Labor Day 2014

We’re taking today off to enjoy the unofficial last day of summer.

Labor Day is meant to celebrate the contributions we all make to our country. Here at Today’s Author, we want to celebrate the contributions we all make with our creative efforts.  What better day to spend a few minutes, choose a prompt or two (or more) from our archive of Write Now prompts and enjoy the labors of the talented authors in the Today’s Author community!

LaborDay

Write Now Prompt for August 29, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

When the fire alarm sounded, no one was sure if it was real or just another drill.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

Just for Fun: Holidays

Pick a character from a current work-in-progress, a past story you’ve written or one you’ve thought up but never used.  In honor of the upcoming Labor Day holiday, think about what this character does when they have a day off from work or school for a holiday. Do they go somewhere or follow any traditions?  Describe your character’s favorite holiday and how they spend it.  You can do this in the comments here or write a quick story and leave a link to it here in the comments.

Setting Expectations

alien landscapeThe majority of what I read and write is science fiction or fantasy. My expectation is that these stories will be set either in a truly alien environment or in our world but with a different set of rules or technologies.  The amount of time and effort the author needs to spend describing the world depends on that decision: is it on Earth as we know it, or is it somewhere else?  Too often, I’ll pick up a book or story which advertises itself as being set on a planet other than Earth or in a spaceship or in the molten inner core of the planet and as I read, it feels like I’m just down the street or perhaps right in the middle of Central Park (though, admittedly, anything in New York City could be considered to be another world). Sometimes this may be by design — the author doesn’t want the story or its characters to be bogged down by or driven by the environment, or the author may have defined it away by allowing the characters to transform the alien environment into something more comfortable and familiar to both the characters and the readers. But sometimes it is evident that the author didn’t care about the setting, that he or she just wanted to write a story set “on another planet”.

My opinion is: if an alien or fictional landscape is unimportant then why would the story be set in an alien or fictional environment?  Just set it on Earth, in downtown Anywheresville and tell the story. But if the story is to be set in an alien or fictional environment, it needs to be described. For my stories, I will spend a fair bit of time (words) describing the landscape, the weather and the general environment in which the story is taking place.  The goal of this is to give the reader an understanding of what the characters are seeing and experiencing as they go about their days.  Given how often I read books that do not go into much detail about the environments, I often wonder if doing this is merely a distraction to the reader and a waste of precious time and word count within the story.  There have been times when this back-and-forth battle in my brain has led me to spend hours writing paragraph after paragraph describing the unique aspects of the terrain, only to later cut it on the first round of editing.

Does that mean I wasted all that time?

While the majority of those descriptive words may ultimately settle silently on the cutting-room floor during the first edits because they are deemed to be useless for readers, I would argue that there is a lot of benefit to me as the author in writing them.  By spending the time to describe and fill in the landscape, I become more familiar with it, more comfortable with it, and more attuned to how it can, should and will interact with the characters.  Often, if I find that the setting I’ve described is too familiar, it leads me to question whether or not I’ve actually gotten it right.  Living quarters on a deep space starship should not feel like your average living room.  Growing vegetables on Mars should not require exactly the same effort, tools or experience and should not result in exactly the same flavors, shapes, sizes and colors of those vegetables as what we’d see on Earth. I feel it would be unreasonable to expect that we humans could just will the Martian soil to grow Earth vegetables, or that life on a spaceship would be as comfortable as life in Suburbia, no matter how much we might want to say that science and technology advanced enough to make it so.

The bottom line for me is that if I am writing a story set in an alien or fictional world, the setting should be alien.  If my characters are humans from Earth, it should be something they at least notice, if not something they struggle to adapt to.  A second generation of humans who were born in that environment may not think of it as a big deal, but settlers would certainly notice.  Think about moving from one town, state or country to another here on Earth.  Even though you may still have a car and a house and the same clothing, there is still an adjustment period and an effort to adapt to the new environment, new laws, new food choices, new weather patterns.  We authors need to understand how the new environment impacts our characters. We need to understand how the characters react and respond to it.  And we need to describe for the readers — and ourselves — the parts of that environment which make the world different from our own.  Whether it is strange technology or topology, when I go back and edit I look for the things which make the environment unique and I try to focus the descriptive text on those aspects and on how those unique aspects impact the characters.  In my opinion, it makes the story richer, makes the characters more realistic and makes the setting important to the story and not just an afterthought.

What do you think? Whatever type of writing you do, how much time do you spend defining and describing the world in which the story takes place and how do you find ways to balance the description of the environment with the interaction between it and the characters?

