Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Plot Defense: Part I

Tuesday of this week, I mounted my first ever Plot Defense. 

The activity was inspired by a workshop led by Holly Black at the SCBWI Conference in Redmond, in which she described the advantages of speaking your novel's storyline aloud to a few trusted friends/colleagues. Afterward, the listeners ask questions to help flesh out the story. In theory, answering the questions (and hearing yourself talk through your plot) will help seal plot holes, eliminate inconsistencies, and improve world-building, magic systems, and the like.

So I gave it shot, but with a twist.

My experience with No Shame Eugene Theatre has made me a firm believer that creativity thrives in structured environments (all No Shame pieces must be five minutes or less) – so I borrowed the theatre's darkroom timer and laid out a few rules for the Plot Defense:

1. The panel of listeners will be comprised of three people. All panel members must be avid readers or writers themselves who produce work (or read books) I enjoy and respect.

2. The author will give panelists a simple handout delineating the story's major characters, chapter titles, and other necessary definitions.

3. The session will last no longer than 90 minutes, broken down as follows:

a. Minutes 0-45: Author goes through the novel start to finish, including all major plot points, twists, characters, and rules for the world or magic system. During this portion of the session, panelists are only permitted to ask clarifying questions (ie. Which character are you talking about? Where is this happening, and the like.)

b. Minutes 45-70: Having heard the story from start to finish, panelists ask substantive questions, centering on character motivations, apparent inconsistencies in the world-building/magic system, and points of confusion in the movement of the plot. This portion of the session is not specifically a critique – there is no judgment of "I did or didn't like this part of the story." This is a way for the author to defend parts of the story that may have been unclear, or to realize there are aspects of the story he doesn't yet understand.

c. Minutes 70-90: Author and panelists engage in a back and forth conversation about possible ideas/plot changes based upon ideas the author has had throughout the questioning process. Changes should be initiated by the author, not the panelists. Again, the purpose is to help the author gain a clarified view of the story he wants to tell.

4. The author will provide cookies for the panelists during the session, and beers afterward. This is the only rule which may not be bent:

For the Plot Defense test drive, I enlisted the help of Jacob Boyd, Tamathy Christensen, and Jerry Oltion – a dream team of writers with diverse strengths in character, plot, and all-around storytelling. So off we went. 

And it was good, exhausting fun -- an incredibly useful process in ways I did and didn't anticipate. Hats off to Holly Black for the suggestion and to Jacob, Tamathy, and Jerry for taking part. They even stayed beyond the 90 minutes I'd promised it would last. Having gone through it, I'm pleased to report there were no casualties. Aside from the cookies. 

And maybe my novel. More to follow. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Meeting Mr. Bradbury

Every so often a book comes along that grabs your consciousness, gives it a good spin, winds you up, and turns you loose in a new direction. The Professor's House by Willa Cather. Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. A handful of others -- and now Zen in the Art of Writing, all essays about craft and process at a point in my life when I'm finally able to appreciate them.

The book is about both living and writing with gusto. Zeal. Passion. It takes on elitist literary attitudes and overly-commercial sensibilities and focuses on the power of writing to make life BETTER, as opposed to more agonizing, or even profitable. So many of Bradbury's words are like much more eloquent reflections of thoughts I've held for years, and they draw me back to a moment in high school when I visited Eureka College as part of a writing competition and met Mr. Bradbury in person.

I was in the third row and giddy as a schoolboy. Alright, so I was a schoolboy -- but giddy EVEN for a schoolboy. On stage and in the flesh was the guy who had sparked my imagination with The October County and Dandelion Wine (both of which still hold their enshrined positions on my writing desk), and who had also managed to write Fahrenheit 451 -- a book teachers made me read that I actually enjoyed.

Plus, I'd seen him on TV.

I watched in a trance as he told stories of his own childhood: going to a movie for the first time, seeing Mars through a telescope, talking with members of the traveling circus as they blew through his small, Illinois hometown. His memory was impressive (he claims remembering the day of his birth, his own circumcision, and the like) but even more impressive was his childlike enthusiasm -- so effectively and immaculately preserved in the body of a 60+ year-old man. Infectious, even to a teenager.

So much so, it inspired me to do something stupid.

When Mr. Bradbury made his exit from the stage and the crowd, I stood up, left my teacher and classmates, and chased the living legend into the stairwell. He was already halfway up -- much faster than he looked I might add.

"Mr. Bradbury!" I shouted up after him. I clutched a story in my hand -- a short piece of science fiction I was proud of. It was a story about people who paid enormous sums of money to live in a dream state after the world had been destroyed by a nuclear war. Ray Bradbury had inspired me to write it, and I needed him to know.

To my surprise, he stopped. He descended the stairs and he smiled.

