Friday, May 26, 2017

Downsizing email, and writing an Origin Story (from Lisa Cron)

For the past few weeks, I've been down-sizing my email. I got tired of deleting (or, more typically, ignoring) dozens of messages each day from political groups, charities, retail establishments, community groups and yes, even writers whose newsletters I had signed up for more to support them than because I cared about the content.

The only one I kept was my subscription to Lisa Cron's newsletter. She's the author of Wired for Story. This fascinating book describes how humans have evolved to love stories because they helps us to survive. It explained to me why the negative character arcs that I've wanted to write are so unsatisfying to readers, it taught me why friends aren't the best critique partners and how useful story is in daily life.

Now, every Friday, its what I read before my morning writing, and somehow the topic is always exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. This morning's post was about writing an Origin SceneThe first line made me think she was referring to the opening scene or the inciting incident, but I quickly realized it was something else. Something new to me. It is what happened long ago to give the character the wound, or flaw, that the current story is going to resolve. 

I already knew that my main character believed she couldn't survive on her own, and had a vague background to establish this, including that her mom was disabled and ended up dependent on her husband. The post this morning, however, encouraged us to write the moment when the character first comes to this belief.

Here's my stream of consciousness, un-edited, first try. It's not first person (as recommended) but just brainstorming. As I wrote it, I realized that 'not being able to survive alone' was too strong, so I narrowed it to include a gender bias (because it comes in conflict with her husband).
As a teenager, Rosemary was out working on their farm, when a hard rain storm came in. A flash flood stranded her on a hill, and her mom came out looking for her. Early enough in her multiple sclerosis that she would still try to help (she just had a cane). Being scared that the water would continue to rise, her mother tried to wade in after her and got swept in, but immediately stuck in a branch on a side eddy. Rosemary's screams drew the attention of her step-father and he came to their rescue, fishing out the mother and finding a plank for Rm to walk across to safety. Mom got sick/injured and that was really the end of her functionality--was in a wheel-chair after that. She and step-father made it clear that she'd made a mistake and should have gone to him for help. Rm internalized that she should find a man to help, not try to save herself.

Comment if you have an opinion!

By the way,  the other subscriptions I kept are to C. R. Hodge's blog (because he provides frequently updated lists of publishing markets), the publisher Tor's newsletter (because I have contact with an agent there) and The Nelson Literary Agency (because it is a local agency which provides insider tips to authors).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Internal Scene Structure: the Scene-Sequel Cycle

Scenes As Shapeless Blobs
For the first three years of working on my novel, I was never sure what to include in a scene. Usually they had some sort of a goal: to get the characters from point A to point B, to illustrate the nature of a character or a relationship, to introduce a piece of information. However much I worked on making the writing beautiful, the result was often a shapeless blob: characters wandering around aimlessly, having conversations that did nothing to advance the plot, doing nothing to raise questions in the readers’ mind. It was not uncommon for my critique partners to mark multiple pages with the question “What’s the point?”

Finding Structure
Often, I knew the point, but it clearly wasn’t intriguing enough to captivate a reader. Then I heard about Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel cycle at a class about emotion by Angie Hodap in the 2017 RMFW Colorado Gold conference. I researched the technique after the conference and it has revolutionized my writing.

Now when I write a scene, I still have my old goals, but I have a skeleton to shape the scene around. When I analyzed my first draft with this technique, I found that I had used a lot of the elements, because they really are the foundation upon which a scene is formed. But without the explicit use of the cycle, often something was missing or out of order. 

The Scene-Sequel Cycle
The cycle consists of six elements (Swain’s terms are in parentheses when they are different from what I use):
1. Goal
The character wants something. Not the global desire for the story—something in this scene, but ideally it is inline with her character arc.
2. Obstacle (Conflict)
Something stands in the way of the character getting what she wants.
3. Consequence (Disaster)
When she attempts to achieve her goal and runs into the obstacle, something happens. Swain calls this Disaster because a story gets boring if the protagonist always wins. However, sometimes she does need to succeed- but there needs to be a consequence no matter what.
4. Reaction
The character reacts to the consequence or disaster. This is where emotion comes in.
5. Dilemma
Based off of the new reality, the character has a dilemma. It creates the most tension when neither of the options are good.
6.  Decision
She chooses one of the options. Ideally, her choice is in line with her character arc again, showing where she started at the beginning, how she might be trying to change (unsuccessfully) through the middle, and how she achieves a change at the end.
This is the Goal for the next cycle.

Used well, the technique advances the plot with each scene, so that it isn’t a repetition of a cycle but shaped more like a screw, drawing the reader forward through the story with each turn of a scene.

