Plot Device

There is a fun film called “Plot Device,” which every new writer, and any writer feeling a sense of stagnation or disinterest, should watch. Watch, and then play this game that I thought of as I watched the film.

Here’s the short film, “Plot Device.” Watch and enjoy.

Now, how do we apply this to writing? Too often, I encounter writers who know where they want their stories to go, but must force the stories along that pre-determined path, insisting on following the story arc even when the characters and developing storyline resist.

To these writers, I say, step back and be prepare to be surprised. As in the film, just see where pushing the Plot Device button might take you. You could be pleasantly surprised. Granted, you could be horrified, as the hero is from time to time in the film, but, like him, you still have the option of hitting the button again and taking a different tack.

Be willing to try something new, something unexpected, in your writing. Without some surprises, you writing will be humdrum and predictable. In other words, your stories will fail.

So, you’re writing a love story, between a young man and a young woman. You want them to meet, encounter some obstacles, and eventually end up together. Great. But the story’s been done. It’s going to take something special to keep your readers interested. Otherwise, yawn. Closing the book.

Let’s hit the Plot Device button. Wait a minute, she isn’t young after all! She’s actually several hundred years old, and uses a serum to keep herself youthful and appealing. What will our hero do now? Will he run from her, frightened of what he doesn’t understand, or will he try to understand her, and grow to love her more, finally devoting himself to her in marriage?

Or, push the Plot Device button again, and he is actually a serial husband, marrying women in different cities around the nation, or the world. The reader finds out, but does the wife? If she does, how does she react? How will you keep the reader interested in this multi-wedder while also maintaining our interest in and compassion for the wife, or wives?

Hit Plot Device again. The lovers have just met, but are doomed to die before they can spend their life together. Oops, nope, that was “Titanic.”

Hit Plot Device again. Just as they are about to be married, the wife falls down a mine shaft (during a picnic) and he dies trying to save her. But she falls in love with one of the rescue workers, so the reader doesn’t feel too bad. Okay, so that’s for a romance novel, where we keep everybody happy.

But it’s as easy as that. If your story isn’t flowing as freely as it should, try using your own Plot Device button, shaking things up, rattling your characters, and getting your creative juices flowing.

Push the Plot Device button. Uh-oh, hadn’t you killed that spider in the cupboard earlier this morning?….

Music for Writing and Editing

I frequently get recommendations for new music to listen to from my son and daughter; they know what I like, and often find new groups, or groups I’ve never heard of, for me to try. One of my current favorites is Mumford and Sons. Another is Aqualung.

But I find that I can’t listen to their music, or any others where lyrics are featured, when I am editing. No matter how hard I try, I cannot keep the words of the songs from registering on my mind, and interfering with the task at hand–that is, editing other people’s words. For editing, my choice is classical music, preferably symphonic. I’m not a lover of classical piano music or violin features, but give me the full symphonic sound and I can happily edit for hours. Sometimes, if I’m in a specific mood, I’ll choose specific composers (Vivaldi, or Moussorgsky, or Wagner, or Telleman, or Mozart). Other times, I leave the selection to Pandora, willingly accepting most of what I am offered.

On the other hand, if I am writing fiction, I often choose music with words, especially if I am trying to feed a certain emotion, or build an environment for myself in which to write. Oddly, I think most people would say, I find that music from the Civil War is great for eliciting emotions of various kinds. I also like Edith Piaf, for other emotions. And Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Mahalia Jackson are great for  depth, as they plumb the soul.

I can’t listen to music constantly throughout the day; my ears simply get tired and it all becomes just noise. But I know when I need to feed my mind, my spirit, my emotions…or simply get carried away as I edit, lifting my mind off the page and into that realm where I work without effort or noticing the passage of time.

Living Language

Can anyone doubt today that language is a living entity, one that changes and morphs with the times? How quickly new words are incorporated into national languages, as well as the world vocabulary: internet, DVD, CD, bits, bytes, the Cloud, PCs, Macs, iPods, iPads, android, etc.

I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue, a thus-far fascinating look at how the English language came to be. In the fourth chapter, Bryson writes about how some of the words in the English language got there by mistake.

Take, for example, the word “dord,” which appeared in the 1934 Merriam-Webster International Dictionary, as another word for destiny. Turns out, this was simply based on the misreading of a typesetter’s note, which read “D or d,” meaning the word could be capitalized or not. When the error was discovered, the M-W folks removed the word, but not before it had found its way into other dictionaries.

