Archive for September, 2016

Materials,for example

September 29, 2016

To go deep in writing you have to gather materials. Inspiration doesn’t come from God. Inspiration comes from perspiration. Writing is hard work. That’s why many people give up. They struggle to do it well. It doesn’t come easily. The things that come easily are procrastination, drinking, naps, brooding.  Here’s what I’m facing:



Some tips on writing

September 29, 2016


Paragraphs are  the unit of meaning

First of all, think of the paragraph as the structural unit of writing. Keep them tight and brief and have a purpose for each paragraph. Have an intention for the paragraph.

When you write, think of the purpose of the paragraph. For example you might be writing description and background of a character or a place. How old is the character and what drives her? What kind of experiences has she been through?

Or write  a paragraph about place. I have not seen stories yet that establish a place. It seems simple and obvious to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple and obvious to beginning writers.

We will look at some examples in class from the stories. If you just write what comes to you, it will read like that. If you want to write like a professional you have to imitate what professionals do. There is no harm in doing this.

Set the story in time and place. I keep emphasizing this because I’m not seeing this in the drafts. You have to let the reader see and hear and smell the place if possible. If narrator is sitting in an office, where is the office, what is going on in the office, what is the narrator’s job in that office, what are her responsibilities? Remember, the reader doesn’t know your story. You can’t take anything for granted.

That’s the problem I’m seeing with the writing. The writer skims over the story without establishing who the character is or where the story is taking place.


Set the dialogue in separate paragraphs. Follow the example of the sole scene in “War of Words. Don’t modify the attribution. Just use the word said. Don’t use responded, sputtered, complained, retorted, replied or those other substitutions for said that beginners tend to use. Let the readers focus on what is said, and don’t distract them with how it is said. If the dialogue is good, the reader will get the emotional sense. Let the dialogue do the work.

Ava was a year old when Montazeri came home from work one day and asked his wife, “Do we have a cup of tea?”

“No,” Amini said.

“Is there anything to eat?”

“No,” Amini said.

“What did you do today?”

“Nothing,” Amini said. “I just took care of the baby.”

“I thought I married a person who was a poet and a journalist,” Montazeri said. “I didn’t know I married a housewife like you.”

The next morning she started looking for a babysitter and a job.

One other thing about dialogue. Use it sparingly to convey opinion and emotion. Don’t use it to provide background information that the writer can convey.  Don’t write  phony scenes.


Write a Working Title

A title can keep you focused. It might not be the final title, but write one so you know what you are doing  and where you are going. My title for my story about my daughter and the policies concerning the intellectually disabled, is “Elizabeth, Incapacitated.” The very word incapacitated leads me into the heart of the story. What is the heart of your story?


Reading for next classes: Feature form

September 23, 2016

For the story, read “The One Left Behind,” about the twins who played football for LSU, and for instructional material, real “The Middle Way” and look at the basic feature form.

See if you can identify the structure of the story. Structure is vital. See how the opening is set up. Notice how long it is and where it shifts. Notice the time elements that are used in the set-up of the story. See if you can see how the story was built.


How to write a book: write a plan and revise the plan

September 20, 2016

Here is some basic advice on how to write a book from the website called  Medium. Two of the points are essential: create an outline and don’t edit as you write the first draft. I can testify from experience. Create a plan, an outline, a story board. Don’t have it in your head. Write it down. Use it, consult it. Organize your materials. Create an outline

An outline often feels like the boring part of writing. Maybe you think it’s limiting your creativity or holding you back from just getting started. But the truth is, taking the time to create an outline will make the rest of your writing go so much faster and more smoothly.

I know from experience. While writing my fifth book this summer, I realized two-thirds of the way through — after writing 40,000 words — that everything was suddenly coming more easily than they had in previous chapters. Why? Because I’d accidentally given myself an outline: Five things, in order, that I wanted to make sure to cover in that chapter. And with that outline in front of me, writing became a simple exercise of filling in the blanks. (Simple, but not easy, of course.)

