Cokes and Knives in Batangas

June 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Driving around Batangas province, in the Philippines—we were exploring potential sites for a chemical plant—we stopped at a roadside stand for refreshments. It was hot, it was humid and it was crazy on two lane road snaking south from Manila. The stand, a no-walls, thatched roof structure, offered limited choices. I ordered a Coke. I seldom drink sodas, but Coca-cola is a much safer bet than water when traveling through parts of Asia.
The stand was dominated by three large, glass counters containing nothing but knives. Thousands of knives. I dare say every conceivable size, style, color knife was on display. In addition to two colleagues from the States, the van driver and a guide, we were accompanied by two executives from our Philippine subsidiary. I asked one of them about the knives.
“Batangas is the knife capital of the Philippines,” he said.
“Ouch. ERs must get plenty of knife wound practice.”
“Nope,” he replied. “Very few cuts, because everyone in Batangas carries a knife.
I was reminded of the incident after an NRA official placed the blame for the Charleston church killings on the victims. “It wouldn’t have happened if they had carried a gun,” was the gist of what he said.
That Philippines trip took place almost twenty years ago. I said nothing at the time. I might have asked him what would happen to people carrying a knife if someone showed up with a gun, but I didn’t want to compromise our business relationship nor did I want to antagonize him, after all, we had quite a ways to go, and we were in Batangas, so odds were he was carrying a knife.
Maybe I should have asked. He might have laughed and said: “The same thing that happens to people with guns when someone shows up with a Kalashnikov.”

PWC 2015 Notes on The Novel – Plot with Solomon Jones and Gregg Frost

June 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Writing the Novel – Plot – Solomon Jones
Setting determines what can happen in a story, what the rules are, the parameters. You have to establish it first. That’s Solomon’s rule. Of course, he went on to say, there are no rules.
“The memory ebbed and flowed like a river. Sometimes it was crystal clear, other times it was murky, but no matter how Tim Green’s recollection of that night ended up, it always started the same—at Kensington and Allegheny.” Excerpt from the prologue of “The Dead Man’s Wife,” by Solomon Jones.
But setting changes. Philly has changed since he wrote that prologue.
Audience member: It has to make you feel like you are there.
Time and Place. Mood.
The setting provides the first inkling of what the story is about. Make it authentic. Establish the norm.
Six steps:
1.- establish the setting
2.- who is the main character? Who has decisions to make.
3.- supporting characters. They are tools. They illuminates the main character
4.- establish the relationships between the characters.
5.- leads to conflict.
6.- resolution. How does the main character solve the problems posed above.
If you are writing about, say, 1985, think of technology and culture on the year you are writing about. What was the music, the style of dress, iPods (no), Walkmans? Etc. The same applies to writing in the present.
Gregg Frost substituted for the Saturday session
Today: Elements of Character.
All the elements should blend in seamlessly.
