Write on Wednesday – When the Ordinary Becomes Mythic

This was first posted on  May 13, 2015 .  The message is still applicable to my writing.

Poet Barrett Warner spoke to a meeting of the Eastern Shore Writers Association last week. He talked about the ordinary events in our lives that resonate with our readers, sometimes becoming mythic in the process.

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It made me think about the themes in the screenplays and the stage play Laura Ambler and I have written over the last five years.We have a body of work of six screen plays and one stage play. (Update that to include a novel and a brand new play.)

I’ve been formatting them so they can be put on Kindle, and in the process reading them one after another. It’s been instructional to see the the recurring themes in our work: the importance of “family” (whoever you choose that to be), reconnecting with family and friends, acceptance, listening to others, being nice, and doing the right thing. I like to think these themes grow from our own moral underpinnings.

Nice people in stories can be boring, so we give our characters flaws. It’s overcoming the flaws that creates the conflict that carries our stories forward. And by overcoming flaws, or trying to, our characters become real.

So thanks, Barrett Warner, for reminding me that our best stories come out of ordinary events. And that mythological elements are embedded in there somewhere.

Getting Into the Zone

market umbrellas

In our last Working Writers Forum one of the members talked about getting into the zone with his writing. He said when he was in that place he seamlessly moved forward. Wikipedia gives this definition: zone is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

I’m working on the third book in my Caribbean romantic suspense series, but getting in the zone has been difficult. In part because it has been ten years since I wrote the last of book. It’s set in the Caribbean on the island of St. Lucia. We had a home there for many years and I was on the island frequently. It was easy for me to imagine the settings, the smells, the sounds. We sold that house about the time the second book in the series was published. It’s harder to get into the Caribbean zone now.

My other problem is that my zone doesn’t happen all in one stretch. It comes and goes. Something like what happens to our Direct TV when we have a heavy rainstorm. This morning at my yoga class we settled into savasana, the deep relaxation at the end of the class. Suddenly I was in St. Lucia, in the Castries market place on a busy Saturday morning. This was not relaxing! I walked through the outside venders, past women under colorful umbrellas, piles of produce arranged around them. Past the fish guy, his cart full of this morning’s catch. Inside the market building, I headed for a booth in a dark corner where an old woman was selling herbs and bush remedies. I seemed to know where I was going. Clearly this was a scene I’m supposed to put in the book. Bush medicine is part of the story. But, accessing the zone during savasana?  Hello, Brain. You are not cooperating.

Why can’t I be more in the zone when I’m at my computer? Why do those moments seem to happen in the middle of a steamy shower, at 3 in the morning when I’m snugged into a warm bed, or on a long walk when I’m a mile from the house with no paper or pen in my pocket? It’s probably left and right brain issues. I’m wondering how I can make my computer space more Caribbean. Maybe that would help get my zone on a more reliable schedule.

My Critique Group

Last night was the monthly meeting of my critique group, the Working Writer’s Forum, that both Laura and I belong to. It’s where we met and started working together. For the last five years almost all of my writing has been done with Laura and most of it has been screenplays.

script notations

Since Laura has been very busy with her day job, I recently pulled out the first chapters of the third novel in my Caribbean series. I last worked on it almost seven years ago, but like to think I am a better writer now, so I submitted the first 25 pages to the group.

One of our rules is that you have to say some nice things before you make helpful suggestions. So my writing friends said some nice things, and then pointed out that I had forgotten some fundamental rules and made some beginner mistakes.

“I don’t know what these characters look like,” one of my critique group said. Of course I knew what they all looked like. They’d already been in two books. How could I have forgotten to describe Lissa and Yvie except to say they had green eyes?

Another reminded me that “she said” suffices most of the time. Descriptions of how someone says something is not usually needed.

“How about something more exciting in the first couple of pages, a hook for the reader,” a third person suggested. I thought I had a hook, but obviously it was too many pages into the first chapter.

As we went around the able, a number of the group noted some problems with dialogue so I went searching for help. The Writer’s Digest had some suggestions on their website.

“If you want to learn how to write effective dialogue, study the best plays and films. If possible, study dialogue both in performance (live or video) and in print. Read plays and screenplays to get the feel of writing on the page.

