Going Plotless

In my last post I described the rule-breaking writing exercises I’m working on with my writing group. I promised to post an example:

Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with multiple trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?

IMG_0124

Trisha ran.

A mourning dove flew about, ready to lay some eggs, searching. For what? She’d know it when she saw it.

A roadrunner hopped up to the edge of a patio covered in glossy Saltillo tile, recently sealed. It watched the large docile creature sitting at a white bistro table, a man eating a turkey sandwich. The roadrunner didn’t know the turkey was turkey, but that didn’t matter. It wondered in that indistinct animal way whether the tile would be slippery, whether it was trustworthy. The roadrunner made its move.

A woman gazed out her front window over her kitchen sink. She always happened to be doing the dishes. Trisha appeared to her as a flash of sunny blonde hair moving in that smooth manner of golf carts, the ones that seem to glide over the hills, turning without needing to slow, almost liquidly. The girl didn’t have things in her ears, those gadgets they usually have. Good for her. Live a little. The woman went to the pantry and used a wooden spoon to knock down a box of low sodium wheat thins from a high shelf. It fell onto the counter and she dove out of its trajectory. It landed on its side and spun a bit, but stopped at the edge of the counter. A few crackers fell to the floor, and her Yorkie looked up at her with a question in his eyes. Was she wearing a bra? The woman looked down at her own very liberated chest. The Yorkie, being a Yorkie, acted like he wasn’t all that interested, but he circled around, his little paws tap-tapping coyly, always coming back.

The roadrunner hopped up, landing on the hard solid foot of the large docile creature who appeared to be taking in some form of nourishment.

The man did not move a muscle. He tried to stop breathing. He couldn’t believe his luck. What a story this would make, a roadrunner landing on his shoe, begging for food.

“Go on, Yogi. You can eat it,” the woman squealed, pointing at a nearby cracker, snapping her fingers. “C’mon.” Live a little. She didn’t want to bend over to pick up the crackers. Her back hurt.

The roadrunner hopped back down, forgetting its previous concern about the tile. It was only a little harder to walk on the tile.

The Yorkie sniffed at the perfect squares which were somehow not broken from the impact of the fall.

Trisha turned the corner. Easy enough given the perfect curve of the sidewalk, one which widened at turns. This curved bit of sidewalk had been inspected recently for tripping hazards (anything over 1/4”), along with the rest of the street.

The Yorkie’s nostrils flared. Millions and trillions of bits of information flew into a black tunnel that opened into a wet cave. Things we don’t know.

In any case, the sidewalk wasn’t the problem. A palo verde stuck its green claw out into Trisha’s path. It reached for her as if animated by her arrival, but really it dipped in the gust of wind which had just picked up violently for a second. The green claw had smaller green claws, all of which were armed with needles. All this claw-ness would later be masked by thousands or millions or some other high number of flowers, cartoon shapes of crayon yellow. But it wasn’t that time of year. Now the palo verde looked like a massive pile of homogeneously green sticks randomly stacked on top of a wandering trunk. The trunk the same blah-green as the sticks, except for a few brown marks where it’d been scorched.

The microburst of wind and the bob of this palo verde branch sent some number of insects into the uniform blue sky. It was the kind of dusty day that obscured distant mountains.

In a swimming pool in a Santa Fe style house way out on the east side—granite counter! stainless appliances heated pool travertine thru out. Gorgeous Mtn.views a Must See!—a lizard clung to a vertical island, a bit of mineral deposit which had collected on the edge of the pool. Its “fingers” worked best on natural things, not so well on slippery tile, and the lizard just happened to be lucky enough to drop over on a spot where the minerals had deposited themselves over the tile. The lizard eyed the water each time the wind kicked up a slight wave. If it weren’t for the occasional eye movement, this lizard would look exactly like the lizard a few blocks down that had gotten itself stuck in-between a window pane and a screen. A perfect specimen of natural taxidermy, fried in the sun, still clinging to the screen, immortalized forever like a pressed flower. That lizard was about the same size as this one, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side. A cute little guy. It was that time of year for lizards to be out and about, and for them to be about this size. This lizard clinging to the mineral deposit, it flattened itself into a slit of shade from the overhanging concrete edge of the pool. The overhang saved it from frying in the sun. It also prevented it from escaping. Not in any real way, but in a lizard-brained way. In the same way that the window-fried lizard could’ve theoretically gotten free if it had known how to go out the way it came in.

The man smiled and called out, “Here roadrunner,” tossing out a piece of bread. What a story.

The roadrunner hopped back, dodging an object. It stopped at a safe distance and reconsidered.

