Friday, September 19, 2014

Without Change, We Would Have No Memories

A Cacophony of Change

Summer is coming to a close.  This is the last weekend of the solar season, and soon the deciduous leaves will begin to show their colors, the tourists will clog our mountain roads, and the last of the (local) warm-weather veggies will disappear from the farm stands.  But this change is a harbinger of far more than our planetary wobbly orbit; it seems everywhere I look, things are in flux, and that’s a good thing.

My four-legged shadow has recently become overly clingy.  Since my wife and I separated (and she took the other dog, Betsy), Sebastian has decided that he NEEDS to be with/next/touching me 24/7, and his obsession is manifesting itself in uncomfortable scenarios.  I find it exceedingly difficult to go anywhere without him, and I guess the crux of my new decision was the other day when I ran into Ingle’s (grocery store) to buy some wine.  I was gone from the truck for less than five minutes, but by the time I picked up a bottle of Merlot and headed towards the checkout, there was a Public Address announcement of a dog in apparent distress in the parking lot.  Now, the only distress that Sebastian was experiencing was his desire to be with me inside the store.  But that embarrassing episode led to my consideration of a situational solution.  After seeking the counsel of several friends, including Bubba’s groomer, I have decided that this weekend we are going to look for another four-legged
companion to occupy at least some of his attention.  It will, of course, mean taking on the added expense of both time and money, but an energetic and accommodating Playmate is something this household needs, but alas, I will have to settle for a new doggy.

This was the first summer that Sebastian and I were essentially alone.  Yes, we each have our own set of visitors who come regularly to play and keep us company, but since last fall we have been on our own.  I did receive an email the other day from my ex giving me the heads-up about a process server who would be visiting.  It seems she has decided we are going to formally and legally end our marriage; the actual cessation happened a long time ago.  I wish I could feel something other than complete ambivalence about the end of a long marriage, but I harbor no anger, no sadness, no celebratory joy, no anything actually; it is nothing more than a change in the season.

In the midst of this, I reached a pinnacle of frustration over my pseudo-smart phone’s reluctance to sync my email.  The anniversary of my contract allowed for the more than needed upgrade that would permit me to be away from my computer, yet still be reachable.  Since I do almost all of my shopping online, I logged on to the Verizon website to shop and compare.  As I made my selection, I realized that there was a minor complication.  Ten years ago when “we” established our North Carolina cellphone account, somehow the “account owner” was designated as my wife.  In spite of the fact that I pay the bills (and have agreed to that into the future), and all correspondence comes to me via email, Verizon wanted to ship my new phone to the registered Florida address where Shirle lives.  I attempted to resolve the situation with an online chat, but the CSR was completely ignorant of the problem insisting that I could buy the phone and then call to have a Customer Service Representative change the address.  “Hello, you are a customer service representative, why can’t you just change it now?”  My fuse was a tad shorter than usual, so I abruptly disconnected and drove the 10 miles to the local Verizon store where an intelligent representative not only understood, but was able to complete the transaction, even helping me find a phone that was more situated to my needs than the one I had picked out online.

An interesting aside:  As the Verizon salesperson and I were concluding the sale and transfer of my data and contacts to my new DROID MAXX, she laughed and said, “Look at that, you just bought the exact same phone, color and all, as your wife did last month.”  Sheesh!

Change is upon us, the days are growing shorter, the temperatures are moderating, the first of the stinkbugs have begun to appear (which means the Ladybugs are not far behind), and the forest orchestra has begun its percussive beat dropping a variety of acorns, walnuts, chestnuts and hickory nuts in nature’s syncopated rhythm.  The squirrels and chipmunks are busy gathering the energy rich treats to stow for the coming winter, while the crisp mountain air reverberates with the sound of chainsaws harvesting deadfall for its comforting warmth in the colder months.  I have replaced my summer wardrobe of hats with the more durable leather and wools, and my short-sleeved shirts have already begun their hibernation.  The inevitability of change is unstoppable.

