“High Noon” – Part Two

 

A week ago, I compared my showdown with “writer’s block” with Gary Cooper (aka Will Kane) facing down the bad guys in the movie “High Noon”.  Just as he looked throughout the town for help in his battle with the “black hats”, so I also tried to find a way to reclaim my lost muse.  I read various articles I had saved on the subject.  I tried a number of suggestions.  I went shopping, I drank hot chocolate, I ran through a dozen writing exercises, I cleaned house, I did laundry.  However, it was all seemingly to no avail.

Now, I need to clarify a point here regarding my particular case of writer’s block.  The blank mind facing a blank computer screen was very selective.  The characters standing around waiting for me to give them direction rather than going about their story with me following behind as scribe were a select group.  This specific bout of writer’s block affected only my novels in progress.

During the weeks that I wrestled with this, I had no problem in coming up with inspiration and words for this blog.  I drafted several new short stories.  I edited and revised others to a point of completion where I was willing to submit them to contests and/or editors for publication.  I’ve even gotten a rejection back already on one story submitted for publication.  Ah well, it will go back out this week to a different market!  😉

So my muse hasn’t completely deserted me.  She simply refused to sprinkle her magic dust and provide inspiration for my novel-length work.

My primary novel in progress is a contemporary romance.  Not a “bodice-ripper”, panting passion, Harlequin-type of romance.  It is rather a quiet consideration of how two people find each other and come together.  No one will need to take a cold shower to get to the end of the story.  I’ve got something in excess of twenty thousand words of beginning for this story and maybe five thousand salvageable words in ending the story.  But I’ve been quite stuck developing the middle of the story.

A second novel in progress is an attempt in the private detective mystery genre – something of a cross between a hard-boiled, Mike Hammer type and Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells”.  Here I’ve got some ten thousand words or so opening the story and starting to introduce the main character.  I haven’t worked much on an ending here as it seems this might have series potential and, as such, it would end very differently than a stand-alone work like my romance.

And for the past some months, I have been absolutely stuck in trying to advance either story.

In terms of writing style, from day one I have been strictly “seat of the pants”.  A bit of inspiration will strike a chord with me – usually a character – and I will sit down and start typing.  I generally have only a vague idea of where the story is going and how it is going to end.  I just follow along behind the characters and take notes.  From the moment of “inspiration” to sitting in front of the computer, the character will have spent sufficient time in my head that I will pretty well understand who the character is and how the character will act and react in given circumstances.  And that particular approach to writing had seemed to be working for me.  And then came the moment of blank mind in front of blank screen.

Through various classes, writers’ conferences, books, and articles, I have been thoroughly exposed to the concept of outlining a story before sitting down to actually write said story.  I had mostly dismissed this information.  After all, several of my favorite authors have loudly proclaimed that they never used outlines and, since they were the impetus for my trying to write in the first place, I would attempt to follow in their footsteps.  Besides, my characters know where they are going and trying to outline a novel before writing it would stifle my creativity, wouldn’t it?

As I said above, the more frustrated I became with my inability to advance my novels, the more desperate the measures I became willing to take to break through the block.  I even went so far as to pull down a book I hadn’t looked at in several years.  I originally purchased the book when I thought I might take a crack at NaNoWriMo a few years back.  I didn’t follow up on the novel writing challenge at that time, and after reading the book, I put it on the shelf having decided there was nothing in the book for me.  The author of the book laid out an outlining process so detailed that the completed outline could reasonably be considered a first draft of a complete novel.  Definitely not for me!

But desperation will drive us to extraordinary lengths.  I pulled the book out a couple of weeks ago and took another look at it.  This time, I tried very hard to keep an open mind and see if I could find something to help me get past that frustrating blank screen.  I worried less about losing my “creativity” and more about how to get through to the end of the story I wanted to tell.

In re-reading the book, I didn’t consider it a step-by-step “how-to” manual, though the book certainly will lend itself to that approach.  Rather, I looked at some of the techniques, considered some of the templates provided, tested some of processes laid out in the book.

The jury is still out as to whether or not I have completely resolved my block problems.  However, it looks very promising.  It appears that in opening my mind to at least considering some admittedly fuzzy form of outlining, I also opened my mind to ways around the blank screen I have been staring at when it came to novel writing.  I tried the “brain-storming” techniques suggested in the book.  I have made some “scene notes”.  I have worked on the “Story Evolution” worksheet and begun building some “Formatted Outline Capsules”.  And the upshot of all this is that the romance novel is underway again.  Moreover, I am eagerly looking forward to applying some of these techniques and others presented in the book to my detective novel.

