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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.


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.

“I write for the page. “  Don DeLillo

The Keynote Speaker at Write on the River was Jess Walter, a brilliant author who grew up in the smallish city of Spokane, Washington.

From his website:  “Jess Walter is the author of four novels – THE ZERO, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the 2007 PEN Center Literary Award and the 2007 LA Times Book Prize and winner of the 2007 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, CITIZEN VINCE, winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for best novel, LAND OF THE BLIND and OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, a 2001 New York Times notable book – as well as the nonfiction book EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW (rereleased as RUBY RIDGE), a finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996.” 

To be totally honest, I hadn’t read Walter’s work and only picked up a copy of The Zero because he was going to be a speaker at the conference and I was curious.  One page, and I was in love.  This man writes brilliantly, and he is also an entertaining and inspirational speaker.  I couldn’t begin to share all of that inspiration with you, but I offer the parts that have stuck with me for good.

On important concept was this:  What is your own measure of success?  If you’re looking for fame, go be a movie star.  If you’re looking for money, you’re in the wrong profession – 80% of published authors make $15K or less, per year.  As he said, “No one succeeds in publishing – you only persevere.”

Walter’s definition of personal success?  When he can look at a page and say, “It is beautiful, it is artful, it makes the world bearable.”

I was moved by this.  Profoundly.  My own measure of success, as I thought about it, is not being published or finding an agent.  When I write something that moves somebody – to laughter, or tears, or anger – that’s where it is at for me. 

 Walter also offered the following rules for writing:  

  1. Revel in the work
  2. Sweat the sentences
  3. When you finish something, really celebrate
  4. Take joy in the small victories
  5. Trust your instincts
  6. Be nicer to yourself
  7. Keep in mind your story of how you came to be a writer.

And that, in a nutshell, is it.  What about you?  My challenge for the day:  Determine for yourself, what is the measure of your success?  And, if you haven’t already, buy a Jess Walter book – you won’t regret it.

I am home.  The people who live here tell me I am still a little wound up; I suspect that they are right.  My brain synapses have been rapid firing all day, and I catch myself talking very fast and waving my hands.  If only I could capture on paper a fragment of the insights and ideas that are now percolating, I believe I would be famous.  But then, every manic person believes this, and I truly am high on borrowed ideas.  Soon enough, I know, reality will rise to meet me, and all of my brilliant plans will suddenly appear about as achievable as Mt. Doom when you’re carrying a magic ring.  For the moment, I revel in the state of renewed enthusiasm for my craft.

I did take notes, and plan on sharing the highlights of the writer’s conference with you all.  Look out for inspiring thoughts from Jess Walters, tips on writing fiction that rises above the rest from Donald Maass, and the invisible structure of classic stories from Brian McDonald.   If you have the opportunity to learn from any of these top notch speakers, do so.  I give all three the highest possible ratings for entertainment, education, and inspiration.

For now, I’m trying to unwind enough to settle back into my real world existence, get some sleep, and go back to work tomorrow.  A glass of wine, a little screen time, maybe some Discworld humor or mindless TV viewing.

To those of you who pursued a writing challenge this weekend, please let us know how you got on.  I myself wrote about 1450 words around the edges of the conference, and have all sorts of new energy for this rewrite.  In fact, believe it or not, I’m glad the WIP is undone so I can use some of what I’ve learned.


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