The other great piece of advice is not to try to write a perfect first draft. If you try to make every sentence perfect you can bog down and never finish. There is a saying: “The perfect  is the enemy of the good.” Not that you shouldn’t try to make the draft better.

When I wrote my book, I had a plan, a ten-chapter outline. I had a daily goal of  a thousand words a day. As I worked my way along I would sometimes find myself recalling that I had written something earlier that was much like what I was writing at the moment. Should I go back and find it and cut it, or make a decision about where that material belonged in the draft? That was a path to never getting finished. I decided to write it twice or three times if necessary, and save the editorial decisions for the revision process.

The result was  long baggy manuscript of 140,000 words. The publisher wanted 80,000 words. I ended up cutting those  ten chapters into 27 smaller chapters and made my word count. The lesson learned was that my ten-chapter outline helped me write the book, but the revisions required that I look more deeply into the material and find organization within those big chapters. But I couldn’t have got to the 27 smaller chapters if I hadn’t started out with the ten big ones.

The story within the story

September 19, 2016

As you plan your story, think about the story within the story. The case in point is Laura Secor’s story “War of Words.” It has what the movie folks call a “narrative arc,” which is the story of how an Iranian poet and journalist was born, grew up, wrote, became a wife and a mother, challenged the stoning of young women for having sex outside marriage, and finally had to leave the country after the political pressure was too great.

The story within the story is the story of Iran. At every step of the narrative about the heroine, the writer gives the background on what was happening in Iran, legally, culturally and politically. In some sense, everything the heroine does is a reaction to the political and cultural forces in Iran. That is the story within the story.

Sometimes the story within the story is called the “enveloping action.” It’s all the stuff that surrounds the characters, the place they are in, the cultural context they live in, their reaction to it, or maybe their complacency about it. Are your characters comfortable in their society, or are they reacting against it? How can you describe the cultural context? It might be a broad description of the neighborhood or the family and all the bad stuff that has gone on.  Or it might be a place and a background that is too privileged, and that background has not prepared your character to bump up against hard reality. You need to think about setting the story in time and place, all right, but think more deeply and broadly about time and place.

Think of place as a kind of character that make all sorts of things happen. I just saw “Hell and High Water,” a contemporary western about a retiring Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who is tracking down two brothers who are systematically robbing small town banks in West Texas. The landscape plays a vital role in the movie. You see the flatness and bleakness of the place, the sense of poverty, the bill boards advertising quick loans. The place is dying in a sense, as the mother of the bank robbers has died, after being taken advantage of by a banker. The need of one of the brothers is to get her ranch back. And so he and his ex-convict set out to rob the string of banks that hold the mortgage.

In a movie you establish a sense of place  with the camera. You show us the landscape, and the flat, dreary towns and the billboards that indicate the economic troubles. In writing you have to describe the place, narrate the story of it. What has been going on here for the last thirty years, while the brothers grew up?  The place should not be neutral. It exerts powerful forces on the characters and as a story teller, you have to cope with it.

Write 300-400 words that set the story in time and place. Explore the possibilities. Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in a place that has been shaped by people. Even if the story happens in untamed nature, that place is natural because people left it alone. And people are in it because they wanted to get away from some other more civilized place.

Treat place with a deep sense of respect for its history and culture. It is the story within the story.


Understanding structure

September 16, 2016

I’ve posted a markup of “War of Words” in the Pages column.  I’ll pull it up.

I want you to be able to do this on your own with some other stories, namely “The One Left Behind.” For that markup we’ll look at the standard feature form.

“War of Words” is a bit different in that it starts from the beginning, more or less, and works to the end, profiling a writer’s growth as she campaigns against the stoning of young people, mostly girls and women, for “crimes against chastity.”

I’ve marked up this story using Walter Dean Myers’ six-box model for fiction. It works equally well for nonfiction, because nonfiction is a story just as much as fiction. The difference is that in

What to do for the next two weeks

September 11, 2016

First read the instructional handouts from the Pages list. These include: Six-box model for stories, Syd Field: Screenplay, Mythic Structure and RV Cassill on Writing Fiction, Start as Late as possible, Set and the story in Time & Place. Read them two or three times. You need to understand the elements of writing so you can provide those elements in the story. You don’t want to just write. You want to plan the writing. You want to write like professionals.