The palo verde moved very slowly toward the things that gave it life. What gave this particular palo verde tree life, or more of it, temporarily, was the growth of this branch in this direction.

The HOA had not counted this branch as a maintenance issue since it didn’t obstruct the path.

One hot current of air wanted to go one way, a cooler current wanted to go another way, and there was a sort of atmospheric traffic jam. The palo verde branch got jostled down, out of harm’s way. It bent, but didn’t break.

The pool lizard clung on.

The other lizard clung too.

The endless blue sky so uniform it might as well have been a paint color sample stayed right where it was.

The man threw another piece of bread, bigger this time.

The pool lizard tried to escape, but rediscovered the problem of the overhang. Now it faced the other direction, away from the water.

The roadrunner looked at the bread. It wanted the turkey, not the bread.

The man threw another piece of bread, further away this time.

The roadrunner walk-hopped away.

The man called out to it, but the roadrunner disappeared into a wash, behind some treacherously thorny stuff which the man didn’t feel like getting into.

The mourning dove picked up a stick, flew it to some high-traffic location which she’d picked out for her nest, tried to fit the stick into her nest and noted several big animated creatures moving in the proximity of her real estate. She dropped the stick onto the ground. She stood on the edge of her new digs—the lid of a box filled with garden tools, tools that needed to be used on a regular basis now, since it was that time of year—and looked at nothing for a while with her thoughtless black eyes. The big creatures backed away. She didn’t look at the stick she’d just dropped. She didn’t look at all the other sticks she’d dropped, the ones right there. She flew off in search of a new stick.

Trisha ducked.

The roadrunner came back to the man. The man finally gave him what he wanted, a bit of turkey. The roadrunner gobbled this down and waited for more, which came forthwith. The roadrunner ate as much as he could, then waited for a big one, a nice fat slice. He snapped it up in his lethal beak and ran off with it to find his mate, who waited for him behind some prickly pear. He showed it to her.

The man with the sandwich chased the roadrunner down into the wash to see where it was going with the turkey. He saw the female roadrunner and this confirmed what he’d heard about roadrunner mating rituals. My discarded turkey is like a giant diamond ring. Turkey bling. He couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he helped a fellow male get laid. The female seemed ready to submit, but at the last second she ran away with the Albertson’s deli meat dangling from her beak.

The palo verde got a few of Trisha’s golden hairs, but she got one of its claws, one of the dead ones, one which had dried out and for that reason snapped off easily. She swiped it off her head without missing a step. The stick flew onto some blah beige landscaping rocks and rested there, virtually hidden.

The man with the sandwich tripped and landed in the prickly pear. In his palms there no longer resided a turkey sandwich, but instead a story, one he would not share.

The mourning dove picked up a new stick. This was a perfectly good stick. It caught her eye because shiny things were attached to it. She flew her treasure to her new home. A big featherless biped stood near her space. She didn’t notice until she’d nearly reached her abode, at which point startled, dropped her golden stick, fluttered into a nearby mesquite. Another nest grew under her box, a better nest than her own, but she didn’t know. She flew away, searching for a new stick.

“Get into the fucking car.”

Trisha ran faster. She knew she couldn’t out run a car, but she ran anyways.

A wave of pool water splashed the lizard and cooled its scaly back, but it did not take this as a boon. It twirled frantically, its tail whipping. Then a basket scooped it up. It’s little legs flailed randomly until it fell over the the edge of the basket and into the cool blue.

The Yorkie brought his delicate pink tongue down to a square. The square lifted, stuck to his wet tongue, then dropped. “Yes, you can eat it. Go on.” He looked up with a question in his eyes.

“Treat!”

Yogi took the square into his teeth, carefully, so as not to lose a crumb, and absconded with it to his hiding space between the ottoman and the couch.


I never meant to write this much, but I found myself needing a lot of space to include multiple POVs. Another woman in the writing group managed to complete this exercise in less than one page. She used a sort of free-association to tell her tale, but instead of creating a thematic unity the way I’ve done here, she literally linked the story together by referencing the last sentence. I’d never seen that done before. It worked well in a strange way.

Have you ever gone plotless? Was it on purpose? What did you learn? 

Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.


The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)

Blind Spots

images

I was inspired to write this post after reading Nannus’ Turning the Other Way which explains what blind spots are and how they apply to all thinking. It’s directed toward everyone, artists and non-artists alike. It’s beautifully written and a quick read, so please check it out first. It might inspire you to take a stroll down an oft-neglected path.

Image 176

I thought I might apply his insights to writing and its connection to our sphere of attention in everyday life.

