Category Archives: Writing

Shaking it up: Part 21

Welcome back. I’m ecstatic to say that, two renovations later, I’m off the hiatus and back behind the pen. I picked up where I left off.

Step one was to pick all the good parts from the critique I got a year ago and do a revision of those 25 pages. Then I submitted the short story, The Icebox, to a bunch of literary journals and got rejections all around. Then I submitted the first eight pages of the novel to the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest. I didn’t expect to win anything, and I didn’t win anything, so that worked out. My purpose was to get the critique. After a month or so I got the critique and did a revision of the first eight pages of the novel. And now, finally, I’m back in the saddle.

As I worked through the revision, I figured out that I needed a few more scenes to keep my plot from going in a straight line. My current goals are to get enough content from two submissions to the critique group, and then get back to outlining.

We’re building this plane while we fly it!

Shaking It Up: Part 20

Let’s talk about critiques! Yeah, I know. Most aspiring writers I have met fall into two categories: those who think their stuff stinks and refuse to show it to anyone and those who think their stuff is golden and offer it up expecting praise and adulation. To both groups I say: If you want to be a good writer, your first job is to get over yourself. Because those two attitudes are two sides of the same coin. A focus on self, not on the work.

Any writer who hopes to succeed must first undergo two trials by ordeal.

  1. Stop talking about writing and actually sit down and do it. Put in the butt-in-char hours to get stuff down on paper.
  2. Learn to take critique from knowledgeable writers and focus on fixing what’s wrong instead of focusing on your hurt feelings.

Lots of people talk about writing, but very few actually sit down and do it, so if you have actually put a first draft down on paper, or in electrons, you should celebrate. You’re in a select group of the less-than-one-percenters. You have jumped the first hurdle, which is either self-doubt or lack of determination.

But as hard as the first hurdle is, the second is a thousand times harder. In fact, most writers who jump the first hurdle never make it past the second. A fraction of a fraction of a percent. That’s because the second hurdle is ego, and rare is the person who can jump that hurdle.

I never had problems with the first hurdle. I love everything about writing, but especially the process of writing. I used to think that people who were reluctant to put in the work would never amount to much as a writer, but I have met many exceptional writers who don’t enjoy the process of writing. What I say is, “Good for you for actually doing the writing.” But what I think is, “Man, it sucks to be you.”

Not really. Okay, maybe a little bit. But I do have great admiration for those who actually sit down and write brilliant stuff anyway. I’m looking at you, Lisa Joy Samson, award-winning author of a couple dozen novels. When is the next one coming out?

Way back toward the beginning of this series, I think I mentioned that I started writing seriously in 1981 when I got a computer with Word Perfect installed. At that time I was the second kind of writer. I was very pleased with what I put down on the page, brushed off critiques, and continued down the path of writing crap. I even formed a small critique group so I would have someone to read my stuff and tell me how great it was. Yes, I am that pathetic.

It took a few years, but finally Jodi Wheatley got it through my adamantine head that if I wanted to be a good writer I needed to shed my self-satisfaction and work on the craft. It was a 20 year journey from buying a computer to getting a publishing contract, but that contract never would have happened if Jodi hadn’t critiqued some sense into me.

The big hurdle to welcoming critiques is realizing that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. If you were building a house and someone came in and pointed out that your foundation wasn’t level and your framing wasn’t square, would you get insulted and say, “I like it that way,” and keep building on a bad start, or would you say, “Thanks, how do I fix that?” The answer depends of which is greater, your ego or your desire to actually build a house and live in it?

The type 1 writer might write something and then say, “This is crap,” and never show it to anyone. The type 2 writer might write something and then say, “This is great!” Both approaches miss the mark. When you finish a first draft, your first observation should end with a question. “Hooray! I got a first draft down on paper. I’m one in a million! Now how can I make it better?”

That’s where critique comes in. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. You can’t rely on a critique from your mama. Unless your mama is a student of the craft, but how many of us have one of those?

After the Fred books came put, I was approached by a producer looking for novels to turn into a movie. That was cool, but if Welcome to Fred was going to made into a movie, I wanted to write the screenplay so they wouldn’t screw it up. Thus began my three years of screenplay hell.

In fact, my first 30-page submission to the screenplay group achieved a result no other submission has ever experienced, before or since. The leader stopped the reading after 11 pages. That’s how bad it was. I stayed with the group for three years, and I am happy to report I learned enough that none of my other submissions suffered that indignity.

In those three years I learned a lot about structure, and I also learned two other important things about myself: 1) I suck at writing screenplays, and 2) I hate writing screenplays. I went back to writing novels and published Muffin Man the next year, the novel I’m most proud of. So far. I have a feeling my current project might eclipse The Muffin. But we’ll see what my critique group says next week.

Because when I left the screenplay critique group in 2010, I found a novel critique group, the most legit critique group I’ve ever had the honor to be a part of. I’ve run my past six novels through the group and they have helped me make major improvements to all of them. (If you’re in Austin and are working on a novel, come on down! We meet every second and fourth Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.)

