First Impressions, Last Impressions

They say “first impressions matter most” in real life, but according to Chris Bohjalian, best selling author of 18 novels, in his interview with Jacquelyn Mitchard for Writer’s Digest, March/ April 2016 edition, “it’s the last impression that matters most in fiction.”

When we meet someone new in real life, we immediately form an opinion; “Is he competent?  Can she do the job effectively? Is he a nice, genuine person?  Is she smart? Boy, he has beautiful eyes, or wow, she has nice skin.” …  our first impression unfolds. Yet, within minutes, as details reveal hidden layers that illuminate the individual more clearly,  our first impression loosens, crumbling like the side of a mountain in the path of  surging water, falling in upon itself, reshaping into something different or new.  The details of dialogue, the soft clicks of the tongue making contact, the short pauses and long silences between spoken words thick with accent, like the twists and turns of the rapids, either strengthens the impression, reshapes it  or destroys it.

It is the way in fiction that the reader is introduced to the characters, then led through the tangles of the story, that the reader forms her first impression, grows it or discards it as she moves along toward the end.  Lisa Genova, the author of “Still Alive”, says in fiction, “there can be profound healing – acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, love.  I wouldn’t say that my endings are romantic or triumphant, but there are deeply human lessons hard-earned, ways of re-framing hopeless situations that are intended to leave readers feeling inspired and connected.  These characters are ultimately about living in the face of dying.”

Just as we do in real life.

And so, yes, first impressions are important, but in fiction, and in life, last impressions matter most.  Somewhere along the way, from the point of first impression to the last words of the story, intentions change, goals expand or fall apart, pain heals, innocents learn, sufferers forgive, people change, loved ones die, and stories change….

Therefore, regardless of the sorrows, horrors and pains in our stories and in our real lives, a great ending ultimately resonates.   It is the culmination of a person’s details and what he meant to those he leaves behind; – loved ones, acquaintances, students, the world.. that resonates with the rest of us once we turn the final page, closing the book for good as we find the strength and the desire to pick up the next book while keeping the last impression in our hearts.

 

 

Storytelling

Fiction mirrors the world around us.  It mirrors our experiences, our thoughts and our emotions.  However, this “mirroring” can also frustrate readers who are looking for answers or closure.  Sometimes there is no answer. “The world, ” says author Christine Sneed, ” at least in my experience of it, doesn’t consistently offer the answers we are hoping to have when something ends- a relationship, a job, or in this case, a story.” In Jack Smith’s interview with Sneed, he explains how Sneed is able to capture the “deep interiority of her characters and how she portrays the “ordinary push and pull of human relationships, the uneasy dynamic of expectation and result, and the unwieldy prospect of human happiness.”

Learning how to tell a story can be circuitous as we learn though reading, through analysis and through deep listening to the world around us.  Mirroring the stories that unfold around us  allows us to create characters from pieces of someone else’s  real pains and triumphs.  We steal little bits of real people’s dialogue, recollections, and memories and  weave them into our storytelling.  The  characters we create “make choices, like all of us in real life, and some choices are like stepping into a river. There will usually be undertows”  and it is up to the characters, like real people,  to find a way to keep from drowning.

Storytelling is about paying attention to the world around us and infiltrating the things we see and learn into the lives of the characters, into their thinking and their actions.   In life, our struggles are not usually wrapped up in a tidy package with answers to all our questions.  On the contrary,  the world does not easily have resolutions to give us, and through mirroring this truth in our storytelling,  we acknowledge the universal struggle, and we validate the push and pull of which we all must overcome. This way each of us might be able to find our own answers of which  enable us to stay afloat.

Tap into your capability

“Capability is like a water table below the surface of the earth”.

If you want to do something badly enough, tap into yourself and reach inside for the energy, capability and talent laying dormant within you.  Like lava bubbling deep within a volcano, there is the potential for that energy to rise to the surface.  With effort and desire, one is capable of attaining what was thought to be impossible.   Natalie Goldberg illustrates this idea in her book, “ Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within.”  She tells us in the words of Katagiri Roshi, that  “ Capability is like a water table below the surface of the earth.”  No one owns it, but you can tap into it.  You tap it with your effort and it will come through you.”