Bryson writes that according to the First Supplement of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that owe their existence to typographical errors, misrenderings, or mishearings. The word “buttonhole” was once “buttonhold.” “Asparagus” was for 200 years known as “sparrow-grass” and “shamefaced” was originally “shamefast” (fast here having the sense of lodged firmly, as in “stuck fast.”)

The process can still be seen today, for example in the tendency among people to turn “catercorner” into “catty-corner” and “chaise longue” into “chaise lounge.”

One of my favorite examples is the word “pea.” Originally, the word was “pease,” as in the nursery rhyme “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold…” but this was mistakenly thought to signify a plural and the word “pea” was back-formed to denote singularity.

And the words “grovel” and “sidle” similarly came into English because the original adverbs “groveling” and “sidling” were assumed to contain the -ing suffix, as in walking and seeing. In fact, it was the -ling suffix, but that didn’t stop people from adding a pair of useful words to the language. Other back-formations are “laze” (from “lazy”), “greed” (from “greedy”), “beg” (from “beggar”), and “difficult” (from “difficulty”).

What does this mean to writers? There is no reason to despair about our language. A compilation of several other languages, it will continue to grow and be enriched, as it always has been, by the addition of new vocabulary.  Perhaps the skill of oratory is one the wane for the moment, but don’t despair. We’ll, like, have, like, lots more words when, like, the people want to, like, express themselves again!

Put Away the Phone and People Watch

I’m headed for the airport in a couple of hours and am looking forward to the wait for my plane. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that I will put that time to good use, by people watching.

As a writer, you must make time to people watch, to observe the pantheon of characters within your orbit, wherever you are. Keep a notebook handy and jot down little notes about the folks who drift past you on the tide of humanity. (If you don’t write these down, at least store them in your long-term memory until you have the chance to record them.)

Note clothing, postures, relationships, unspoken communication, facial expressions, accents, attitudes — all of which are elements to put into your characterization tool box. How do young lovers stand, walk, or sit by each other? How do middle-aged couples do the same? And the elderly? What do you see in the elderly that is also in the young couple in love? Why might those elements have lasted into old age? What do they tell you about the people, the relationships, the quality of love?

How do you get a sense of personality or mood from a person’s posture or gait? What assessment do you make of a woman who wears a lot of makeup? of a woman who wears little or none? Of a man who plucks his eyebrows? Now, think. WHY do you make those assessments? Write down your answer.

Listen for accents or turns of phrase, but be aware that writing in an accent is a challenge, both to the writer and to the reader. What you want is a “taste” of the accent, a saying or phrase that gives you the sense of “Other,” of foreignness or dialect.

My favorite are the eyes. I like to watch how people use their eyes, and what their eyes say about them. Wide open, half-cocked, drowsy, side-darting — all of these can say something about the person, beyond just physiognomy.

So, put away your phone, your iPad, and your other electronic devices and people watch. It’s what will make your fiction come alive!

Hold At All Costs

In discussion about a possible editing gig,  Glenn Palmedo-Smith told me about a film of his that was shown on PBS on or around Memorial Day 2011. The film is called Hold At All Costs and is about the battle for Outpost Harry during the Korean War. Palmedo-Smith sent me a link to the film’s trailer, which has certainly intrigued me. Having seen the entire film now, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. It is informative, gripping, and touching in the most unexpected ways.

A brief history of the battle for Outpost Harry. During the eight-day battle, five United Nations Command companies, four U.S. and one Greek, defended the hill in the Iron Triangle near Seoul from the attack of some 13,000 Chinese soldiers, under orders to “hold at all costs,” not knowing that the Chinese soldiers had been told to take the hill “at all costs.” And thus, eight days of hell ensued, with most of the fighting taking place at night. In the film, survivors from both sides of the conflict talk about the horrors of the week and reflect upon its meaning. The film ends with images of South Korean today, a land the UN had estimated it would take 100 years to rebuild. The closing credits include the names of those killed in the battle for Outpost Harry. The American list is long, the Greek list short, the South Korean list longer, and the list of Chinese names grows as the credits advance, until ten columns of names in tiny Chinese script fill the screen. Horrifying.

This is an excellent film about a war that was forgotten or ignored for too long by a country whose leaders called its young men to give their lives on that foreign soil. I highly recommend it if you can find it on television (PBS showed it over the Memorial Day weekend).

