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Saturday morning.  I’m leisurely drinking my coffee, smelling the fresh mountain air spilling in through an open window, feeling relaxed and at peace.

And then it strikes me – I forgot the weekend challenge.  A small shock of guilt and a sudden sense of urgency shatter my morning.  Temptation arises. I could invent all sorts of excuses. I could tell you I was too busy, or say I was on call, or that I was totally absorbed in writing and couldn’t drag myself away.  Lies, lies, all lies.  Yesterday evening I puttered with a particularly recalcitrant scene from Filling in the Blanks, but never fully got lost in it.  I played around on Twitter.  I consumed quantities of snack foods and drank coffee.  Blogging never even entered my head.

But here I am now, and it is still the weekend, no matter which time zone you’re in.  It’s never too late to set a weekend goal.  (Don’t get technical with me, all you logical types.  I do realize that at 11:58 pm on Sunday night, it might be a little too late to do anything productive.  I’m speaking in broad and generalized terms.  Get over it.)

So what will you do with your weekend?

Last time around, Trudy declared her intent to do nothing productive.  I believe this is an admirable goal, as a goal.  All I’m suggesting, is that we live with intent.  Planning to do nothing but relax over a weekend is one thing.  Groaning yourself awake on Monday morning with that empty feeling in your belly, suddenly realizing that you’ve let a stretch of time drift by without any conscious participation is another.

For myself, I declare the following intentions:

1. Figure out why this scene refuses to feel right.  I’m experimenting with re-writing it in a different point of view, which is challenging but I think what the story needs.

2. If the above goes smoothly, keep moving on with the re-write.  I have a scene in mind that I would like to get to before Sunday evening ends.

3.  Spend some time out in the gorgeous, green, sunlit world.  I need to get a camera so I can post a picture someday of what I see when I look out my window.

4. Spend some quality time with the wonderful man in my world.

There.  That’s it for me.  I know there will be plenty of other experiences, and I intend to immerse myself fully in the random adventures that come along.  What about the rest of you?  Where are you headed?

Whatever you choose to do, may your muses be refreshed and inspired, and your fingers fast and flexible.

Monday morning, and for once I’m not going anywhere in a hurry.  Kids are still sleeping, I don’t have to work, I’m not on call.  It’s been a good weekend, with plenty of opportunity to both write and relax.  My weekend challenge goals have been met, and there is still more weekend ahead of me.  Luxury.

I was going to sum up some more Donald Maass advice, but frankly, you can buy the books and he can tell you all about it better than I can, so I am moving on to the last presenter at the conference, the one who possibly changed my writing the most profoundly: Brian McDonald.  This man is not a novelist, nor is he an agent.  His medium is film, and my first thought was that he would be interesting but somehow irrelevant to my writing.  Never have I been more wrong about something, and I am profoundly grateful that I decided to stick around on Sunday and attend his talk.

Now, the problem with Mr. McDonald and his Invisible Ink is this:  although I think I grasped the concept of what he calls ‘armature’, it was in a wordless,  ‘gestalt’ sort of way, and I find myself floundering when I try to explain to other writers what I am talking about.  So let’s start with the simple stuff instead.

To begin with, Brian talked about having an open mind, of coming into any potential learning situation and setting aside what you think you already know.  As an illustration, he told a story about the great jazz saxman, Coltrane, who was introduced by a friend to another man with the words, “he also plays the saxophone.”  Coltrane’s response:  “What can you teach me?”

Whoa.  No condescending remarks, no polite tolerance for the little guy, but a serious request to learn.   This is the mindset I want as a writer, in every situation.  An open mind, a quest for information, the belief that everybody and every event has something to teach that will make me better at my craft.

McDonald taught our group a Simple Skeletal Story Structure, which he believes underlies any good plot, whether in print or in film.  It goes like this:

  1. Once upon a time
  2. And every day
  3. Until one day
  4. And because of this
  5. And because of this
  6. Until finally
  7. And ever since that day

 We played with this as a group, making up stories one line at a time as he walked around the room and pointed at somebody to continue.  And as we played, it suddenly struck me:  this might just be the perfect structure for those tricksy little blurbs we need to write for Query Letters. I haven’t actually tried this yet, but I think it will definitely help me structure what I’m trying to do.