Katagiri Roshi was the founding teacher of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and Hokyoji Zen Practice Community and taught at the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center as assistant to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  Katagiri Roshi was born in Japan, where he became a monk at the age of eighteen. He practiced at Eiheiji monastery and Taizoin temple, received a master’s degree from Komazawa University, and worked in the international division of Soto Zen headquarters before coming to the United States in 1963.

Katagiri Roshi touched the hearts of people everywhere with his engaging manifestation of the Buddha  ( and Zen) way. Although he died in 1990, his teaching lives on in audio recordings of his talks, and books that have been developed from them. 

Natalie Goldberg is known for “wrestling Zen and literature into her own life”.  Sprinkled through out her book, are her rich themes of “finding out who we are” and conveying this through our writing (or painting or whatever means works), by practice and effort. 

  “Writing practice brings you below the surface to really meet what you see, think and feel. And you keep meeting that and you build a spine, and you find out who you are. Because when we live in discursive thinking, we’re just lost. By going to that lower layer, we become who we are. “ she explains.

“ Really, it’s about Zen practice and backed by 2,000 years of watching the mind. In business [as in everything else,] you have to have integrity. You have to know who you are, where you stand, and what you want.”

In the words of Natalie Goldberg, ”We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.”

The author / poet/ painter tells us; “You can have the confidence that you will gradually acquire the technique and craft that you need.”   However,  I do believe you must first find your energy, rediscover yourself, wet your desire, dig deep and practice.  Trust your instincts. Trust yourself. And -in writing, trust your “voice” to direct you.  With effort, desire, perseverance and practice, you CAN tap into “ the water table below the earth”.

So get out your pen, or your paint brush, or your violin, or your shovel, or your ice-skates and practice, practice, practice.  Go deep. Find out who -and how wonderful -you are, and share your details with the rest of us. The world is waiting….

Form the habit of making habits

Writers need habits.  In order to pursue our craft, we must become self-disciplined enough to not only form habits, but to keep them.  Otherwise, it’s all too easy for us to put off writing until we have “more time”, whenever that will be.  It’s a lot like exercise- but, that’s an entirely different blog for another month.

Change happens when one plans to make the changes, develops a strategy for implementing the change and sticks to the strategy. But, change is not easy.  It takes willpower and self discipline.  Forming habits incorporates making changes and needs three things for getting there: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

In Randy Ingermanson’s “Advanced Fiction Writing “articles, he explains the CUE as an event that reminds us of our new habit and the ROUTINE as the action we take when the cue fires.  Then, the reward is the payoff we get when executing that routine.  For example, let’s say you want to form the habit of writing every day for one hour.  (Of  course one may apply this to any goal.)  The first step is to figure out how you can make that a habit. You may set up a cue by setting an alarm on your phone or perhaps you could make “writing” the first task on your daily “To Do”  list (this works for me since I am lost without a daily “to do” list and I am dedicated to following it as closely as possible!).  Then, you come up with the routine: which- in this scenario would be to sit down at your computer or with notebook and pen, and write!  Randy suggests to come up with your target quota for the number of words you want to write each day, or you could choose the amount of time for which you will write (that is how I do it).  Finally, a reward could be that you get to take a walk outside in the fresh air when finished, or go for a nice thirty minute run, as I do. Or perhaps, treat yourself to a cup of specialty coffee or a glass of red wine.

I’ve heard it takes three weeks to form a habit, but I think it takes longer.  But, as long as you stick to it, forcing yourself to follow through  no matter what (that’s why it’s important to think it through first, to make sure it will be a realistic time, that it won’t get in the way of your family or work obligations, etc), for no shorter than three weeks, eventually you will have formed a habit which will be a part of your life forever.

