May 1, 2014

UnknownI just completed another good book on writing. It’s called The Story Solution by Eric Edson. The author spoke recently  at a meeting of the Palm Springs Writers Guild.
Although the book is about screenwriting, the ideas cross over into that of fiction writing.

He works with his paradigm called The Hero Goal Sequences in which he breaks down the approximately 23 sequences in a successful film and what occurs in each. He uses examples from well-known films. The analyses are very detailed.

What I found especially useful as a fiction writer was his discussion of The Character Growth Arc (Chapter Eight). The arc begins with the character’s trauma and the shield he develops to protect himself.

Edson is an excellent speaker/teacher and is Professor of Screenwriting and Director of the Graduate Program in Screenwriting at California State University, Northridge. The book is well worth a look.

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April 6, 2014

story-engineering-resized-pic120Story Engineering by Larry Brooks  is a good book on writing to have on your shelf and the examples throughout the book illustrating his ideas are excellent.  Several I’ll mention here.

One is his discussion of planning versus “pantsing.” In other words, do you plan your writing project ahead of time or just start writing and let yourself discover the story along the way? His stance on being a planner is pretty compelling. I decided I’m a combination of both.

I liked his chapters on story development about the Six Core Competencies: concept, character, theme, structure, scene, and voice. Part of the discussion is the difference between story idea and story concept. Paraphrasing from page 31: To write a story about a ballet dancer is an idea. By forming the “what if” question it becomes a concept. What if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres to become a professional dancer?

I liked the four part story model: a hero the reader invests in, jeopardy, ratcheted up, and pay-off. It’s a quick skeleton that a writer can start hanging  muscles on.

Then the discussion becomes deeper and more analytical, going into Part I – Setup/Orphan, Part II – Response/Wanderer, Part III – Attack/Warrior, Part IV – Resolution/Martyr. Then are added plot points and their locations, etc. Viewed in this way, the structure of a story becomes a roadmap. It becomes a diagram. I liked being able to visualize the structure.

Lastly, in Part Six called Scene Execution, I liked the checklist for scenes on page 243. What is the scene’s mission? Parts of the list may also be helpful to a short story writer. For example “Is your plan for the scene designed like a short story, with its own tension and stakes and flow?”

Story Engineering is a good book to add to the shelf, to glean from, and refer to.

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April 6, 2014

This blog was two years old on April 1, 2014. It has no advertisements. I’m not selling anything. No contests. My goals at present are to write, to explore, and to share. I’m learning everyday.

One thing I like about blogging – it helps hone ideas. From author Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Topics can be anywhere, pop up at any time. My radar is on, no matter the situation. I find I snap random pictures with my iPhone when I’m out and about that later find their way into a blog piece here and there. The blog also keeps me on my toes with sentence structure, word choice, and punctuation.

It’s exciting to connect with others, to have someone “like” a post, to have a “conversation” with readers from all over the world.

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March 1, 2013

I recently heard author Madeline Miller speak about her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. A scholar and a high school teacher, she captivated the room as she told the story of Achilles and The Iliad. I would love to be a student in her class.


She approaches the story from the point of view of Patroclus, not Achilles. Patroclus is a young prince who is exiled from his kingdom to be raised by King Peleus whose son happens to be Achilles. Patroclus and Achilles become friends.

This approach reminds me of the importance of point of view in story-telling, whether using a myth or a current newspaper clip. Taking the point of view of a less obvious character changes the dynamic, the discovery potential, and gives the reader a new perspective.

 Also, I’m reminded of how mythology, the classics, and the ancients can be  springboards to new stories.

I’m looking forward to reading The Song of Achilles.

Novelist Madeline Miller

Novelist Madeline Miller

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February 1, 2013

Recently, I heard Amor Towles, the author of Rules of Civility, speak at a luncheon. He read two passages from his novel and proved an excellent reader. We all wanted to hurry home and start reading about Katey Kontent. I know his talk will enhance my enjoyment of Rules of Civility, his first novel.

