Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Jazz it Up!



There are no prescriptions in writing, no one way that will get you there forever.  A little jig, a waltz, the cha-cha, the lindy, a polka--it's good to know a lot of moves, so when it's time, which is right now, you can dance your ass off.

                                                                               --Natalie Goldberg            
                                                                                  Old Friend from Far Away

Monday, December 23, 2013

Do You Need an Agent?

If you're selling magazine articles, poems, individual short stories, single essays--anything that's not a book and won't bring in much money, an agent has little incentive to take you on.  You can probably sell your magazine and journal pieces just as well as an agent can.  If you have a book of poetry, try a university press; many of them acquire poetry manuscripts through award contests.

However, if you're peddling a novel, memoir or story collection, you might consider an agent--whether he/she needs you or not.

Catherine Alexander

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Other People's Dreams

Other people's dreams are boring unless you're in them.  A dream as a story device works too often as a cheap shortcut to the hard work of storytelling.  

Suppose you have a character afraid of failure.  Instead of letting this character reveal his fear by interacting with other people and events, we add a dream sequence in which he burns all his work and smashes his computer.  What becomes of the story?  The device struts on the page and shouts at the reader, leaving the story lurking behind.

Ask yourself what you are trying to reveal that could be done through good old-fashioned character development.  Don't let an easy device rob you of plotting your way into your character's psyche.

Catherine Alexander

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stories Feed Us

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.  If stories come to you, care for the them and learn to give them away where they are needed.  Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  That is why we put these stories in each other's memories.

                                                                                                    --Barrie Lopez

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Go Deep

All of us have certain moments in our lives when we find our depth. It's a good idea to reflect on these times to create stories that define how we live our lives.  Use the spiral of the story and your experience to add insight and meaning.  The deeper we carry the story, the more we recognize wisdom not only in our lives, but the lives of those around us.

Try these exercises:

  • Write a dialogue between you and someone you love who took a different path.  Talk about how you felt at the time and what it means to you now.
  • Describe a lesson learned the hard way.  What was the cost to you?
  • What are you willing to die for?  Live for?
  • When were you most afraid?  How do you wish you had handled it?
  • Describe a sacrifice you made.  How did it change you?  Would you make the same sacrifice now?
Remember, go deep.  When it hurts, you've reached what you need to create art out of your hidden core.




Sunday, November 24, 2013

What is Literary Fiction?


Many editors believe that one of the primary differences between literary fiction and mainstream fiction is that mainstream fiction tends to have a stronger emphasis on story or plot than on character.

This does not mean that plot is not important to literary fiction; narrative movement and a good story line are crucial and must include the elements that we commonly associate with stories.  The work must be kept together from start to finish.  

Some elements of literary fiction:

Introspection
Complex and layered, with in-depth character studies
A focus on characters that drive the plot 
Usually enlist emotional involvement in the reader
Are primarily based in language and metaphorical
Concentrate on the senses

Some examples of popular literary fiction:

The Stranger by Albert Camus
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres

Whether or not literary fiction is called a "genre" is debatable.  It's all fiction, excerpt the literary style tends to be lyrical, takes risks and concentrates not on the climax but all the drama, before and after.

If you enjoy intrigue, plots and subplots, and novels filled with action, then mainstream fiction is what you want.



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Be Honest--Write for Yourself

I'm paraphrasing from Writing to Save Your Life by Michele Weldon:

Write for yourself.  Even if in the back of your mind you're hoping to self-publish your book, or be discovered with a best seller.  Don't confuse your writing with the need for approval.  Write for honesty's sake.  Write for writing's sake.

Write for the you who is free from the fear of judgment.  Write for the you who comes in the door from work and wears the slouchiest sweatpants because they are soft and comfortable and you've worn them since college.  Write for the you who wakes up in the morning refreshed before remembering anything that needs to be done for anyone.

Write for the you who puts French fries between the buns of the cheeseburger in spite of jeers from friends.  Write for the you who plays 50s music and dances for hours. Write for the you who has cold lasagna for breakfast--straight out of the fridge, eating it with your hands.  Write for the you who sometimes doesn't want to dwell on what other people think.  Write for the you who is still innocent.  Don't censor yourself because limiting your words and stifling your truth will not help you heal.

Write freely.  Write to be free of the fear of what will happen when you write the truth. 
But write.

I realize this is a tall order.  If you are writing a memoir, write your life and turn it into art.   If you are writing fiction, write the lie that tells the truth.

catherine@catherinealexander.net



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time Is On Your Side


  • P.D. James published her first book, Cover Her Face, at age 42.
  • Rachel Carson published her first book, Silent Spring, at age 54.
  • Annie Proulx published her first book, Postcards, at age 58.
  • Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child, at age 61.
  • Frank McCourt published his first book, Angela's Ashes, at age 66.
  • Peter Pouncey published his first book, Rules for Old Men Waiting, at age 67.
  • Harriet Doerr published her first book, Stones for Ibarra, at age 73.
  • Helen Hooven Santmyer published her first bestseller, "...And Ladies of the Club," at age 88.
You have time to live an entire life as something else, and then become a writer.

