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?

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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? 

Blind Spots

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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.

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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?

The False Note: Small Decisions in Writing

I found a nice excerpt from an article in the NYT which I think applies to all writing:

Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

I love this quote because it gets at the goal we should have as writers—to make the writing disappear.

I don’t agree that those molecular decisions are harder to make than the big ones. I spend days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months trying to make those big decisions, lots of pacing around, long walks, reading, ruminating when I should be sleeping. Perhaps it would have been better to say those small decisions add up to make a bigger impact. This I believe. Bad writing can be spotted instantly, regardless of how cleverly the plot is laid out, whereas great writing can make me forgive a few inconsistencies and even a few grammatical errors…a few.

What also struck me was the phrase “false note”— a terrific metaphor. A false note on a guitar can be missing the proper fret entirely so that the prevailing sound makes everyone stop in their tracks. Or it can be something barely noticeable, like the bending of a string slightly too high, or timing that’s a little off, or bad technique, or something else that only musicians would recognize. In other words, there’s a huge range of falseness.

But what is the range in writing? Obviously there are typos and grammatical errors—these make me stop reading if they become too frequent. These are easy to spot and fix. They are like missing the fret on the guitar. You work on strength and agility and practice, practice, practice…sooner or later your finger will get where it needs to be.

The other “false notes” are sentences that simply don’t make sense, not because of any mechanical error, but because the ideas behind them are either confusing or devoid of meaning. These are often sentences that seem lyrical or poetic. Like a guitarist who feels the need to sling his guitar low and play with flashy but terrible technique, flailing his fingers all over the fretboard to make what he’s doing seem harder than it is, these sentences are meant to fool the audience. They often do. Writers and rock stars love getting their egos stroked, and so the cycle of bad quality continues.

These false notes are the most dangerous to writers because we easily get caught up in our own cleverness without realizing that discerning readers don’t give a damn about our cleverness, they want the meaning. They want the truth. This “poet at work” stuff bores them.

The best writing advice I’ve ever heard (and I’m sure some famous person said it and I apologize for not giving proper credit):

Don’t ask, Is this writing good or bad? Instead ask, Is it true or false?

I think this advice achieves a lot with very few words. We tend to aim for good writing, but trying to establish what that is can be difficult, maybe impossible. Debates ensue. It’s hard to achieve something that’s nebulous and external to us.

But truth is approachable, maybe even attainable. To know the truth in writing, we can look within, ask ourselves questions, and scrutinize our words. We can leave the good for literary critics and focus on our work.

Fiction: Would this character really say this? Why is this person sighing? Is this sighing an affectation? Do I want it to be? Why does she cross her arms? Do people really cross their arms in these situations, or did I just put that in there to add a beat, a break from the dialogue? Does the sun really look like that? Would she notice her shadow in the dark, or in the middle of the day, and what makes this possible? Does this plant look like that in that season and that place? (If I can’t remember or know through reflection and research, I find myself going out into the world to experience these things first hand. Just yesterday I squished my face against the door to be sure I got my description right.)

Non-fiction: Should I take out “all” and replace it with “some”? Are there any cases which would prove this statement not always true? Should I look up this tidbit to be sure it’s correct? Should I add a citation? Does each word add to the one before it, does each sentence add to the one before it, does each paragraph follow from the one before? Or am I going off into la-la land? And if I go off into la-la land, does that work in an interesting way, is it deliberate?

(I have to admit, when I come across nonfiction narrative that reads like a syllogism, my little philosopher’s heart goes pitter-patter. I try to congratulate these writers whenever I can, because I know such clarity often gets overlooked. But meandering prose can be effective too, although meandering must have an overarching purpose, it must be unified and controlled by other forces, such as theme.)

To write well, you need to get your ideas clear. Sure, start with your muddy ideas, get them on the page, but put on your Truth goggles in your later drafts. Don’t let your purpose drown in the poetic current, even if you are writing poetry. Your hard work will pay off. Readers will enjoy forgetting that they’re reading. When the writing gets out of the way, they will get swept along.

What do you do to avoid false notes in writing?

How does the context affect what you see through Truth goggles? In the music metaphor, a false note is false in relation to the context. I wonder how this applies in writing.

As always, feel free to comment on anything.

Rejection Letters

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

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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.

Cut the Crap: Write Short

I’ve been lackadaisical in my novel writing lately, so I thought I’d try this writing prompt at the 13th Floor Paradigm blog. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I can never seem to write short (just scroll down for proof of that), so I thought I could use some practice. Listen to me going on and on. Geez. I can’t seem to stop talking and then talking about talking…

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  • 100 words or so,
  • pick a photo, (I picked the one above, obviously),
  • full narrative arc
  • Romance
  • GO!

Hugging the Shoreline

He had no better way to try and die than lying penny-flat on the cesspool bottom of a patched-up boat with always another hidden hole somewhere in it. An open casket, drinking the cold so slow. Water rolling into his ears, up to cheeks, now nostrils, holding his breath then closing his eyes.

Or keeping them open so he could see those spidery creatures with long legs walking on water like Jesus right over his blurry face.

If she said something, right now, even “I hate you,” her voice pulling down the mountain through white mist to open space, he’d sit up.