Elaboration: the hardest part of creative writing

Expressing ideas is harder than coming up with them.

Write about what?

Dscn0056c copy

Elaboration is the process of presenting and developing an idea, by adding more detail to explain the exterior situation the read gains a privileged access to the interior thoughts. Forming creativity into a product that someone else can absorb is such hard work that people avoid it. This keeps ideas in the brain and off paper, not to be shared with others.

In Narrative writing the more descriptive a passage is, the slower it seems. However, the descriptions set a mood and and allow the reader feel like they are insidethe story. Elaboration through setting the scene and revealing interior motivations allows a reader to see what the author saw inside of their head.

InInformational writing the depth of explanation uses key details to develop the topic. The provides a ration for what has occurred, is occurring, or can occur. Elaboration builds on key ideas and exposes the…

View original post 159 more words

Posted in Writer's resource | Leave a comment

An Impossible Fantasy

November, the month when many strive to complete a 50,000 word novel (or novelette according to today’s standard). Would I consider that an exercise stretching me to my limit? Or, an impossible fantasy? For me it is definitely the second. No matter how well I have thought out what I plan to write, I can only live a few hours of my day recording what is in my head. Then, ideas clear out like cockroaches fleeing from light. I must arise from my desk chair, fix food, clean up the kitchen, rearrange my closet, and straighten my bookshelf. Then, I find an interesting title that I haven’t read, yet. Five hours later, I am finally back to writing again.

However, over the years I’ve found ways to increase my written output. So, I do have some advice for those that want to attempt this impossible challenge. The easiest way to create the most content in the least amount of time is to write what you know. Your own life story may not be that interesting, so don’t feel confined to the truth. If better ideas spring up, or you decide to appropriate events that happened to friends or celebrities, remember that you are writing fiction, not a real autobiography. With a word processor you can use the search and replace feature to alter the people and places after you are finished. This also relieves the fear of being shunned by family members who don’t appear in the best light.

However, even when writing a novel based on your own life you need a plot. There must be a challenge you that you face or a problem to overcome; whether you succeed, fail, or just accept your fate. This requires an outline to keep your story on track. Think through the basic plots repeated in myths and fairy tales until you find one that mimics your life, at least partially. The story line found in Cinderella is often used. It starts out with recalling an innocuous event that shifted your life from pleasant to some degree of miserable. Then, after three nights at a ball—make that three different attempts to overcome the problem—you encounter one last disaster, run away and prepare for defeat. However, your fortune shifts due to someone’s gallantry or pure grit on your part.

Remember, this is still a scant outline that will need embellishment, lots of it. The initial event, each of the attempts to overcome the problem, and the final triumph each require multiple scenes. As a person who has a number of flash fiction pieces under my belt, I find a complete scene should be around 1,000 to 2,500 words. Using that word count would leave you writing 20 to 50 scenes, or an average of 35 scenes (which mean slightly more than one per day for 30 days).

The number of scenes will not be the same as the first two sections will have more. There might 12 scenes introducing the problem, and 15 scenes in the attempts to solve it. Then, for the ending stretch, when fortune shifts, only 8 scenes would be required. The next obvious task is creating a brief (one or two sentence) description of what occurs in each scene. That is not an easy task. In fact you might consider it Sisyphean.

What do you do? Turn to the same place as the word Sisyphean originated, Greek myths. Fortunately, some of the work has already been done for you by Joseph Campbell who reviewed mythology to create a list of events known as the Monomyth, or the “hero’s journey.” This design includes three major divisions: 1) The Departure, in which you (the hero) view your ordinary world and come across an inciting event which lures or forces you to leave it; 2) The Initiation, in which you venture into this unknown world with its unexpected hazards and actually grow into someone more heroic though trials and tests (three or more is good, just like in Cinderella); and 3. The Return, in which you triumph and return to your ordinary world. The benefit of the Monomyth plot is that Joseph Campbell has identified 17 different steps to spice up your story.

When or if you hit the goal of 50,000 words, you will still be less than half way to a new novelette. The next months will be consumed editing and rewriting until this morass of words makes sense and flows in a manner to keep the reader interested. So, while I will not be attempting this, best of luck if you are!

