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‘Behind the Writer’s Curtain’ Category

  1. This is How a Writer’s Mind Works

    November 20, 2016 by Diane

    Does this ever happen to you?

    You’re trying on a pair of pants, and the zipper gets stuck. It takes five saleswomen to get you out of the pants. And that’s not the end of it. You have to pretend to want to buy them, but everyone knows you’re too fat, or the pants too small. Whatever. It’s not a match made in heaven. So you browse the racks, and the salespeople watch. You make a selection. A pair of striped socks, and you pay for them. But when you walk out the door, the alarm goes off.

    And that’s not all.

    The security guy eating a hotdog at a wrought iron table outside the store is your nemesis from high school days, the boy who flipped burgers at the joint where you worked the counter. You’d turned him down when he asked you to the movies, so he wrote stuff about you on the wall of the employees’ bathroom, at least you think it was him. Fuck you Holcomb. Stuff like that. Not even a comma between “you” and “Holcomb.” And there he is, stuffing his face with a hot dog, when he hears the alarm go off. He tries swaggering over like a real cop, but he doesn’t have the coordination; he swings one side of his body and then the other until he’s right up in your face. You see him remembering. Or trying to. There’s something about you he recognizes, but he can’t place it.

    Does that ever happen to you?

    Yeah, me neither.

    Only in the fictional world in my mind.

    This is how a writer discovers characters.

    * * *

    At the library, I look around.

    A gaunt man wearing glasses, baseball cap, and blue windbreaker types secret messages into the computer, the cords of his neck prominent. A spy?

    A man with a rusty goatee and toupee scouts around, his eyes flicking from table to chair to corner to shelf. He spins on his heel and dashes off. A detective?

    A woman makes a bee-line for the newspaper rack. Her oversized shoulder bag, hanging diagonally across her body, bumps her thighs. Something heavy in that bag. A severed head?

    This is intrigue at its highest. The stuff of an anxious mind. Or a writer spinning plot ideas.

    * * *

    Crossing the street, I find a dollar bill. And another. And a five. What luck! Nearby, someone’s iPhone. Rats. The money has an owner. It’s an expensive phone, with a red leather case that opens like a book. Tucked inside, the owner’s driver’s license.

    A brunette, she smiles with perfect teeth.

    I’m a hundred yards from the police department. It’s Saturday, but the lobby’s open. The receptionist behind the bullet-proof window jots down my name and number. I try to slide the phone and money under the glass, but she stops me.

    “I’ll send someone out,” she says.

    A compact guy in uniform swings through the door, shakes my hand. He opens the leather case and exhales. “Whoa!” he says, inspecting the license. He uses an index finger to scroll through messages on the iPhone. “Looks like her husband is trying to reach her.”

    “I hope you don’t think I stole anything,” I say. “The money’s all there.”

    He laughs, but shoots a look at the receptionist.

    She nods, her eyes cutting to me. “I have her name and number.”

    He gives a thumbs-up.

    Later, I feel funny about the whole thing. I play what if games in my head.

    What if the cop notifies the husband? What if the husband is abusive, and the woman is on the run, in hiding? Now he knows where to hunt her down. What if the woman is already dead, and someone finds her body in a dumpster? My fingerprints are all over that phone. They’ve got my number. Me, a Good Samaritan, suddenly a prime suspect in a murder case.

    This is how a writer mines for story ideas.

  2. The One Thing Every Writer Needs to Know

    September 25, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    You want to be a published writer. So you write–words and sentences and paragraphs–and it makes sense, whatever it is you’re creating out of those piles. It sounds just right in your head. But here’s the thing:

    You don’t know how it sounds in your reader’s head.

    In your reader’s head, your story might sound like a funeral march.

    In yours, it’s Mardi Gras.

    Now, you can let it be Mardi Gras in your head, and shrug when you see those funeral marchers with their long faces.

    But you can’t help notice: there’s more than one soul marching. There’s at least a dozen, all in black. How could a dozen people think a party was a funeral?

    Well, maybe that’s how they read the invitation.

    Maybe it’s not their fault at all—it’s the writer’s.

    I had a creative writing teacher in college who read each student’s work out loud to the class, so no one knew who wrote it. That left the rest of us free to rip into it with claws and fangs and red-faced vigor, without knowing that the meat we were cutting into was someone’s pet dog.

    Well, one night I added my short story to the stack, a work so profoundly funny, I chuckled over each line as I wrote it. I couldn’t wait to hear the response. When the teacher picked up my manuscript and read the title, I settled back, ready for the guffaws.

    Then he read the first line of dialogue…in a tone meant for a Tolstoy novel.

    What the…? It’s supposed to be a comedy!

    On and on he read in that serious tone, and I grew more and more horrified. I knew how comedians felt when they bombed. I wanted to turn into goo, like in the cartoons, and slide down my chair and out the door.

    Instead I sat there, pretending to take notes, blinking away tears.

    I don’t remember the comments the other students made; the gist was, the entire universe—or at least the entire universe in that room—was in agreement. My story stunk.

    When the class ended, I waited for everyone to leave, then snatched the pages on my way out.

    It was the best lesson I’d ever learned.

    Last week, that lesson came back to haunt me.

    If you haven’t read my previous post, it’s called “What Would the Wives Do?” Hurry, read it. And then read the comments. Wait—I’ll save you the trouble. Suffice it to say, some of my readers had strong reactions to the piece. Reactions which, to me, were unexpected.

    I wasn’t saying I wanted to be one of the wives.

    Oh yeah? Well that’s how it read, bucko. You shoulda made it clear. Delete the post, quick, before anyone else reads it!

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the madness.