You may remember that a few weeks ago I mentioned I was preparing a submission for my critique group. My place in the hot seat is Sep 13. If you want a copy of my submission, ping me and I’ll email it to you.

Shaking It Up: Part 19

Still writing. Up to 5,000+ words and chomping at the bit. Despite my misgivings at the beginning of this project, I’m beginning to think I might be able to pull it off. Don’t tell anyone. But I did rediscover one thing. I really love to write fiction, even when I don’t know what I’m doing.

Like any other mortal, I approach the blank page with trepidation. Can I do it again? Do I still have what it takes? Turns out, there’s only one way to find out. Will you let your doubts defeat you, or will you step up to the challenge, look that scary pitcher right in the eye, and dare him to do his worst?

Here’s the secret: Do it. Just sit down and do it. If you write crap, so what? Do it again, study on it, learn the craft, and do it again. That’s what I did for 20 years before I got published All you have to lose is your time, and how would you spend it otherwise? Baking bread? Gardening? Watching Netflix?

If that’s good enough for you, if there is no voice, no unquenchable fire compelling you to write, then find the thing you must do, and do it.

As I mentioned before, I realized I have enough infrastructure to write a 25-page submission for my critique group., a document I must submit on Aug 23. They’re a tough bunch, but kind and fair. Over the past ten years I have come to believe that the critiques they provide are worth the cost of the tuition for an MFA degree.

In fact, here’s a crazy offer. After my critique on Sep 13, I will send a copy of my submission and my notes from my critique to anyone who asks.

In addition to writing, I also interviewed Mike Hilbelink at Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, a cool dude and a connection I scored via The Good Daughter., who is the volunteer coordinator at SHNC She has also scored contacts with a Buddhist monk and an APD policeman, who I will be contacting soon. So far she is winning in the technical adviser contact game.

Shaking It Up: Part 18

This week finds me still off the Truby wagon and on the writing wagon. I added 500 words or so on the first chapter, but focused my efforts more on research, including an interview with Joe Davis, who will be a character in the book. But before we get to research, I want to take a detour into breaking the narrative into bite-sized chunks.

The basic building block of a novel is the scene, which has a very basic structure: beginning, middle, and end. The beginning establishes the setting (time and place), the characters in the scene, and their motivations. The middle is the conflict, the clashing of motivations through narrative, dialog, and action. The ending reveals the change in stakes or circumstances for the characters.

The ability to write a solid scene is table stakes for writing a novel. You must understand how to write a scene that pulls the reader in, keeps them turning pages to see what happens. There’s no point in attempting to write 80,000+ words if you don’t understand how to write a scene.

Right about now you might be thinking, “What the heck? This is Part 18. Why didn’t you mention this in Part 1?” Good question. All I can say is sometimes you have to write for a while before you notice what you left out.

A scene can range from a few hundred to a few thousand words. A novel can have 60 to 100+ scenes. depending on length and genre. There’s no set length for a scene. It takes as many words as required to create a compelling beginning, middle, and end. But one thing is for sure: if you can’t write a decent scene, don’t bother to power through writing a novel. You can’t fix a bad scene by writing 100 more bad scenes. You will lose your reader long before the end. You live or die scene by scene.

If you’re not solid on scene structure, google it. There are lots of resources out there to help you write a good scene.

So, assuming you can write a scene, the next question is when to make a chapter break. In the Fred books and the Berf and Jake stories, I tried to break the story into easily digestible, bite-size chapters of around 2,500 to 3,00 words containing as many or few scenes as fit. In my next novel, Muffin Man, I divided the novel into 14 days, one chapter per day, some of them rather long. In the Fletcher Books, I divided the novels into sections, one per day, with multiple chapters per day, using the bite-sized chapter approach.

I am partial to the one-day, one-section structure. It gives the reader a solid grounding in the timeline of the story and works especially well for fast-paced, action-driven narratives. So I’m using that organizing principle for this novel as well.

All that to say, for the past few weeks I’ve been working on Day 1. As you may recall from Part 16, I’m using the day-based structure. Most likely I will have multiple chapters per day, but I will worry about that later.

You may have noticed that in the earlier parts of this exercise, I have made notes to myself about things I need to research, such as the homeless issue, tiny house construction issues, the intersection of zen philosophy and the criminal justice system, Austin’s CodeNext regulations, and the like. I have done extensive reading on these topics, but this week I did my first interview.

Friday I picked up a couple of sandwiches from Schlotzsky’s and met Joe Davis for lunch on the campus of the Wizard Academy (ham and cheese for him, the original for me) . I interrogated him for a few hours and got some insight into the tiny house market. Information that will force me to go back to the drawing board for the third scene and an aspect of Jack’s character arc.

This week I will be interviewing Mike Hilbelink of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center. This issue plays a major part of in the story, so it’s a big deal. Also, he might be able to give me a contact with some Buddhist monks who could answer some more questions.