One doesn’t need to write to form habits, obviously.  I formed the habit to run nearly eighteen years ago, when my third son was almost a year old.  To this day, I can’t “not” run.  It’s become a part of who I am, despite knee surgery, pain , aging, and finding less time to do it.  Until I can no longer “physically” run (unfortunately, that day seems to be getting inevitably closer), I must continue to run or I won’t feel satisfied or successful.  Once you make a habit a part of your daily or weekly activities, something of which is what you need to do on a regular basis in order to feel content, and with luck- even happy, the act of completing it is no longer a challenge.  It has become a reward in itself!

Now, if only I can form the habit to eat less pizza!  That’s a habit I will form .. someday. For now, I am content to write daily, run five days a week, and enjoy eating all the many wonderful foods out there!  After all , one should always have new habit forming goals to work toward!  It keeps us from staying flat or becoming bored!

Now, go form a habit and be happy!

 

 

Backstory

On the surface the character’s  backstory is seemingly benign, but it has affected in a negative way how she views the world. No matter how riveting your plot line is, with all your conflict and tension, it is the character our readers are drawn to. Running along the external plot line is the inner plot, the gradual deep and fulfilling transformation the character undergoes as a result of her reactions to the actions within the external plot.  Take for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  At first, Scout is an  insensitive, young girl who lacks empathy for others, due to her age and her own backstory of losing her mother at a young age.  This backstory is not made a focus of the story, yet we know it is there, lurking in her background, contributing to her insensitivity and the manner in which she deals with the people around her.  She shows no concern for her neighbor Boo’s feelings, accepting easily without question that he is a bad sort.  Yet, through her experiences within the external plot line and her own inner struggles, later in the story she begins to wonder about Boo, why he likes staying shut up in his house and doesn’t try to change his situation. By the end of the story, she begins to show empathy through her emotional actions, therefore transforming from the flawed character she had been at the start of the story.

We all have backstory lurking within us.  Our backstories affect who we are as human beings, the choices we make, the paths we create for ourselves.  Recently, I took a course on “What it means to be human”, which focussed on the life of Robert “Nesta” Marley.  At first I wondered why they picked him as a subject for this course, but by the end of the course I realized the reason.  His beliefs and values created the person he came to be.  Having lived in the Trench Town ghettos of Jamaica, witnessing the extreme economic and social injustices in which he and his family lived, he was constantly fighting the demons both hovering around him and those which dwelled within him.  Calling out for equality and the right to human dignity for all people of all races, colors and cultures, he began to spread his messages through his music.  The backstory of his life contributed to the man he ultimately became.

Our protagonists will overcome their flaws, transforming themselves through their experiences which we create in our stories, while connecting universally to the backstories of our readers and their own desire to transform.  Although we don’t shed the backstory from our lives the way a snake sheds it’s skin, for it will always remain a part of who we are as human beings, but by learning through our experiences we have the power to transform in a big and powerful way.

 

The Spark of Curiosity

To become better at learning one needs to ask the right questions. Researchers have found that an individual’s curiosity is piqued by simply asking a question.  By becoming curious one is more likely to remember new information.  In the January 2016 edition of writer’s digest, Susan Reynolds of WD Books, explains; Curiosity creates a sort of brain vortex that sucks in whatever you feel most motivated to learn, along with ideas that may be floating around your environment.  The spark of curiosity lights up the hippocampus, where the creation of memories occurs, and the reward and pleasure brain circuits, which release dopamine.  

I saw this in all of my sons as they grew up and in one in particular. No matter what the subject was, from simple weather issues to the meaning of life, he would ask questions.  Usually, I had no idea how to scientifically provide the right answer and instead of winging it, I encouraged him to look it up.  By supporting his extreme levels of curiosity instead of rushing an answer at him for instant gratification (so I could get things done!), that would probably be incorrect anyway, I helped to create in him the spark of curiosity.  This spark is an energy, similar to the adrenaline rush one gets when excited or for me, when I run.  Energy keeps us young and healthy and contributes to happiness and greater self esteem in human beings.

Some of the best stories begin with a question, as I have stated in previous blogs. Whether you, as the author, provide the answer for your reader or not, the spark of curiosity has been lit by the question you raise.  It is up to you as the author to create the fire of “wanting to know” in your audience and to fan it with the right words as you progress through your text, so that the strength of it’s blaze never burns out.