"I'd be happy to take your story," he said, taking the manuscript and shaking my hand. "Whatever you do, keep writing. Will you? Keep writing like crazy."

I promised I would. And I have. But maybe not enough. His words echo back to me now, rattling around in my brain along with notions of mortality, urgency, success, failure, and art.

In many ways, Bradbury makes me feel like a coward.

I hold a day job. I help run a theatre. I do other things. While Bradbury was diligently writing at least 1,000 words a day from 20-30, I was traveling. While he was sucking down instant noodles and slurping from cans of soup, I was hedging my bets on other careers, other sources of income, in case the writing didn't work out. I ate (and eat) quite well. Perhaps the definition of cowardice is a contingency plan.

My father once told me: "If you don't make it as a writer, you can cry into your beer and move on. If you don't make it at all, you'll have more serious problems." Maybe. But maybe not. And certainly there will be plenty of tears and plenty of beer either way.

There is a certain thrill to throwing all caution to the wind and leaping head-first into the life of a writer. Certainly, there are so many ideas clamoring to get out of my head that if I had eight full hours a day (and the ability to write that long) I'd never be able to let them all out.

At one time in my life, I did nothing but help them escape.

Several years ago, I found myself in the unlikely small town of Sterling, IL. It was a very cheap place to live, and I was committed to living off the fat (ha!) of a five-month political job in Florida. While in Sterling, I worked for 3 hours a day as a playground monitor at a local school and spent the rest of my time writing. Hell, there was nothing else TO DO. There was a park down the street where you could throw a Frisbee and a main street with mediocre coffee -- but then there was the ever-ready portal of the computer. And that was what I turned to day in and day out, and during that time I sold more fiction and freelance stories and had more leads on new ones than ever before.

And I'm certainly a better writer now. But the professional exhilaration of that time remains unmatched. I realize now it's because that was the only time in my life where writing was really number one, in thought and deed.

Well to hell with it.

The philosophy of compromise has played its part, but its time is waning. I have a son now. An amazing wife and a great job, but still I must do more. And I can. Just as surely as I can feel Ray Bradbury's words reaching from the pages of his book and back in time to a sixteen-year-old boy on the stairs who made a promise -- one he intends to keep.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

By the Light of the Supermoon

If any great force from above could convince me to blog, it would have to be the Supermoon. I like its newsworthy title almost as much as Thundersnow. Though not quite as much as the Snowpocolypse in February. Or, as my friend Charlie called it: The Holofrost.

It's amazing it's gotten so much news coverage, given that I HAVE NEVER SEEN SO MUCH INSANITY HAPPENING ON PLANET EARTH EVER. Seriously. I'm glued to the news like a bad thriller and the world, for its part, is adhering to the classic page-turner mantra: "and then things get worse." Libya, Bahrain, Japan? It's blowing my mind. And all this --  after one of the greatest, most uplifting revolutions of ALL TIME just happened in Egypt. That, alone, would've been enough news for a decade.

The news is even more interesting to me now, having a son, since everything that's happening will be history to him. Vague, misty understandings that pop up in Old People conversations or are necessary to snag a piece of the pie in an outdated version of Trivial Pursuit his old man drags out when company comes over. It will be fascinating to see what sticks out for him. What he finds interesting, and alternately what becomes: "Well, wasn't it just ALWAYS like that?" or even "Ohmigod, Dad, who caaaaares?"

I wonder what he'll think about the events that have happened to me, personally. You know, like my ENTIRE LIFE minus the last six months. To him, before his cognitive brain and memory kick in, it will all just be The Time Before. A remote, hazy, hearsay stretch of time that (from his perspective) his Dad has likely inflated beyond all reasonable proportion to impress him/shock him/teach him a lesson.

I can already feel it coming.

So as a precaution to his eventual cynicism, I've actually started a Big Fish shoe box. It has old passports, photographs, ticket stubs, and other bits of proof to show that some of the B.S. stories I tell him are ACTUALLY true. My sense of drama, however, will likely make me want to squirrel the box away somewhere until the moment I am lying on my deathbed and he's telling me: "Why didn't you just tell me the truth, Dad!!???" Then, I can raise a shaky finger and gesture with all the strength I can divert from my death rattle:

"Theeeere," I'll moan. "There is the truth."

He'll see the box. He'll gasp. Then all will be still.

So as you can see, over the course of this blog I've already narrowed the scope of world events and celestial rarities to the narrow field of my own life and morbid deathbed fantasies. Thus is human nature. Or maybe just me . . . especially with the deathbed fantasies bit.

Either way, it does intrigue me how much self-interest tends to eclipse things. (Insert Supermoon joke here -- I just can't.) Like right now. The bulk of American concern, at least on the west coast, isn't centering on the war in Libya, or the tsunami, or the nuclear catastrophe in Japan -- only on how that catastrophe might impact THEM. All rushing out to buy their iodine tablets and refreshing like hamsters at a feeder bar to see what's coming to get them, and what they can do about it.