This post is not intended to be a book review, by any stretch of the imagination.  However, if you find yourself in a similar situation and unable to move forward, I might suggest you find this very interesting, and very helpful to me, little book.  The title of the book is “First Draft in 30 Days” by Karen S. Wiesner.  I encountered the book at the Writers’ Digest Shop some years back.  When I checked on it today, it was still available there, both in hard copy and as an e-book.  I also found it available on Amazon.

It is my impression the book is geared more to writing novels that lean toward action – mystery, thriller, or any story wherein the movement of characters through a series of actions is more important than a story like my romance novel wherein the internal, personal development of the characters is the crux of the story.  Ms. Wiesner’s own works cover a wide range of genres as mystery/police procedurals, suspense, paranormal, thriller, and action/adventure, and some romance titles.  She also writes children’s books and poetry.

From my second go-round with her book, I have little doubt that one could follow the program she lays out in the book, and in so doing, arrive at an outline so detailed that it could indeed be considered a first draft of a novel.  I haven’t (yet!) attempted to do so, therefore, I cannot report on whether one could build that outline/first draft in thirty days.  I will say that I have moved her book from the bookshelf across the room and it is now one of the several books in the hutch of my desk where it is available for review without my even having to leave my chair and keyboard.  Once I have gotten quite a bit further down the road on my primary work in progress, I will be trying out more of the techniques she lays out in the book.

I can say from my reading, and sampling her techniques to date, that the program has some strong virtues.  The book contains an amazing number of templates for use with the program, several of which I am now using.  The text lays out clearly how these templates can be used and provides filled-in examples of all of them, using popular literary works that are likely to be familiar to most readers who might be interested in using these techniques and templates.  Tom Clancy, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Phillip K. Dick are just a few of the authors from whose work extracts have been lifted to demonstrate how the templates might be used.

If outlining a novel is your thing, you might find this book very useful.  If, like me, you know that outlining is something you would never consider, you might find some very good ideas in this little book.  And, once again, this “old dog” is learning some new tricks!

At this point, I don’t know which I am anymore.  My short works are still very much “seat of the pants”, but I’m learning some new things.  One of these days I just may be one of those who outlines a novel before setting down to write it.

And what about you, Gentle Reader?  Do you outline?  A little bit?  A lot?  Or are you as I was, a “seat of the pantser”?

“High Noon” for a Word-slinger

I may lose a few of my younger readers here with some really old references, but I ask that you bear with me.  It will get better as it goes along.  😉

The really old reference, of course, is “High Noon”.  For those of the younger persuasion, “High Noon” is the name of a movie that was once quite well-known, starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, the town marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory.  The movie won an Academy Award for Gary Cooper as Best Actor, as well as for Editing, Music Score, and Best Song.  Given that the movie came out in 1952, and that Gary Cooper himself passed from the scene in 1961, it is not too surprising that many younger readers may be unfamiliar with the title.  Along with the iconic music from the movie, the film also indelibly seared into the minds of a generation or two the  picture of a solitary hero facing down the bad guys as a matter of principle.

“What pray tell does a 63 year old western movie have to do with writing?” you ask.  “And what is a ‘word-slinger’?”

Stay with me, now.  I’m getting there, even if slowly and somewhat round-about.   “Slowly and round-about” is just the way my mind works.  I can’t ask anyone to follow my train of thought – it’s simply too weird – so I have to explain as I go.

Answering the latter question first:  I am a “word-slinger”.  Words are my stock in trade and have been almost as far back as I can remember.  I’m that kid in class everyone hated because I always liked the essay questions best.  I can spin out 250 words telling you what time it is without even trying.  A 500 word essay?   Easy as pie!  Words come easily for me, and always have for about as far back as I can remember.

I credit (or blame?) two influences for my gift of gab as regards the written word.  The first is my love of reading.  I literally cannot remember a time when I could not and did not read.  I have very vivid memories going back longer than I really like to think about.  I have clear memories of people, places, and events that occurred before I was age six.  That particular age marks an important division in my life as that is when my parents packed up the family and moved us to Montana from Tacoma, WA.  I was reading before the move, and I have never stopped.

