Sunday, January 31, 2016

Writing Happens

Back in the 70s one of my colleagues said, after we had reviewed a student film, that the filmmaker had "filmed a happening;" in other words, whatever took place in front of the camera remained between the opening and closing credits. Some people can get away with it. Most can’t. The same applies to writing.

Like most writers, I both outline and write from the heart. Usually I start with an end in mind: the story I ultimately want to tell. Then as quickly as I can, I rough-out an outline. That comes from my commercial film background, tempered with my early apprenticeship in architecture: you can envision a building or an ending, but you can't build either without a solid structural framework. The secret to writing and to building? Blueprint, but be prepared for change-orders.

I have written stories that began with a simple statement or line of dialog. Not on the page, but in my mind. It happens often when I’m walking with my dogs early in the morning, letting my thoughts gather around a simple image or action, and a story begins to tell itself. I might even try out some dialog on my companions (who seldom criticize what I say). If it is good enough to remain in my mind once I am back home and at the keyboard, I will write down what I have sketched in my mind, and then put it away for a time. When I look at it next, if it still generates more thoughts, I will turn the idea into a simple outline: a beginning, a middle and an end. The next step will be to write what I term the "Alfie." If you’re old enough you will remember the film Alfie, and it’s musical signature, "What’s it all about, Alfie?" Well, we all have ways we identify things in our lives, don’t we?

The Alfie is definitely and absolutely what the story is about, who the main characters are, their relationships, their looks, that sort of thing. And there are detailed descriptions of the people: who they are, how they look, what they wear. Locations, too, are delineated, as are time and place. And none of it is cast in stainless steel. But I can’t begin to tell a story if I don’t know what it’s about, who the players are, where things happen, when they happen, and so on. And of course all are subject to change.

Once I have the basic outline, cast of characters, the time frame and time-line, the geography and the personal characteristics of the players, I can truly begin writing. I see the characters, the setting and specifics of time and place. As the story grows there are inevitable side-trips – excursions – if you will that may or may not end up in the finished story. As with building a house, there are things that at some point seem like good ideas, even necessary embellishments. As the costs push against the budget, however, many of those things get cut. So it is with a story.

The purpose of telling a story is to take the reader or listener or viewer from a known beginning to a believable end. Side trips, unless they truly help tell the story, are subject to cutting. It is best to do your trimming before you hand the key over to the new owner, or the manuscript over to and editor or publisher. The more finished the construction, the sooner one can move on to the next location.

For me, if not for very writer, telling a story is what I do. How I do it is based on experience, observation, instruction and (under it all), creativity.

And it doesn’t just "happen."

Sunday, January 17, 2016


We attended a closing yesterday. It was a sad but not un-expected event. For seven years a local entrepreneur had devoted himself to a corner store specializing in books, and including almost any other printed matter – posters, cards, that sort of thing.

A personable, experienced businessman, Ron had taken up the fight for independent bookstores when most of the books being sold were already finding their way to readers via what has become the ultimate home shopping outlet: the internet. Our friend offered space for writers to meet and interact with readers (this writer included), encouraged local authors to consign books to his shelves, and even promoted our work in displays and special places in the store. And if he didn’t have the book you were seeking, a minute or two at the desk would add your request to his next order. But no longer.

The town still has one independent seller of a limited selection of new books (along with clothing, jewelry, and other non-books), antique shops with racks of used books, and three or four selling nothing but old books. The passing of the one small, independent bookseller, operated by a person who not only knows books but loves them, too, is a sad day for readers and writers, for reading and writing.

As a writer I love the idea of potential readers taking one of my books off the shelf, discovering a story or essay they like and want to read to "The End." Paying to do that is a small part of what drives any writer. The writing is the thing we love the most, but knowing someone finds what we write compelling enough to read it is also important. Having a place where that can happen, a real place with perhaps a chair or two, where a reader can get acquainted with an author’s work before buying, seems to be slowly fading away.

Do you feel that same satisfaction sitting alone reviewing books on your phone or tablet or computer? I don’t. I do it sometimes because that is how the world is changing, but I don’t like it as much. Holding a book in my hands is a very satisfying tactile experience. Sometimes, here in our own library or in the county library half-an-hour away, I just wander from shelf to shelf, taking a down likely book, holding it, opening it, scanning a bit of the text, reading about the author, that sort of thing. A book, for me, is an experience unlike any other. There is the promise of discovery, the possibility of knowledge, the experience of emotion, held between the covers of a book. Being able to find all of that in a quiet, dedicated place is part of civilized living. In a world where civilization seems more menaced than honored, books and the places where books can be found are simultaneously threatened and needed.

When a bookstore closes, the final snap of the latch is a sad sound indeed.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A New Beginning

The other day I was looking for a document that I needed. I realized that it must be under some other things piled up on my desk. In order to find what I wanted I had to move things and that led to something I had been putting off for way too long: cleaning my office. Not the dust-and-sweep kind of cleaning, but a real find-the-desk-top cleaning. I’m not a good housekeeper. I tend to put stuff on top of other stuff with the promise (to myself) that I will put things away properly, but that at the moment I am too focused on the task at hand. I’m also a serial saver.

I found the paper I was looking for, and a few hundred others I had forgotten I ever had, plus a lot of other stuff I knew about but hadn’t thought about in a very long time. When I worked in other places, when my office was not in my own home, I had three trays on my desk: In, Out, and Hold. The first two are pretty common in both name and use. "Hold," however, is a different kind of place. Into that box went things I either didn’t know what to do about; things requiring research or input from others. I was reasonably efficient with the In and Out boxes. The Hold box, however, was really a place for a different kind of efficiency. I characterized it as a place where the six-month rule applied: anything in it older than six months got one more glance and then it hit the fourth box, the one on the floor beside my desk. And I never missed the material because after six months it was a totally dead issue. Gone. In my office now, all of the surfaces seem to be marked "Hold."

Driven by need, I began a week ago to go through the materials on my desk, on the shelves that line the walls, and things living on the floor. I filled two large plastic tubs with things I absolutely can’t get rid of: unfinished manuscripts, stories finished but not ready to submit, research information related to the stories, or to stories I might want to write but haven’t started. Then I pulled all of my old journals. When I’m gone they should be burned, which means I should probably burn them today, even though I fully expect to be around for many years. I just can’t throw them into the fire, so they are in another tub. I plan to put them in one of the storage buildings we have, for someone else to burn later.

When we built this house we decided not to have a basement or an attic. Aside from the need to blast tons of rock in order to go deep enough into the ground for a basement, we agreed that both that area and an attic are simply places where we would put things we should get rid of, and we didn’t want that burden. So we have two storage buildings instead. And they are getting full. But there is still room for the two tubs. But there is a problem.

The problem is that when I went looking for another file to look at contracts for two of my books, I discovered that I need at least one or maybe two more tubs for files I don’t need to keep in my office. My desktop is now cleaner than it has been in years (though there is at least another tub or two of things I need to sell or give away or return to someone else to treasure). I like the feeling of space my office now offers me, and for the first time in months I feel free to approach the unfinished book and un-submitted stories that filled notebooks and shelves and are now in more manageable locations. It is amazing how much freedom organization can bring.

I don’t make new years resolutions because they are just something I should be doing anyway, things I know I should (and can) accomplish. I do make promises to myself, about things I would not otherwise be motivated to do. Everyone, I an sure, has something with which they straggle to maintain a simple and achievable life. Maybe I have finally discovered mine.

For now I’m putting it in the Hold box.