I found his interpretation of New York City interesting. To help us understand the city of his novel, he showed several pictures of paintings  by Edward Hopper. Automat and Hotel Lobby among themHe pointed out the empty seats next to the women and the muted, basic color pallet.


Hotel Lobby

His point? In NYC, with its never ending activity and crowds, people may seek their quiet in public places. Someone probably will sit down in the empty seat nearby and start a conversation that takes them outside of their world. In the NYC of the 1930’s, city blocks were distinctly different. Walking down a street took a person through many different microcosms. I’m looking forward to discovering Katey Kontent and who sits down in the empty chair beside her. How she learns of a different world.

Towles overtime has studied this period of history – the music, films, fashion, art, social scene, economic scene. When he was asked a question about research, he replied he doesn’t do research per se. But because of his long term study, he can immerse the reader into a scene which is timely to the period by its tone and descriptions. He then can focus on the emotions and characters.

Naming brands, for example, is not necessarily the way to orient the reader in time and might even get in the way. He illustrated this with reference to Birdseye Frozen Peas invented in the 1940’s and a story set in that time frame. We don’t have to know the peas are Birdseye just gotten out of the Frigidaire refrigerator. But we can know it’s a block of frozen peas that the character bangs on the sink edge repeatedly, scattering loose peas in the sink, across the floor … that she’s just discovered her husband is having an affair.

His talk had a density of content about writing. He’s an excellent storyteller, both orally and on the page.

Novelist Amor Towles

Novelist Amor Towles

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January 15, 2013

I’m currently reworking a short story I wrote a number of years ago. I like the name of my main character and I like him, but I’m not sure if the current name will be his final name. I ‘d like something with more punch, something more memorable.

But there’s a bigger issue than the character’s name. The story isn’t working. Where to begin?

I decided to apply the story elements per Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction. I remember the elements with the acronym CARES. C- conflict. A- action. R – resolution. E- emotion. S- showing.

I looked at the total story. What’s does my character want and what stands in his way? I need to clarify here. What action does he take? Action works but there can be more obstacles. How does the story resolve? I’m not sure the resolution is believable. Does the reader know the character’s worries, fears, hopes at all times? Sometimes. Do I show more than tell? I think so.

Then I looked at the scenes. There were six of them. Did each forward the story? Did each  have the story elements of conflict, action, resolution, emotion, and showing – the same story elements as for the total story? I cut one scene out. In each scene, things should be worse at the end of the scene than at the beginning.

I also looked at whether I was saying what had to be said in the best way – eliminating adverbs, using active voice, eliminating wordiness. That each sentence moved the story forward.

At this point, what my protagonist wants has to be clearer to him and … me, and I need to up the ante. Some of what he does to achieve his goal is too easy. I have to get into the character’s head for him to reveal himself more to the reader.

So I’ll keep working.


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January 1, 2013

12543Looking through old journals is something I do periodically. On 10/10/01, I made an entry about a book I was reading. The book was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Lots of good stuff on writing.

She tells the story about her older brother who, at the age of ten, had to write a report about birds. Of course, he waited until the night before it was due. He was ready to cry. His father said to him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Page 19.) A good way to approach writing.

I noted two ideas in my journal, paraphrased.
1. Write what you can see in a one inch frame. Brief writings, a brief view. Let the story unfold “Bird by Bird.”
2. The first draft will be crumby – just go for it.

For me, this translates into keeping the focus small. Don’t overwhelm yourself. The short story or novel will unfold word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Just keep pecking away.

She says to try to write at approximately the same time each day so that your brain knows it’s time “to kick in for you creatively.”

And just write. Keep the critic off your shoulder. You’ll discover the kernels. The chaff will fall away.

I love the bird analogy and this book.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

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December 15, 2012

Do you ever sit down to write, an idea niggling at the back of your brain? It’s there but at the same time it isn’t? Yet slowly the thoughts start to blossom?

Gifts of a Muse

Always invited,
sometimes sending regrets,
she tiptoes in,
words shimmering.

She glides into my head.