The interesting thing about all of this is that I doubt that I would ever have encountered this film had it not been for my initial contact with Palmedo-Smith concerning editing on a different project, completely separate from the film. Again, I am delighted and amazed by the connections I make through my job, by the new horizons that open to me.

Providence? I’m thinking, yes.

One thing leads to another when you are a writer with curiosity about and interest in the world around you. To all writers out there, I say keep your eyes and ears open. You never know from where your next gem of inspiration might arise.

Lazy Days of Summer

Today’s memoir writing class focused on life before electronics, before we spent our evenings posted in front of the television set or game consoles. What did we DO before electronics? What were our summers like?

I had an unusual childhood, in that I never really watched television until 1965, having lived in France prior to that. My childhood evenings were spent playing games with my brothers, listening to classical music or show tunes on my parents’ “hi fi” stereo console, or reading. How we read! And that’s only after I was forced to come inside. I much preferred to be outside at the playground, riding my bike, rollerskating, or playing baseball or games of pretend with my friends.

Today we recalled what it was like to drift through the lazy days of summer. In my childhood, we’d get up early on a summer morning, shovel some cereal into our mouths, and take off for the unfenced outdoors, where groups of kids congealed and then launched into play for the day. At some point in the midday, we’d break off our games, holler to each other to “be back in 15” and dash off to get lunch, each at our separate homes, since we were typically too big a group to eat at one house. Then, it would be more play until dinner time, half an hour for dinner, and then back outside until it got too dark to see. On special nights, we were allowed to stay out after dark. That’s when the real fun began, especially Hide and Seek. Who can forget the primal fear of being hunted in the dark, and then dashing madly for the “base,” typically somewhere in a circle of light. Tag! No, free! I tagged you! Did not! FREE!

Our days were unscheduled, except for baseball or softball practice or games. There were no camps for us, no schedules to meet. We were told to stay out of trouble (which we managed to do for the most part) and set free. No one was bored. In fact, for me, there never seemed to be enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Well, pick-up baseball games could last an entire day, for one thing, and some of our world series lasted for a week or so.

For me, visions of heaven include the smell of freshly mowed lawns and summer evening barbecues. Images of heaven include my bare feet stained green by those mowed lawns, and my Dad standing at the barbecue, flipping burgers and hot dogs, Mom sitting nearby, relieved of kitchen duty and enjoying the company of Dad and friends. The best of times included evenings when our friends would come to eat and we’d stay in the backyard after dark. A community in the summer heat. Heaven.

What will my children remember of summer? I very much doubt that they’ll have the same sense of freedom, or of time standing still, of long, endless days of summer. In their lifetimes, summer was abridged to seven or eight weeks, not the three months we enjoyed. (And that was only because we didn’t make them go to summer school or camps, as some parents did.) As a consequence, I think the summers felt rushed. I wish I could have given them my summers, my moments of heaven. Perhaps they had their own moments. I’ll have to ask them.

Write Your Memoirs, At Least A Few

I continue to teach my Memoir Writing Workshops in San Diego, and each week I am struck anew by how important it is for each of us to write our memoirs. It doesn’t matter whether we write to publish, but we should write not to perish.

Our stories can be the greatest legacy we give to our children, or to those who come after us. No two people have the same story; it’s simply impossible. Each of us has been dropped into the river of time, within a family, within a legacy already written. We each then go on to form our own legacies, and that is the gift that we can give to others.

I am as guilty as most people who think, who cares? My kids won’t be interested. I’ll just be writing for myself. But when I listen to the stories in my classes, I realize the treasure being conveyed. Stories about the author, about the family that came before and the family that they joined. If not now, then later, these stories will be valued beyond the writer’s greatest expectations, because they will be a piece of the writer, a touch with what has passed.

My class members write about their first encounter with spouses, about moments of great childhood pain that imprinted the adult, and about people in the family long gone, bringing them, if only briefly, back into the flow of time, remembering that they existed and mattered for one moment. What more can any of us ask?

Take the time, as I vow to do, to write about your life. You don’t have to write chronologically. Just jump into a moment in your life and write. Whatever you put to “paper,” your family will enjoy. And if you never share it, at least you will relive the memory and the moment. You don’t have to write about the dark times, not if it’s still too painful. Write, instead, about a childhood triumph, even if it’s one only you know about or might remember. Or write about a fear that haunted, but was then overcome. Or about that game where you made the difference. This can be cathartic, but it can also be invigorating. Remember the you you used to be? Reclaim yourself, as you remember yourself. And live the you you once knew. I dare you!