Raymond Chandler cut every page in three, to make sure there was some sensory reference in every page, even in every third of a page.
The novel setting must be concrete from page one.
Setting must match or reflect the character. We are products of the landscape, hence expressions of the world we come from.
In the fantasy world you build, you can boil down the world with one question: where does the coffee come from? Gregg said you may read about a 25th C meeting on some planet on some solar system on some galaxy where the characters get together for a cup of coffee. Where did they get it? Where did the coffee come from? The writer has to know the economy, the politics, the everything about the world. It is the same for the world of 1985, even if you never mention it.
Yesterday’s homework was to expand the 1985 scenario for University City. (Year and place were suggested by the audience)
When you know the setting, the period and the place suggests story but, you are restricted by setting etc., but those restrictions help form the story, bring it into sharper focus.
A short story, with very few exceptions, starts with the main character. Short stories are reductive, they close down as you approach the end. Novels are expansive, you can explore almost everything about your character.
The beginning of a novel is often the last thing written. In Solomon’s case, he wrote a prologue last, as a way to bring us to the main character, his defense attorney.
For interesting characters, put them in hell. Heaven is when all the stories are over.
Cluster writing (or free writing) is writing down a whole bunch of things about something, ie., all the technology available in 1985. Let it flow, as fast as you can. For characters, write what your character dreams about. You write and write to get to your character.
An example is writing and writing till something catches fire, say an alcoholic woman. At that point the writer starts to follow her, see what her day is like, and eventually discovers that after work and shopping she gets home having bought no food, so she ends up going out to a bar with her boyfriend and drinking. That becomes the cycle. That’s her day, her routine. You now know your character a bit better.
In “The art of dramatic writing,” by Lajos Egri, he speaks of the Physical, social and psychological.
Physiology: sex, age, height, weight, skin, hair, eyes, posture, appearance, health, other.
Sociology: class, occupation, education, home life, IQ, religion, community, politics,
Psychology: frustrations,, sex life, morality, ambition, temperament, attitude, complexes, superstitions, imagination.
The rest of the class consisted of (a) assuming we are writing a ghost story and (b) building a character by filling the requirements listed above.
In general, Gregg free writes fifty or sixty pages to see of if his idea has legs. Then he writes an outline. He thinks its crazy not to do so but he named other authors who never write an outline and those who start with one. [If you recall the blog on Book Architecture, Horwitz suggested that you write the outline between drafts one and two. Considering that Horwitz’s draft one is close to free writing, his approach and Gregg’s are similar. Up to this point, anyhow]
Session 3 [Back with Solomon] Much of the workshop session delved into Solomon’s six key steps.
1.- Setting
2.- Main Character. Character is what you do when no one is looking.
3.- Supporting Character
4.- Relationship
5.- Conflict
6.- Resolution