Read “War of Words” and especially note the way the author Laura Secor marks the time elements of the story, which runs from 1974 to 2009. The object of this exercise is to notice how your narrative is shaped by time. Does your narrative cover years or months or days or hours? Understand the time sequence. One of our writers has proposed a title for a story with a great title that includes the time element: “The Two-Week Engagement.” Wouldn’t you want to read a story with a title like that? That is a story title, not an essay title. I can see that story breaking into 14 sections. Every day something happens that sends leads to the end of the engagement.

Start imagining the opening by setting the story in time and place. Time is not too hard to establish, but place can go deep. To establish place you need a descriptive passage. You can see this in R.V. Cassill’s piece. Don’t just write Chicago and let it go at that. What part of Chicago? What is going on in this neighborhood? Spend some time establishing the place, what it means to the characters, its history, its smells, its troubles, its successes and failures. A place, in short, is like a character. You could start writing the description of the place right away.

So already we’ve established time and place. You can start writing that now. Don’t put it off. Do it now. Send it to me by email. Write at least 300 words. The time can be important. Suppose it was the Great Depression and people were out of work. What was that like?

Next think about your character. Syd Field says characters are defined by needs. I tend to watch parts of movies and see how they work. I watches the opening of the Ray Charles  bio-pic. His need is to quit letting people take advantage of him because he is blind.Then I surfed over to the latest Star Wars movie. The central character is a storm trooper who is sick of what he is doing and wants to escape from that white plastic suit and become a good human being. His problem is he doesn’t know how to find the resistance forces led by Luke Skywalker. He will encounter obstacle after obstacle.

The word obstacle is most clearly illustrated in Syd Field’s work on screenplay. Ray Charles is constantly being cheated and used, but then somebody helps him. Bit by bit he gets wiser. The Star Wars hero runs to escape but the plane is blown up. So then he runs to the wreck of the Millennium Falcon. People who are trying to do something encounter FAILURE. Is there any failure in your story? If there is not, you are writing fantasy.

Are you going to have a scene in your story? Maybe. Read Cassill on scenes. How do you set up a scene? Notice his instructions. You can’t just have one. You have to prepare the reader for it, with narration. That’s why I included the “James Salter Narrative” which shows you how the narrative description of the war in the Pacific prepares us for the scene with dialogue. Look at other works of fiction and nonfiction to see how writers set up the scene. You need to imitate and get a feeling for how writers handle the basic elements. When should I write description and background?

Notice the only brief scene in “War of Words.” It happens when the journalist stays at home and takes care of her baby, and her husband says, “I thought I married a poet and journalist, not a housewife.” Plenty painful, and said with a lot of love, but with love the reader understands.The writer expects the reader to get it without telling the reader that this shows how much he respected her. It’s a very touching moment.



On the importance of failure

September 8, 2016

Too often we think success should be a straight line. The writer or the film director creates a smash hit, makes a pile of money, continues to make more hits, more money, and this all proves the importance of believing in yourself.

Here is an article by the comedian/writer Mike Birbiglia about the importance of failure and the urgency of working hard on short stuff and failing and re-writing and maybe quitting. Not so romantic but also more realistic. His six points are: Don’t Wait, Fail, Learn from Failure, Maybe Quit, Be Bold Enough to Make Stuff that’s Small but Great, Cleverness is Overrated and Heart is Underrated.

Check it out.

This summer, I went on a 30-city tour with my movie “Don’t Think Twice,” a comedy about an improv group that has to decide whether to stay in show business when one member is plucked for a “Saturday Night Live” type of show. At every Q. and A. session for the movie, people would ask the same question: “If I want to be a comedian [or actor or writer or improviser or film director], how do I get started?” The truth is they should probably pick someone more successful to ask — I make small films, small one-man shows Off Broadway and small comedy specials for Netflix — but I’m the person who showed up to talk to them. And now I’m the person offering you unsolicited advice — so if you don’t need it or want it, this is not for you.