And, in the best scripts, what writing it is—pure dialogue unadulterated by music, actor expression, pictures, or narrative transition supplied by an author. Read it aloud to get a flavor of the emotion contained within the word choice made by the writer of the screenplay. Playwrights and screenwriters who succeed at their craft are probably the best writers of dialogue you can study. By looking at such refined gold, you can learn more than from any ten books that tell you how to write dialogue.”

Well, duh, Laura and I have been writing dialogue for several years now. I should be able to do this better. I am grateful to my critique group for letting me know there are things I need to attend to. The pages I sent for last night’s meeting were a reworking of what I had written all those years ago. I need to scrap that version and start from scratch.

When our moderator called for submissions for our next meeting, I said I’d like to submit a reworked draft of my novel’s opening pages. That gives me a goal with a deadline…thanks to my critique group the Working Writer’s Forum.

 

 

Log Lines and Stale Sandwiches

Log lines don’t really have anything to do with stale sandwiches except in my universe. On her way to my house to work, Laura stopped by the local convenience store and got a sandwich and chips for lunch. She booted up the computer she leaves at my house and while we waited, she opened her ham and cheese on white bread. She said she’d really wanted a tuna salad sandwich, but there weren’t any.

sandwich

I’d have to be starving before I’d eat tuna salad from a convenience store, but she never seems to get sick. However, today the bread and cheese were dried out and she deconstructed her sandwich as we settled in to work on a log line for our latest Christmas movie script titled #Santa. (She ought to just ask me to make her some tuna salad. It would have vegan mayo in it, but I get terrific tuna in oil at Trader Joes. However, she’d have to bring her own bread ’cause we don’t eat gluten and never have bread in the house. Maybe that’s why she goes to the convenience store.)

It seems like writing log lines should be easy. We’d finished the script so we knew the story, but the process of telling it in a few words was painful. Two and a half hours later we had something we liked: A cynical “reputation manager,” with a roster of crazy celebrities and a staff of social media savants, is arrested and sentenced to community service answering letters to Santa – or go to jail.

We’ll sleep on it and see how it looks in a couple of days.

p.s. It’s now two days later and it still seems pretty good.

Writing Like Stephen King

One of my favorite books is Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. King talks about how most of his books were written when he was drunk or high – or both – and listening to heavy metal music at ear splitting decibels.

Stephen King

Laura and I wondered if we could write better if we followed King’s writing process and tried writing under the influence. There are always places in our scripts where we put an MB (make better) or MF (make funnier.) This was an hypothesis that needed to be tested. We already had a control of sorts as we’ve completed quite a few scripts without any drugs or alcohol.

We ruled out the heavy metal music. Intrinsic to our writing process is that we talk to each other; loud music would make that a problem. We also ruled out drugs. Too risky and we didn’t know where to get them anyway. Although as I’ve talked to several people about writing this blog post, a surprising number of them told me they have had a ‘connection.’ Who knew!

That left us with alcohol. I just have to open my wine fridge, and, if Laura prefers a martini, the ingredients are already on the bar.

Now we have the means, but logistical problems present themselves. Laura usually comes to my house for our writing sessions. She can’t drive home under the influence. That would be totally irresponsible. I was recounting our dilemma to my husband and he said if we really wanted to pursue this experiment, he would pick up Laura and drive her home. (He is remarkably supportive of my writing, whatever the process, and I know he is much too nice to make a YouTube video of us being silly and post it online.)

As for me, two glasses of wine and I fall asleep which might not be conducive to inspired writing. This plan was beginning to remind me of my woman’s conciousness raising group from the 70’s. This was back when the head of NIH (National Institutes of Health) was saying cocaine was okay. Somebody in my woman’s group came up with the bright idea that our group should try cocaine. We debated that issue for a year. I suppose it took that long because any topic we decided to talk about always circled back to our mothers. Anyway, we finally decided we had talked about it so much that actually doing it held no allure, so we didn’t.

Laura and I haven’t talked the writing a la Stephen King thing to death yet, but we might be getting close. I’ll keep you posted.

Yoga in the A.M.

I go to a five morning a week yoga class at The Studio in St. Michaels. It starts at 7, but we all get there about 6:45 so we can hang like bats from slings, use the inversion benches and stretch out our backs with straps. This class is NOT Power Yoga. Most of us are “women of a certain age” who have knee, hip, back, shoulder, neck and wrist issues. Our instructor, Paulette Florio, is keeping us limber, flexible and strong.