This has been the case for yours truly, who published her first short story, "The Bear in the Outhouse," at age 56.

catherine@catherinealexander.net


Monday, November 11, 2013

Strange Phenomenons

Once you're into a story everything seems to apply--what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you're writing.  Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.  I guess you're tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized.
                                                                      --Eudora Welty

Once you've committed to a story on which you're working, external forces seem to kick in. Something at the grocery story catches your eye, a conversation you hear at a restaurant, a film or magazine article speaks to you.  A friend visits a country you're including in your book.

You don't have to ask for any of this.  It all flows naturally toward you.  Trust this phenomenon.  As long as you work on your project regularly, what you need will come to you.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Keep Some Things to Yourself

Do you know folks who bombard you with intimate details of their life before you say hello?  And do you walk a mile out of your way to avoid them?

Voltaire says "The secret of being tiresome is to tell everything."  We say "too much information."

The same applies to writing.  Perhaps you've written exhaustive details of your characters.  The schools they attended, the foods they love and hate, the music they listen to in the car.  These do not have to be dutifully recited, just slipped in where they really matter in the story.

Separate what is essential for what you are now writing.  What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.

Details are important, but don't get bogged down writing them.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What You Should Read

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.
                                                                                    --William Faulkner

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Turn Your Life into Art

After my memoir students read their work, they sometimes say "true story!"

I say, "tell me your truth, but shape it in a way that takes us from the doldrums and startles us into a new grasp of our strange and remarkable lives."

In other words, turn real life into art. The author must establish right away a reason for the reader to be attentive at all.  Structure your experience; be concrete and vivid.  Fill your work with sensory details, metaphors and lively rhythm. Then the reader will feel the personal story along with you.  By experiencing it, the reader begins to care about it, because your experience has now become his/her own.

Observe your life from every angle, then fashion what you see through a voice that is yours alone. You should be active, authentic and consistent.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Moments of Being

The memories that can have the most emotional impact for the writer are those we don't really understand, the images that rise up before us quite without our volition.  For example, the flash of our mother's face as she sips from a cooled cup of coffee, her eyes betraying some private grief you've never seen before; or the smell of grapefruit ripening on a tree outside your bedroom window.  Perhaps the touch of a stranger's hand reminds you of the way your grandmother casually grasped your hand in her own, the palm so soft but the knuckles so rough, as you sat together watching television, not speaking a word.
These are the river teeth, or the moments of being, the ones that suck your breath away. What repository of memory do you hold in your heart rather than your head?  What are the pictures that rise up to the surface without your bidding?  Take these as your cue. Pick up your pen, your net, your magnet, whatever it takes.  Be on alert.  This is where you begin.

From Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Greatest Betrayal of All

I found the following nugget in the Sunday, October 6, 2013 NYT Sunday Review from an Opinion by Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical School. The article is about the impact of betrayals in our lives.  The last lines are:
Moving forward in life is hard or even, at times, impossible, without owning a narrative of one's past.  Isak Dinesen has been quoted as saying "all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them."  Perhaps robbing someone of his or her story is the greatest betrayal of all.
I couldn't agree more.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Using Lists in Writing

Sometimes lists in writing can provide rhythm and rich detail for a strong effect.

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien has excellent examples.  For instance:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.  Among the necessities or near necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations,and two or three canteens of water.  Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds. . . .

In one of my humorous short stories, my father used a flip chart listing the basic reasons why my mother should marry him.  She liked the presentation and accepted his proposal.

catherine@catherinealexander.com


Friday, October 11, 2013

First Paragraphs are So Important

Let's consider the first paragraph of We the Animals by Justin Torres. I quote:

We wanted more.  We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry.  We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men.  We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.  We wanted muscles on our skinny arms.  We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight.  We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

Notice how the details make this paragraph singe, as well as the repetition of "We" as the first word in every sentence.  The number six referring to hands and feet make it vivid and chaotic.  Lots of crashing traffic in this paragraph, we catch our breath in the second.

Justin Torres sets the bar high in writing take offs.  But in the book's landing, I was a bit disappointed. Never mind, the magical images are soaring.  Well worth the read.  A slim book, 125 pp.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Write Down Your Secrets

Don't hide any events of your life that cause you anxiety or pain.  It's not necessary to reveal them to others, but write them down for yourself.  Examine them, bury the notebook but don't let those things pollute your other writing.  Whatever is hidden or secretive will look for a way out.  You'll write about a grilled cheese sandwich and bubbling up in the middle of the cheese will be incest, deception or adultery.  Claiming it, exploring it, will free you.  This doesn't mean that you have to make it public. 
I have written stories for the drawer.  One in particular I decided to pull out years later, edit and submit.  Now it has been published in Zest Literary Journal, issue number two. There are other stories left in the bottom of the drawer.  Some will be dragged out in the future, some never.
Only when your secrets are on the page and not concealed will they stop haunting you. 
This is taken in part from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg.  I recommend this book whether your write fiction or memoir.  A wonderful read, full of exercises to elevate and transform your muse.

 catherine@catherinealexander.net








Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Truth in Memoir

The purpose of memoir is to capture the essence of the narrator rather than factual life details.

Memory is a very personal and changeable thing.  The actual year or season or time of day shifts to a different one.  Many details are lost.  The writer may need to consciously adjust minor details in the interest of clarity.  Sometimes events need to be reordered to make the narrative work.

It's often necessary to approximate dialogue.  No one can recall word for word what happened decades ago.