Character Arc: we all have one

Over the course of our lives we all change; some of us change for the better and unfortunately some of us change for the worse, but regardless whether it is for the better or worse -we do change. As our lives progress, we move on.  This is what we call the character arc.

A character starts out as someone with specific traits or goals or lack of, then through the course of the story things happen to him that have an affect on him, causing him to change.  This is the simple definition of character arc or the commonly known Hero’s Journey.

Oh but let’s back up a little.  The general definition is that simple, however; it can be a little more complicated when we dig deeper.  There are several different types of character arcs:  The change Arc, The Growth Arc and the Fall Arc.  The Change Arc is the type most closely related to the Hero’s Journey, where the character changes from an unlikely person into a hero or savior.  This change is usually extreme or radical and despite the inner strength he likely had within himself from the start, he only needed to see it.  By the end of the story,  he is transformed in a clear and dramatic manner.

The Growth Arc is similar since the character does overcome some type of weakness or fear, or guilt, or some other internal opposition, by the end of the story as he faces an external opposition paralleling his internal one along the way.  He may not be as obviously changed as the “hero” in the Change Arc, but he is a changed individual in some internal way.  He may have learned to overcome a prejudice or learned to forgive himself or someone else.

The last one of these three character arcs  we are discussing today is the Fall Arc.  It is more typically referred to as the “Tragedy” since the main character usually changes in a negative manner, perhaps declining toward a mental illness or alcoholic disease, a banishment or even death.  He may start out as someone who has hope but throughout the story he makes all the wrong choices, deciding to follow the darker side into his ultimate destruction.

Here we have the very simple definitions of the different character arcs, however; in subsequent blogs I will go into greater detail providing examples of these arcs within the different story structures , as well as how our story structure influences and is influenced by the character arc we choose for our story so that it has the greatest universal effect possible.  After all, the goal is to draw in the reader, have her relate to our character in a way that affects her as greatly as it does our protagonist or at least close to it.  The character arc we create in our story should coincide with the character arcs of our own lives or at least provide food for thought.

 

 

Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.

Making mistakes in writing is necessary as part of the writing process.  Just as in life, making mistakes is how we learn to do things better.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw said:   “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time. A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”  Remaining afraid to try because you may mess up is worse than never trying.  The results from both are at minimum the same, except that one has a chance of success if he at least tries.  If one does not play the lottery one has zero chance of winning.  If one limits himself because of fear, one has zero chance of success.

“Writer’s Block” is very real and it is the writer’s worst nightmare.   Afraid to place the “wrong”  words on the page, we allow our muse to be  held hostage by our fear.  The story is up there lurking, trying to escape, but our fear of making a mistake keeps it trapped.  John Gardner tells us:  “In a good novel, the first five words must make you forget you’re reading.”  Writers are told over and over  they must “hook ” the reader immediately or …. or what?  If we do not get those first five words right we fail?  Consequently, we sit in front of our computers staring at the blank page waiting for the exact, correct words to spill from our thoughts to the keyboard.  But there’s that fear again- holding us back, whispering in our ears, telling us we are sure to mess up so why bother.

The computer won’t blow up and no one is coming to carry us off to the writer’s jail for making mistakes.  Just today my youngest son attempted to melt chocolate candies into a chocolate bar.  As  the chocolate cooled and  he spread the cream cheese icing all over it he explained to me the steps he took and how excited he was to be cooking.  Then, he took a bite and spit it out.  At first he was upset with himself because he realized he had added too much oil to the pot; he had messed up!   I asked him what he would do the next time differently and his face brightened up .  He recited the steps he would take, all the same as those he just took, but this time he would add less oil.  “And what do you think that would taste like?”  I asked him.  He admitted it would probably taste perfect.  “Well,”  I said.  “How would you have known that if you didn’t mess it up the first time?  Next time your chocolate bar will be that much better than it would have been if you never knew what to improve!”    Needless to say, my son felt more elated and proud of himself than if he hadn’t made the mistake to begin with.