Write Now Prompt for August 26, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

 The twins could not have had more different experiences for their first day of high school.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

Boots on the Literary Ground

I recently finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book is purportedly the first creative nonfiction book ever written—in writing it, Capote created a genre that has seen continued success and interest (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are two such creative nonfiction books that have seen huge success in recent years).

In Cold Blood is a chilling book about a quadruple murder of a well-liked and prosperous family in rural Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The book is novelistic in its presentation: Capote interweaves dialogue, description, and a fragmented storytelling structure to create suspense and tension. The novel is written in such great detail that you can’t help but feel Capote was right there in the room with his characters, and in some cases he was.

This brings me to the theme for this month’s posts: setting. Capote spent six years, on and off, in tiny Holcomb, and the slightly larger neighboring town of Garden City (where the two murderers were eventually tried). He stayed in motels, interviewed the town’s people and killers alike, waited around for developments in the case, and breathed in the atmosphere of that town, literally. His boots were on the ground.

For those of you familiar with creative nonfiction, you know that it is a more artistic form of journalism (no slight meant to the journalists out there). It takes elements of journalism and reporting (interviews, historical information, site visits, patience) and overlays an engaging narrative across all of it. Understanding a story’s setting, its place, is crucial to the development of a news story, and equally so to the development of a creative nonfiction piece.

In the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood, Capote deftly sketches the town of Holcomb and the surrounding landscape. His description is precise, careful, and masterful—the reader is transported there. As the book continues, so does the depth and detail of its description. Capote introduces the reader to “characters,” describes their features, their mannerisms, their speech patterns; he shows us the few hours before the family of four was murdered: the weather that day, the moods of the family members, the lay of the family farm; he shows us into the lives of the two murderers, their motivations, and their character flaws. At times, Capote’s book is almost too intimate: we are so close to the characters, we are so familiar with the landscape.

None of this intimacy could have been created, I believe, had Capote not decided that he had to go to Holcomb. His art was elevated because of this choice.

As a poet, this boots-on-the-ground mentality is not one I’m particularly familiar with. Setting or landscape in my poetry often refers to internal landscapes or imagined ones. I suppose you could say my boots are on my ground (my mind, my emotions), if I can extend the metaphor that far, but not in the same sense as Capote, Krakauer, Skloot, or any other creative nonfiction writer might experience.

While it’s true that I’ve written some poems based in and on specific places, my representation of those places has, for the most part, been cursory and more impressionistic than realistic. A single fact about a town, or the way that light falls in an alley, or a scent, or my general mood in that landscape is enough for me to go on to create a poem, which in the end will only loosely be related to that specific place. It’s like a movie that’s “based on actual events,” which really only means that one or two things might be true.

I love creative nonfiction, and I have great admiration for writers of it, in part because it requires the writer to insert him- or herself into an unfamiliar setting and to make it so much his or her own that the reader is convinced the representation is true and coming from someone in the know.

In the coming months, I’d like to think about how to incorporate this element of up close and personal setting exploration in my poetry. I’d like to engage in site visits, and see how that intimacy colors and shapes my writing.

Who’s up for a field trip?

 

Write Now Prompt for August 22, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

She stared at the man sitting across the table from her.  This was not what she’d expected a crime boss to look like.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

A little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

Last week a little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal.

I was driving to work down Whitehorse Avenue at seven forty-five in the morning when I came across an injured sparrow in the road.  He was flapping and fluttering his heart out, yet all he accomplished was to tumble and propel himself in circles.  It reminded me of a child wearing swim floats on his arms, splashing wildly while drifting helplessly into the deep end of the pool when his feet no longer touched the bottom.

From twenty meters away, I instinctively positioned myself in the lane so that I would straddle my car over top of the little guy.  As I closed in within ten meters I thought whether it be best to put the little fellow out of his misery, but within five meters decided it wasn’t my place to intervene.  As I passed him I looked in my rear-view mirror and continued to watch him spin in circles.

At thirty-seven years old I suppose I’m middle aged, and I continue to recognize I must be getting soft in my old age.  A few years ago it was recognizing the awww factor of playful kittens, and now, the heart-sinking feeling of watching a painful death to a wildlife species that can fit in my hand.

For the next twenty minutes of my drive to work I contemplated life and death.  Specifically, I tried to understand (unsuccessfully, I might add…) how some men can rationalize that they have the right to end the life of another man through methods like propelling bombs or firing guns.  How can this savageness come from a species who yet can also be touched by a small injured bird?

All this deep thought naturally led me to conclude the value of keeping a journal.

As students we all at one time experienced the assignment of keeping a journal, shrugging the feeling of having nothing important to write nor recognizing the therapeutic value.  As adults, and specifically as adult writers, a journal captures the most important story we can ever hope to write in our own lifetime.

