a committee or an audience. I nod, say thanks, and move on. Every adjustment I make is my own and I’m the only one who has to answer for it. 
Theatre works a little differently. Theatre is collaborative. There is more than one voice going on at any given time: playwright, director, actor, etc. Collaboration has inherent constraints that aren’t present when you’re your own boss.
For example, tonight at rehearsal for Marat/Sade, I was reminded of just how different writing (solo) and acting (collaborating) are. There was a section where blocking was giving some difficulty in which Sade, who is the center man (after all, the play is his big Fuck You to the Man), was getting upstaged by some delightfully raucous musicians. This was understandably annoying to Sade, whose speech is kind of important to the point of the whole play. 
Being in the ensemble, I’m basically opposite the audience and saw that a small adjustment in blocking would keep Sade center man, instead of being brushed to the corner. I made the suggestion to the director — during the break — and he gave me a hug, said thank you, and then passed the suggestion on to Sade. 
Unfortunately, the set being the chaotic place it is, there was really no way to take the time to communicate the change in the time allotted. So there was a stumbling moment while director and actor went back and forth in front of everyone. No one got loud, but you could tell that maybe the better time to discuss this would be later. Which is basically what it boiled down to. 
Throughout the whole exchange, I cannot tell you how hard it was to stay quiet. I can see how it will work and if I had two seconds I could get the picture across. But, in the end, I’m the chorus girl. I’m not the director, or Sade, and their responsibilities aren’t mine. I’m there to fill one slot of the story. I’m not in charge of the whole story. 
And, while other writers can keep or dismiss my suggestions at their leisure (to their peril), theatre means you take the director’s note and adjust accordingly — because someone has to be in charge of this chaos. His tools are actors and sets and scripts. All of those things have opinions of their own. By jumping in further and insisting on my change (which may or may not work, after all) I would just be adding to the chaos. So, with great restraint, I kept my mouth shut. They’ll sort it out. 

Doing Stuff: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Oh, yeah! It’s Tuesday – time to see what we’ve accomplished this past week.

I’ve gotta say: not much. My grandmother became very, very ill this past week and that entailed multiple cross-country phone calls, getting my mother to the airport, lots of stressing, and just general unrest in life. I’m sure you guys have had those weeks too. I hope everyone reading this had a great week and nothing too bad happened. Much love to all y’all.

However, it wasn’t a total bust of week, for all that. I managed to get a couple pages written on my big manuscript and fiddled with a short story that I haven’t quite finished – I don’t know if it’s the peripheral stress going on right now, or if it’s the story itself that I’m struggling with. Only time and work will tell.

I did meet up with Iver this week and, as always, he gave me great feedback on a story I sent him. And let me tell you (I’m currently working with a group and Iver separately as a writing partner/buddy/mentor): having someone to read your work and thoroughly go over it is a real gift. I love all of my groupies! Between Iver’s mark up and the group’s critique, this should turn out pretty good. So that makes me happy.

And that’s my week. I hope you guys got some stuff done too! Let me know.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Go hug someone you love. 

Story Beats and Hooks that aren’t for fishermen: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It’s Tuesday again, my fellow writing buddies! Time to talk about what we’ve accomplished this past week.

It was an interesting week for me. Most of it hinges on the Under Ground Writing Project meeting I wen to on Sunday.

Normally during the meetings we’re critiquing one another’s work – looking for stuff like plot, character, typos, that kinda stuff. This month we had a special guest critic, which we do from time to time, by the name of Jan CJ Jones. She’s a producer at a local production company, Forest Rose Productions. And again, under normal circumstances, the guest critics offer their expertise as part of the larger group circle discussion.

But this time we ran it like a pitch session. As a producer, Jones is one of those people who is sitting on ‘the other side’ of the desk, like editors and agents and, well, movie producers. She offered to listen to all of us pitch our stories and give us pointers on the logline, the summary, and the first three pages of our novels. We took her up on her offer.

It was tiring. It was long. It was emotional. All in all, a good shake-it-up experience.

Generally I try not to focus on the marketing side of things, preferring to keep my energies on producing good language and developing a good story. However, after Sunday, I’ve figured out that pitching, or writing a query letter, or summarizing your story helps with the writing itself. Because, guess what, if your story is no good, your pitch material will show that. If you see a hole in your summary, there’s a hole in you story. It’s just how it is.