The point of all this is to lend an air of verisimilitude to the story, to provide a sense of authenticity that draws the reader deeper into the story. Because for the story to work, it has to feel real.

Bottom line, writing a novel involves a lot of work, which reminds me of the best quote about writing I have ever seen from a gardener.

“If you can’t enjoy weeding, you won’t be a happy gardener.” -Timothy Tilghman, head gardener, Untermyer Park and Gardens, Yonkers, NY

Shaking It Up: Part 17

This week, I set Truby aside and started writing. I know what you’re thinking. “Whoa! You have outlined only 10 scenes. What the heck are you doing?” Good question.

I joined a writer’s critique group in 2010 while I was working on Muffin Man (Wunderfool Press April 1, 2012). From 2010, when I joined, to 2016, I published six novels, all of which the group critiqued. Then, for reasons I explained in Shaking It Up, Part 2, I quit writing novels. My last 25-page submission to the critique group was in August 2015. It was for the sequel to Endless Vacation, working title Aimless Vacation, ultimately titled The Reluctant Saint.

Five years. One hundred meetings. Given the turnover, there are many people in the group who have never seen a submission from me. To them, I’m just the guy who critiques everybody else but never submits anything.

Then came last week. As I was outlining the scenes for the first two days of the new novel, I realized I had enough material to throw together a 25-page submission. So I decided to put the scene weave on the back burner and get back in front of the firing squad.

I’m 2,000 words in with a 6,000 word target and three weeks to get there. With all the day job madness and deadlines, we’ll see how far I get in one week.

Shaking It Up: Part 16

Now we get to the hard part, for me at least. The point where I must list every scene and attempt to create a satisfying puzzle. This is the moment that I face my worst fears as a writer. I know my strengths: dialog, wordplay, playful humor, atmosphere, pulling the reader into the head of the characters. These are all good things.

But you know how it is. I have a suspicion that most of us let our weaknesses overshadow our strengths. They loom large, obliterating the sky. That’s when we have to fight back, push through, do the thing no matter how bad it seems to suck as we do it. If you’re serious about writing, you have to hold one thing foremost in your mind.

It’s just a first draft, not the published book. Nobody is going to see it but you. Go ahead and put it down on paper, maybe laugh at how bad it is, make it a game. Once it’s all there, you can let it marinate for a few weeks or months, then come back with a fresh mind and a fresh cup of coffee and tweak it.

For this part of the series, I show my meager notes on Chapter 9 and then list my scene notes for the first day. Note that I ignored Truby’s suggestion of writing only one sentence per scene, a trick that allows you can see the structure at a glance. I’m not suggesting you do the same. For me, I’ve written enough novels to be able to keep it all in my head as I go. YMMV.

In this section I am breaking with precedent. I will not show all my scenes, just those from Day 1. First, because that would force a lot of reading on you, and the first five scenes should be enough to give you the feel of it. Second, because I don’t want to put the entire plot out on the internet for search engines to crawl. However, if you want to see my entire scene weave to better understand how I did what I did, email me and I’ll send it to you.

Before we dive in, I’ll give you a little trick I use to create a sense of verisimilitude and to throw a bit of randomness into the story. For every one of my novels, I pick a specific date in history for day one and pay close attention to the timeline. I always know not only the date, but also the day of the week. This means I don’t have someone going to school six days before hitting the weekend. Or worse yet, having a three-day week.

The other thing I do us use the Farmer’s Almanac website to find out the weather for the time and location of that scene. If it’s sunny and 102° F, I make that work. If it’s cold and raining, I make that work. By forcing myself to roll with the weather punches, I find that it brings a level of problem solving and spontaneity to the writing, punching it up beyond the straight-line progression of events I had envisioned. I can’t count the times this little trick has improved the story by knocking my narrative off the narrow-gauge train rails I had planned and forcing me to be creative, which bleeds through to the reader.

Chapter 9: Scene Weave

Notes from the chapter:

  • List every scene in the story
  • The list shows how the story fits together beneath the surface. Use one sentence per scene to reveal the structure.
  • Look for opportunities to reorder scenes, combine scenes, and cut or add scenes.
  • Order scenes by structure, not chronology, paying special attention to the juxtaposition of scenes.
  • Plot types:
  1. Multistrand
  2. Detective or crime
  3. Crosscut
  4. Love story
  5. Social fantasy

Day 1 Monday 9/28/2015 GMT-5.00

High Temp: 86.76°F
High Temp Time: 20:01 GMT
Low Temp: 65.73°F
Low Temp Time: 12:39 GMT
Dewpoint: 64.06°F
Sea Level Pressure: 1009.9 mb
Visibility: 9.458 miles
Wind Speed: 1.75 mph
Wind Gust Speed: 10.85 mph
Cloud Cover: 50%
Moon Phase: Waning Gibbous
Sunrise Time: 12:24 GMT
Sunset Time: 00:22 GMT
Summary: Mostly cloudy throughout the day.