PWC 2015 The Novel: Character

June 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Novel Writing Creating Character – Suzanne Palmieri
“The story is a character.” Sounds great, but does it help? A better approach would be to write a description of yourself. (First day’s homework) Narrate yourself for a little while. It will help with character description. You can also look in the mirror and compare yourself: to what you used to be, to what you want to be.
While doing so, try to do it with one word descriptors. An excellent example, from Shirley Jackson, “the house was vile.” Jackson obviously didn’t tell you anything about size, or color, or state of repair but you know all you need to know about that house.
I’m Suzanne. I always hated my name. Until five minutes ago. The word until automatically makes every reader know who she is. Get to the essence of who the character is w/o many words.
Use the science of Sociology to help create real and rounded characters. [Suzanne’s formal education includes a Master’s in Sociology and her day job (I presume) is based on that knowledge. However, it is hard to use Sociology, unless one knows Sociology.[Disclaimer: my daughter is a professor of Sociology so I could always ask her.]
Understanding that depth of character will come from the depth of understanding you have of yourself. [This goes to the first homework assignment. It also echoes parts of Sara Shepard’s opening remarks. (And what a remarkable career she has had) Her first book, which started her “Pretty Little Liars” series, had four characters, and all four were different versions of her, ie., at different times, the start, middle and end of high school. Shepard obviously had a pretty good idea of who she was]
Finding the balance between narrated description and the readers imagination. [I think here she means that you need to respect the reader’s intelligence and allow them to fill in the blanks. “The house was vile.”]
Breaking the rules. Allowed in the creative process. [Yeah. Why else do people make rules?]
When looking at character creation and using ‘real people,’ keep in mind that real people maybe a bit too complex to be characters. But you will do well if you stay with the essentials questions: who? What? Where? When? How? WTF? Stay true to these, figure out which are important to YOU and remember, it’s your world, your rules.
If the character doesn’t care about himself, why should anyone else.
Have you ever disliked someone?
If no one likes them (a specific character), they shouldn’t be in the book. [This is an interesting point, as it applies to baddies. Can they be all bad? Will we stop reading if they are. In Game Of Thrones Joffrey is despicable. I expected he would last till the end and then I would read/watch (I have dome both) while he gets what he deserved. The Hound was also bad, but in a very different way.]
Characters should be able to take criticism. Important when creating criticism in your characters.
Internal dialogue is important
if you find out something about a character that the character does yet not know, the reader will not be able to put the book down, ie., a character who is a rapist and doesn’t know it. [Not sure how that would work, but you get the idea.]
Basically Suzanne says you should look at yourself, your flaws, etc. and that will help you develop and describe, as well as give depth to those characters.
Give characters an issue. A conflict.
The ‘dream’ is on layaway. It is already yours, you are making payments and eventually you can go pick it up. [This refers to writing and becoming a published author]
Great inspirations. The way to get around work stoppages is through good characters because they make us write, they make us invested in them. She starts with a setting (shades of Solomon Jones).
Pinterest. the site is all about pictures, with no captions. Instantaneous image searches. It allows you to find pictures of whatever your character is wearing or where she lives or, whatever.
Music is important to her, instrumentals.
Listen to things out of your purview.
Soundtrack to games are designed to not distract you.
Dialogue – if you have to put descriptors, ie., he said, you said, then you don’t know the characters really well. A character done well has their own voice so no attributions are needed.
Audience suggestions:
What does a character carry in his/her pockets, ie., To kill a Mockinbird.
Every villain is a hero in his own mind.
Bumper stickers on your car.
Look at what toxic people have as posters and paintings and things on their desk, on their fridge. [This person may have some issues with people near her]
Every character needs to have a motivation, a purpose. Something that they want.
Purpose means…we kill characters because they have a role or they push the plot forward and we get scared. Rule breaking gets to be a need. A small role, single appearance character can serve to make us understand the main character.
Suzanne mentioned the conversion of a bunch of characters into a single one, for instance a bunch of kids can become a single character, ie., ‘the boys,’ they play cards, drink wine, go to war, etc. No need to go any deeper than that.
Give a character a Myers-Briggs
Make a character a horoscope reader.