The second major influence on my development as a “word-slinger” was a very special teacher – Sister Mary Laura.  Shortly after classes started in my seventh grade year, Sister Mary Laura decided I was ‘insufficiently challenged’ by the regular curriculum.  Her solution was to give me an on-going extra credit assignment.  She handed me a dictionary and informed me that henceforth I would come to class each day having learned every word on two pages of that dictionary, starting at page one.  Proper spelling, pronunciation, and sufficient understanding of its meaning to use it in proper context in an intelligent statement.  The “extra credit” was that I would not suffer any ill consequences so long as I completed that day’s assignment.  This went on throughout my seventh and eighth grade years.  In that time and place, four nuns taught eight elementary grades in a four room school – two grades per room, one nun per room.  They were all marvelous teachers and we all learned as much as we could handle.  When I returned to the public school system for high school, I was way ahead of most of my contemporaries and mostly coasted through high school.

And that is how I became a “word-slinger”.  From that day to this, words are my friends.  They entertain me, delight me, and sometimes puzzle me.  But the latter happens only rarely.  My dictionaries are always close at hand.  A “College Dictionary” for quick look up, and a massive, 2,400-page Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for serious research.  I’m a “quick-draw artist” with either one.

“All right, all right, already!”  you say.  “We get that part about “word-slinger”, but what does that have to do with Gary Cooper, old movies, and ‘High Noon’?”

I suspect most of you will agree with me that for a writer one of the most fearsome of the “bad guys” is that evil hombre in the black hat known as “Writer’s Block”.  Consider yourself very fortunate indeed if you have never sat, hour after hour, staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to find the words, the ideas, the inspiration necessary to fill that screen or sheet of paper with intelligible, much less entertaining, writing.  I see you nodding your head out there.  You do know what I mean.  As evil a bad man as ever came down a Western, dirt street, lined with saloons, sheriff’s offices, and blacksmith shops.

And, you, or I, play the Garry Cooper role of Will Kane, who must face down the bad guys and find our way to a sheet of paper filled with words.  The clock on the tower looking over the street inches toward twelve.  It’s “High Noon”.  Our reputations as “word-slingers” depend on our standing out there alone in the dusty street, waiting for the bad guys to make their play.

That is exactly the situation that has confronted me the past several weeks trying to advance my primary novel.  My characters are standing around saying and doing nothing.  Usually I can count on them to carry the action, or at the very least, point me in the direction the story should be going.  They’re not on strike, or anything like that.  It is just that they, like me, have reached a standstill.  Our muse has flown and left us with nowhere to go.  Neither they nor I have any idea of what comes next, who is going to say what to whom, who will step up or fall back.  Nothing, nil, zip, zilch, nada.

I have pulled out a number of books and articles looking for advice on how to confront and ultimately defeat the dreaded “Black Hat” outlaw, Writer’s Block.  I have muttered and mumbled, showered curses upon my computer screen and keyboard, played hours of solitaire.  I have laundered every bit of dirty clothes in the house – some of them twice!  I have gone grocery shopping, Christmas shopping, and worst of all, I have even gone book shopping!  As though I needed more books!

Like Will Kane, aka Garry Cooper, I looked for help in dealing with the black hats everywhere, and like Will Kane, there was no help.  I would have to face the bad guys alone.  The clock was seconds away from “High Noon” and I stood there in the dusty street.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

If, sixty-three years later, you haven’t seen the movie “High Noon”, I’m going to spoil the ending for you.  You have had your chance to watch one of the great movies, and now I’m going to spoil the ending and tell you that at the last moment, after Will Kane has faced the four bad guys alone and eliminated two of them, he finally gets some help, and from a most unexpected source.

I, too, found some help in my shoot-out with Writer’s Block, and from a most unexpected source.  It appears now that my novel is back on track, I am moving ahead with the story, and my characters again seem to know where they are going and why, and how they expect me to get them there.  Our muse has returned.

The story of my unexpected source of help and how it helped me move past the block I have been facing for the past several weeks is a blog post in and of itself.  And I will take up the details of how I got my book back on track in next week’s post.  For now, suffice it to say that the “word-slinger” is back in action, the keys on the keyboard are clicking, and words are going up on the screen.

Plagiarism or Story-telling?

 

I recently read an article concerning yet another case of plagiarism, this time involving a fiction writer.   Plagiarism involving works of fiction is far less common than non-fiction for several reasons.  Most often when we hear about cases of plagiarism it concerns ostensibly non-fiction writing where the writer involved has either used the words of another writer without proper attribution, or created a story out of thin air and attempted to pass it off as factual.