I’ve become aware of systemic problems in my fiction writing through my writing group. These friends constantly and unanimously tell me that I need to include more visual descriptions. Not only that, but I have a tendency to mess up time in such a way that one would have to posit parallel universes in order to make sense of what I’ve written. (And I don’t write Sci-Fi, so this is truly problematic.)

Now that I’m working on the second draft of my novel, I’m forced to face these annoying details head on.

But wait. Are these just annoying details? Or is there a greater problem here?

It wasn’t until recently that I realized why I keep having these same problems over and over:

Your blind spots in writing are your blind spots in real life.

They say you should write what you know, but if you’re not a great observer, your writing is going to reflect that.

I am not a great observer. I don’t pay a lot of attention to visual details like what the room looks like, etc. Not unless something really strikes me as out of place.

For example, I get annoyed when people interrupt a conversation to point out some object in the background, or something someone is wearing, or whatever, and I think, “Are you listening to me?” It’s because I don’t pay great attention to those things I can’t imagine such a detail trumping the words that come out of their mouths. I usually come away from such people feeling like a very boring person. Maybe I am, or—and I hope this is true—maybe I’m just not as attuned to these things as other people are.

Which explains why dialogue is the easiest for me to write. It’s what I pay attention to in life. Other people find describing a room or a landscape very easy, but have a hard time coming up with “things to say” for their characters.

Of course, I would object that you can’t just tack on dialogue. It has to be integrated into the story and the character. You don’t just make up filler because you know your character should probably say something at some point.

Yet what have I been doing with visual descriptions? Tacking them on. So imagine:

So and so has blue eyes and brown hair.

I hope I’m not the only one who finds this boring. This is the kind of stuff I gloss over when I’m reading a novel. Too many of those kinds of lines will make me stop reading.

No more tacking on. I have to go out into the world and pay attention, I have to force myself to focus on things I’m not used to. That means I have to select the appropriate and relevant details, and see their meaning. I need to clue myself into visual details that in themselves tell a story.

What stories am I missing in life? Is life really a Platonic dialogue? No, this is just the way I’ve been seeing it—and this excludes of a lot of potentially interesting things.

I have to learn to pay attention to my real life blind spots or else my writing will not feel true. This requires expanding my horizon of attention, and I don’t suspect this will be an easy feat.

(Not unless I find myself stuck at a dinner party chatting with someone boring.)

Are you aware of your blind spots? What are they?

Rejection Letters

Today I got my first rejection letter for a short story, but it’s good news. Here’s why…

images

It’s better to receive a crappy one-line personal note than a form letter. It means you stood out in the slush pile. Someone took time out of his or her busy day to send you a personal reply. Here’s mine:

“The focus was a bit lost, but you have the potential for a strong voice, which we like.

Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for One Teen Story, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

We look forward to reading more.

Sincerely,

The Editors of One Teen Story”

Why am I so excited about this? Well first of all, I submitted this story on impulse, forgetting that the protagonist tells a girl to “suck on his cock.” Yes. That’s right. To a YA magazine. After I realized what I had done, I had no expectations whatsoever for this piece. In fact, I had forgotten that I had submitted it.

It’s not clear that they rejected the piece for this reason. Interesting.

Secondly, they took the time to tell me “The focus was a bit lost” which probably means I need to do a lot more editing on the piece. I will admit something I’m very ashamed of—I didn’t submit this to my writing group. No one else read it. That was stupid of me, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.

Thirdly, they think I have the “potential for a strong voice” which means I probably need to work on that too. It was close, though. It caught their attention. I should go through this piece and check for inconsistencies. Workshop it a bit. Cut the fat.

And the best part: “We look forward to reading more.”

See how much you can learn from just a few lines in a rejection letter?

Happy happy joy joy.

How to Start a Successful Writer’s Group

There are many ways a writing group can fail, but the two that stand out to me are:

  • Egos everywhere bashing each other, then defensiveness, then more bashing, then perhaps tears.
  • Goody goodies giving each other therapeutic praise, then everyone gets a cookie.

I can make this list go on and on, of course, but these two categories of failure were the ones I was most concerned with when I started my own group.

There are many kinds of groups with different goals, different ways that work well. But I’m very happy with my group, so I want to share with you our organization in the hopes that it will help you plan your own. 

We have a set procedure, but we aren’t stuffy about it. We know the rules, and we know when it’s appropriate to break them. It has been an organic merging, a somewhat magical thing really.

We meet here, in the lush desert garden of our eldest member, a Southern bell who loves to play hostess and who will give you the evil eye if you refuse the frosty beer mug:
IMG_1693

 

We do eat cookies. We eat lots of delicious food, in fact, and we imbibe in wine and beer, but that’s not the focus of the group.