The ceramic fish

June 20, 2015 1 comment

It was a miracle nothing broke, and indeed nothing broke, until it broke. I was thinking back to yesterday’s blog, when I mentioned my three Venezuelan cousins and how projectiles flew around their home.
When my parents went back to Cuba, ending our short-lived Venezuela adventure—a whole nother story—I was left behind for a couple months (I’m sure they didn’t mean to abandon me. . .though, come to think of it, I didn’t have their Cuban address), to finish my third year of high school. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle and my three cousins. I didn’t mind. I didn’t want a repeat of the problems I encountered arriving in Caracas half way through the previous school year. And I loved my cousins.
The three of them were forever battling, throwing things around, showing no regard for all the glass and crystal around. At times it seemed the whole of their living room was made of glass, so I stayed out of those clashes. Most of the time. Another reason was my uncle, usually a calm, easy going person, a nice man really, until he appeared belt in hand. I didn’t want any part of it.
One weekday afternoon the four of us were playing catch in the living room, while the grown-ups were at work. Whatever we were using as a ball hit a ceramic fish sitting perfectly happy, minding its own business on a prominent end table. The fish, my cousins promptly recognized, was my aunt’s favorite.
“Now you are gonna get it,” they warned each other, arguing as to who was to blame, with no consideration given to who was the thrower or who muffed the catch. One thing was clear: we were all in trouble. Major, major trouble.
The fish, about eight inches high and about a foot long and thin, like most tropical reef fish, had broken into half a dozen pieces and a few chips.
“Maybe I can fix it,” I suggested.
All three loved the idea. Why not? At that age we believe anything is possible. In this case we were talking nothing less than magic.
I did the gluing on my youngest cousin’s desk, using what we had on hand, white glue (this happened eons ago, well before crazy glue), the kind of glue kids use on third grade projects. I took my time, applied glue in the right spots, fit the parts carefully and the fish was whole again and apparently solid enough. But the cracks were obvious. The fish looked awful. Every chink, chip and fissure showed a ghostly white.
“Coño, it looked better when it was broken,” my oldest cousin said.
That made no sense except it was true.
“I’ll paint it.” At this point we didn’t believe in magic that much, but I went ahead. I used a kid’s tempera set and did my best to cover the cracks, matching the many hues of the multicolored fish.
When my aunt and uncle came home the fish was back on its place of honor. No one noticed anything was amiss. No one said anything.
Some thirty years later, while visiting in Venezuela, we were talking about old times. The fish was nowhere in sight but something reminded me of the incident and I told my aunt the story.
“So that’s what happened!” My aunt clapped her hands. My aunt Julia was a formidable person, a woman with innate authority. Words came out of her mouth chiseled in stone.
“What? What happened?”
“Last year the fish fell apart. The maid swore she hardly touched it, that the feather duster barely grazed it and the whole fish went ‘poof.’ It disintegrated. She said it was as if a bomb hit it. She was in tears when she told me. I was miffed, I liked that fish very much, but she was a good maid and a careful worker, so I had to take her at her word.”
We had a big laugh. My aunt was quite amused. She liked the story of the fish even better than she’d liked the fish and was amazed that she had never noticed, that the fish had survived one move and all those many years of dusting.
I laughed, of course. And felt proud, but that quickly changed to relief. I can’t imagine how I’d have felt had she fired the maid.

