Looking For Your Beating Heart?

There’s a great old house in the neighborhood, a massive, old money affair. Red brick and turrets, servant’s stairwells, hundreds of acres of prime lakefront, coach barns, farm barns, a carriage house, trails, gardens and wildlife sanctuaries, porches and stone beaches, greenhouses and a railroad not far, a private line that ran to the city.

Turn the clock back 40 years, give or take, and I was among those—intruders, though surely someone had permission, anyone? anyone?—who roamed the corridors of what was then a derelict house, the satin sofas white sheeted for the winter, the beds made up, the portraits hung undusted, the library untouched, the fireplaces swept and long cold. Like Goldilocks, we went from room to room, trying out the furniture. Look at this! Oh my God: come look! And when we reached the upstairs bedroom tiled with the blue-and-white Delft, someone struck a match and some inhaled.

Ten years passed, and there I was again. Invited.

This time the old place was going through a renovation and a friend was hired to revamp the inn. I heard lots about fabrics and pound cake, menus and organic cheeses, linens and wallpaper. And in time, the place sparkling, the doors were opened to the paying guests. It was way too pricey for my crowd, but I did change clothes in a bedroom once when I served as a bridesmaid to that friend who had picked the paint colors and the accent pillows.

Twenty more years later, my friend lost her cushy job, and the marriage was over as well, but the inn continued to flourish.

And last week, with the formal dining room now turned into a restaurant, I was there again for the first time in ages, eating brunch on a sunny terrace.

It was a fine time, a fine meal, and it’d be churlish to suggest otherwise, but it held a hollow note. For this writer, this intruder of yore, this voyeur of the middle years, something was missing.

Gone was the process—the firecracker time of transformation, flashlights in the dark, stubbing toes, possibilities unfolding, stunning discoveries, everything still fluid, nothing completely decided, daring still possible, dreams still nascent, still on the ascent, so much that could still happen.

Looking for your beating heart?  Seek discovery. Seek process. Seek the doing. The eggs were good, sure, but it’s the getting here that mattered. It’s the finding out, and not what you find.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits by Armando Torrealba.

How to Write a Winning Scene

What makes a great scene, anyway?

A great scene is one that fully engages your reader by triggering a powerful emotional response.

It doesn’t matter what the response is—fear, lust, envy, despair, pain, joy, shock, you name it—an emotionally engaged reader will continue to read. This is what you want.

Now, how to get there?  Here are nine tips to help you succeed:

1. Identify what you want the scene to accomplish. Every scene has to move the story forward, or it doesn’t belong.  It might be funny, or descriptive, or clever, but if it doesn’t move the story forward, it needs to go.

2. Identify who has to be in the scene and leave everyone else out.

3. The setting should add to the point of the scene. A love scene plays differently, for example, in a subway as compared to the opera.

4. Your character, whether a good guy or a bad guy, has to have a desired outcome going into the scene, and must work to achieve his goal. Passive characters aren’t very interesting. The goal should be hard. Struggle is good. Victory has to be earned or it’s boring. The big success, the final goal achieved, marks the end of your story, but you must build to this moment. Setbacks keep a reader interested.

5. Put the reader on your shoulder and have him discover what your character discovers. If your reader discovers things at roughly the same time as your character, he remains interested.

6. A character takes in his world on two levels: the external, objective fact of it, and the internal, subjective, how he feels about it. The character, in all his complexity, must be revealed by degrees. Like a helix, like the turn on a screw, every time the reader comes across that character, something has to deepen in the character’s external or internal understanding of himself and his world.

7.  Block the scene out in your head. Think it through. Thinking time is writing time. Then, sketch it out, so you don’t lose the thread of it while you work.

8. And now write it. Bring to it everything you have. Don’t save anything for later. Don’t bother with the rules. Don’t look for perfection. Forget the real world, go where your story is, and just write. I know one novelist who simply looks out the window, as if her characters are just there, performing for her, and types up what she sees and hears. I know another who works with his eyes closed (as in, a stocking cap pulled low). Do what works for you. And if you get stuck, a sure cure is to fall back on Stephen King’s advice: “Just tell the god damn story.”

9. Then, walk away. Sleep on it. Go play. And when you return, edit. Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Superfluous characters should be cut. No matter how charming or clever, they’re just noise. Cut back-story to a bone. Cut the pretty, the silly, the clever, the irrelevant and redundant. Be ruthless. Cut the line that you hold most dear if it doesn’t belong. Reshape, regard from arm’s length, seek opinion, work it again, and maybe again, and yes, again, and now you’re done.