It’s messy with living,
burdened and cluttered.
She notes shelves of worry,
unfinished sentences,
a world of ideas
closed against the night.

Beneath a shaded light
I keep my pen in hand.
Her embrace
slowly enfolds me.
I open my journal
to welcome gifts
of ideas
of words.

by C.S.M.

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December 1, 2012

A night sky in the desert is darker than any I’ve ever seen. As the moon and stars appear, they stand out with a singular brightness. Beautiful.

Desert Sky

Darkness folds the desert in its arms.
Trickster coyotes, bold, nocturnal
venture across the cooling sand.

Above, brushed onto the endless canvas,
stars appear, Polaris as guide,
so near, yet light-years distant.

Under a brightening moon,
Joshua trees, arms raised skyward,
cast long disjointed shadows.

Gauzy clouds, mere wisps,
thread about the stars and moon,
play, embrace, wander on.

While sun waits …
then rises, unstoppable,
to fling its gold across the sky.

by C.S.M.

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November 15, 2012

Have you ever tried to write a villanelle? It’s an exercise in discipline and structure. There are 19 lines that make up five three line stanzas and one four line stanza. Two refrains appear in the first stanza and then alternate. There are  only two repeating rhymes. I found the process both challenging and fun.

The structure looks like this:

refrain 1
line 2
refrain 2

line 4
line 5
refrain 1

line 7
line 8
refrain 2

line 10
line 11
refrain 1

line 13
line 14
refrain 2

line 16
line 17
refrain 1
refrain 2

Night Writer

“what if …” scribbles the writer alone in the night
plot twists unfold, a scrawl on bound paper sheaf
caffeine-rich nerves twitch and tangle, grow tight

characters caper, quirky, their demons to fight
neurotic clairvoyant collides with a comical thief
“what if …” scribbles the writer alone in the night

in words that show, not tell, with paragraphs bright
Pushcart contender rises midst angst and grief
caffeine-rich nerves twitch and tangle, grow tight

fingers press on, tap-tapping a breathless plight
denouement nears, stumbles, snags on a reef
“what if …” scribbles the writer alone in the night

author rewrites, then polishes, not a delight
short story shines to THE END with doubt-free belief
caffeine-rich nerves twitch and tangle, grow tight

secundum artem, a fable fantastic with bite
mailed – received – rejection letter so brief
“what if …” scribbles the writer again in the night
caffeine-rich nerves twitch and tangle, grow tight

by C.S.M.

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November 1, 2012

I enjoy the discovery process as I’m working on a story …

“the meeting”

at my laptop I sit, listening
deep inside a voice whispers
it pushes itself into my thoughts

the voice grows louder
my fingers tap the keys
a character comes to life

jerky starts, uneven sentences
he won’t let me stop
I give him a name, a face, a body

he allows me to know him slowly

together we enter his world
discover what he wants
the obstacles that will stop him

by C.S.M.

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October 15, 2012

Curiosity’s a good thing and I was curious about what these iconic authors – Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, Fitzgerald, Chandler, London, Maugham, and Williams – had to say about their craft. I cruised through websites containing author quotes. I was in need of inspiration, encouragement, instruction.

Here’s what I found:

Ernest Hemingway: There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

William Faulkner: Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

Carson McCullers: The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. (from “The Flowering Dream” published in Esquire 1959)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Action is character. (from notes for The Last Tycoon)

Raymond Chandler:  The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.

Jack London: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

W. Somerset Maugham: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. (I just finished reading his book Theatre.)

Tennessee Williams: When I stop working, the rest of the day is posthumous. I’m only really alive when I’m writing. (I know I feel better when I’m able to write a little – or a lot – every day.)

I also was curious about what these authors liked to drink. Here’s what I found in Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide by author Mark Bailey and illustrator Edward Hemingway – grandson of the writer.