 McDonald also showed us how this skeleton fits into Aristotle’s Three act structure, with Proposal, Argument/proof, and Conclusion. 

Now, I have never been a plotter, but this is a structure that I think I will actually use.  Along with Armature, which, as I’m waxing rather long here today, is going to be a whole ‘nother post.

Enjoy today, writers.  If you can’t enjoy it, at least LIVE it.  Learn things wherever you go.  And may your muses be benevolent and your fingers swift and tireless on the keys.

 


So, it’s the long weekend.  The sunshine is warm, the sky is blue, all manner of adventures await.  What’s it going to be for you?  A long lazy weekend?  Catching up on projects and housework?  Reading?  Writing?  A mix of all of the above?

The only wrong answer is to spend the weekend wishing you were doing something else.   My challenge to myself is to be fully immersed in whatever experience I find myself engaged in at any given time.  That means not wishing I was writing when I’m doing something else.  It means taking half an hour, like I did when I got home from work today, to just go sit outside in the amazingly green world and watch the humming birds dive bombing the neighborhood.

I do have writing goals, as well, but they are not quantifiable.  Remember has reverted to its original title of Filling in the Blanks, and there are plenty of blanks that need filling.  A lot of what I learned at the conference is still busily percolating in my head, and I am deepening the character of Yates in the opening pages, adding conflict and tension.  I’m also “sweating the sentences” and creating writing that I love.  Sometimes.  It’s still a love/hate relationship, but at least there is passion there!  So, no quota, no numbers to shoot for, I’m just immersing myself in the story.

And, of course, I’ll be going to the dump and cleaning the house and taking the teenager driving and helping the man around here with projects that require extra hands and watching a movie and all of the other things that keep me very very busy and out of breath.

What about the rest of you?

Fortunately, I came back from the conference with more than inspiration.  

It was wonderful while it lasted, but long days at work + busy evenings at home + juggling the usual number of plates = me sitting here wondering where all of that magical feeling of possibility went.  Lucky for me, I also came home with a number of ways to improve my craft and skill as a writer.  And, guess what?  It’s possible to write just fine without fresh new ideas fizzing and popping in my head.  All it takes is butt in chair and get those fingers moving.

While I was at Write on the River, I took in two sessions with agent and master teacher Donald Maass.   In the morning session, he taught from his book The Fire in Fiction.  And when I say taught, I mean precisely that.  No sitting around mindlessly absorbing information with this man.  He made us rework a scene from a WIP right then and there.  I’m not going to pretend to be able to present this like Maass would, I’m just offering the brief report.  I strongly suggest buying the book and really working with it.

Anyway, enough hero worship.  You know how there are those scenes in a book that you end up skimming?  And the scenes in your own work that you can’t decide whether to cut or keep?  Here is the bare bones outlines of the work we did on ‘Scenes That Can’t be Cut”:

1. Identify the parameters of the scene,  using a discrete unit of time if possible.  At what time by the clock does the scene start, and when does it end?  Maass suggested the imagery of a clock actually ticking away in the corner of your computer screen.

2. What will be different at the end of this scene?  What will have changed?

3. Identify the moment in time when the change occurrs – this is the ‘turning point’

4. Freeze frame 10 minutes before this event. As yourself, who & how is your character now?  Do a little character interview, asking things like, “how are you feeling?  What are you thinking?”

5. Freeze frame 10 minutes past the turning point event. Who & how is your character now?  Ask them the same questions.  Has anything changed?

If nothing changes in this scene, it seems to me that either the scene is unnecessary and expendable, or you’d better find a way to make it matter.

Such a simple technique, really, and very powerful.  As I worked through it, all manner of ideas came to me for increasing the tension in other parts of the manuscript.

Which I will do, just as soon as I find the time to write.  My challenge to all of you is to pick a scene that you’re struggling with and actually give this a try.  Then check in here and let the rest of us know whether it worked for you or not.

Coming up on the next blog, a second installment on Donald Maass from Writing the Breakout Novel.

As always, may your fingers be tireless and your muses kind.

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