Posted in Writer's resource | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Food for the imagination

How many movies make you think?

The movie viewer usually does not have to think as much as a person reading, with one notable exception—the occasion extraordinary science fiction film. These films were once an outlet to comment on society, often with a critical view, such as Silent Running  and Fahrenheit 451 (which made a few unfortunate detours from the book). As recently as ten years ago I was intrigued by a British film in this genre entitled Moon, which ending in a startling critique of the lack of ethics dealing with humans in a profit driven society. But, very few Americans even know about that film.

However, when I watch many of Hollywood’s current science fiction offerings, I feel I am viewing slick versions of the early, moody Hitchcock films shot on another planet. Watching actors dash through dark sets is like trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in a strange house. Despite listening intently in order to absorb what is happening, I still must depend on the obligatory explanation provided by dialog near the end of the film.

The invention of CG special effects has made creating the illusion of mystery easier. These scenes are jam-packed with mood, but the startling special effects make it difficult to attend to what is actually happening. Bird’s eye views of gleaming space ships and whirling galaxies are accompanied by the dance of flickering lights, and punctuated by the occasional flare of an engine.

As the camera zooms in and out, my attention wanders because frequently not a lot is happening beside special effects. When action finally occurs, the close-up view will slam it right into my face. So, I’ve also learned not to worry about missing any clues as to what is occurring. The dialog in the next scene will be an info dump that tells me everything I missed.

As I view these films, the question asked in an article by David Sterritt almost twenty years ago still echoes in my head, “Are we witnessing what some critics call the dumbing down of American cinema?[1] Actor Simon Pegg also notes the dumbing down of movies in the U.S. “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.”[2]

So, I continue to watch science fiction movies not caring if I miss anything important in them, because there often isn’t much important to miss. I bemoan that producers seem ignorant of what I really desire—movies that have characters with real moral struggles in which the ending isn’t obvious and dialog subtle enough that I actually have to pay attention.

[1] Are Hollywood movies being dumbed down? Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 2001

[2] Simon Pegg criticises ‘dumbing down’ of cinema, The Guardian, 19 May 2015

Posted in Writer's resource | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The icebox dilemma

The rapid pacing of movies allows script writers and directors a few freedoms that would be criticized in novels. They may stir in a scene that audience that reels in the audience in with mounting tension, but which ultimately does not make sense. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have referred to the incongruities in a scene in Vertigo as the kind that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” From that quote, we’ve gained the movie term “ice box scene.”

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo a woman named Madeleine is able to walk into a hotel, completely unobserved. She then enters the room of another woman that should be locked. There is no explanation of how Madeleine obtains the key without the desk clerk seeing her, or how she is gains access to the room. However, the audience is too terrified by watching the height fearing character played by James Steward on the roof of the hotel to question these plot wholes.

The screen writer cuts out exposition for the sake of economy to keep the movie on its scheduled pace. The movie viewers take in exciting scenes at face value in a movie and don’t consider why they occurred. However, a novelist must fill in between the scenes or provide a short exposition to connect events. Otherwise many readers will become alienated by events that don’t make sense. The constant “showing” that occurs in films is not feasible. Sometime the author must take a break from the amount of words required to show all action and simply tell the reader what has occurred.

The early action scene in Matewan (a film about a West Virginia coal miner’s strike) involves a train full of  replacement workers or “scabs” being brought to Matewan by the company. Unexplainably the train stops in the middle of the woods, not at the mining camp, to drop off these new workers. The strikers immediately appear to attack them. It seemed as if the whole point of the early drop off site was to expose new workers to a danger that the mine owners would want to avoid. So, why did this happen? No explanation is given. Movie viewers have no time to question why this occurs. The “scabs” re-board the train as if begins to move and the viewers watch breathlessly to see how the last of them, a main character, manages to be pulled into the rolling train by his friends. Then, the scene immediately switches to another setting in the remote mining town of Matewan.