Ernest Hemingway – the Mojito – invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba
William Faulkner – a Mint Julep – Musso & Frank Grill in Los Angeles let him mix his own
Carson McCullers – the “Sonnie Boy” – her own mixture of hot tea and sherry
F. Scott Fitzgerald – a Gin Rickey
Raymond Chandler – a Gimlet

From WBC – World’s Biggest Cookbook.com

Jack London – a gin martini
W. Somerset Maugham – a gin martini
Tennessee Williams – a Ramos Fizz

Finally, I’d often wondered if the way they faced life and used alcohol added to their genius … or if the literary world and readers were cheated from even richer works. I don’t know, but I’m grateful for the bounty they left us.

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October 1, 2012


My September 15th main post about music and inspiration had been up for two days when I decided to scan through it quickly. Yikes! Right in the first sentence was a glaring error which I had not seen during the entire process of writing and proofreading prior to posting. Here was the sentence: In my journey as a writer, I sometimes have been lead into a poem or a short story through a work of art or sculpture or a piece of photography. The word “lead” jumped at me. Why hadn’t it jumped at me before? The past tense of lead is led.

I corrected the mistake. Because lead was spelled correctly, no red line had appeared under it to alert me to a problem.

Then when I was writing the “Books Page” for the current posting, I wrote this sentence: Joanna Carl takes the reader on a merry rump. A merry rump? Are you kidding me? Obviously, it was supposed to be a merry romp. Of course, no red line appeared, but I caught the error before I hit “Update.”

When proofreading, I’ve tried reading the sentences word by word, not allowing my eyes to group phrases or skim read. I’ve also tried reading the sentence backward, word by word. Obviously, neither technique is foolproof.

Moral to this tale? Watch out for homonyms and crank up the concentration when proofreading.

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September 15, 2012

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was half-way through Immediate Fiction  by Jerry Cleaver. Well, I finished it. What a read. It’s a book you devour in bites, savor, and think about.

In his discussion about plot, Cleaver cites several ideas about how many actual plot ideas exist. Cleaver states there’s just one universal plot. It’s “someone against someone or something – always.” In graduate school studying theater, I learned Aristotle’s claims about plot. Cleaver also mentions them. 1. Man against man. 2. Man against society. 3. Man against the gods. 4. Man against himself. 5. Man against nature. 6. Man against machine. I narrowed it down to man against man, man against himself, and man against nature. However, no matter how you slice and dice, it seems plot theories do come down to the one idea: someone against someone or something.

If finding time to write is an issue, Cleaver presents his 5 minute a day approach and his list to get you writing, which also makes into a nice mnemonic: SCARE.
S = Situation
C = Character who has a want and an obstacle
A = Action (confrontation/struggle)
R = Resolution
E = End in character’s mind

I especially liked his discussion of the writer (me, you) in Chapter 15 called Hitting the Wall – Blocking and Unblocking. Sometimes we paralyze ourselves like the golfer who has so many ideas floating around in his head about stance, grip, swing, balance, etc., that he ends up duffing the ball. Cleaver states worrying about writing and actual writing are two different acts. Sit down and write. Be easy about it. He states, “Storytelling is an acquired skill, not an inborn talent. It’s work plus craft.”

The creative process seems to exist in two parts. The first is the flow process which is messy, emotional, fluid, and nonjudgmental. The second step is the editing process which is deliberate, intellectual, and judgmental. Cleaver caps these ideas with a definition of writer’s block I like: Being blocked is editing run amuck. To get unblocked you must take action and get writing.

What I liked best about this book were the many pages devoted to the writer and showing us how to manage ourselves.

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September 1, 2012

When I begin a short story, my main goal is to get it down, work it through to a conclusion. After I ‘m done, it’s a pretty miserable mess. We’ve all heard the expression “shitty first draft.”

Going back into the work to rewrite is a journey of discovery. Sadly, it may also be like arriving in town without a GPS or map and looking for cousin Joe’s house. How do you get there? Asking for pieces of direction here and there? Correcting this turn and that? How do you rewrite to get to a stronger story? I’ve used the no map, no GPS approach in the past until I’ve felt pretty lost.

I know writing is an art, not a science, and stories have certain elements, but I was looking for a better way to revise. I’m halfway through Immediate Fiction  by Jerry Cleaver. And I like what I’m reading. Cleaver suggests a specific approach when going into your revision work.