IMG_1695

 

Here’s why our group works:

  • We all came from the same writing class, which had it’s own set of rules with which we were all already familiar.
  • We are all good readers. Good writers are not necessarily good at critiquing. Keep this in mind.
  • We are all committed to showing up, submitting our work on time (sort of) and giving each other a thoughtful critique. Those who demonstrated they weren’t committed were asked to either commit or leave. Sort of harsh, yes, but that’s life. It’s not fair to the others who are committed. If you’re the one putting the group together, you have to do this. No need to be ugly about it, but it must be done. Count on having to do this, especially if you’re enlisting people you don’t really know yet.
  • We are a group of five. Five or six people works best. Any more than that and things will feel too rushed. Too few, and things get claustrophobic.
  • We are diverse. In fact, we represent every decade from the 20’s to 60’s. But more than that, we all come from very different backgrounds and have different skills. Think about this when you’re inviting people to join.

The Method to our Madness:

  • A WEEK BEFORE WE MEET: We submit our work via email. 25 pages max. We usually print out each other’s work, but it’s not imperative. Everyone in my group likes to write on the pages, so we print them out.
  • BEFORE WE MEET: We write out a critique and come prepared to discuss. It’s really nice to have critiques written down, a record of what happened. We all save our critiques in files for our second draft (we usually submit novel excerpts). I usually take notes while everyone is talking, just in case the others say things they forgot to write down. I like to have a blow-by-blow transcript of them battling it out when they interpret my work.
  • NOON: So we start out chatting. This doesn’t have to happen, technically speaking, but that’s what we do. We grab our beverages of choice, help set up the table, the chairs, etc. then chill out on the patio while we wait for everyone to show up. I recommend skipping the booze unless you know your group pretty well and feel comfortable with each other.
  • ONE: We have a pot luck lunch and go around the table somewhat systematically to ask what’s going on in our lives. This is our hand-holding, everyone-gets-a-cookie part. It’s a nice thing to do, and then we can leave all the shit of life behind for the actual critique. This also doesn’t have to happen, technically speaking. If we were at a cafe or if time constraints were involved, we would have to skip it. But the truth is, we like each other and we want to get caught up on what’s going on in each other’s lives.
  • TWO-ish: We get started. Each person gets 20 min. Actually, it’s 30, but I set the timer at 20 and when the bell rings, we know it’s time to start wrapping things up. If you look in the photo above, you’ll see my little aqua-colored manual timer…if you’re the one in charge, be sure to get one or have an app on your phone. Also you or someone should be in charge of moving things along in general.
  • During these 20-30 minutes, the author is NOT ALLOWED TO TALK. This is ridiculously important. Do it. Enforce it. It’s the only way to know for sure what’s going out. In real life, you can’t hover over the shoulder of your reader correcting his interpretation.
  • We start with a synopsis. Someone volunteers to do this, and the rest fills in anything that got left out.
  • Next we say WHAT WORKED. This language is important. It’s not “I loved this story” or anything vague like that. It’s not hand-holding, cookie-eating praise. It’s like this: “The voice was distinct from the other characters” OR “The omniscient POV works for the story because…” OR “Strong sense of place, for instance, here…” OR “Well-chosen details, especially this one…” We all learn from this just as much as criticisms.
  • Then we give SUGGESTIONS. This language is also important. It’s not, “I hated this story” or anything vague like that. It’s not bashing. It’s not plot suggestions (although we all secretly want them). It’s like this: “The transition from the flashback on page 147 needs to be smoothed out…” OR “The character’s voice is inconsistent. He’s in middle school but here and here he sounds like he’s in college” OR “I want more details” OR “At the beginning he’s in the living room, but suddenly he’s in the kitchen?” OR “Would she really feel shocked about that? What about this detail in the earlier chapter…”
  • Then we let the author ask questions. This is the time when the author gets to tell everyone what he or she intended to do—Oh, the joy! The release!—and the rest of us offer even more suggestions to help the author get there.

I wish you all luck in starting your own group. It’s a a struggle at first, and if you don’t have people already familiar with the process, things can get tense. There was drama. I think starting out with a high level of organization is best…things will get looser with time, but at that point everyone will be on the same page. If you’re starting the group, it’s your job to communicate the rules and make sure everyone agrees to their usefulness. If you get someone who doesn’t like them, and who doesn’t seem to have a good reason why…well hell, it’s your group. You decide whether or not to keep that person.

I know. I’m mean. But I’ve also got an awesome group and everyone in it says so and we all love each other. So there.