Scene 1: 7.24 am (note that Central Time is 5 hours behind Greenwich Meridian Time, This is Sunrise (GMT 12:24 – 5:00)
Tree. Jack wakes up, gets coffee, and heads to meet Joe Davis to work on a tiny house. Encounters crime scene. Meets Noel, tries to get her to see Jodi’s death as murder, not OD. Gets no traction.

Scene 2: 9.30 am
En route.
As Jack proceeds to the construction site, he thinks back to the last time he saw Jodi.

Note: This is a flashback to 2.00 pm one week before, thus the need for a new weather report. Also, I haven’t worked out exactly what needs to happen in this flashback, but I’ll fill that in after I know more about the plot.

High Temp: 94.57°F
High Temp Time: 21:21 GMT
Low Temp: 67.8°F
Low Temp Time: 12:41 GMT
Dewpoint: 64.97°F
Sea Level Pressure: 1013.9 mb
Visibility: 9.986 miles
Wind Speed: 1.66 mph
Wind Gust Speed: 8.76 mph
Cloud Cover: 26%
Moon Phase: First Quarter Moon
Sunrise Time: 12:20 GMT
Sunset Time: 00:31 GMT
Summary: Humid throughout the day.

Scene 3: 10.00 am
Construction site.
Joe Davis senses that something lies behind his silences and pulls out the story of Jodi and the murder. Flashbacks to high school, story of Riki’s OD, which happened while Jack was in the Sandbox. Roger stops by, interested due to relevance to CodeNext. Name-drops a major developer. (Jack later discovers this is the firm Jodi worked for.) Jack doesn’t recognize Roger because back in 2002-2004 when Jack briefly met him, Roger was a tall, skinny long-haired guy in his mid 20s. Now he is fat, shaved head, dressed in flashy clothes, wearing expensive shades, and using the identity he stole in New Mexico. (Roger recognizes Jack, but there’s no way for Jack or us to know that.) Roger asks Joe if he has Jack locked up, or does he lend him out, because he has the occasional job and is looking for a reliable handyman. He asks Jack for his contact info, but Jack has no address and no phone (that he’s willing to tell Roger about. Lack of cell phone becomes a running gag). Roger gives him a card and tells him to let him know when he’s open to do some work.

[To Do: find out how Roger dresses back in the day.]
[To Do: find the intent of CodeNext regarding tiny houses.]

Scene 4: 1.00 pm
Bella’s Diner.
Jack has lunch at the counter, chatting with Bella as she works the lunch crowd. She has an anti-CodeNext petition near the register for people to sign, and they talk about the danger it poses to the community.

A newsflash on the TV in the corner reports Jodi’s death from apparent overdose. Jack tells Bella what he saw. They talk about the sad history of the family. Bella tells Jack that since Jodi had no family, somebody should gather her effects and bullies Jack into agreeing to check with the police. Somewhere Bella remarks that it was a shame how Jodi was doing so well for a while and mentions the name of the company she worked for. It’s the same company that Roger mentioned.

Scene 5: 2.00 pm
Jack goes to the cop shop and asks for Noel. He asks about releasing her effects. He discovers her journal is missing, but says nothing. Conversations ensue. Jack asks why OD? Did she have any signs of a druggie? She asks why Jack didn’t disclose his relationship with the victim and what was all that pussyfooting around about? She asks him for his contact information, ferrets out that he has no address and no phone. That he is, in fact, homeless.

[To Do: find out what drug they would use and if the coroner can know this soon what it was?]
[To Do: find out whether, since it was ruled an OD, they will release her effects. If they won’t, will they let him see them, or see a list?]

Scene 6: 6.00 pm
Jack retrieves an MRE from his geocache, checks his texts on his flip phone (car guy has work for him), eats his meal at a picnic table in a park, hikes to his next hidey-hole, and settles down for the night. Has a nightmare about the icebox.

[To Do: see if Tony Hoagland poems might work as Jack’s thing. Perhaps he has a chapbook he reads for a diversion.]

Shaking It Up: Part 15

I have a confession. A confession that will not come as a surprise to discerning readers of my previous nine novels. I suck at creating plots. I’ve said this enough to know that I get a lot of push back on this statement, but let’s dig a little deeper. I’m working on a whodunit. Think Agatha Christi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Connelly. You know. Plot as puzzle.

Most of my novels are plot as the unfolding of a character, not the clever slow-motion reveal of a puzzle. Muffin Man was my first attempt at a whodunit, but closer inspection reveals that it’s really a three-generation father-son story with a whodunit plot clumsily overlaid like plywood hastily nailed over the windows before bugging out of town on the leading edge of a hurricane.

If you read the reviews, you’ll see complaints about the thinness of the plot along with frustration that I didn’t explain the talking muffin or that the main character had too many daddy issues or that I took 4 sentences to describe making an omelette. Never mind the communion symbolism of that scene. But that’s Part 14. Now we’re talking about plot.