I sit to write, but get up from time to time to put in a load of laundry, take a turn around the garden and find some Japanese beetles to kill, or root through the freezer to looking for dinner. But it’s the sitting that makes me stiff. Yoga class keeps me moving.

Sometimes for fun I go on line to see the different poses. This is always good for a laugh because there is no way my body is going to do those things! Disclaimer…photo below of a woman in the plow pose is not me.

plow pose

The first time I did this pose in this class I had to call for help. Seriously! I got myself folded in half and couldn’t get back up. This morning we were in plow pose using a chair as a prop and it was actually restful.

Paulette helps us be better yogis by using props. My hamstrings are tight so I use really big yoga blocks. That has made a huge difference in my practice. We use the walls, folding chairs, blankets, blocks of all sizes, short and long straps, big and small balls, and bolsters. (I’ve probably forgotten some.) Paulette also shows us how we can use the props we find in our homes so we always have a studio – even when we’re traveling.

There are no mirrors in Paulette’s yoga studio. That’s by design. She wants us to focus on our own bodies and is always walking around making corrections to our poses. It’s my early morning yoga class that sets me up for another day of writing, but right now it’s time for a turn around the garden. The day lilies are glistening after an early morning rain.

day lilies

What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out when you’re a writer. You have a character in mind, but you need a name. And it’s not like naming a baby where you get to pick a name you like. Writers need to find names that (hopefully) tell  the reader something about the character. The problem is when you begin to write a new project you don’t really know your characters yet.

Laura and I started on a new screenplay this week. Another Christmas movie.

Christmas elf

We had a general idea of what the movie would be about. Our thought was that we would begin by figuring out what each character wanted. It quickly became obvious that it was confusing to talk about characters without naming them. We had started ten steps down the path, so we went back to the beginning. Main female character. Main male character. A secondary love interest. A father. How hard could this be?

What do we want these names to tell us about the character – a character we don’t really know yet? These people aren’t fully developed in our minds yet, so a name we pick now might not fit a couple of weeks into the project. Place holders would have to do for now. Out came the What to Name Your Baby book. We think (still early days) that the main female character is mid-thirties. Google told us the most popular girls’ names in 1979, but none of them seemed right. After an hour an a half we had three names. I’d forgotten how difficult naming characters could be.

We were also struggling with the overall arc of the story. The main female character didn’t have a change moment. She was the same at the beginning as she was at the end. That doesn’t work. Laura remembered reading in Stephen King’s book On Writing that if something about your story wasn’t working, try flipping the characters. So we flipped the male protagonist with the female protagonist and suddenly the story worked. But now the names didn’t work anymore. Back to the baby book and Google.

By this point we were an hour past lunch time and getting a little goofy. On Google we found a link for how to generate a Christmas elf name for yourself. This was just the diversion we needed.

My Christmas elf name is Pompom Frosttree. The website tells me Pompom is a bit of a show-off who likes to climb the Christmas tree and be the center of attention! She wears a handsome tunic embroidered with frost patterns, and she makes magical scooters and bikes for all the good little children. Fits me to a T.

Laura’s elf name is Treacletart Silverbubbles. Treacletart is a bit of an airhead who forgets how to do things, but is loved by all the other elves for being so happy! She wears a sequined jacket with shiny silver buttons, and she makes delicious puddings and cakes for all the good little children. Note to reader: Laura has a jacket just like that and she is a really good cook.

I’m not going to tell you the names we chose for our characters, but here are their Christmas elf profiles. Maybe you can figure it out.

Our main female character: Marshmallow Jinglebaubles. She is very creative, has a sharp eye for art, and loves to decorate the grotto! She wears pointy green shoes with bells on the end, and she makes tasty marshmallows and chocolate covered candy for all the good little children.

Our main male character: Partridge Fairybells. He is a fun-loving prankster who loves to play silly tricks on the other elves! He wears a pale green tunic of fine silk embroidered with gold stitches, and he makes magical marbles and lucky dice for all the good little children.

This silliness didn’t accomplish anything for our script, but it cleared out heads to work again tomorrow. The names we chose today may not be the names we end up with. Sometimes characters tell you what their names are and, when they do writers need to listen.