The situation I was reading about dealt with a writer who apparently copied almost verbatim entire novels by other authors, making only minor changes to names of characters and such-like.  From what I could gather from the article – and I should state here that I did no real research into the facts of the case – the writer in question would take a published hetero romance novel, change a few names, and publish it as a gay romance novel.  Specific plot lines, settings, even personal descriptions of characters were copied in toto, as was large blocks of dialogue.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy dissertation on plagiarism here.  That is not the topic for today.  However, that article on plagiarism did set currents in motion in my thoughts that led to this post.

I mentioned above that plagiarism in fiction writing is relatively uncommon for several reasons.  Among those reasons is that fact that in one very narrow sense of the word, all of us who are creative writers are plagiarizing the work of the story tellers who have gone before us.  I submit to you that all of us who are creating our tales of ‘original fiction’ are copying the same stories that many others have told many times before.  Now, before you heat up the tar and feathers, consider the following musings.

In many different times and places, classes and articles I have taken or read, the topic of plots invariably comes up.  How many different ‘plots’ are there?  And is it possible to come up with a new one?  The general consensus of opinion after considerable discussion usually boils down to only a very few plots, and there haven’t been any new ones in a very long time.  I recall one creative writing class in which the instructor boiled down the suggested plots to only nine.  And, no, I do not recall that particular list.  The list that I do recall is even shorter – three basic plots!

In 1947, Fantasy Press issued a limited edition entitled “Of Worlds Beyond”, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.  This was a symposium of essays by seven of the leading authors of science fiction and fantasy at that time.  The seven authors were asked to contribute their opinions on one phase or another of the genre that was coming to be known as ‘speculative fiction’.  Today we call it science fiction and fantasy.  The limited edition sold out rapidly and became a collector’s item.  It was reissued in 1964 by Advent Publishers with subsequent re-printings.  I have a copy of the third paperback printing of October 1971.  Those of you who are familiar with the field of SF & F will recognize the authors who contributed to this little book:  Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine, Jack Williamson, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., and John W. Campbell, Jr.  It is a list of the cream of the “Who’s Who” in speculative fiction in the mid-twentieth century.

In his article entitled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”, Heinlein opined that ‘human-interest’ stories, as opposed to ‘gadget’ stories were more likely to be picked up by editors of the general interest magazines of the day, which paid much better than the ‘pulp’ magazines devoted to science fiction.  Heinlein also noted that this was the type of story that he himself preferred to write.  It was in this article that Mr. Heinlein noted his list of basic plots.

“A story is an account which is not necessarily true but which is interesting to read.

There are three main plots for the human interest story:  boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better.  Credit the last category to L. Ron Hubbard; I had thought for years there were but two plots – he pointed out to me the third type.”

A quick aside here, before I return to the main point of today’s post.  If you are a writer of fiction, or a reader of fiction who wants to better understand the stories you read, I highly recommend you try to find a copy of this little book.  No, I wll not loan you my copy.  However, I did find it listed at Amazon, though it was the 1974 printing.  I learned more from this little book than from any single class in creative writing I have ever taken.

Just for the fun of it, I have on various occasions analyzed stories by many different authors in many different genres.  I have yet to find one that could not be reduced to its essentials as one of the three categories listed above.

If, for the sake of discussion, we can agree that there are only three – or five, seven, or nine – basic plots, then we are all of us recycling those basic plots.  All of the stories we tell have been told before.

If you write science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein probably wrote a story using those tropes half a century ago.  If he didn’t, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke did.  Heinlein acknowledged that he got his stories from Kipling, H. G. Wells, and others.  Asimov, in selling his “Foundation” stories to John W. Campbell, Jr., explained that it was a recasting of Gibbons’ “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Ah, but you write fantasy.  If it is ‘sword and sorcery’, you should read Heinlein’s “Glory Road”, written in 1963.  Urban fantasy?  Heinlein, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”, 1959.  Middle Earth and faerie?  J. R. R. Tolkien’s notebooks for his works “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, and “The Silmarillion” are dated back to 1917.

Mysteries are your forte, you say?  Edgar Allen Poe defined the mystery story, police procedurals, and the horror genre, all prior to his death at age 40 in 1849.  Romance?  Jane Austin published “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811.  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” was published in 1847.