It took me 20 years and dozens of books on the craft of writing to learn how to write a novel someone would bother to read. It won an award, but who’s counting? (Me, obviously, but let’s not talk about that.) I didn’t read a book on story structure until after I already had three books published. Once I learned about structure, I studied my first three novels and saw that through a lifetime of living with a native-born storyteller, carrying on that tradition, and passing it down to the next generation, I had instinctively and unconsciously woven in the basic rudiments of structure, however clumsy and crude.

Then I read Truby. In my next four novels, I used Truby to improve the quality of the story, but I already had a plot for those books, so I didn’t use Truby to build a plot from scratch, only to tweak what I had to make it better.

This book is different. The plot I started with was a character (an intentionally homeless person) and a situation (a friend’s death has been ruled overdose or suicide, but he knows better and sets out to bring the killer to justice). That’s pretty much it. I played around with some characters and a back story, but it was all very thin.

So, this is the book where I lean on the rest of Truby’s book to save my sorry hide.

For this chapter, I paste my cryptic notes from Chapter 8, and then the high-level plot structure I created from Truby’s 22 steps. You will probably need to read the chapter to really get what the plot table means.

Chapter 8: Plot

Thought: early in the story Jack helps Joe set up a tiny house.

Truby Notes

Plot is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.

A simple sequence of events is not a good plot. It has no purpose, no designing principle that tells you which events to tell and in which order.

Taking action vs learning information (revelation)

Plot Types

  1. Journey
  2. Three unities: 1 time (24 hours), 1 place, 1 action or story line
  3. Reveals (cha-ching!)
  4. Antiplot (nah)
  5. Genre
  6. Multistrand

Sequence for writing an organic plot

  1. Look at the designing principle. Plot must be the detailed fruition of this principle.
  2. Look at the theme line. Plot must be a detailed manifestation of this moral argument.
  3. Look at your symbol line. Sequence the symbols through actions.
  4. Choose storyteller vs no storyteller.
  5. Establish structure in detail. (22 steps)
  6. Select one or more genres. And twist them to avoid predictability.

22 step story structure

  1. Self-revelation, need, and desire (ending, beginning, beginning). What will the hero learn at the end, what does he know at the beginning, how is he wrong at the beginning?
  2. Ghost and story world
  3. Weakness and need
  4. Inciting event
  5. Desire. Start it at a low level so it can build. Increasing levels of desire: survive (escape), revenge, win the battle, achieve something, explore a world, catch a criminal, find the truth, gain love, bring justice/freedom, save the republic, save the world.
  6. Ally or allies. And subplots (not ally). Reflects the main plot.
  7. Opponent and/ or mystery
  8. Fake-ally opponent
  9. First revelation and decision: Changed desire and motive
  10. Plan
  11. Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
  12. Drive. Starts with the Plan and ends with Apparent Defeat. Opponent too strong. Each action is a different attack, not trying the same thing multiple times. Hero takes immoral actions.
  13. Attack by ally. Increases the pressure on the hero and forces him to begin questioning his values and way of acting.
  14. Apparent defeat
  15. Second revelation and decision: Obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
  16. Audience revelation
  17. Third revelation and decision
  18. Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
  19. Battle. The point where the hero is most like his main opponent, but the differences are clarified.
  20. Self-revelation
  21. Moral decision
  22. New equilibrium

Opening/Start (steps 1-3: Self-revelation, need, desire, ghost, weakness, need)

  • Community: Everything is fine in the hero’s ordinary world
  • Running: Strong ghost, lives in a world of slavery, multiple serious weaknesses, psychological and moral need, faces multiple problems
  • Slow: Purposeless hero

22 Step Structure for My Project

[Right-click the image and open it in a new tab or window to enlarge]

Shaking It Up: Part 14

During a Q&A session after a panel discussion at the 2006 Texas Book Festival, I asked Janet Fitch (White Oleander) about the difference between literary fiction vs storytelling. Her initial answer was that literary writers cared more about their work. Since I self-identified as a storyteller who considered self-identified literary writers as somewhat pretentious, I was somewhat insulted. She used an analogy of lovingly devoting oneself to preparing a gourmet meal vs just getting food on the table.

With 14 years of perspective, slightly less defensive and marginally more reflective, I see her point. Especially after using Truby to do the heavy lifting of mining all the potential of the story to make it more powerful.

However, in my defense, starting with my first novel, I instinctively used symbols. I suspect this came from a lifelong history of reading obsessively and from growing up as a preacher’s kid, a world permeated with symbols.