Swain separates the elements into Scene (Goal/ Conflict/ Disaster) and Sequel (Reaction/ Dilemma/ Decision), which gives the cycle its name. I find it more intuitive to include all six (sometimes more than once) in what is classically referred to as a single scene.

As I was watching Rogue One, a cycle jumped out on me. (I will spoil one scene here, but not the rest.) In the second half of the movie, Rogue One is approaching a planet with an energy shield.
1.  Goal: to get through the only gate in the shield
2.  Obstacle: although their ship has an access code, it might not be current or accepted.
3.  Consequence: Their ship makes it through without a problem. This is an example of how a consequence is not always a disaster. Although it creates a tense moment, it could be interpreted as null or missing, but the real consequence of this conflict is that the Rogue One fighters were so focused getting through the gate that none of them thought ahead to what they were going to do after they made it through the shield.
4.  Reaction: elation at getting through… followed by concern about what next
5.  Dilemma: How are they going to achieve their overall goal on the planet, and finally get off of it?
6.  Decision: take it one step at a time. Keep going until they can’t any longer. 

As part of the Whole
One of the key things that I’ve learned is that these elements need to tie the scene to the rest of the story in order to make the scene worthwhile. In practice, this means that either the Consequence or the Decision have to impact the overall plot.

In the scene I’m working on in my novel, my protagonist wants to go up the last mountain pass before her destination (Goal) but a rushing stream is in her path (Obstacle). When she gets knocked over in the water, the dried food in her backpack gets wet and starts to rot (Consequence). This changes the rest of the story, because she can no longer search for her destination when she must forage for food.

In the Rogue One example above, the strategy that results from the Decision has ramifications for the ending of the movie (which I won’t detail in case you, like me, don’t get out to see movies right away!) The Obstacle—the gate in the energy shield—is also important for the later plot.

Tying each scene into the whole has been the most difficult part for me. Luckily, my critique partner Heidi Rose Kay gave me the key question to ask myself: What would change in the overall story if you took this scene out?  If the answer is nothing, then either the scene needs to go, or the consequences and decisions must continue into the larger story.

It is a formula, but using this structure, it is possible to build an infinite number of different scenes.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Apologizing, Softness and Humanity's Web

I've been trying something lately: when I regret an action, no matter how small, I try to apologize to the person who I wronged. This doesn't sound revolutionary, but given how difficult I've found it, I think I haven't done it as much as I should have. And I've found the emotional payoff to be enormous.

For example, a few weeks ago I snapped at the shuttle driver who takes me to work. I won't go into detail, but let me just say that he started it and I one-upped him, including mentioning his supervisor. During the ride, I stewed about his reaction but finally realized that I was more upset about mine. When I got out, I went around to his window and apologized--there was no need for me to speak that way. He said there was no need for me to apologize (which just shows the level of hostility we're all used to dealing with), but since then, we've been able to have pleasant interactions. I left feeling like I'd improved someone's day, instead of adding to the negativity in his world and mine.

Let me be clear that I'm not talking about apologizing for asserting my rights or taking up space. I've also learned that people (especially women like me) end up apologizing instead of saying thank you, thanks to this great illustration. As I'm teaching my children how to interact in the world, and setting limits on how they're allowed to speak to me, I'm  learning to take responsibility for my own behavior. I don't believe that it is ever justified to be mean or even use a rude voice. I'm certainly not saying that I don't still do these things, just that I'm learning to recognize when I do and apologize for it.

Apologizing for yelling at my kids is one thing. But what about if someone is physically attacking me? I would be rude. I would be mean. I would do whatever I needed to get out of the situation. And I doubt I'd apologize. However, I believe it would be better, if possible, to handle the situation calmly and respectfully. One thing that I've learned both from parenting and training in martial arts is that meeting force with force is rarely effective.

Our Grandmaster teaches us to respond to a force in the manner of a trampoline: absorbing, zero-ing out and responding with such softness that the opponent doesn't even register that he is being controlled. This is an ideal that I strive toward, although I won't sacrifice the safety of myself or my family to achieve it.

Short of the threat of physical harm, verbal exchanges offer a training ground for responding with softness. My emotional reaction might be hostile, but it is still possible to respond mindfully. Parenting provides ample opportunity for practice: it is astounding to me how simply repeating back a child's words--acknowledging that I hear what she is saying, what she wants, without saying I'll give it to her--releases the pressure of the interaction to a point where progress can be made. (For more on this, and other techniques that worked shockingly well for us, check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by
A mean response to a rude statement will only cause the instigator to build up their defenses. There is no way to teach through, or learn behind, a wall. When the hatches are battened, there is no possibility for communications.