A month prior to this meeting we were given a handout that listed what we were to provide and present for our pitching session. First we were to provide information about ourselves: name, rank, serial numbers, where we are in our writing now, where we see ourselves in ten years, our writing strengths and our writing weaknesses. Then we were to give the low-down on the work we were presenting: genre, title, slugline/logline, and the ‘back of the book’ summary. After that, we listed the beats of our story: hook, inciting incident, midpoint, major setback, climax, denoument). Finally we read the first three pages of the book.

Let me take you through the bits that really stuck with me:

The logline:

So a few of us were whacked  on the knuckles right out of the gate (how’s that for some mixing of metaphors?) with the loglines. It’s one thing to know intellectually that you should be able to ‘sum-up’ your novel in one sentence – it’s quite another to put it into practice. ***Nathan Bransford has a rockin’ post on his blog about One Sentence Summaries – aka the logline – definitely check it out. He’s right on the money.***

The one lesson I took out of this early section of the presentation: The Reader is Ignorant. This isn’t as harsh as it sounds. Put very simply: the reader doesn’t know what the heck your story is about. They are coming from a complete space of unknowing. It’s up to you, the writer, to let them know what’s going on. Seems obvious, right?

However, you the writer know your story inside and out – putting you into a high context relationship with your story. You can joke with your story. You can hang out and have coffee with your story. You know your story had a really hard time around chapter fourteen that you guys worked out together. How are you going to introduce this story to a person who doesn’t know?

For educational purposes only, I shall share with you the logline I presented. (Those of you who know nothing about my story will see the problem immediately.) (And my goodness, you have no idea how hard this is to type, but I’ll force myself…like I said it was kind of an emotional roller coaster of a day):

First: title and genre: “The Line. Dystopian.”

Second: logline: “Those who fall below the Line are never heard from again. When her sister falls below, Susanna Purchase must save her before their father’s actions kill them both.”

Dost thou seest the issue? What the hell is the Line? Some figure of speech? A physical thing? This logline says nothing much. *Jenny bangs head against presentation podium*

The other thing Jones talked about was the set up of the logline – and Bransford talks about it in more detail and more articulately at the link I’ve already given you. Logline must include: main character, the MC’s obstacle, and the MC’s goal.

I’ve had a little while to come up with something else and I’ll throw it out here so youse guys who haven’t read my novel can tell me if it A.) makes any kind of sense and B.) intrigues at all.

Jenny’s second attempt at a logline: “Susanna Purchase falls below the Line, a State developed system designed to hold individuals accountable to predetermined standards, when her sister is accused of treason. Susanna, held in a prison camp, must join an underground rebellion to save her sister before she is executed.

Meh. I’m not even done with the book yet, so I’ve got plenty of time to work on it.

The Beats:
Part of our assignment was to figure out the major ‘beats’ of our story. I’d never heard this concept before and during our discussion I thought that this was the most useful portion of the critiques. Since it’s kind of like a summary, this is really helpful for character motivation and story coherence. So I thought I’d share the concept with you.

Here’s what they are:

Beat 1: The Hook: This is the opening, what immediately grabs the reader’s attention.

Beat 2: The Inciting Incident: This may or may not happen simultaneously with the hook. Basically, the thing to keep in mind with the inciting incident is that the main character is set on a course of action different than their everyday life. This is where the world will never be the same and the main character has to act. They ‘gotta’ have something, do something, etc. They are motivated to move.

Beat 3: Midpoint: Up to this point the main character has been figuring things out, trouble has been brewing, but here is where the stakes are raised. What happens if the main character fails? I’d never heard this question applied to a story before. Sure, you think about what your main character wants, what drives them, but this is the first time I’d considered what happened if they did not get it. Coming at it from the other side is a neat-o thing. What are the consequences? If there is no change because of the main character…well, that’s just not a very interesting story.

Beat 4: Major Setback: Here is where the worst stuff happens. All the crutches are removed. The Bad Forces come into play. If the main character has some kind of character flaw, this is where it’ll show up – and the main character will be either overwhelmed or will overcome.

Beat 5: Climax: All actions lead to this point. I think most of us understand what the climax is.

Beat 6: Denoument: Classically known as the ‘falling’ action. Where things wrap up, calm down, and a new order is established to the character’s life.

…and that’s what I learned this week. Have I gone on long enough? What’d you guys do?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Getting Stuff Nailed Down

It’s Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this last week:

1. Not much as far as word counts. There was a large societal-world-building conversation on Saturday night between my brother, the spouse, and myself. They asked really important questions and I was proud to say that I had the answers to a lot of them. But then Shane hammered away at something that’s a fairly large problem. (I’m not sure whether marrying someone smarter than yourself is a good thing yet….) Luckily, he voiced his issue early on and I can easily, easily fix it moving forward.