  • Welcome to Fred: The Mark, being the name of the main character and the birthmark/disfigurement of The Creature. Clothing and language as a marker of culture. The tree house aka Fortress of Solitude as refuge, a recurring theme throughout the series. The radio randomly bouncing between the Woodville country station and the Beaumont rock station as a symbol of Mark’s uneasy negotiation between two worlds, also a recurring symbol.
  • Living with Fred: Transportation ala bike vs car, Vernon’s Pontiac, Darnell’s beat-up pickup, the Ford Falcon Mark drives off a bridge. The pagoda as a symbol of Parker’s conversion and loss of faith. Grappa as a symbol of Vernon’s lost innocence. Jake’s crossbow and underground lair.
  • Postcards from Fred: Obviously (and retrospectively) the postcards as a symbol of Mark’s rocky journey through the confusing world of romantic relationships. Claire as a siren call to the counterculture.
  • Escape from Fred: Photography as a symbol of Mark defaulting into life as an observer. The Captain as a symbol of the call to adventure. Mark hitchhiking to find a connection with a childhood friend as a pilgrimage to wholeness.
  • Muffin Man: The most obvious symbol, the talking muffin, the meaning of which is left as an exercise for the reader. The sheriff’s modest house perched precariously on a ridge overlooking the constant reminder of his failure, the luxurious home of the judge his wife left him for. The poker games (very significant and highly choreographed for me by my resident expert, Norm). And of course, the 1964 1/2 red convertible Mustang.

The other novels also have their symbols. The difference is that post Truby, I’m more intentional about the use of symbols, But enough already. Let’s get to Truby and the current project.

Chapter 7: Symbols

Designing principle: Use the classic David vs Goliath story to show how a reclusive vagabond overcomes his nature to solve the murder of a childhood friend by exposing the crimes of the monied elite.

Theme line: It is the duty of the strong to defend the defenseless.

Story world: Urban dichotomy of downtown Austin between structures and green spaces, and the intersection of the two – homeless camps under overpasses, etc.

Symbol line: An equivalent of David’s five small stones. (Whatever that is. Now I have to integrate that into the timeline/plot. Reminiscent of using the stations of the cross as the structure for The Reluctant Saint.)

Symbolic characters: Defined by clothing and dwelling

  • Jack: everyman attire, living rough
  • Roger: flashy suits, expensive apartment
  • Zoe: business formal, home on Ladybird Lake
  • Bella: apron, diner
  • Dan: judge’s robes, modest but expensive home
  • Noel: detective suit, middle-class 3/2 2000 sq ft home in suburbs

Story symbol: Randall knife, from honor to dishonor to honor, show the symbol through the plot

World symbols: Nature vs civilization (green spaces vs city)

Action symbols: Food. Jack’s MRE vs Bella’s diner fare vs meals of the rich (Dan and Zoe) and the corrupt (Roger) vs the righteous (Noel, spartan, ascetic).

Object symbols: Randall knife, five smooth stones

Chart symbols across the plot line
Since I don’t know the plot line yet, I skipped over this.

Shaking It Up: Part 13

Once again, I find the value of Truby’s process in that it forces me, or rather guides me, to exhaustively think through the nuances of the story before I start writing. This comes down to the question of plotters vs pantsers. Plotters work out the story in advance. Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants,” discovering the story as they write. I’m way too fond of efficiency and horrified by extensive rewriting to be a pantser.

Common wisdom tells us that a whodunit must be plotted, but there are countless successful whodunit writers who are pantsers, so you can disabuse yourself of that notion. To borrow a phrase from a popular YouTube whiskey channel, the best way to write a novel is the way that works for you.

Chapter 6: Story World

One of the features of Truby’s book is that each chapter builds on work done in previous chapters. Consequently, you will see a lot of restatement of previous decisions followed by a new element.

Truby says, “The designing principle and the story world work in opposite ways. The designing principle describes linear story movement. The story world is everything surrounding the characters, simultaneous elements and actions. To connect them, take the rough story sequence and expand it three-dimensionally. To start, use the designing principle and create a single visual idea that expresses the line of the story.”

Jack’s dual life sleeping in trees and acting on the ground. Detour into a culvert at some psychological moment.

Designing principle: Use the classic David vs Goliath story to show how a reclusive vagabond overcomes his nature to solve the murder of a childhood friend by exposing the crimes of the monied elite.

Theme line: The journey of the Randall knife from honor to dishonor to honor. [I’m seeing a scene where Roger pulls the knife on Jack, who recognizes it as the treasured possession of his childhood friend, Riki.]

Story world: The urban dichotomy of downtown Austin between structures and green spaces, and the intersection of the two in homeless camps under overpasses, etc.

Visual oppositions: Explore the oppositions between the characters and their values. Contrast Jack’s arboreal world with the ground level life and also high-rise life of opponents (Roger, Zoe).

Exercise 5

Story world in one line: This David-and-Goliath story contrasts the high-rise offices and condos of downtown Austin with homeless camps in green spaces and overpasses.

Overall arena: Austin, cross cutting between privation and privilege.

Character value opposition and visual opposition

Jack: Values: peace, inner and outer. World: neither and both. Jack’s appearance communicates balance. You would never peg him as homeless, or as affluent, based on his dress or demeanor. He passes through the story world with ease, neither attracting or avoiding attention.