But you can take a step further back and find at least a foreshadowing of these tales in Shakespeare.  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1590’s has all the elves and fairies you want.  “Romeo and Juliet” is the definition of romance, though the comedies “Twelfth Night” and “Merchant of Venice” present romance with happier endings.

However, you can look even further back to find the beginnings of the tales we tell today.  Shakespeare’s tales find their seeds in earlier works.  The Classic Greek playwrights lend their influence down the ages, as do such tales as “Beowulf” and “Roland”.

Story-telling has its origins in all likelihood with our earliest ancestors sitting around campfires.  We are the inheritors of a long tradition, both oral and written.  And story-tellers is what we who write creative fiction really are.  The mere fact that the plots we use today have been used over and again for thousands of years does not diminish what we bring to the story.  Though the story we tell today was told many times before, it has never before been told in our voice.

And that, Gentle Reader, is why our stories are really ours.  It is our voice bringing an old tale to new life.  It is the little quirks of our writing, the unique combination of often-used words, the rhythm and flow, the rise and fall of our unique voice that makes the story uniquely ours.

Potpourri

My trusty and ever-handy “Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition” defines potpourri as follows:

  1.      a stew,
  2.      a mixture of dried flower petals with spices, kept in a jar for its fragrance,
  3.      a medley, miscellany, or anthology.

Today’s post has no “dried flower petals”, but the first and third definitions both fit equally well.

Mostly, I’m trying to get rid of a bunch of sticky notes pasted on monitor screens, tacked on the bulletin board, and laying about my desk and environs making my work space look like a whirlwind came through.  There may or may not be a full-blown post in any one of these topics, but, for now, I’m just going to throw a bunch of stuff out here.

Previously, I had promised (see here) that I would begin posting some of my shorter fiction works to this site on a regular schedule, beginning with last Friday, December 4.  And I did just that — or at least I thought I did.  I found the story I wanted to post, transferred it to a new blog page, and scheduled the whole thing to appear in the early morning hours of the designated day.  Friday evening I went in to see how the post looked.  Alas and alack!  When I clicked on the “My Fiction” header, the story wasn’t there.  I spent a couple of hours wandering around WordPress trying to find the post.  WordPress kept insisting that the post was published as scheduled, but just as doggedly refused to show it on the site.  To make a long story short, I eventually got the story to appear where it was supposed to be.  You can read it here under “My Fiction”.  I still am not quite sure what went wrong in the first place.  Perhaps I will find out when I post a new story the first Friday in January.

On a completely unrelated note, I have been looking at several different writing software programs for some time now.  Each time I run across such a program, I bookmark it for future reference and at some later date, I go to the website and read all the available information.  At the moment, the two that hold the most interest for me are Scrivener and Dramatica.  Like all such software, both promise that this is the best possible software for any kind of writing and will collect all the necessary information regarding a story in one, easy to use, and easy to access, place, thereby gaining me fame and fortune as a best-selling novelist.  Both have lots of testimonials from other ‘best-selling novelists’ attesting to the fact that this particular software is the greatest advance in writing since movable type.

Am I going to break down and try one or the other, or both in the near future?  Making it more likely that I will try something along these lines is the fact that my organizational skills lean more to planning organization than executing said plans.  See here.  Making it less likely that I will try out this type of software is my penchant for procrastination and Newton’s First Law of Motion, which I paraphrase as “A body at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an external force.”  Inertia is a powerful  force for accomplishing nothing, particularly when combined with procrastination.

I have been using plain, old, vanilla Microsoft Word in its various incarnations for my writing since I began my scribblings.  Three ring binders, lots of printer paper and toner, and sticky notes everywhere have been the tools of the trade for me.  Should I try something new and different?  Does it make any difference?  Would it clean up my office?  That last item is a biggie for me, at least right at the moment.  Next week it may be very different.

How about you, Gentle Readers?  Do you use any of the writing software programs?  Have you tried any of them?  Recommendations will be appreciated.

Finally, a question for the season.  Returning home from the grocery last night, I took note of a number of homes bedecked for the Christmas season with colored lights and other decorative items.  The question that came to mind was this.  Does stringing brightly colored lights on palm trees and cacti make a mockery of the traditional “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”?    😉

Hmmm.  There could be a seasonal story there about Christmas in the desert.  Nah!  Maybe next year.  Where did I put those sticky notes?