Leave out whatever makes the story too complicated for a reader to grasp.  But feel honor bound to capture the essence of the interaction in the events in the dialogue.  Memoir is, after all, supposed to be a true story (one that represents as closely as possible the experience); you have an obligation to the reader to make it that.

We have to make peace with the possibility that there is no more absolute truth in memoir than there is in life.  The task is to decide where, in each story, the integrity--the honest heart of the story--rests, while at the same time giving due respect to the events as they are remembered.

The truth, however we define it, is often hard to tell.  First there's the pain we can cause ourselves in the very act of of getting close enough to the truth to write it down.  Then there is the fear of self-disclosure that might cause embarrassment, social ostracism or loss of family and friends.  We know in advance about the raised eyebrows, the turned backs, the gossip.

Telling your truths--the difficult and joyful ones--is a big part of what makes for good writing.  It's also what brings you peace in the process of of writing.  You want to see your writing grow, to find your daily work absorbing, to discover how you improve.  None of this will happen if you shy away from the truth.  The rewards you seek are the rewards that go with courage; you take the risk and you feel the satisfaction of becoming a better writer.

That doesn't mean your memoir needs to be a tell-all confessional or a desire for revenge.  It's that unique blend of truth and art that can touch a reader's heart.

Much of this information comes from Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Alert! Tomorrow, September 26, is the Deadline to Sign Up For My Short Story Class at Edmonds Community College Beginning October 1, 2013

This class covers crafting a short story all the way to publishing. There are literally hundreds of journals looking for stories. This is true!

My class is intense personal, positive and supportive.  Promoting self-esteem is paramount.  We get to know one another very quickly and become wholly involved.

As a teacher, it doesn't take me long to uncover strengths in a writer and exploit them.  We start from the critical first sentence right through to resolution.

Everything in a short story is there for a reason. I cover characters, dialogue, conflict, plot, similes,
metaphors, point of view, scene, narration, voice (and everything in between) in a heartfelt way.

Here is the link to sign up:

http://www.campusce.net/edmondsarts/course/course.aspx?C=367&pc=47mc=98&sc=

Or call 425 640.1243 between 10 and 2:00

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Truth in Fiction

Everything one invents is true. -- Gustave Flaubert 
What is remembered is what becomes reality.-- Patricia Hampl
True to life becomes fiction when it perceives more than observes. -- Wright Morris 
One's real life is often the life that one does not lead. --  Oscar Wilde

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Monday, September 16, 2013

Keeping a List


I'm obsessed with lists:  Story ideas, good character names. even my characters make lists.  Many of us keep shopping lists,Christmas cards lists, birthday lists, to-do lists. How about getting in touch with your past lists?  Here are some examples:

1.  List all the friends you've had.  Put an X beside those you've lost contact with.

2.  List all the pets you've ever had,even the turtle that lived two days.

3.  List all of the moments you'd live over again.

4.  List everything you've done that you're ashamed of.

5.  List every object you've ever lost.

6.  List the best meals you've ever eaten.  And the worst.

7.  List the toys and games you owned as a child.

8.  List your favorite song.

9.  List your favorite smells.

10. List your goals for the next five years.  Prioritize them.

Take five to ten minutes on each list initially.  They will suggest events, emotions, people you haven't considered in a while.  What else do they suggest?  Use the lists for sources of material for your fiction.

                             --Taken from The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne, p.27

catherine@catherinealexander.net




Friday, September 13, 2013

Rule One In Writing

The first rule in writing is that there are no rules.

This is what I tell my class before giving pointers in writing characters, dialogue, conflict, plot, simile, metaphor, point of view, scene, narration, voice, etc.

The truth is there is no system, no set of rules that guarantee good writing.  No magic formula that will make hard work, commitment, inspiration, taste and good luck unnecessary.  There are some ways  to trigger imagination.  Being obsessed with the need to write helps.  Patience helps.  Doing this for love helps.  Take the vow.

My classes are intense, personal positive and supportive.  Promoting self-esteem and confidence is paramount.  As a teacher is doesn't take me long to discover strengths in a writer and exploit them.

Teaching in a heartfelt way promotes accomplishment and leads to success.  Rules are only suggestions.  Each story has it own rule.

catherine@catherinealexander.net


Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Story of Your Life is Never Boring

Stephen King's book, On Writing --  A Memoir of the Craft, is a link between writing and living.  Not a "how-to" necessarily, more an account of his struggles, successes and the drive to write.  Often it is very funny, always it's useful and revealing.

Steve had a teaching certificate and two kids, but he couldn't find a teaching job.  So he went to work at a commercial laundry.  He found little extras in hospital laundry like boxes of Cracker Jacks with weird prizes in them.  He found a steel bedpan in one load and a pair of surgical scissors in another. Once he heard a strange clicking from inside of one washer and hit the emergency stop button. In a pocket of surgical scrubs he found a complete set of human teeth.

What's more interesting than that?  When someone tells me about their so-called boring life, I don't believe them.  Whether you've worked in a laundry or on the 21st floor of a skyscraper, it's all grist to the mill.  Write that story and share it with me, please.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Writing About an Ordinary Life



We need to know about ordinary childhoods.  We want to know about your cough and that your mother/father was there to administer the syrup.  What kind of a bottle did it come in?  What did it taste like?  Did you want to spit it out or did the experience give your fragile life a foundation?