    Those are the kind of squirrelly thoughts we have when our writing is interpreted in a way we hadn’t intended. We’re surprised, defensive, maybe a bit ornery, and then we call ourselves idiots. We groan, knock back a few drinks, whine to our fellow writers at the bar, and then wake up the next day with a hell of a headache, ready to take a good look at whatever feedback we were so upset about.

    Last week, I did all of that.

    Except the drinking.

    And the whining.

    And the headache.

    I did a lot of groaning. And sinking my face into my hands.

    I couldn’t blame my readers for their comments; they were reacting to the material I had provided. And I asked them to!

    In fact, I agreed with them. Mostly.

    So I thought about lopping off the last third of the post, ending with, “And I cook, but I’m lousy at it,” a sort of acceptance of myself as is.

    I thought about inserting a line near the beginning about how those wives may have felt like trophies, but then again, some of them may have been happy in the life they chose, and who was I to judge?

    I thought about adding: “From where I sit, being supported by a wealthy guy that I’m crazy about looks pretty darn groovy—as long as it doesn’t involve losing my independence or self-respect.”

    Yeah, I could have edited the piece to hone my meaning.

    But I’m leaving it as a fine example of the lesson that it is. The comments were valid. And I’m grateful for each one.

    There’s one thing you need to know if you want to be a published writer: how does your work sound in your reader’s head? You need to know, even if it hurts to hear. And the only way to know, is to share. You’ve got to let eyes other than your own see it. You’ve got to roll onto your back and expose your soft belly, knowing that it might not be a nice rub you get.

    That’s how it is with writing.

    That’s how you develop that thick muscle, that protective shell around your tender, artistic soul. And that’s how you become a stronger writer.

    Now, about that funny short story I mentioned earlier?

    There were two mobsters in a diner arguing over a bottle of Catsup…

  3. How to Rewrite a Novel: Step Four

    August 14, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    Rewriting a novel is like sitting on the edge of a pool. The water’s cold. You can dive right in, get the discomfort over with, splash around to warm up, and then lose yourself in the steady stroke of limbs through water.

    Or, like me, you can hang out on the edge while the sun bakes your skin and your feet turn into prunes.

    Welcome to week five of my novel rewrite.

    This is how rewriting my novel looked:

    I attended an outdoor concert with a Meetup group from The Sierra Club. The club turned out to be a bunch of lively women, ages sixty and up, and a grizzled guy who may have been a sea captain. Another guy, wearing a goofy beach hat, stood around grinning like babies do when they have gas. I sat in my low-slung chair behind a woman in a sleeveless blouse who shaded her eyes with one hand, cutting off my view of the stage with her underarm flab. Occasionally, she dropped her arm, so my view became a vision of Michael Jackson–if Michael Jackson was middle-aged and fifty pounds overweight and stuffed into black leather pants–strutting and doing that pelvic bump, while a four-man horn section dipped and pivoted like the backup for The Temptations.

    After three songs, I folded up my chair and left.

    The next day, I went swimming. The pool was packed. I swam laps in the shallow end. The woman sharing my lane trudged back and forth in hiking boots, talking on her cell phone the entire time. One hundred dollar hiking boots. In chlorinated water. And a cell phone.

    Some days, I stood in the middle of my room, thinking.

    Had I stumbled once again onto Resistance Highway? Or was this non-writing activity actually accomplishing something?

    Well, a little of both.

    I was noodling loglines.

    It’s part of my action plan for rewriting a novel. I had arrived at:

    Step Four

    Write a logline.

    What’s a logline?

    It’s a sentence that describes the novel, and answers the questions:

    Who is the protagonist?
    What does the protagonist want?
    What’s at stake?

    Ya gotta know the who, what, and why-bother, otherwise, how can you rewrite the dang thing?

    So, I contemplated. I gnawed on ideas. I engaged in other activities. And then I took a hike with my niece, who was on a whirlwind visit through town.

    We talked writing. She wanted to know what my novel was about. I launched into a lengthy description and ended with an exasperated, “I just wish I knew what’s driving my protagonist!”

    And my niece said, “It’s funny, we wonder what our characters want, but we’re the ones making it all up.”

    We’re the ones making it all up!

    D’uh. Head slap.

    All I needed to do was pick something, and go with it.

    Write ten possible loglines. Twenty. Twenty-five. Whatever. Then PICK ONE.

    Jump in the pool.

    Stuck? Or Avoiding?

    Sometimes, we get stuck in our writing, and need to occupy ourselves elsewhere so the idea we’re searching for can swim into our consciousness. But there’s a fine line between taking time away, and staying away because the water’s too cold.

    That’s where those vows come in handy. You know, the ones that start: I promise to show up for my writing every day, no matter what.

    So, how do you know what side of the line you’re on?

    Look for signs of resistance.

    I know I’m in resistance when I start doing what comes easy, rather than what comes hard, like rewriting. “I’ll just answer a few emails. Shuffle papers. Blog.”

    I know I’m in resistance when I force myself to write, and I lose track of time.

    But If I force myself to write, and resent it, I know I need to go back to noodling. Nothing wrong with that.

    At least this time, I recognized the highway, and hitched a ride out. I was digging through some boxes of books in storage, looking for some good reads to bring on my vacation, and found a copy of Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence, by Lane Shefter Bishop. A whole book about how to write a logline! Had my intuition guided me to that box? Could be.

    I read the first few chapters. Jotted down a rough idea. Refined it. Refined it again and again and again, eliminating excess words, homing in on the want, the stakes, until…Bingo! I had my logline.

    Is it the perfect logline? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s something I can work with.

    Onward, to Step Five!