The writer that attempts to keep action moving at the pace of a film faces the icebox dilemma. How do you deal with making sense without pausing the action in between scenes to fill in the rationale for the string of exciting events? Remember, you are writing a book, and reader will expect to think more than when watching a film. With their mind engaged they are more likely to detect plots holes. So, the writer of a novel must take to time to fill in gaps in logic and avoid “ice box scenes.” When the reader gets hungry and visits the refrigerator for cold chicken, he should be questioning what will  happen next and not doubting the likeliness of what just occurred.

Posted in Writer's resource | Leave a comment

The writer’s secret sauce

Movies have an advantage over the written word when it comes to presenting the emotions of your characters. For example, you read that a man “had his lips raised in a half-smile on one side while he eyes narrowed.”  Did you realize that he was smirking? How about “the woman’s lips curled up, but corner of her eyes remained smooth and unwrinkled.” That is the evil smile, which flashes across the face of actors to show you how devious the person is. If we see these commons facial expressions, we recognize them. However, discerning them from words is more difficult. But, the novelist has a secret sauce that moviemakers can only employ with difficulty— presenting the internal thoughts of characters with clarity and intensity.

In my previous discussion or writing movies versus novels, I described the opening Matewan, a quasi-historical movie ending with a violent massacre during a minor’s strike. The audience is introduced to the internal thoughts of an adolescent coal mining boy at the opening scene. This internal view was so brief that I didn’t even catch it until the end when the denouement was told from his viewpoint as an adult. However, I realized this adolescent was the character with the greatest change arc. I imagine most audience members also failed to catch this subtlety. Despite doing well with critics, Matewan fared poorly with audiences.

The same difficulty detecting the character’s internal view occurred when I viewed Mad Max 2 (known in the US as Road Warrior). I puzzled who spoke the opening and closing sequences of this movie. I immediately questioned “Whose head are we in?” only to be told that it was the feral boy. (This knowledgeable viewer had seen the movie too many times. ) This feral boy only grunted and growled during the film, so his speaking voice was not obvious.

Viewers are used to movies shown from the omnipresent view. To accommodate the rapid pacing expected in a movie, the audience sees the actions of both hero and villains and any important characters. Internal thoughts are rarely voiced. If a movie protagonist is stranded alone, due a plague, a wreck on a tropical island, or an incident during the exploration of Mars, they will typically start talking to something with a face, such as a bust, a skull, or a blood painted volleyball as in Castaway. These conversations are essential for the audience to understand the plot.

However, the novels are not only allowed to move the plot forward via peeks of inside thoughts, they are expected to do this. (The only restriction is to avoid head hopping—moving from one person’s thoughts to another’s without a clear break.) Do not be afraid to use this one benefit to spice up the written word to your best advantage.

Posted in Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Picking the wrong recipe

The view from Hollywood Boulevard.

How often have you seen movies used as examples on how to write a novel? It’s a shortcut authors employ because familiarity with movies tend to be greater than books.

Movies only consume an hour or two of our lives at a time, and do not require the continued concentration and effort of reading. The plot of a movie is typically the length a few connected short stories or a novella. But, the difference between the two type of media begin at the start. I’ve heard repeatedly that a book must grab the reader in the first few pages. Because a movie has a slimmer plot covered in a shorter time, a book will almost never be as tightly paced.  However, the early attention grabbing requirement that we assume readers are applying to books means that an author has to shove what occurs for the first 10% of the movie into less than the first 1% of the book. Ouch!

Novelist feel forced to introduce the major conflict on the first pages, ignoring the need for portrayal of the characters who play out this conflict. Therefore, the reader is forced to figure out the normal behavior of major characters while reading about an abnormal event. The author must find some unobtrusive way to provide backstory, without shoveling it into the work in chunks large enough to choke on. However, this rarely happens. So, the reader may have to tolerate the initial conflict being shelved until the introduction to the characters occurs.

 The author has an even greater handicap because visual images and sounds portray a setting more rapidly in film than in the written word. Recently, I watch a fictionalized historical film called Matewan (very loosely based on a massacre occurring between striking coal miners and Baldwin-Felts detectives). There was a minute or so panning the disgruntled coal miners climbing out of the mine into daylight, and an immediate switch to the new crew in a cramped box car. This jump from one setting to another would be disconcerting in a book. Scene changes require description of settings, which means more words. During the Matewan scene in the box car, the next set of miners listen to the reading of company rules, which are obviously unfair based on the expressions of the newcomers barreling down the tracks towards the mine.