The important thing is to go below the cliches to touch the texture of your experience.  Your mind is hungry to be alive.  You give us that gift by laying down your true mind on the page.  We read it and you open up fields of our own imagination.

Life passes.  Thank you for telling us about your time.

Paraphrased from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg, p.121

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Writers Need Rain

One of my students brought an editorial from The Seattle Times dated August 25, 1990.  The author is Pat Dillon.

"It sounded like piano keys tinkling.  The Douglas firs dripped freshly, smelling like toothpaste should.  And judging from the depth of the puddles on the patio and from the darkness of the soaked garden dirt, the rain evidently started during the middle of the night.

It had turned to a heavy mist that hung around all the next morning.  Out on the Sound, where the mist hung heaviest, where you couldn't see, the foghorns blew deep-toned toasts . . ."

"'The weather's definitely turned,' my brother said, looking out the window into the mist toward the Sound.  His voice sounded somber.  But he had a relieved look.  He's a poet.  He needs the rain.

It hadn't rained on Puget Sound in nearly a month, and the tanned natives of the Pacific Northwest were getting edgy.

Rain is their blood, their life.  Rain paints their landscape.  Rain restores the character of the place just as it begins to fade, just as it gives the salmon entree to stop swimming in confused circles and return to the rivers of their birth.

The sun is fine.  Just not in great doses.  Like visiting relatives, it saps them, just as it had been sapping the marigolds and dahlias and petunias in my mother's garden and the neighbors.'

So it was good that the rain came, good for everybody, that it arrived the day my kids and I returned to California . . ."
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Many Puget Sound writers welcome the rain.  While I love to complain about it, I need the rain.  I need my studio window wet with drops of fall.  I need shelter to watch the rain with my two dogs and the Maine Coon cat.  I welcome the clicking of my computer keys nearly in sync with the drops on the window.  I walk the dogs to feel and smell the rain.  I return to my study and listen to it.



catherine@catherinealexander.net

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Will I Ever Be a Published Writer?

Will I ever be a published writer?

"You will be published if you possess three qualities--talent, passion and discipline.

You will probably be published if you possess two of the three qualities in either combination--either talent and discipline, or passion and discipline.

You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline.

But if all you possess is talent or passions, if all you possess is talent and passion, you will not be published.  The likelihood is you will never be published.  And if by some miracle you are published, it will probably never happen again. . . ."

"A lot of writing is simply showing up.  A lot of writing is being willing to show up day after day, same time, same place.  A lot of writing is being able to put the work first simply because it is the work.  A lot of writing is being able to delay gratification."

                                                                  --Elizabeth George, Write Away

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Trick to Writing Good Dialogue

The trick to writing good dialogue is voice.  What would he or she say?  The answer is entirely in language.  The choice of language reveals the nature of the characters, their ages, their backgrounds their education, their relationship and how they handle conflict.

Avoid long dialogues but keep the sense of exchange.  The following is the best example of economy of dialogue that I have read:

"You asshole," she snarled.
"You're the asshole," I said.
"I hate you."
"Ditto," I said.  "Ditto and square it."

                            --T. Coraghessan Boyle, "The Night of the Satellite"
                               The New Yorker, April 15, 2013, p.62


catherine@catherinealexander.net


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fiction is Truth Inside a Lie

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
                                                                    --Stephen King

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Importance of Story

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.  If stories come to you, care for them and learn to give them away where they are needed.  Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  That is why we put these stories in each other's memories.

                                                                            --Barry Lopez

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Breaking Through a Character


Sometimes people are constitutionally unable to travel their inner world.  They cannot exhibit enough conflict and contradiction that we recognize them as belonging to our complex human race.  That is, they do not seem capable of change.  They lack traits and desires that are at war with the world and other people.  In other words, bland as oatmeal, without the raisins.

In fiction, however, such a character can be a great set up.  Was he always bland and boring?  Why?  What can be done to make him feel?   Perhaps as a writer, you can grant him the opportunity to enter conflict and thus discover his own desires and contradictions.  Most of us are gentle, violent, tough, fearful, lusty, prudish, sloppy and meticulous--all at the same time.

Oh what fun to pierce the world of a protagonist and make him squirm.  Get to his core.  Thus, the plot starts.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Motivation: What drives us in fiction and in life

Motivation is the heart and soul of any character's action or inaction.  Without motivation, a character has no need to move, to act or react--coerce, ridicule, praise, lie--and so if our characters lack strong motivations, chances are we won't have much of a story.  No one will want to do anything; their need won't be strong enough to get them up off the couch and out the door.  There will be no impetus for the story to be told.  
Characters want, they yearn, often desperately so, and this motivation rises in direct conflict with an opposing desire.  Ultimately there is a climax.
This is the classic architecture of a story:  conflict, climax and resolution.  Character one has a motivation, character two has an opposing motivation, there is rising conflict-- followed by a climax and resolution.  
                                                                Paraphrased from On Writing Short Stories
                                                                Edited by Tom Bailey

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Monday, August 19, 2013

Voice

It is akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone.  It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature of everything he writes.  It is his world and no other.  This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.  Not talent.  There's plenty of that around.  But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking:  that writer may be around for a time.
                                                                                        --Raymond Carver, "On Writing"

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Habit is More Dependable than Inspiration

Forget inspiration, habit is more dependable.  Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not.  Habit will help you finish and polish your stories.  Inspiration won't.  Habit is persistence in practice.
                                                                                   --Octavia Butler

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Love and Hate in Writing

What's vital for the fiction writer to remember is that the wicked, the violent, and the stupid do also love, in their way.  Just as humble and loving and thoughtful people also hate.  Hate humbly, hate lovingly, hate thoughtfully, and so on.
                                                                                     --Don Bauer

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hard Stories

I want hard stories, I demand them from myself.  Hard stories are worth the difficulty.  It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and reexamining it, re-creating it in the story, and making it something different, making it meaningful--even if the meaning is only in the act of telling.
                                                                                      --Dorothy Allison

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Does A Story Have to be a Good Date?

A story has to be a good date because the reader can stop at any time . . . Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.

                                                                         --Kurt Vonnegut

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Humor in Writing

Life's Irritations


Write humor out of your bad experiences, not your good ones.  Think about it.
Which would make a better story, your best trip with your best friend or the worst, with your father muttering obscenities over a steaming radiator, while your sister screams for a bathroom right now!!  What was awful then is probably hilarious now.  Some of life's most irritating things--telemarketers, computer glitches, being kept on hold forever-- yield some of the most reliable humor.  

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dance with your skeletons

"If you have a skeleton in your closet, take it out and dance with it."
--Carolyn Mackenzie

Somehow what you least want to write about, what you shrink from, finds its way into your writing.   Your soul is blocked.   Free it and smooth it out with your writing.

Put your skeletons to work and make them dance on your page.

Catherine@catherinealexander.net


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Great artists struggle just like the rest of us

"Great artists who produce great work are just like us.  Really.  Just like us.
–They struggle with fear and avoid their work, just like we do.  It’s just part of their creative process. They tell themselves it’s too hard.  They tell themselves that they suck and that they’re not good enough.  They worry about what other people think about their work.  Both Pam and Cheryl do this and said that every other writer they know does the same thing.
But, here’s their secret–they’re onto themselves–they expect that inner backtalk and their resistance.  It no longer surprises them.  They know it’s part of their process.  And they don’t let it stop them.  
Writing is hard, they agreed.  Getting what’s in your head onto paper takes hours, lots of false starts, and often brings frustration.  But the difficulties are not reason enough to avoid your soul’s calling.
After they fret and flounder, they roll up their sleeves and go to work.  In Tiny Beautiful Things, a stuck, self-loathing young woman complained she could only “write like a girl,” and sought Sugar’s advice.  Cheryl famously advised: “Don’t write like a girl.  Don’t write like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”  In other words, do what burns inside you to be expressed and do it ferociously.
–The demands, routines, and curve balls of life do not keep them from their work or their dreams. Both Pam and Cheryl cope with the ordinary and extraordinary interruptions of life, too.  Just like we do.  They deal with email and phone calls and heavy schedules.  During the week with us, Cheryl’s young children wanted cheeseburgers and their Mom’s attention, and an out-of-control forest fire raged within a mile of Pam’s beloved ranch in southern Colorado.  In fact, Pam had evacuated her home only a few hours before she flew to California to be with us.  Neither of them uttered one syllable of victimy complaint.  They shared their knowledge, passion, energy and showed up smiling and present, every session.
–Moving towards their dreams, improving their skills and doing their creative work is part of the tapestry of their lives.Notwithstanding packed schedules, they regularly develop their skills and move forward with their visions.  Cheryl reads works by great writers daily, paying careful attention to details like how the writer moves them from place to place in physical space.  Pam regularly reads poetry to improve her impressive precision with words. She gathered ideas for stories during class breaks and shared them with us.  Pam turned her personal disaster into a creative exercise and had us write about what we would rescue if we had to evacuate our homes in four hours, like she had.
–They don’t know the path before they take the journey.  They don’t expect to know it either.  While some writers may know exactly where they’re going and have it all figured out, these two definitely don’t.  Pam describes her starting point as The Forest of Not Knowing. She likes it there and explained the many advantages of not-knowing.  Cheryl likewise has no idea where her writing will take her—the path arises organically as she writes.  Wildwas originally intended as an exploration of her grueling Pacific Crest Trail hike and, after she began, it veered into the deepest waters of human experience.  If “not-knowing-where-it’s-going” worked for Wild, which is being hailed as one of the great masterpieces of our times, it might just work for our challenges.
In other words, when we have a project ahead of us, we don’t need to know where we’re going or where we will end up.  That’s okay.  We just need to start.   In personal development, this approach is extraordinarily successful.  I encourage my coaching students not to worry about having a plan for their clients and to proceed a step at a time.  Our clients’ attention, awareness, and insights will light the trail, bit by bit.
For me, hearing that even accomplished artists cope with the same things I do and the same things my clients do gave me great reassurance.  Whether we want to create great art in our lives or whether we want to master the art of living, we can expect bouts of inner resistance and fear, a variety of obstacles and losses, and lots of time in The Forest of Not Knowing.
This is all part of the experience of creating anything, as well as the experience of being human.  If we’re willing to then dive in notwithstanding the inner and outer forest fires, and keep moving towards our dreams and desires, we can express what yearns for expression.  We can create our own masterpieces.
And sometimes, if we’re very, very lucky, we can sit with our bared souls and our bared butts in the company of understanding friends, and contemplate the mystery, the wonder, and the everyday magic of it all."

-Getting Naked and Getting Real, Terry De Meo

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dialogue Exercise

Write a dialogue between two people.  Pick an example:
·         “Are you listening to me?” 
·         “You always . . .” 
·         “I’ll never forgive you.” 
·         “Don’t worry about it.”  
·         “I may be an alcoholic, but I’m not a racist.” 
·         “Don’t start with me.” 
·         “I thought you wanted children.” 
·         “But you promised!” 
·         “What is this all about?” 
·         “Now I’ll never get the job!”  
·         “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
·         “Do you want to talk about it?” 
·         “I’ve got a dress just like that.  How much did you pay for yours?”
·          “Just don’t take me for granted.”
·         “Get over it.”

·         “You don’t seem excited, that’s all I’m sayin.’”  

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Writing Has Bad Days -- Never Give Up!

I'm sharing a bad day.  I've cleared the time to write, am sitting down at the computer but nothing seems to come of it.  My keyboard types the wrong letters, my dog barks at illusions, I'm hungry after just eating and I think I need to go someplace but where?  My writing space is disorganized, the dog is maddening, I can't concentrate, I'm bored by my characters, I can't figure out what comes next, I'm losing confidence in my work, I must check email.  And now I've left the caps lock on and everything I entered so far is in caps.

STOP WITH THIS NONSENSE!  (all caps intentional)  I know my enjoyment comes after I write, not during.  Sometimes the process is agony.  I write a scene and hate it.  Can't think of a good name for a character, and after some research, come up dry.  I should be more organized.  I should come up with new ideas.  I am in a rut.  I am stumped.  Writing gives me a headache.  I'm tired.

But I won't give in.  Writing is me and I am the writer.  So I'm going back to it.  One scene is what I'm after.  One scene or bust.

I'll keep you posted on my progress.

catherinealexander.net


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Moving Your Characters Around

Think about passages in which your characters must move from one place to another.  Then write some sentences where you make these moves clear.  For example, walk some characters from the kitchen to the backyard or vice versa.  Try a few sentences where your character moves from a safe place to one where she will have to explain herself if she is discovered.  Or write a brief transition from the car after a long, solitary drive to a party full of hostile strangers.

Often writers want their scene changes to be unobtrusive.  Some novelists even divide their chapters like scenes in a play, with a new chapter beginning every time a change of scene is called for.  That way writers can skip unexciting sentences, such as "She drove the station wagon to the bank."

On the other hand, stage directions can do more than move characters around; they can also help establish personalities or advance a plot.  "She twirls her cigarette in the ashtray until the long, red ash is shaped into a cone."  Is she dangerous, scared or both?  

catherinealexander.net

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Making a Good Character Look Bad

Create a scene in which your character does one of the following:
  • is hurt or humiliated
  • does something stupid
  • makes a fool of herself
  • knowingly commits an immoral act or does not speak up when someone else does
  • shows through her speech or actions that she is wrong about something important
It's easy to fall in love with your protagonist or identify so closely that you are unable to get your character into any serious trouble.  But a story in which your character does nothing wrong can end up short.  Create a scene where your protagonist is hardly at her best.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Character Monologue Exercise

Try writing a monologue of your main character.  Let there be another person in the room with him, to whom he is speaking.  The situation should bring out extreme emotion from your speaking character:  joy, despair, fear, anger, frustration, etc.

 Write one page of the monologue in first person from the character's point of view.  The goal of this exercise is not to provide plot but to push this character towards an extreme feeling.  Let him harangue. Doesn't have to make sense.  Just go with it.  What matters is to feel the emotion, then write whatever comes out.

Innermost feelings then can be externalized into concrete outer action.

catherine@catherinealexander.net



Sunday, June 23, 2013

Knowing Your Character

I have a character about whom I have been writing/thinking for 20 years.  I know his feelings, but he still eludes me.  So I am trying this exercise:

Try to visualize physical attributes.  (Age, height, weight, good looking, or not much.)

What does he care about?
His greatest failure?
His greatest obstacle?
His dream?
His greatest drive in life?
What does he like to remember from the past?
What does he like to forget?
What is his character flaw?
What is a visual image or metaphor to symbolize your character?  This might be an animal, a flower, a color.

Write one page describing this person from your own life.  Focus on him and not just how you feel about him.  If you walked into a crowded room of two hundred people, he should stand out.

Perhaps this exercise will serve to make my character real.  Maybe it will even lead to scenes I have not yet imagined.

Try it.

catherine@catherinealexander.net





Saturday, June 22, 2013

How to Learn What Your Character Feels

Growing up, I was often reminded of being too sensitive.  "Don't take everything to heart, kid," my father would say. "Stop taking everything so personal!  You're way too sensitive!"

Well, guess what?  I haven't changed in more than seven decades of living.  In fact, I've turned it into a strength in terms of writing.  I can sense people's feelings from a distance, just from listening to them talk.  I document these feelings on paper.  Then I intuit an internal or secret life.  What part is kept hidden that no one knows about?  Grief?  Shame?  Guilt?  Obsessions?

And voila!  I have a character.  I go beyond the basic physical description. There could be scars (both physical and emotional), a certain the set of the mouth, an odd way of walking, a look to the side, a way of folding hands, twirling a lock of hair, scratching the head or a pinching an ear.  These details portray feelings central to the character.

No one gets through life unscathed.  Start with basic feelings --  happiness, sadness and so on.  Pull back and imagine what's lurking behind.  Racism, growing old, poverty, evil, injustice, sin, ambition, deceit.  The fiction writer wants to portray a concept, an emotion, an idea, but has to do so dramatically by showing and embodying the idea.  Your mind is making associations -- telling you something is there and more can be revealed.

Take an image, let's say a wedding ring on your character.  What is she doing with it?  Twirling it around her left forefinger?  Maybe around her right?  Shining it with a tissue?  Taking it off and on?  The wedding ring alone shows something, but the action around it tells much more.  Once you've nailed the gesture, explored it fully, you'll feel what the character feels.

Then what happens next?

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Eavesdropping

Writers are nosy; they don't mind their own business.  They eavesdrop.  They spy.  In Seattle there is a bus I once rode.  Stuff happened on that route.  A couple sat handcuffed together.  A man got on and poured his coffee in the coin box when asked to dump it outside.  A guy on a cell was trying to buy a goat.  A dog got on without any apparent owner and got off two stops later.

I listen in on conversations and try to capture patterns of speech.  No character speaks the same as another character.  I write down snatches of what I hear.  A person's speech tells us a lot about his education, where he grew up, about his job, his self-esteem.  The volume of pitch of spoken words vary during conversations. I listen secretly.

Sometimes I sit in a public place near the most interesting people I can find.  Get myself a coffee and open my notebook.  I'm unobtrusive, but I listen.  I don't even have to see the people talking.  Later I will put these people in a complication.  They can be in a very ordinary situation such as washing the supper dishes or talking during an opera intermission.  Trouble finds them when they least expect it.  They're surprised when during a perfectly routine event becomes potentially difficult.

I listen wherever I am.  What I am waiting for are voices that evoke the human condition.

catherine@catherinealexander.net


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing About Loss

Loss and grief:  What else is there?  We are all exiles from the garden of childhood.  Our exile is the beginning of our drive to create.   We don't lose our childhood in one swoop.  It's a gradual process, often still going on into adult life. 

Write towards loss.  The idea is to make art of your experiences, no matter how painful.  Negative emotions can electrify on the page.  Our culture focuses on the positive.   If we're optimistic and joyful, this will reflect on our life.   But plumbing our depths is where we find the core of our story and the talent within us.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Monday, June 3, 2013

Leave Out Your Darlings

 In writing, leaving out is just as important as what you put in.  New writers sometimes get bogged down by too much material.  If your descriptions do not advance the story, leave out.  Separate what is essential.  Set aside the rest.  Move your narrative forward, choosing only what burnishes the page.

The time to do this is in the editing stage.  Revision, revision, revision.  Be willing to lose something, often referred to as "killing your darlings."  What you think is profound and literary may be unworthy of your piece.  You will be a better writer for turning aside from anything that distracts from the story.

Focus on being concise and readable.  Not self-indulged. 

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dig deep when you're writing

A tough childhood is pay dirt to a writer.  Mine it!  This will be your commitment to dig and a step toward liberation. 

We don't always like the stories we're given to tell.  We don't always like the subjects that choose us.

If we dig to the depths of our souls, we're on the right track.   We're on center.  Let go and put your fingers on the keyboard.  Proceed without caution.

catherine@catherinealexander.net

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fear of Writing

If we wait until the fear of writing goes away, we will never write.

If we wait until the fear of self-exposure goes away, we will never publish.

If we wait until the fear of failure can be somehow managed, we will never attempt anything.

If we wait until the fear of being laughed at goes away, we will indeed stall out.


   --   Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Writing Group Openings in the Seattle Area

There are still some spots open in the Northgate writing group.  A comfortable mix of new and established writers with an instructor present.  Contact catherine@catherinealexander.net for details.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tips on Writing and Why do I Write?


 

Use loneliness.  Writing can be very lonely.  Lead yourself out of it by thinking of someone and wanting to express your life to that person.  Reach out in your writing to another lonely soul.  Loneliness creates an aching urgency to reconnect with the world.  Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression – to speak, to say who you are and how you care or don’t care about life and what’s happened to you.

Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write.  Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being. 

 

Stuck?  Write about what you eat.  If you find you are having trouble writing and nothing seems real, just write about food.  Write about the foods you love most.  Be specific.  Give details.  Where did you eat it, with whom and what season was it in?  What was the best meal you had last week?  Maybe it’s just the banana you had in your cold kitchen on Tuesday morning.  From the table, the cheese, the old friend across from you, the glasses of water, the striped tablecloth, fork, knife, thick white plate, green salad, butter, you can extend yourself out in memory, time and space.  Okay, you’ve never had a good meal in your life.  Simply begin with the last stale cheese sandwich you had in that empty apartment on First Avenue.  It’s your life, begin from it.

 

No limits.  When you accept writing as what you are going to do, after you’ve tried everything else – marriage, traveling, living in Houston or Billings – there’s finally no place else to go.  So matter how big the resistance, there is one day that you write.  It doesn’t go smoothly.  One day you have trouble putting pen to paper, the next you can’t stop.  Continue under all circumstances.  You’ll feel momentary flashes of enlightenment, but the nitty-gritty of everyday life, the memories, the deep longings and the suffering are what propels us across the page.  Break through the resistance in your own mind and never limit yourself.

 

Keep a notebook. The really important things people have said are probably engraved somewhere in your memory.  Write these in your notebook.  Perhaps the following will give you a trigger to open the box. Think about who might have said:

 

I do.* You’re fired. * I never did really love you. * I’m sorry, I’ve met someone else. It was nothing, just a one-night stand. * Would you like to go steady? * Have you ever thought about marrying me? * You will never forgive me, will you? *  I’m leaving for New York.*  I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I know it’s not you.*  Have you put on a few pounds?  * We’ll see each other again, I promise. * You got what you deserved. * You’ll be sorry one day when I’m not around. * You couldn’t have hurt me more if you had plunged a dagger in my heart. * Either you follow the rules in this house or you leave.

 

Show don’t tell.  If you want your readers to see the quaintness of the town, show us the barber pole, the brick streets, the benches in front of the bank where people sit.   Introduce them to the shoemaker who wears a leather apron and repairs saddles as well as your Mary Janes.  Let the reader experience the situation with you:  I was appalled by the clutter:  the chair spitting its stuffing, a couch stacked with outdated newspapers, Chinese take-out cartons caked with dried soy sauce, five cats sleeping on the mattress on the floor. Order an egg cream at the drugstore.

 

WHY DO I WRITE?

 

It’s a good question.  Ask it of yourself every once in a while.  No answer will make you stop writing, and over time you will find that you have given every response.

1.        Because I’m a jerk.

2.        No one listens to me when I speak.

3.        So I can start a revolution.

4.        In order to write the Great American Novel and make a zillion bucks.

5.        Because I’m crazy.

6.        To keep me from going crazy.

7.        Because I am channeled by William Shakespeare.

8.        Because I have something to say.

9.        Because I have nothing to say.

10.      Life is temporary, writing lasts.

 

Why do I write?  I write because I’ve kept my mouth shut all my life and it’s time for me to speak out.  I am always facing that creeping agony that all this will pass.  The truth is I have a way with words.  I can make the terrible wonderful, the unspoken spoken.

 

Alone at my desk, I discover what has passed through me when I write.  I write because I am crazy, schizophrenic, neurotic, obsessive, compulsive and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress.  I know it, accept it and I have to do something with it other than go to the loony bin.

 

I write because there are stories that people have forgotten or are too scared to tell. I write because I am a woman trying to stand up for myself. I write because I dare to tell what happened and make it art.  I write so that I can face my own life.  I write because I run deep and my soul aches.

 

I write out of joy. I write out of hurt.  I write to make myself strong and to come home to myself.

 

Endings


Sometimes the last lines of the story are the hardest to write.  An ending has to illuminate all that has gone before.  There needs to be a closure or the story has a weak effect.  There’s the long downhill glide and then you’ve landed, maybe not perfectly, but the ride is over.
 
Using a different metaphor, we must weave all the strands together.  After the “great moment” has happened where nothing will be the same, then we can wrap it up.  In other words, sew up the threads and cut all loose ends.

 It’s hard to know, sometimes, how to end a story.  Maybe we throw in a big surprise or clever twist, leaving the reader feeling manipulated.  Or we keep going with a summarizing paragraph explaining the lessons learned, or with an epilogue showing where the characters are five years later.
 
A quiet ending with a suggestive statement will give the reader the message.  Something like:


          I sat at the table with a fresh cup of coffee.  I had never known those things about my mother.  Now I realize that she was just another person searching for love.  She had managed to give me just little more than she got.  And maybe that’s okay.

 
An open-ended story is one where the “resolution” is not dramatically conclusive.  The reader is left with an impression of life rather than with a “satisfying” conclusion.  Yet it must leave the reader satisfied.   There is an understanding that all that can be said has been said.  For example:
       
          A man and a woman have been canoeing on a river.  Something has gone wrong with their relationship.  They’re not paying attention to where they have drifted or how long they’ve been out on the river.  They aren’t particularly experienced with canoes in general and with rivers in particular.  Now night in coming on and the wind is cold.  Suddenly they find themselves shivering in the dark.  The increasing sound of rapids can be heard.  In an open-ended story, there should be no need to carry them into the perilous rapids.  The story is what happened between the two that led to this dangerous moment.  The story could end this way:

           He heard the roar of water.  The river for the last two hours had been a whisper.   Now it rose like soldiers shouting and running towards the enemy.

We’ll never know what happened to the couple.  But if the writer has told us everything we need to know about them, we won’t require a life and death struggle in the rapids.

A closed-ended story is conclusive, often in broad, unsubtle strokes.   Perhaps a problem or mystery has been solved.   The reader knows exactly what happens to mark the end of the story.

Open-ended and closed-ended stories are equally valuable.  The point is to choose which ending is appropriate.  By the time the story gets to the end, the writer can sense the best way to finish it off.  However, don’t rush the ending.  Often we’re tired and want the story to hurry up and be done already.  Let the piece flow to the end.  A sense of timing and “rightness” will close a story successfully.  Have patience for the right ending to present itself.

 

 

 

 

Best Submission Rejection Ever

"Catherine, at this time, we don't handle projects with swearing in them."