Also got UGWP critiques back. For the most part I was super-happy about the questions that were asked, and only had one brief moment where I felt myself resisting an idea…but then I thought to myself: Aren’t they just pointing out a section that you were worried about yourself? And I had to talk myself down from being defensive. (I always need a day or two after a critique to digest and Stop Being Defensive.)

Though the critiques of my work, and a couple of my fellow members’ work as well left me with the question: How much do you trust that the writer is doing what they mean to do? This is a bigger question in a novel chapter critique, since as a reader/critiquer you often don’t have the whole thing in front of you. With a short story you have the end, know the arc, and can adjust accordingly, with novel chunks you have no such luxury unless the writer tells you what’s gonna happen. I realized that some of my critiques of others’ work was based in the idea that I wasn’t trusting the author to do what he/she was doing. For example, last session I gave one of my writer buddies a critique that switched the opening structure of the story around…and while I think a great deal of it can still work, now that I’ve read more of it, some of that critique isn’t in line with what he’s doing…so I don’t feel as useful as I could’ve been.

2. Read quite a bit. Finished Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and made a good dent in The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Something good that I know about my process: I have to just shut down and read sometimes, and I try not to beat myself about that. Especially when I’m reading things that give good inspiration to continue my own work.

How’re you guys doing?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Critique Week!

It’s Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this past week:

1. Critiqued my writing group’s work in an experimental way.

There I was, reading one of my buddies submissions while peddling away on the stationary bike. (It’s hard to make marks that way.) — And no, that wasn’t the experiment. But it’s where I came up with the experiment. When I was done sweating away literally and figuratively, I go to my husband and say, “Spouse, how about we take one submission every night this week and take turns reading alternating pages aloud? Then we get to experience the stories in aural and oral fashion.” (Not as kinky as it sounds.)

Spouse says, “Sure. Why not.” Because he’s so agreeable.

And that’s what we did. As you can imagine, many interesting things came up.

First: Reading aloud does help in a couple ways. The most obvious is that typos and awkward sentences JUMP out and PUMMEL you. Especially if you’re silently going right along and your partner, who is reading aloud, stumbles. You didn’t stumble because your eye just glided right over the pothole in the road. Not so much when you hear it.

Second: It’s not all good, this experimental style. Since you are reading with a partner, the old law of observing changing the observed comes into play. I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to let the story sink in. I had a harder time with the overall critique, though I think the line critique got stronger. I don’t know if I have as many structural notes (don’t get me wrong, I still have the bigger notes) but I don’t know how detailed they are.

Third: Even though you don’t get to sink into the story, you are forced early on to articulate yourself. As you stare at a section while your critique partner waits, you have to explain why you’re making them wait. At first it comes out as “Wait a sec, something’s not right here.” Then you have to ponder. Then your partner ponders.

Then you say: “I have a problem with such and such motivation.”
Partner says: “Like, there is none?”
And you say: “No, not like that. But would the squirrel really run across the street like that? After watching his whole family go the same way?”
Partner says: “Have you never observed squirrel behavior?”

Then the conversation disintegrates from there–you use every piece of zoological information that you retain from 10th grade ecology classes, your partner counters with every time he’s ever driven a car…and you have to think further on your position. It can be rough going.

2. Not much else, really. I finished another bothersome chapter, but am pretty darn certain that I rushed it in a desperate need to get it done. In the Hero’s Journey, I believe that this chapter would be what is known as the Call to Action. Who knew calling would be such a pain in the tush? I think it has enough information to allow me to charge through to the next chapters easily enough…then I can go back and shift stuff around. MUST HAVE MORE MATERIAL my brain yells! Words, words, words!

3. Oh, I did do something else. I finished my first ever notebook from page one to page 160, a la Virginia Woolf! Didn’t feel like dating stuff. Didn’t feel like begging for forgiveness if I missed a day or sixteen. I wrote in it when I needed it. And I’m on to my second one. Being the same size and whatnot, I figure that I’ll be done with that one around December. Whoo-hoo!

All right guys, let’s hear your triumphs!

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Direct collaboration, as opposed to indirect collaboration, is where a writer works directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is an example of direct collaboration. In 1944 Jack Kerouac and his friend William Burroughs took turns writing alternating chapters of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel about the sensationalized murder of one of their circle, David Kammerer, by another member of their circle, Lucien Carr.