Roger: Values: survival = financial success. World: neither and both. Roger has become a past master of working the system of the underworld to leverage his gains and avoid losses. In Austin he makes a move to up his game, serving as the fixer for the upper class. However, he dresses a bit too flashy for downtown and a bit too classy for the netherworld. This gains him access to both worlds, but denies him acceptance in either. The more he tries to game the machine, the more he gets caught in the gears.

Zoe: Values: respect. World: downtown. Like Roger, Zoe lives in a world of connections, concessions, and back-scratching symbiosis, but she is firmly at home in the upper class. Her visual cue is business fashion. By unintentionally pricking the attention of Jack, and to a lesser extent Dan and Noel, she runs into a brick wall of uncompromising opponents who are not susceptible to bribes or blackmail, none of whom are impressed with her “accomplishments” or power.

Dan: Values: stability. World: downtown (legal): Dan’s visual identity rests in the vestments of office. He moves easily between the power elite and his understated domestic world.

Bella: Values: harmony. World: midtown. Bella’s visual cue is the apron, representing both her career (food service) and her calling (mother).

Jodi: Values: domestic tranquility. World: distant past (suburbs), recent past (downtown), present (homeless). Visual cues vary according to the time period of the flashback.

Riki: Values: accomplishment. World: drug scene. Visual cue is stoner attire.

Noel: Values: control. World: dark underbelly of downtown. Visual identity is the traditional detective suit and tie.

Weather: The story takes place in spring/summer. Typical Texas unpredictable weather, working in heat, temperate days, and a powerful thunderstorm that throws the plot into turmoil and pressures Jack into a daring flash flood rescue.

Man-made spaces: Runs the gamut from plush executive suites to homeless camps and all the between places.

Becoming big or small: Perhaps Jack has to disappear when the heat comes down, to become small to survive to fight another day.

Hero’s change: Perhaps as Jack works through his issues to champion justice, he abandons his arboreal refuge in the canopy of Austin’s green spaces to buy a tiny house from Joe Davis.

Visual Seven Steps: mapping the main structure to the story world

Weakness or need: Green spaces
Desire: Austin
Opponent: Smooth mobility between power centers in the upper and under worlds
Apparent defeat: Retreat to the Hill Country
Visit to death: Jail
Battle: Downtown, from executive suite to backstreets
Freedom:Tiny house

Shaking It Up: Part 12

Just a quick reminder that this behind-the-scene series chronicles my pre-writing process as I work through John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story to give aspiring writers a glimpse into the kind of work, and the depth and intensity of work, involved when developing an original story.

I am not suggesting that everyone must follow this process, merely that:

  1. Writing a novel is not a trivial task. It involves a significant amount of work.
  2. If you are daunted by the challenge of how to tackle such a large project, this is one example of many possible approaches to breaking the process down into manageable steps.
  3. If you are daunted by the size of the effort and doubt the value of the effort/reward trade off, you might want to consider something other than writing a novel.

Finally, these installments chronicle my notes and thought processes while working through Truby’s book. They will make more sense if you have a copy of the book for reference.

Chapter 5: Moral Argument

Single grand symbol: The arboreal resting places of Jack, above the messy life of humans, vs the urban jungle of the other main characters.

Moral decision: At first, Jack provides veiled hints to the police to let them deal with Jodi’s murder, but eventually realizes that if he doesn’t do something, nobody will. [I like this! Refusal of the call lite.] Show this struggle in an interaction with another character, perhaps Bella. Jack’s hands-off approach offends Bella’s micromanaging approach to “helping” others. Maybe her attempts to help put Jack in a bind and threaten his life. [Oooh, good idea!]

Truby: “A second way that moral argument comes out in dialogue is in a conflict between the hero and the opponent.” I’m picturing a bar scene between Jack and Roger where Jack drinks ginger ale or still water while Roger downs bourbon.

Designing principle -> theme: It is the duty of the strong to defend the defenseless. This is an argument against social Darwinism and against the non-dualistic views of Buddhism of a world of “what is, is,” of the non-distinction between good and evil. Story question: Why have you been given power if not to protect the powerless?

Jack takes it to the next level: In the first act, Jack moves from helping those in need to defending the victims from the victimizers. [This is good stuff.] Jack starts off as a kind of freelance social worker, but he doesn’t play an active role in confronting those preying on the helpless. Perhaps in the war he was a high-functioning conscientious objector. He takes a non-combat role to support people in the most need of support, those who are risking their lives. But he’s not going to kill anyone himself.

Theme line technique via symbol. The Randall knife = Excalibur. Use it as a symbol of honor, passing the torch to the next generation. It morphs to a symbol of dishonor when Riki loses it to Roger, who uses it for ill. In the climax scene, the knife “chooses” Jack and regains its honor.

Exercise 4

Transform the designing principle: David vs Goliath turns into defending the defenseless.