Mistakes are our greatest teachers.  They teach us how to do better the next time.  If we don’t make mistakes at our first attempt , the result may be okay enough but when we make a mistake  and we learn from it, the second time has the chance to be perfect!  The key is to learn from the mistake and to try again, not to never try at all or to give up.  As in life, get those five words down.  Yes, the first five words are important, just as John Gardner said, but we can always go back later and fix it. The point is to get something down on paper.  To try!    And if it is not right the second time, it may be the third or the fourth time.  With each attempt  a new lesson is learned.  The key is to recognize each mistake, then correct each one while trying not to make the SAME mistake over and over.  Make the attempt, recognize the mistake and take action to fix it.  “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”  So, what are you waiting for?  Start making mistakes!

 

The Inner Journey is at the core of every good story.

The goal for the main character is to solve her problem, so she will be the one most affected by the climax.  Whether the obstacles the protagonist faces are physical or emotional (they can be both or either), the author must balance the struggles over them and the way they are overcome, between the protagonist and the antagonist.   This recipe provides suspense and tension to the story, leading up to the climax, ultimately ending with the spiritual, emotional,  or intellectual change in the main character or what we writers call, the character arc.

Just as we are the protagonists in our own life, facing struggles every day, we must work hard toward our goals, ignoring our antagonists or if it is absolutely necessary as the only means to reaching our goal, we battle and overcome those antagonists, although making sure to maintain our integrity, until we are victorious.  Suspense and tension shadow us every day in our lives, but it forces us to become stronger, to learn, to work harder, so that when we reach the climax of our daily stories, we are all the better for it.

Character evolution is at the heart of every good story. Whether the main character changes, emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually, it’s this change that the reader routes for through out the story.  Will the little girl with no self esteem come to see how wonderful she is by the end of the story after reaching her goal?  Will the sad and lonely man accept the ways of society  and learn that there is a way for him to fit in?  Will the teenage foster child finally find a family and come to feel loved?  Will the little train who thought he could not make it up the tracks to the next town finally say ” I think I can , I think I can”  and ultimately realize his worth and how capable he always was?

From the picture books we read as a small child or we have read to our own children (I’ve read thousands to mine!), to the middle grade books like Charlotte’s web with Wilber the pig and Charlotte the spider, to young adult stories like Hunger Games with Katnip learning the hard way about society and people, to the adult books we read today, every good story employs a character who seeks a goal, and along the way, with or without realizing it, he or she changes over the course of his or her own inner journey.  And that positive change, like in real life, is at the core of every good story.

Managing Plot is like Managing Life

A strong protagonist and a compelling storyline that connect all of the different narrative threads should weave itself into a rich character arc,as  the main character changes somehow over the course of our story. No  pre-determined map at their disposal to follow .  By driving the story through character, as opposed to building it through plot, the story’s plot will unfold naturally, writing itself.  Having no idea where the story is going, the character decides the route she should take as the story falls into place- the same way we live our lives everyday, rising in the morning, expecting certain things to take place over the course of our day, then adjusting as we are confronted with life’s many unexpected obstacles ,  and ultimately we often make the choice to  switch directions or goals so we can do more than merely survive.

We manage our lives through overcoming obstacles, by learning how we must change,  or how we must treat each situation we encounter or person we come up against, usually at random or by surprise.  Ultimately we do change in some way… because we naturally desire a successful ending  of some kind.  It is much the same with our stories.  We give birth and DNA to our characters, raising them so that they learn to make the right choices, learning from their mistakes along the way.  And in the end, just like the parents we are or the parents we have or had,  the binding strings are cut so that our cherished offspring or characters are allowed the chance to  soar off on their own, managing their own life, and finding their own destiny.

Holding on too tightly to plot restricts the ability of the characters to flourish on their own, to build off their own strengths and to   ultimately allow them to go even beyond what we, their maker, ever could have imagined.  Like managing life where the power is inside of each one of us characters to build our own magical life plots, managing plot in our stories is to give that magical power to our characters and to step out of the way to see where they will take us.  They just may surprise us in the end.