First, a super-quick background on the case:

Kammerer was a teacher out in Missouri, and Carr was a student. When they met, Kammerer was 25 years old, and Carr was eleven. Kammerer basically took Carr under his wing (otherwise known as: followed the kid around) and, as James Grauerholz sums up in his Afterword to Hippos: “Eight years, five states, four prep schools, and two colleges later, that connection was grown too intense.” Carr tried to join the merchant marines, hoping to get on a ship and head out of country and leave Kammerer behind. That plan didn’t work out. On August 14, 1944, Carr stabbed Kammerer and threw his body into the Hudson River. Carr surrendered a day later, after first confessing to Burroughs and then to Kerouac – who may or may not have helped conceal evidence (I can’t find a definitive answer, so if anyone knows, please let me know). Carr and Kerouac were both arrested. Carr ultimately served two years. Kerouac only got bailed out because he agreed to marry his first wife, Edie Parker, and her family paid for his release.

Seeing as how writers are such an understanding lot…Carr’s friends jumped to write about the whole situation. Ginsberg worked a few chapters for his own book, and according to Grauerholz, his version “is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.”

And Kerouac and Burroughs decided to write their version together.

I’m not surprised that writers involved in a collaborative circle would choose to write together. And I’m certainly not surprised Kerouac and Burroughs chose to write about an event that affected their lives, and the lives of other members of their circle, so completely. I am happy that the publication was saved until after all of the major parties have died. (Not for lack of trying, apparently, but Carr requested that they back off – which they did.)
Anyway, Kerouac and Burroughs did write the book together, choosing one of the most obvious forms of collaborative writing: the alternating chapter method.

That’s just like it sounds. Burroughs took a chapter, then handed it off to Kerouac, who wrote the second chapter, and so on. I can’t speak for Kerouac and Burroughs, or how easy/difficult it is to do with two people, but I have used this method.

With about ten other people.

There are pros and cons.

Pros:
• Word count adds up quick. It’s satisfying to watch the story grow and feel the ownership of it…and do only a portion of the work. If you’ve never finished a big thing like a novel, sharing the work with someone else can give you the impetus to finish your own work. From what I can tell, Hippos was the first big work completed by either Kerouac or Burroughs…even though it wasn’t published until decades later.
• It increases communication, which forces you, as a writer, to articulate what you’re trying to do. That helps with your solo work as well. This is part of the overall effectiveness of indirect collaborative groups that we talked about on Friday. You have to define your terms.
• You back up your work more. Hit SAVE!
• Keeps you on your toes – harder to predict what another writer will do with the material. Makes you think creatively within a piece and see various possibilities. (A lot like working improve for actors.) One of the rules for the round story projects that my writing group works on is that you can’t negate something one of the other writers introduced. So you can’t blow everyone up and start over in a new setting with characters you ‘like better.’ Hippos has a uniformity to the story that Kerouac and Burroughs had to have worked out in a similar fashion.
• It’s a great way to learn the structure of stories, because without thinking about that, the whole thing gets wonky fast. As it is, Hippos has an episodic build: first the characters go here, and then there, and then here again. There are some neatly interwoven threads, but there are a lot of diversions as well.
• It’s just fun. It keeps it playful, even if you’re dead serious.

Cons:
• You don’t have full control of the story. You MUST compromise. (If you don’t, it equals arguments with people who you generally respect and admire – why else would you choose to write with them?)
• Can result in a choppy story, no matter how hard you try. Hippos suffers from this, sorry to say.
• Schedules are a pain to work out. – Luckily, Kerouac and Burroughs were pretty much living together with some other buddies while they worked on Hippos.
• Without individual control, you hit the middle bar more often than the top bar. Kerouac and Burroughs were both smashing writers…but I have to say that Hippos doesn’t equal Kerouac’s solo work – at least from what I’ve read. (And I’ve never read Burroughs’s solo work, so I can’t compare on his side of the equation.) Part of the quality-question is definitely that this was their first big finished project for both of them…so it’s a book by beginners overall.

I highly recommend at least one attempt at direct collaboration like Kerouac and Burroughs. After a while of doing this writing gig, we’ll all have an opportunity to respond to agents and editors sounding off on the work, requesting that we adjust our stories. But it’s not as often that you’ll have an opportunity to meet up with a buddy and articulate what you’re trying to do while creating.

You just have to go into it with the knowledge that, if you fail miserably, you can at least blame it on the other guy.

***Side note on Lucien Carr: He is the father of novelist Caleb Carr — the author of two of my own favorite books: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness.***