Theme line techniques: Symbol to encapsulate the designing principle. The Randall knife.

Moral choice: Step away from observer to participant

Central moral problem: Self preservation can lead to loss of self

Contextualized moral problem: it is the duty of the strong to defend the defenseless

Characters as variations on a theme

Starting with the hero and the opponent, describe how each major character approaches the central moral problem of the story in a different way.

Central moral problem: Self preservation can lead to loss of self

Jack (hero): Jack protects self by abandoning his sense of self. In Buddhist thought, suffering is a result of desire. You can reduce suffering by ridding yourself of desires. The more you diminish desire, the more you free yourself from the false sense of self, anatman (realization that there is no real self, sense of self is an illusion). The problem is that Jack’s search for peace through anatman is in conflict with his desire for revenge against his childhood tormentors. Perhaps the overstep is that he first seeks revenge before realizing that justice is better than revenge, the place of balance. Revenge is poison; justice is healing.

Roger (high functioning grifter): Roger focuses on self, wealth. If you were to ask him, Roger might answer that he is in no danger of losing himself because he places his welfare at the highest priority, but he lacks that level of introspection. The truth is that Roger doesn’t know his true self because he has never dug deeper than his animal desires. He has no more sense of self than has a wolf.

Zoe (councilperson): Zoe focuses on self by seeking prestige. Zoe fights insecurity born of self-consciousness by being assertive. She hides in plain sight by becoming the most visible person in the room. She seeks prestige to prove she deserves attention because of her accomplishments, not because she is pathetic, as she suspects is true.

Dan (judge): Dan asserts self to enforce the rule of law. Dan doesn’t make mistakes. Back in the 70s he thought he had made a mistake, but he was wrong about that, so his record remains unblemished. Fortunately for us lesser creatures, Dan is highly capable and uses his inborn self-confidence to impose order upon chaos by enforcing the law fairly.

Bella (high school friend): Bella asserts self to invest in community. Although they have never met, Bella is the spiritual heir of Dan, albeit with a greatly reduced scope of operation. She is equally self-assured of her perception, judgment, and advice.

Jodi (high school friend, deceased): Jodi denies self in service of others. Jodi is 9 minutes older than her twin brother, Riki. When their mother dies 9 years later, Jodi assumes the mantle of matriarch, carrying the burden of responsibility not only for her brother, but also for her father, who focuses on work to avoid straying beyond the first Kubler-Ross stage of grief, denial. Occasionally he slips into anger, but always reverts back to denial instead of moving forward. When she is unable to save her brother, Jodi follows her father’s example and buries herself in her career as executive assistant to the CEO of whatever company is behind the whole plot of this monstrosity.

Riki (high school friend, deceased): Riki indulges self. He is his mother’s son. Narcissistic, interpreting everything through the lens of his perception. Others exist only insofar as they impinge on his sense of self, how they enable or thwart his desires.

Noel (detective): Noel immerses self in solving the problem. If she had the bent, Noel would be a world champion at Scrabble or jigsaw puzzles, but these pursuits are too trivial. Her hyper-developed sense of justice bugs her like a painting crooked on the wall or a misaligned fork in the silverware drawer. Her laser focus and lack of flexibility or compromise make her an unstoppable force, but alienates her more balanced colleagues and guarantees her lack of advancement in her career. She is alternatively fine with this and outraged by the lack of fairness in office politics.

Values in conflict: outlined per character

Jack: Values peace, inner and outer. Jack’s journey toward oneness is born of a childhood trauma, but Jodi’s murder reawakens the injustice of his origin story. The further he falls into the rabbit hole of tracking down the killer, the more the two poles of detachment and revenge will conflict.

Roger: Values survival = financial success. Roger has become a past master of working the system of the underworld to leverage his gains and avoid losses. But he has never encountered a foe like Jack, and the more he tries to game the machine, the more he gets caught in the gears.

Zoe: Values respect. Like Roger, Zoe lives in a world of connections, concessions, and back-scratching symbiosis. By unintentionally pricking the attention of Jack, and to a lesser extent Dan and Noel, she runs into a brick wall of uncompromising opponents who are not susceptible to bribes or blackmail, none of whom are impressed with her “accomplishments” or power.

Dan: Values stability. Dan’s world is self-sustainable. He has no vulnerability for any of the players to exploit. And he gets a good night’s sleep every night.

Bella: Values harmony. Bella values harmony, but her autocratic manner creates conflict on its own, so she lives in a world of constant self-induced drama, which fuels her mothering instincts in a perpetual cycle.

Jodi: Values domestic tranquility. Dead, so no conflict in present story time. Will need to allow conflicts to emerge organically in backstory.

Riki: Values accomplishment. Dead, so no conflict in present story time. Will need to allow conflicts to emerge organically in backstory.

Noel: Values control. Noel’s singular focus and innate inflexibility manufactures conflict on an industrial scale in all areas of her life.