Categories: Memoir Tags: , ,

The Book Architecture Method. Stuart Horwitz.

June 19, 2015 Leave a comment

I assume the PWC brain trust schedules high energy presentations for the end of the day. Such was the case Friday with Dan Maguire on creativity and Saturday with Stuart Horwitz @Book_Arch
on Book Architecture. I was a bit suspicious at the outset. I feared Horwitz was about to talk about my cousins.
As a young teen I lived in Caracas for a couple years. At the time I was very close to my three cousins, all boys, who ranged in age between my little sister and me. My oldest cousin had an elegant bookshelf with glass doors filled with the Espasa-Calpe encyclopedia, the world’s largest, I suspect. My cousins put to good use the 100+ volumes, each the thickness of three bibles, each tome lettered in elegant gold letters on a black spine, by using them as bricks with which to build fortifications, which they needed for their battles, when they threw stuff at each other. And they threw everything at each other.
I did love that encyclopedia. It had everything in it. If you had a paper to write you didn’t have to look anywhere else. Sort of a Google/Lego predecessor. That massive encyclopedia, albeit used in such an unorthodox way, served my cousins well: two became architects.
Fortunately Stuart Horwitz had other things in mind. He probably doesn’t know my cousins.
Stuart spoke of “The Three drafts.” That’s how many you need, provided you take the time between drafts to do certain things. [A shock to people like me who have drafts with Roman numerals exceeding the latest Superbowl]
Of course, when Horwitz defines a draft, he isn’t talking about tinkering. Taking commas out is tinkering. It is important to know which draft you are in.
1st draft. It is about “Pantsing” (writing by the seat of your pants) vs. outlining, which you should do between 1st and 2nd draft.
To get to that 1st draft,
1.- Count your words. You can’t simultaneously create and know the value of what you have created. You can set goals. A great session for him is 1,750 but he is happy with 1,000 words a day. I recall Jonathan Maberry saying that he writes 4,000 words a day. Sounds like a lot, but you need to consider Maberry is a big guy.
2.- Find a neutral audience. Not the critics (or naysayers) nor the cheerleaders (Aunt Thelma). A writing group ought to fill that need fairly well.
3.- Don’t try to organize anything.
4.- Make the time. That follows Maguire’s (and everyone else’s advise as well) but don’t count the time, that’s not the point. Make the time and from then on write. Remember point #1: count the words.
5.- Listen.
6.- Have fun. The most important aspect.
The good news (and bad) is that the first draft is the easy part.
Scene, series and theme.
Horwitz said to keep it moving. Don’t be Lot’s wife. Don’t look back. Stay away from salt.
Intelligent Planning is not the enemy of creativity.
Brainstorm all the scenes. But don’t look at the manuscript. Highlight the good scenes (by intuition) don’t tinker. Lots of things could be better.
This may be a good point to explain that Stuart does this for a living. He is an expert on book structure and book revision and has written two books on the subject, so this lecture was a quick overview.
Between drafts 1 and 2, he suggests locating the missing scenes. Those are the ones you want to write. So you should, but keep in mind, they are 1st draft scenes. And you also should erase some scenes, those are the ones you don’t remember. Repetition and variation form the core of narrative.
If a character, a place, or an object only appears once, we can’t track it or assign it any meaning. If they reappear, and/or change, then we can get excited.
If you can live without a scene, there is no way to justify bringing it through all the drafts and hopefully to a reader’s attention. Limitation is the key to revision. And nothing limits your action, your cast, your plethora of worthwhile ideals better than a good theme.
The 2nd of 3 action steps is to cut up your scenes. Print them. Spread them. Give them names. Each scene needs to be able to stand on its own. This is the best way to figure out what belongs in the draft and what doesn’t. Now you can start making an outline.
Stuart shared pictures of J K Rowlands grids for one of the Harry Potter Books. A sort of spread sheet where each line is a time period, like a day, and each column a chapters, or scene, or plot point, etc. Joseph Heller did the same; he wrote his in pencil.
Stuart spoke of the archery target. This time you arrange your scenes as a practice target, with the theme as the bulls eye. Then you place your scenes around the theme, closer or farther from bull’s eye/theme based on relevance. Obviously what you are doing is selecting relevant scenes.
There is a method to discover your theme. Your book can only be about one thing. [He might have been inspired by Jack Palance in City Slickers] You gotta believe (in the validity of that one thing)
I think Stuart believes that having a single, clear theme is crucial.
“Its not how you fall in life, its how you get up” originality isn’t important for the theme, originality isn’t important.
2nd draft. This is where you bring up the best parts up a level. Make it better. If you’re in the second draft, remember what you’re looking out to fix, but also what isn’t broken.
Between 2nd and 3rd draft bring in the beta reader. Someone who can give you a good idea of what needs to be changed. The ideal is between 3 and 7 beta readers.
But along the text, your beta reader gets a questionnaire. Some mechanism for you to understand why he/she likes/dislikes, etc., some way for you to evaluate the evaluator. Maybe the beta reader of your ghost story hates ghosts stories. That would be good to know, when evaluating her input.
3rd draft
If you’re in the third draft, think commando raid, get in and get out. Keep it moving. Hit it and get out. Just go to the places you want to fix. Make decisions. It will never be perfect.
That’s about what I got. Obviously he has a method and we got to see an overview. Hope it helps, if not, you know who to call. (Hint: not me)
On second thought, maybe Stuart Horwitz does know my cousins. One married a Horwitz.