A ten-minute interaction with the shuttle driver may not be a big thing, but the attitude that he and I both took through our day could have affected ten or more people. Their attitudes in turn would have affected the people they encountered: truly an exponential effect.

These kinds of one-on-one connections are what I believe to be humanity's most hopeful feature, so I'm striving to make my contributions as positive as possible.  I invite you to join me...

A political campaign is a story

I absolutely don't want to start a political discussion here but I have had trouble concentrating on writing due to the election last week. Reading this article allowed me a glimpse of the campaigns through a writer's lens. It looks at the story-telling component of campaigns and emphasizes what my critique partners are always telling me about increasing tension.

It is also pertinent to Lisa Cron's Ted Talk, How can you use story to better navigate your own Life, in which she says, "You can't change someone's mind by giving them the facts; it has to be through story, because story provides a context for the facts so we can make sense of them."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Life Cycle

 The fact that two humans can create another human is mind-blowing.  For the past ten years, my life has revolved around the astounding appearances of babies, no less miraculous with an understanding of the science of reproduction. As I’ve marveled over these beings that seemingly came from nowhere, I have neglected to dwell on the counter-point of birth.  A person can be alive and then suddenly gone. Existence can cease, and does. 

I attended a memorial last weekend for a friend who disappeared from existence in a moment. A friend who lived life to the fullest in a way far beyond the cliché. I hadn’t told him how much I admired him, or how much I cared for him, or how much I appreciated the little things he’s done for me over our long acquaintance. I know I will be haunted by memories of times I wasn’t as kind to him as I could have been, as I am already by other ‘wish I could do over’ memories with other deceased friends. Like Greg Brown wrote of his mistakes in his song The Poet Game, “like birds they fly around / and darken half my skies.”

I’ve been fortunate in many ways, and one of them is that the deaths I’ve experienced so far have been one or more steps removed from my closest circle of friends and immediate family. This is not the case for many, even some in my circles: those who were closer to the mutual friends we’ve lost, those who’ve lost their parents way too young, or whose babies’ lives were way too short.  I attempt to care for them, always knowing it is just by chance that I’m not in their position yet. But I could be. In most cases, I will be.  If I’m fortunate to live long, it will happen again and again and again. The longer we live, the more death we will see.

People came from around the world for my friend’s memorial and it was easy to feel guilty for appreciating the chance to see each other. It feels tragic that we didn’t find some reason to gather when he was alive to appreciate it. A friend of mine just lost someone more slowly, and they had parties for him every weekend that they could, up until his death. They used the opportunity to show him their love and I think that was brilliant.  It’s harder when we don’t know our time is limited, but then—that’s the point. It is something we’re told (over and over) and only recognize (again and again) when it’s too late. We are only together, in this life, for a blink of time: perhaps a long blink, perhaps brief.  It sounds trite, but showing people that we love them, making kindness and attention our priorities, is the only weapon I can think to wield against the inevitability of death.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Seeing the Light

My facebook feed is filled with reactions to lasts week's police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Some say #BlackLivesMatter. Some say the police are just trying to do a dangerous job. Some say it is isn't the people versus police or black versus white but light versus dark.

As a white person, I believe it is light versus dark but not in a good versus evil sense. Seeing the light means waking up to the true nature of the problem. Don't let me skip over that the police should be held to a high standard. After all, we give them the power of life and death over all of us. However, the police shootings are not just a police problem. They are the tip of the race-relations-in-America iceberg.

The police officer who shoots an unarmed black man because she assumes he is a danger to her is functioning from the same emotional response as the homeowner who calls the police because a black man is parked in front of her house... or the mom who puts her white daughter in a private school because the kids at the neighborhood school don't look like her... or myself when I assume that the African-American bus driver is not from "my" part of town... or when I only think to lock the car doors in downtown Denver after I pass a bus stop with lots of black people...

I am ashamed of my reactions. I apologize for them. But even more I'm ashamed that I spent thirty-eight years thinking that I lived in a post-racial United States. It turns out that only 'white America' is post-racial. And since white America is not all America, it's time for us to learn from those who are experiencing a different reality.  It's time to crack open one eyelid and let in the light. It hurts, but do we want to spend our lives in darkness?  Do we want to raise our kids without acknowledging the contradiction between what the United States is supposed to stand for and what they see around them?