The scene is a beauty. Pat yourself on the back. Now, if you’ve written one, you can write another. Repeat, until your book is done.

Photo credit: street artist, Andre Solnik; National Mall painter, erin m

How Much Does it Weigh?

I know an artist who works in metal, using tools like anvils and a blow torch in an unheated warehouse studio. Hard-tipped shoes are a good idea if you’re going to hang around and watch.

Sparks fly, and the racket of her creation can be heard halfway across the field. In that field, by the way, are giant metal cloves of garlic—so soft looking, you touch, and she doesn’t mind. She likes the feel of metal herself. Paper, she says, just crumbles in her hands. But metal can stand up to her process. This artist likes to wail and command. And yet, remarkably, she can turn out delicate things like her series of pin-up girls—Whoopsie girls, she calls them—ruffles flounced and hemlines lifted a la Marilyn.

Hers is a genuine vision: no deceit—just a woman, all female, all attitude, who loves her tools.

Watching her, I am reminded: we writers are in the same business as these visual artists.

We, too, have a vision, strain against obstacles, and want to push our medium to do things that seem impossible. We, too, in our flailing and banging, seek to produce something strong that matters.

How we pull it off—our skill, our wit—is irrelevant to the reader. And what we might mean by it—our message, our purpose—is the booby prize. All that matters for us, as is true for the visual artist, is how a finished work sits with a person. Does it have weight? Does it have resonance?

As writers, we can achieve this just as we see this metal artist go about it: by pursuing something that makes sense to us, by following process, by having a really good time with it, at least on a good day, and never mind the noise, or the dangers, or least of all the outcome.

Photo credits: welding torch – Alejandro Macias, sxc; anvil – Andrea Brancaccio, Italy, sxc.

Probabilities and the Written Word

I had occasion, one parents’ weekend, to attend a college math class.

The room was filled with rows of computer banks where bright-eyed students sat, in varying states of posture, but all paying attention. White boards were on opposite walls of the classroom, front to back. The professor—a lively young man—moved the discussion along at a serious clip. It was a statistics problem, a thorny thing, and he coaxed and challenged his students to come up with the answer.  Bouncing between white boards, his marker raised as if a sword, he dashed off formulas in a hasty, furious hand.

Soon, the white was slashed through with lots of black and touches of red, for emphasis, some things starred and boxed and underlined. It was so logical, so sequential. Beautiful, he insisted. His jubilance was infectious. Indeed, even I saw the beauty. As if modern art, the two white boards hung, lovely to behold and weighty with unspecific meaning.

At that moment, I envied the mathematician.

A writer doesn’t dwell a lot in percentages and probabilities. Standard deviation, sample size, mean, medium, mu . . .  ?

There just aren’t any reliable proofs that a writer can call upon in his search to arrive at a specific, beautiful truth. There is no crisp bouncing between white boards. Victory is far from assured. Ours is a chaotic, messy, insane, and reverential thing. There’s no mighty sword. Just a hand-clipper by which the writer must make his way through the South American jungle that stands between himself and his treasure.

Photo credits: math – codranknmath4, sxc; jungle – Andres Ojeda, sxc.

The Clause for Immortality

Some writers pick up the pen to fulfill one hope above all: the wish for immortality.

That’s a distraction, even for a daydream, even if for the grandkids. Consider it a flamingo. And, as a rule, it won’t work either.

While a writer may think, in that heady moment of signing a contract, that a publisher is supposed to keep his or her work alive forever, there are a few implied conditions. Key among them is the need for the arrangement to make financial sense to the publisher, or your work is suddenly fish wrap.

I’ve seen some contracts, and signed some as well. As a lawyer, I read every speck of the fine print. Money, fame, glory, film rights, merchandise, e-rights, reprints, translations, royalties, cover approval, size of print, and more—are negotiable, especially if your agent says so.

But there is nothing romantic about this document. And there is no clause for immortality. To the contrary, all you will really find here in the endless, enumerated paragraphs of legalese is a demand for truly excellent work.

If you can produce it, get yourself a good deal. Then go on and write your next one. The opportunity to do so, to engage in creative work of any kind, is what is valuable to the independent thinker. What matters is the process. Never mind how long your last one will endure.

Photo Credit: magnifying glass, Marilia Florencio Santos, stock.xchng; pencil pusher, Zsuzsanna Kilian, stock.xchng