His mantra during rewrite is to look for the story elements. He says it often and in different ways, with plenty of good examples. His advice makes into an easy mnemonic – CARES.

C = Conflict (want + obstacle)
A = Action
R = Resolution
E = Emotion (worries, fears, hopes)
S = Showing

He says many story problems will solve if you have a strong enough “want” and “obstacle” in place. Mark where they occur on the page and on what page. Are they buried three or four pages in? Your reader probably won’t stay with you. If what your character wants is something he can survive without, the want is not strong enough. You may need to work on the want or the obstacle or both. Then check your character’s actions that lead toward resolution.

Establish the character’s emotions – worries, fears, and hopes. The reader needs to be involved in the character’s emotional life so the reader can identify and care. All of this is best done with showing – showing within scenes how things are getting much worse before they will get better. Cleaver says that with each draft, you want to get more into the character’s mind. This is the most difficult part.

Last element I want to touch on is this. We’ve all heard the adage: Write what you know. Cleaver says “Write what you can imagine. Write what you can figure out.”

I like this book. I’m now into the second half.

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August 15, 2012

Like many writers, I subscribe to magazines on writing, such as  Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest. I also buy books on writing which I read and then use for reference. One of these books is by Elizabeth George called Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. I like its preciseness just as I like George’s precise writing in her mystery novels.

I especially like the way she approaches characterization. In Chapter One, called “Story is Character,” she says:

Give them flaws, allow them to doubt themselves about something, see to it that they grow and change, and make certain you are putting them into conflict.

She stresses the importance of character names and how those characters are going to talk. With a dialect? Educated? Down and out? The most important step for her is to create an analysis of the character before she begins to write the novel. I like the psychological approach she takes. It gives the characters depth and motivation. She discusses character development in Chapter 5:

1. What is the character’s core need? e.g. the need to be good at something, the need for excitement.
2. What is the character’s pathological maneuver? e.g. what he does under pressure – when his core need is being denied or thwarted.
3. What is the character’s sexuality – his attitudes toward sex, his sexual history.
4. What past circumstance had a big impact on the character that helped mold him into the person he is today?
5. What does the character want?

Chapter 16 is called “The Value of Bum Glue.” George illustrates the idea in one of her journal entries. From her July 6, 1998 entry in Journal of a Novel:

I suit up and show up. I sit down at the computer and do the work, moving it forward a sentence at a time, which is ultimately the only way to write a book.

All I have to do is think “Bum Glue” and it seems to put “starch in my jeans.” I go into my office and go to work. Work. That’s one four letter word that can’t be avoided.

Chapter 18 is called “Gimme a Map, Please.” Here she describes some plot structures: The Seven Step Story Line, The Hero’s Journey, Gustav Freitag’s Pyramid, The Three Act Structure, and Variations.

Writers, this is a good book to have on the shelf!

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August 1, 2012

When I first have a story idea, my main goal is getting “it” down and moving the storyline forward. After I reach a certain point in that process, I become conscious of the pacing, the tension, the building intensity of the piece, and the sentence variation.

Writing instructor and author Gary Provost (1944-1995) gave us this example of how sentence variety produces rhythm and an increase in tempo. The rhythm creates a deeper response in the reader. From his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The first time I read this, I thought,  Wow!  Now this quote is ever present on a large Maxine post-it taped to the bottom right-hand corner of my iMac. It keeps me forever conscious of sentence length and variety and what those sentences can do to a story … and to a reader.

Rhythm is all around us in everyday life in many forms. A  person’s gait, a car turn signal, the drip of a faucet, the cadence of a voice, the rumble of a train. Why forget it in our writing?

Rhythm by Robert Delaunay

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2 Responses to Writing

  1. I just spent my early morning reading your posts on writing and your comments on books.
    Thanks for Sharing, Jim

  2. cmwriter says:

    Hi Jim – Hope you found something useful or new. Right now I’m reading Defending Jacob by William Landay. Wow. Thanks for stopping by.

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