What a Great Place This Is

The first words, the first sentence – we writers must get them perfect. It’s the only chance we have with most readers – irritate or confuse them and our story becomes a football. Films have it much easier. A captive audience, engaged by so many sensory activities at once: compelling music, clever camera angles, images of all kinds, words and names, snappy or threatening dialogue, and all of that in only a few seconds. In the first minute folks know whether or not they’ll stick around for the next two hours, and it’s likely most do. A creation of the labor of hundreds, even thousands of people, films also have the advantage of social interaction. People go to the movies or sit in their homes with their best friends and eager strangers to experience a film as a group, sharing the wit, mystery, silliness, fear, humor, and delight on the screen.

Writers cannot be filmmakers. We don’t make movies with all the multidimensional aspects of film: costumes and make-up, locations and sets, music and background noise, zooming the camera in and pulling it back, showing multiple scenes on one screen, editing out distracting images, following the action of the characters or moving around them as they remain still. A book must contain every aspect of action, character development, clever dialogue, and unique setting with none of the multidimensional layering of film. But there’s the problem – if we write too much, we risk boring our readers. The more we put in words and descriptions, filling pages with every possible angle, response, and internal thought of our characters, the more we detract from the action and deflate the power of the story. Writers count on readers to add the full panoply of sensations, what exists and is thought about during any one single moment of a story.

Enter one of the most persuasive characters of a story: location. It’s the prime real estate of a book, literally the waterfront property, or mountain cabin, or desert hideaway that contributes an urgent angle to the plot. Lock step with time frame, location confirms the action of a story. Consider the hidden encampment of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain of North Carolina where Confederate deserter Inman heads home to meet his sweetheart, Ada. The primitive, rugged terrain of Cold Mountain echoes the circumstances that Ada and Inman are reduced to living over the course of the book. The more they retreat from civilization, the closer they move toward each other, the more the foreboding character of the mountain informs the plot. Based on the life of Frazier’s uncle, the story could not take place anywhere but Cold Mountain – ominous, dreary, and promising all at once.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone follows the birth, childhood, and eventual medical practice of one brother of a set of twins born in Ethiopia. The country’s twentieth century history of rule by Haile Selassi and the rebellions that tried to depose him are intertwined with the complex story of the brothers and their divergent life paths. Verghese presents the conflicting world of Ethiopia, a country with a huge Indian population that often supplants the needs and rights of the indigenous people. Ethiopia provides an echoing backdrop for the conflict between the brothers whose contentious relationship is clinched by their relationships with a young woman.

Frazier and Verghese know their territories well, each having lived and explored where their stories take place. The descriptions of Cold Mountain and Ethiopia are authentic, established with both epic sweep and details that invoke intimacy. Inman sees Cold Mountain as the place that will heal and save him, give his soul respite from the savagery of the war, and grant a future with Ada. Every American kid learns about the Civil War, but Frazier’s retelling turns dry facts into unforgiving despair. In Ethiopia where access to medical help is determined by one’s wealth or constrained by tribal superstitions, a patient assumes he will die of his illness. It’s an idea that is anathema to us in the United States where we expect advanced medical skills to save us from everything. These two stories could only happen on these particular soils.

Creating an authentic sense of place draws from memory and utilizes research. For my own books I’ve been fortunate to be able to recall numerous details of places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve also had the serendipitous experience of meeting people who have personal knowledge of the places that are crucial to my story, and often know firsthand about some of the events that I write about. Interviews with them, photographs, maps, and newspaper articles have further broadened my grasp of the places where my stories take place. Google Earth even verified for me that an existing hill in Orange County could indeed provide the empty plot for my book family’s home to be built in The Tree House Mother. All the streets named in the book can be found on maps except for the tiny street where the tree house was propped in a pepper tree. That one street is a fabrication, a fiction of my imagination, but the rest of the descriptions are true to the lumpy hills of Orange County. You can drive up to the top of Skyline Drive to find the overgrown lot where the Youngs’ family home once stood. You can tramp the wild chaparral where Andie sat on the side of the access road and watched a parade of cars. This place is as important as any other character in the story.

Perhaps the most important part of writing about a particular place and incorporating it into a story is to be in love with it, enchanted with its terrain and smells, irritated with its lack of streaming water or exotic flora, excited by its hidden paths. If “X” marks the exact spot on a map, if the GPS can find it, if readers can imagine standing on our plots of virtual real estate, then that is just one more compelling reason to read our stories.

Write Now Prompt for August 19, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

Going through the boxes in his dad’s basement was like having a time machine.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.