A modern book would start in the middle of the action—after the train stops and disgruntled miners attack the new replacements. But, only those with a prior understanding of the situation would not be confused by a movie opening in the middle of this skirmish. Instead, movie makers offer a bit of local color by showing the setting and close-ups of important actors, especially their expressions. This lets the viewer into their minds at the beginning. The boring info dump about the company rules remained in the movie even though this would be truncated to a few words in a novel. The movie-going audience is tolerant of a slower start because they expect less requirement to use their own imagination than a book asks from readers.

This is only the start of my discussion. So, as readers please be patient in this exploration of why it is not the wisest tactic to create a book based on the same principles that drive a movie script. And, if you are discussing how to write books, please keep that in mind.

Posted in Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Characters and cohorts

What training on team interactions tells us about writing characters.

Write about what?

group 2011 (1)In fiction most protagonists like most people are not complete loners. Interactions with their cohorts make up a good portion of novels, so creating these peers takes a bit of thought. What enables a real-life group to be innovative in business also makes for interesting interplay between the main character and their group.  A peek inside of what helps real work groups to collaborate and solve problems maybe the key to creating the cohort that complements the unforgettable protagonist.

With all the current emphasis on collaborative thinking and collective knowledge in the workplace, you might assume assembling a large group of properly motivated people could solve almost any problem. You don’t really believe this do you? The larger the group is, the less each person is inclined to contribute. According to Fortune Magazine 4 to 5 is the magic number. [1] Wharton School of Business  uses 5 to 6. Get beyond this and you will have social loafing, members who fail to contribute much or are kept from…

View original post 414 more words

Posted in Writer's resource | Leave a comment

How long before they move out?

During most of U.S. history if people wanted their own home, they had to build it  themselves. This is no longer true and neither do most of us grow our own food. But how have these changes in economy played out for those unfamiliar with this history?

Write about what?

800px-rcc_2008_day_cThe trend that many talk about is how millennials are remaining with their families longer. According to a recent Pew Report “In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”[1] When will they grow up, settle down, buy a house, get married and raise a family? How long before they act like real adults?

Actually, the fact that so many people from the baby boomer generation moved out of their parent’s house in their early twenties is really the anomaly. When one looks at past generations, the number of couples between 18 and 34 that lived in their own home peaked in 1960 and then started to decline. You must remember it was only twenty years before…

View original post 282 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Educational play

What is the true nature of unstructured learning?

Write about what?

stephs (4)When I was growing up there were a few “structured” learning events outside of school. A week of nature day camp in the summer, horse riding instructions, followed by a pony we had to take care of, and piano lessons, which I got after I begged for them. My friends had been showing off playing “Heart and Soul” as a duet on the school piano and it looked like so much fun. Then, there was the sporadic trip to a museum or classical music concert. But most of our “free” time was really free time.

Those few children that were born in the generation between baby boomers and millennials often were often known as latch key children. They let themselves in after school, with an unsupervised hour or two before tired parents (or often a single parent) drug themselves in the door from work, followed by a fast food or…

View original post 406 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Musical Memory

What will your children remember about your generation?

Write about what?

The_Music_MachineThe cream of the crop students sat in an International Baccalaureate high school history class. They listened attentively to a teacher who had come back from retirement just to teach such a group. Strolling back and forth in front of a map bedecked white board he inquired loudly. “Does anyone know what happened in the United States between 1963 and ‘68? There were a number of good answers that they could have given for the turbulent times of the civil rights movement and Vietnam war that were so influential in the coming of age for many baby boomers. But in 2013, the students just sat there mute.

Finally, one child took a stab at describing that time, “Simon and Garfunkel wrote a lot of good music?” she responded questioning.

“Yes, that’s true.” The teacher could not help but smile. “Though not exactly what I was looking for.”

But it didn’t…

View original post 304 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment