Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Fri, Jan 29 2010

Happy trails to you

Have you ever walked a trail loop in a state park or similar setting? You can usually begin your walk near a parking area and there are often several trails that begin, including longer, more strenuous hikes to a place from which to catch a magnificent view. There are often paved, level walks for those who use a wheelchair or who want to enjoy the forest without breaking a sweat. And then there are the loops. These are often shorter than some of the other trails and may be seen by veteran hikers as a baby route. If I choose a trail loop I see the all-business hikers go by me with their backpacks full of trail mix and water to keep them going while they seek that zenith of scenery they can reach only by working every muscle in their bodies. Here I am on my little loop, looking down at mossy, fallen logs and gazing up at, in one instance, giant redwoods with branches that sweep from top to bottom of trunks and sway in the breeze and leave me with the scent of ancient times sitting in my nostrils.

Yes, metaphor is afoot here. Life has a variety of trails and we each walk in them all at some point or another. The loops may not be the rockiest or the most scenic, but they can be the most fulfilling if we come back to the parking area with a sense of having been somewhere important.

When we write we use them all. There are level trails with corresponding ease of movement and rocky banks with shallow footholds and painful grabbing places that require care but have huge rewards in terms of story climaxes. Then there are the loops that seem circular and easy at first, but are ultimately full of internal growth and completion of life processes. Every story needs them all. Every life needs them all.

posted at: 17:52 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Jan 28 2010

Time flies when you're writing fun

In real life, we often lose track of time when we're busy concentrating or are engaged in something we enjoy. Time doesn't really go any faster during these activities. We know that, but we still speak of time going faster. Likewise, when we read an exciting story we can become so immersed in the whole thing that we lose track of time. Writing such a story might not be exciting during every phase of the work, but if the story is a good one, a writer might lose track of time while caught up in some scenes or sections. If that isn't happening at all on a project it might be time to rethink the whole story. If it's not making time pass quickly for the writer, it's likely to have a similar effect on the reader.

posted at: 23:25 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Jan 27 2010

Voice in story form

Some people are more likely to speak if they have something negative to say. This isn't a judgment, but merely an observation. A friend used to tell me about a co-worker I'll call Sam who everyone dreaded seeing. It seems that Sam could bend your ear for the better part of an hour, telling you what was wrong with the company where they worked. Sam was generally quiet when contented and if you pressed him he would even come up with pleasant things to say. But if he came to a meeting or went to lunch with co-workers he was able to turn the conversation to a season of griping and complaining in no time at all. I don't know if it was a habit or something else. But there it was.

I tell you this because it reminds me of how important voice is in telling a fictional story. If I told you a story I would have a very different way of telling the story than Sam would have. I might tell you about how the main character came in last in a footrace. I might talk about the race in terms of tomorrow being another day and of how the main character felt that he or she would do better next time. Sam might tell you about the same character and the same race. But Sam might focus more on the way coming in last had been inevitable. There would be a subtle shift in what Sam would zero in on when picking the details of a setting.

And what if Sam was your main character? Would Sam run the race with high hopes? Would Sam feel fatigue long before the end of the course? And what if Sam was telling/writing the story and had a very positive, upbeat kind of main character to write about? What would Sam say and how would he say it? What's Sam's voice? What's yours?

posted at: 22:11 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Jan 25 2010

What's a trip without scenery?

One of the reasons I never enjoyed golf is because playing golf is full of built-in distractions. Most courses are quite scenic and are barely noticed as people put their gaze on the ball and concentrate on their swing or putt. I suppose people might be enjoying the scenery in a peripheral sense, but I find it frustrating to concentrate on the swings and the scores when I'd really rather be enjoying that scenery. The problem is that I have just enough of a competitive nature that I can't do that as long as I know I'm expected to be working toward a low score.

When we write fiction we have the goal of making it a good read for the reader. We have to deliver the plot by pacing, a little like playing 18 holes of golf. We also have the goal of keeping the reader interested long enough to actually enjoy the story enough to read to the end of it. If we're in too much of a hurry to get the reader to the end of the story we might make them miss the details of the scenery along the way. For some people, the destination is only as great as the trip to get there.

posted at: 23:03 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Fri, Jan 22 2010

It's raining in this scene, but the sun is shining

We had a rain shower this morning after days of rain. What was different this morning was that the clouds were directly overhead, but the sun had begun to shine in other areas of the sky. The sunlight gave an odd glow to the falling rain and forced a completely different mood when I stood and watched it out the window. I thought of the way we present a stormy time in writing fiction. A mood of gloom can be pervasive through whole novels, but if we want to give the reader a sense of the hope behind difficult times we can always show events, even sad events, with a side lighting of sun and hope. Weather is a powerful metaphor in fiction anyway. Using it to reset the mood on an otherwise angry, romantic or lonely scene can leave the reader with an entirely different sense of what is going on in a story. It could add hope. It could add irony. It could be done with natural light or it could be done with a lantern, a campfire, candles or lasers. It depends on the setting, the genre and maybe even the characters themselves. Filmmakers and play producers use lighting to their advantage all the time. Why shouldn't writers?

posted at: 16:57 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Jan 21 2010

Latching onto a likely hero could mean trouble

I've been watching the drama back East in the race between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown. For some time it's been evident that Republicans have longed for a rising star who would captivate Republicans much the way Barack Obama captivated Democrats a few years ago. I can see the murmurs of hope going on as more and more Republicans make remarks about how charismatic and handsome Mr. Brown is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting someone to step up and be the golden boy (or girl) to lead a political party to victory. But Republicans need to remember that one man or woman will not possess a perfect set of qualities. President Obama knows what it's like to be put on a pedestal and then put under a microscope not long afterward. The same thing could happen to Scott Brown. When people are feeling the need for a hero and are wanting to get behind a cause they can sometimes set themselves up for disappointment.

I should relate this all to writing. When a larger-than-life character looms up before the writer's imagination, it's good to be balanced. Even comic book heroes who fly and save whole planets usually have at least one identifiable flaw or weakness. Making your main character too perfect might keep readers from being able to identify with his or her challenges during the course of the story.

posted at: 23:27 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Jan 20 2010

Just telling the story

I did something today on a lark, something very good for me, but totally unexpected and unscheduled. It was so unlike what we're instructed to do as fiction writers. We're encouraged to outline or do detailed character sketches, have daily writing goals and discipline. But there's something to be said for just getting good things done in life. That can also be true for writing. It's not wrong to make detailed character sketches or create outlines. But We can spend so much time thinking and planning and developing that we never get around to just telling the story.

posted at: 19:57 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Tue, Jan 19 2010

Storms may be bad for writing, good for story

It's been tough to concentrate on writing today. We've had a series of windy storms coming through California. That probably evokes a "So what?" from those of you who live with snow drifts, sleet and sub-freezing temperatures each winter. But you have to remember that we get virtually all our measurable rain during the winter months. Then there are the problems involving a large state with a large population. And our terrain varies from valleys to coast to deserts to mountains. Torrential rains can bring mudslides and small stream flooding in a short amount of time, cutting people comletely off escape routes. Earlier today there were tornado warnings in Los Angeles County and Orange County. It's not that common for buildings to have basements here, which means a lot of people had no good place to go in the event of a tornado. We all seem to manage survive such inconveniences, but it can be difficult to keep tasks going when thunder and lightning shake the windows, power outages interrupt electronic devices and the flooding roads and falling trees make travel a challenge.

The good side is that all of this gives a sense of scale to what one might be writing about in a fictional work. Your main character may be having a few inconveniences at the beginning of your tale. That's a good thing. As you draw readers into the tale you will want to ramp up the difficulties. They might parallel or even rival whatever internal conflict the character is experiencing. However you handle it, make it count. Shorten the rope, put a flooded tunnel on the only escape route, squeeze the options down into a kit so narrow that the only way out still looks like a brick wall. You won't exhaust your readers too much. And if you do, they may still thank you for it.

posted at: 17:45 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Jan 18 2010

Writing whether it feels right or not

When I realized I had forgotten to post earlier today I almost decided to skip the task altogether. I know it's better to stick with a schedule. But I'm not a night person and it's 10:30pm here. Is it prudent for this writer to stick with the discipline of writing on a strict schedule, even when I know I'm off my game? I'm never sure about such things. My writing under such conditions may end up being disappointing to the reader, but there is value in knowing that I wrote because it was time to write. For tonight, I do have that. Are you developing your own writing discipline? If so, I hope it gives you a boost to keep going.

posted at: 22:58 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Jan 14 2010

What disaster and trouble can teach fiction writers

What a week it's been with the earthquake in Haiti, the electronic hacking of Google and other companies and several other news stories that have made people angry, confused, shocked and sad. While many of us have had loved ones directly affected by one of these major incidents, many of us have not. We stare at the still images, read the accounts, listen to the broadcasts and view videos with the feeling of being in the moment with those going through these things.

When writers write fiction we have to think about this same sort of phenomenon. Someone who reads a story isn't actually going through any of the actions, but they may experience a lot of the same emotions they would experience if the situations were real. It makes the written word a sort of sacred trust, in my opinion. We have an obligation to use integrity when we write, even when what we write includes the tales of scoundrels and disasters. We can write that happy ending, but we know that there is not always a happy ending in today's life. We can't see the end from the beginning. And even if we don't write a happy ending we need to be sure to give the reader some sense that the events were worth going through vicariously, for growth or enrichment. Otherwise, our story conflict becomes sensational and gratuitous. We have to be willing to go down the emotional road of the story ourselves so that we can be honest and trustworthy to take our reader down that same path.

posted at: 18:35 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Jan 13 2010

How Google and China matter in fiction

It seems that Google is talking about the possibility of not doing business with China. A lot of political pundits are expressing kudos to Google for its bold moves on this issue. But it could have far-reaching effects into other business and the politics/relationships of other companies and organizations that deal with China.

Since I've been trying to tie regular life to writing life lately, I started thinking about the way characters "do business" in a novel, a screenplay or other work that's fictional. Particularly in a longer work, there may be characters in your story who interact only with a few other characters and never even meet certain minor characters. Or they may interact with other characters at a specific point in the story. I was making notes about a current project this morning and wondered what would happen if I started my about a third of the way into the story instead of at the beginning. I would have to rearrange the way certain characters interacted and would have to assume they had already met one another. After doing some preliminary sketches on paper, it all made better sense. I had been preparing too much backstory in my head and had been trying to fit it into the beginning. What I needed to do was start farther along in the story and have the characters already in the thick of events with one another. The readers are smart enough to figure out what's going on and they might even appreciate a little more pedal-to-the-metal approach. It could be a lot more compelling than setting up the serene little place I had first imagined at the start of this project.

The next nail-biter is going to come if I have to decide whether two major characters have to "stop doing business" by disappearing, agreeing to dissagree or fighting to the death. It's a dirty business, but some writer's got to do it.

posted at: 15:10 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Tue, Jan 12 2010

Please donate to help Haiti

It's been a long day, so I'm going to just suggest that you contemplate the use of a charitable organization in helping the folks in Haiti who have been dealing with a large earthquake and all that goes with it. There's a bit of shock that develops after these events and that makes it tough to handle tasks immediately following a quake, except for the actions that come directly from the adrenaling surges. So it's important that folks from the outside who are not personally being shaken step in to help where and when we can.

posted at: 20:27 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Jan 11 2010

Harmony, and other musical metaphors

I wonder if most story writing fits together much the way a piece of music does. Is there an theme, a bit of jazzy dissonance here and there, sets of events that harmonize, a strong modulation to the story's climax? Is there a feeling of resolution and closure at the end of the story? It's all yet another way of approaching the craft of telling a tale.

posted at: 15:09 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Fri, Jan 08 2010

This stream of consciousness is shallow, but wide

The week has swallowed its own tail, er, tale. Perhaps both. I used to hear that when your day and weeks seem to go quickly that it meant you were happy. If that's true, I must be one of the happiest people on the planet. I have snippets of writing to work with, but other tasks have overshadowed writer time. No, wait. That's not quite correct. They have overshadowed writer conentration. Sitting quietly for several minutes at a time is necessary for true writer work and that has simply not been possible this week. So we come to the end of a work week and have snippets. That would be pitiful, except for the fact that they are what could be very pivotal snippets. And so, we'll call it a head start on next week's tasks. Yes, that's it. Of course.

posted at: 19:23 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Jan 07 2010

It's not just a trip to the market if there's a fist fight in produce

Writing today has consisted mainly of items for an organization, so fiction has been set aside. I was thinking about how important it is to incorporate everyday activities into fiction without making them seem trivial and distracting. We all get groceries or stand in line at a post office, but we rarely remember any of these occasions unless something unusual happens, such as running across a friend or finding a twenty-dollar bill near the door. That also works well in stories. If there's going to be a big scene anyway, why not have it at the butcher shop or the hardware store? Or the church social hall kitchen?

posted at: 22:34 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Jan 06 2010

You have to be out there about being out there

I'm struggling today trying to figure out why talented people with many resources end up fighting the current machine instead of finding a new one. There are two sides to artistic endeavors--creating the art and marketing the art. Many of us are good at the first, but terrible at the second. We know what we have is of worth. We took time to create it. But we seem to allow regular avenues of marketing and traditional methods of distribution to stall the sharing of our work.

There have never been so many ways to get artistic works of all kinds out there for others to enjoy. But this is also a time of transition. People want to get their work promoted by the same old methods. We're going to have to break out of the old ways and be as unique and dogged about marketing as we are about being unique and dogged in creating.

posted at: 09:28 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Tue, Jan 05 2010

Taking a little off the top

One of the things that helps me get things done is to take one task each day that I haven't worked on for awhile and do a little work on it. It helps with projects around the house, but it also helps the battle with office clutter. Best of all, it helps with writing projects. I can take one file and clean it out, or take one work in progress and do a little polishing or editing. I can certainly start a new project, but starting is easy for me. It's finishing that gets me into difficulty. In this case, the goal is to take something already in progress and make it better, add to it, edit superfluous words. Now and then a project gets tossed. It's tough to do that, but if the project still sticks in my mind I can always pick up the idea and run with it again. Writers tend to be paperholics to some extent, so working on a few pieces of paper here and there helps keep the clutter monster at bay and has even been known to spark the marriage of two writing projects into a larger, more involved piece of writing.

posted at: 11:34 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Jan 04 2010

Gone today, here tomorrow

Those who are wise will tell you that throwing out the first paragraph of a story will often give you the best beginning to a story that you can have. With that in mind, I just wrote and deleted my first blog post of 2010. It felt great. Stay tuned tomorrow for an actual post.

posted at: 12:49 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

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Stealin' copy is as bad as horse-thievin'
and cattle rustlin'! Lightning may strike
such varmints when they least expect it!