In June 2014, I almost didn't read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic article The Case for Reparations. I mean,  I supported diversity and all, but reparations? Really? I had never owned slaves. My ancestors hadn't, as far as I knew. Why should I be held responsible, especially fiscally responsible, for something that happened centuries ago?  Luckily for me, I read it. Luckily for all of us, Mr. Coates wrote it. There is so much interesting history in the article (read it!) but the fact that touched me personally was that black people in the seventies and eighties were still systematically being denied mortgages.

I grew up in the seventies and eighties. My parents certainly weren't rich. In fact, they physically built their house themselves in order to move into an upper-middle class neighborhood. No one can deny that they worked hard and made lots of sacrifices, but a similar black family in the same location would have struggled to get that construction loan. They would have had to work harder than my parents did, and still likely would have been denied. My parents are good people. We did nothing wrong. But we benefited from an unfair system.

There's more in that article--I won't try to summarize. What I learned became a ray of light that illuminated the racial unrest that unfolded in the U.S. that summer, starting with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I read Waking Up White by Debby Irving.  I listened to what Americans of color were saying, and tried to actually understand instead of getting defensive because it made me feel bad.  By clicking on links posted by friends, I gained invaluable access to black people's stories: a woman who fears the day her son will be big enough to be perceived as a threat,  parents who have no choice but to teach their children about the realities of how they will be perceived, executives who are mistaken as staff at professional events, college professors who fear that their lives could be extinguished in something as simple as a traffic stop.

These are things I've never experienced in my white-American bubble. I've been nervous about the cops pulling me over for speeding, but the worst I worried would happen was that I'd have to pay a fine. I've felt like I didn't belong at academic conferences, but no one has ever asked me to get them a clean towel. When my child gets in trouble at school, the teacher dismisses it as a learning experience, not grounds for suspension or a fundamental character flaw. I've never been forced to explain to my child why their friends' parent wouldn't invite them over. I've never had to choose between speaking up about an offensive comment and losing a friend or a job.

One of my white friends posted that he doesn't want his kids to grow up being blamed for things they didn't do. I don't want my kids to perpetrate the racial divide that continues in this country. I don't want them to grow up under the false assumption that race doesn't matter in America, simply because it doesn't seem to matter to them.  I want them to listen to other people, not discount their experiences because they are different than theirs. I want them to recognize their privileges and use them to stand up for racial justice. 

So I continue to pull up the blinds.  It is often uncomfortable, but I deal with that like an adult. I make mistakes, but I believe that fear of failure shouldn't stop me from trying.  I would rather live in a painfully bright world than be soothed by a false darkness.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Tailwinds of Privilege

It was a gorgeous fall day and, having escaped my responsibilities for a few hours, I rode my bike east onto the Colorado plains. My muscles were ready to work hard and I felt like I was flying past the brilliant yellow cottonwood trees. As I enjoyed being completely self-propelled and using my body to its capacity, I noticed I was going faster than usual. Congratulating myself on getting in such good shape, I considered for the first time entering an bike race.

When I turned around at the half-way point, the wind started blowing. My ears and fingers were quickly chilled and, despite how hard I pushed, my pace had slowed. My legs ached with the effort of pushing the bike forward against the wind. My lungs were bursting and the gusts knocked me from side to side, one time almost blowing me to a stop. People in the cars passing by must  have thought I was an beginner. Or drunk. Who was I kidding, thinking about doing a race?

As I cursed myself for weakness and the wind for its antagonism, it occurred to me that this headwind I was now struggling against probably hadn't started at the moment when I turned around. It had likely been there the whole time and was the real explanation for my earlier, record pace.  I was astounded to realize that I hadn't noticed the tailwind at all while it was helping me. It was only when I experienced it head-on, immediately afterward and on the same course, that I was forced to admit I'd had help. Before that, I'd given myself full credit for the increased pace.

On a there-and-back bike ride, one person can experience what it's like to be helped or hindered by the wind. But it is difficult (in some cases impossible) for one person to experience the other side of their societal privileges. 

In life, the person I'm passing with ease might have an intense headwind, but since I don't feel it, I assume I'm just stronger. And it's not to say that I'm *not* strong. On the bike, I was certainly working harder than the person cruising up the road in their car, exercising only than their ankle to push the gas pedal down. I could have stayed at home lying on the couch. I get some credit.  I just have to be careful about claiming all the credit.

(As a side note, I also cannot claim to be the first person to use this analogy. I read it last month in the eye-opening Waking up White by Debby Irving and haven't researched who first published it).

Up next: Given how hard it is to recognize the existence of a tailwind and how easy it is to take sole credit for our achievements, how do we know when we are finding our path eased by privilege?