(TANGENT: Ah, the West Coast. Was there ever a more delicious part of the US to subject to endless conspiracy theorizing and government paranoia?  But I digress. Let's get back to talking about ME.)

So -- will Tobias care at all about the things that happened in my life before he came along? The things that, for all intents and purposes, will never impact him directly? Did I care about those events in my parents' lives? I'd like to think I did, but who knows? Probably not as much as I cared about where I was going that day or what I was eating for dinner than night. World events were the same way. When I grew up, WWII was something that had happened to old people, and that Hollywood made the occasional good movie about. Same with Vietnam. The stuff of grainy photographs and shaky filmstrips.

Maybe that's how the past always feels to those who didn't live it. Sepia tones or black and white. And all our global and personal Supermoons, so big and impressive now, will hardly look the same in the faded photographs we offer up to show how important it all felt. To the listener it will be a blip without context -- the dying light of an antique television before it fades to black.

So I'm stepping out to look at the moon again. To try and soak it into memory. Maybe I can weave a story around it to tell Tobias, or take another picture for the shoebox. 

Damn thing. My camera just doesn't do it justice.   

Monday, January 31, 2011

Escape from New York

I just returned from a whirlwind weekend in New York for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2011 Conference and have crash landed in the PDX airport with a mug of coffee-flavored water, trying to piece it together before my certain-to-be hellish 3 hour shuttle ride home.

Over the weekend I met some truly excellent people in the writing business, and found -- as I alway do -- that despite cost, fatigue, and the cashing in of months of carefully accumulated points with my wife, these trips are always worth it. Yes, new knowledge, networking, and all the rest. But also, hey: NEW YORK CITY, PEOPLE.

I was blown away by how many cool, incidental things I was able to see in the city.

Ghostbusters building? Check. Subway stop where "Beat It" was filmed. Check.

And perhaps best of all: I literally overheard a gang (fine, group) of young, drunken Latino guys chanting "Los Locos kick your butt. Los Locos kick your face. Los Locos kick your balls into ou-ter SPACE!" I'm not making this up. And these guys were like 20. Meaning Short Circuit is still alive and relevant on the streets of New York. What a relief. And since Los Locos are officially ranked as the #6 Least Intimidating Gang in Movie History, I felt like I was really part of something.

I was also introduced to the oldest bar in New York: McSorley's. You can visit its web site here, which is completely unlike the experience of actually shoving into this ancient bar with a beer tapper that looks like a pipe organ from a cheap steampunk movie and a chandelier that literally hasn't been dusted since 1854. And you think THAT'S cool? You also order your beers by saying "one of each," meaning one light and one dark -- and once you're served the trick is finding enough elbow room with which to lift the delicious nectar to your lips. Incredible place. I was planning to travel to Ireland next year, but to hell with that. My 25% Irish self has now seen the best the pub scene has to offer.

And the pizza, I . . . well. Okay.

Those from New York can stop reading now.

I'm a Chicago boy, but I had some New York pizza. It's good. Just GOOD, mind you. I've come to love a casserole-sized slice with a manhole cover of a sausage patty on top, and the thin, bend-in-the middle pizza left me . . . hungry. Like I had to eat 3 slices. What's that all about?

But the hot pastrami -- fahgettaboutdit.

It was an all around excellent trip for mind, spirit, and stomach. But it's taken its toll. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but I'm in Oregon now. And as sleepy as Eugene. So all for now and goodnight.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Madam X Factor

Pictured above is the most recent fortune I've received from machine, cookie, live person, or otherwise -- taken from an exceptionally cool and creepy mechanized Seer outside of Market Magic & Novelty Shop in Seattle. The message has been propped up on my desk ever since that fateful afternoon, and is especially valuable now, a few days after sending query letters to several agents for my YA book Weavers.

Needless to say, I am currently pricing amethysts.

I did not, however, put another 50 cents in the slot to be told more. A good call, because the guy after me got something about "being stabbed in the back by a philanderer" which caused sudden weirdness between him and his girlfriend. Seriously.

So Madam X giveth, and Madam X taketh away.

If I'd stuck around all afternoon, I'd probably have an outline for a new novel by now. Instead, I had the sudden urge to rush home and open the mailbox . .  which was empty. Apparently even Madam X cannot make the mail come on Sunday.

But questions remain: Will such a letter come? Is Madam X a benevolent fortune teller or a Monkey's Paw/Dr. Terror's House of Horrors fortune teller? More importantly, is Madam X down with Zoltar? Could she somehow turn me back into a 12-year-old boy, and how might that either help or hurt my career as a young adult author?

I'll keep you posted . . .