Memoir Workshop Part III & Small Presses

June 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Tom McAllister handed out 3 x 5 cards on session I. He used this last session to answer the questions raised.
A lot of the questions had to do with publishing and small presses. For that he was joined by Josh Isard, @JoshuaIsard who is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. His debut novel, Conquistador of the Useless, was published by Cinco Puntos Press
Josh enjoyed the publishing experience with the small press. In part because he likes keeping in touch with the editors and publishers. In fact they all are Facebook friends now. What he liked best was the feeling of being in the same boat; they really wanted the book to be good, they wanted it to succeed, they shared a common goal. A small press might go under if one or two of their books do poorly.

Barrelhouse is a small press, an independent non-profit literary organization. Tom McAllister is their non-fiction editor. They have published four books to date. They also publish four magazines a year. Barrel House pays between $500 to $1,000 per book. And they take care of all the other publishing stuff, and as Josh implied, with real pros.
So what is different between small and big presses and self publishing?
Small presses are legitimate, particularly in academic or literary circles. There is no loss of prestige. They often publish non-standard stuff, books that may not fit in any particular shelf. Small Presses are best suited for those books that don’t fit neatly into existing categories. They take chances. A big press will need to know where the book belongs so they can tell Barnes & Noble. In fact, that is a major advantage of a big press; they can get you into B & N. But after three months, your book will disappear from their shelves. The three months fizzle is common to big and small presses, but, in either case, as long as your book remains in print, it remains available, and if it was also an ebook, it will be forever available. I think.
Small presses are un-agented, hence you get to keep 100% of the royalties. Josh’s deal with Cinco Puntos gave him no advance, instead he gets a 50% royalty, after all the production costs were covered. He think it worked out about the same. Nonetheless, that’s quite impressive. (Maybe Josh’s has a bright future as an agent?)
But you can only submit your work to a small press during the open period. Sort of like hunting season, I guess.
One question you should ask is about distribution. It will be somewhat similar to big presses, who have their own, but small presses sometimes use a consortium, sometimes their own system. This is important and something you will need to understand. Where will their distribution system get your book into? (awkward phrase)
As I said earlier, a big press will get your book into the big bookstores. A big press has enormous power. If they choose to put it behind your book. This hearkens to point #10 in Session I. Did you go to the moon?
McSweeney is an example of a very good small press.

Tom made references to “Electric Literature,” and “The Great Indie Press Cheat Sheet.” I didn’t quite follow, but, culled from “…The feature began originally as an idea born from a discussion online with a number of indie press editors, authors, and readers about the deluge of “best-of” and “most anticipated” features and how the majority of these articles continue to be disproportionately favorable to the larger publishing houses…Why wasn’t there a comprehensive gathering of what the indie community has to offer? …“The Great 2015 Indie Press Preview,” [is] a compendium of some of the most exciting titles of this year and curated by an array of indie press authorities and it’s companion piece, “The Great 2015 Indie Press Cheat Sheet,” which functions as a comprehensive list of what indie publishing has to offer. Consider … it … an A-to-Z go-to reference for all of your indie book buying needs.”
I guess the point is that this cheat list could also be used to survey the landscape of small publishing houses.
Some small presses:

Outpost19, Barrelhouse Books, Graywolf, Hobart, Dzanc Books, Quick Books, Coffee House, Curbside Splendor, Five Chapters, Algonquin (a big small press), 21st C prose, A strange Object – all digital.
Finally some random stuff:
Cover letters should be simple. Whatever they ask for and little more. Four sentences maybe enough. Try not to annoy people.
Self publishing is fine but, there are unscrupulous people asking you to pay editing fees, etc. Stay away from them.

To read essays go to: Essay Daily a space for ongoing conversation about essays & essayists of note, contemporary and not-so-much. They publish interesting essays, Q&As with essays or essayists, and reviews of essays, essay collections or book length essays, or literary journals that publish essays, etc.
Phew! That’s it fellow memoirists. And thanks Tom.

Memoir Workshop Part II

June 16, 2015 Leave a comment

On day one, Tom McAllister asked whether the things you cared about were worth writing about. He suggested that to write a great essay we need to think deeply as suggested by Lucas Mann in the Atlantic. I’ll make it easy for you:

A good essay, if we look deeply, is about a narrow subject within a larger one. As if an essayist “always writes two essays simultaneously . . .one exploring. . .the situation, the other. . .the story.”

When writing the essay, the more specific, the more interesting it gets. Sensory details help. Sights, smells, sounds. If you get the reader to care about you, the reader will care about the things you care about.

Phillip Lopate talks about the intelligent narrator. One has more tools than a novelist. When writing an essay, we can stop and explain, something a novelist has a hard time doing.

An example can be found in Joan Didion’s “Good Bye to all that.” Every so often she moves forward, such as the comment “. . .was anyone ever so young, yes I was.”

Memoir is a type of narrative nonfiction. It is about what’s behind what happened.

Sam Ligon was of the opinion that fear, shame and joy are the three core emotions.

Alienation; everyone relates to it. Everyone has felt it one time or another.

Being likable: some readers won’t like you no matter what. Don’t fall into that trap. Tell the truth.
One example he mentioned, where the author goes on a sort of limb, writing about her stillborn baby while delivering a child a year later is “An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination,” by Elizabeth McCraken, a short memoir, maybe 40,000 words reviewed here by the NY Times

Finally, keep in mind people want to be entertained. (That’s why I read) Acknowledging faults works.


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