If you suspect there is melancholy in my words, fear not; I came to these mountains because of the seasonal alterations.  I lived a quarter century in Florida where nothing changes to a noticeable extent.  I enjoy living where the nature that surrounds me, morphs in regulated intervals and continually surprises me with its ever-changing kaleidoscopic views of color and beauty.  Yes, change is in the air in many ways, and time does indeed march on.  What was once, is no longer; what is now, cannot be changed; and what will be, is the surprise of the future.  In spite of its requisite disappointments and unavoidable sadness, life is anything but boring if you take the time to wonder at, rejoice and exploit those changes.  Your mind will revel in gratitude, for without change, we would have no memories.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Outline my writing? Are you serious?

     After much contemplation, I have decided to address a topic that garners a significant amount of negative response and argument, mostly due to a complete misunderstanding of the facts.  Yes, I am going to explain the importance of outlining a work of fiction before you start writing.  Don’t hate me yet, let me explain.
     I am not talking about that dreaded academic style of:

     No, that form of outlining is reserved for academic theses wherein you were supposed to hypothesize a conclusion, present five to seven arguments backed by multiple scholarly citations, explain your assumptions and deduced postulates, and finally prove your initial hypothesis.  Ugh, remember those nights staring at the glow of a computer wondering what you did with that essential citation you wrote longhand at the library and now has disappeared into your stack of research?

     That is not an outline for creative writing.
     First, a story/novel outline does not necessarily need to be written, as long as you have a mind capable of capturing and ordering a multitude of important facts.  Mine are mostly mental, but I do tend to put little notes to myself, either at the end of the manuscript file, or in an orphaned side-file, and delete the notes as I employ the necessary events, anchors and elemental plot situations.
     Second, an outline does NOT include every scene or nuance of the story.  Most of that will unfold as your creative juices start flowing and you begin to write.  It is not unusual for a character to animate and change direction in your plot, nor is it rare that unthought-of nuances arise from the depths of your mind that add flavor and texture to the story.  Don’t fret, the secret to outlining is you know where you are heading, anything that happens along the way is incidental.

     The simplest way to understand outlining is to understand the essential structure of storytelling.  There is a hard and fast formula; you need a setting, primary characters, a final crux or crisis, a multitude of conflicts or situations that lead to that crisis, and a dénouement, which if well-constructed will tell, or better yet, hint at the lessons or moral to be learned from the actions in the story.  The secret is tying all of those components together in a comprehensive and coherent style that adheres to a formulated continuity.  Yes, there are all those other little gems like circular plot lines, foreshadowing, stories within stories, literary allusions, word coloration, and of course, character evolution, but none of those matter until you have a story.
     In what order these elements germinate in your imagination is not germane to the writing exercise.  As often as not, I will start with the main crisis and then create the characters to get me there.  Sometimes I will dream up a character, and in the process of developing their personality, background and idiom, they will lead me to their own crisis.  I have, on occasion, created the dénouement first and planned everything backwards, all the way to the beginning.  
     The important thing is that in every case, I have a plan.  I know my characters inside and out, I know what they are eventually going to be involved in, I know where it is going to happen and why, and I know what they did, right or wrong, that spurred the story into action and readability.
     Without disclosing the entire context of a novel not yet written, I want to use my latest blog post, Gabriella, to demonstrate the power of planning.  It might help if you did a split-screen or open a new browser window/tab and have both this and Gabriella open to follow along.

     The idea for this story was hatched as a betrayal of love and the ruination of a man of wealth.  Knowing that, I had to contrive a female character capable to drive the plot.  I realized that she needed to be fairly well-educated, exotically beautiful, alien to the setting, and isolated in a certain degree of secrecy.  As I extrapolated that, I realized that she needed to be South American, but raised in the U.S.; I settled on New Mexico with her heritage being Columbian.  The reason for this will become apparent later in the novel, but for now, you will be able to use that information to understand the reason that I outline.
     The male character had to be a Gatsby-esque man of social and financial wealth, but vulnerable to the wiles of the femme fatale.  Herm is sophisticated, cultured, very formal, and confident to the point of arrogance in his decisions.  To avoid the obvious comparisons to Fitzgerald’s life in the “Eggs,” I set the story in my adopted hometown of Waynesville, North Carolina.  This gave me an instrument of introduction, as Waynesville is the headquarters of the annual international folk dance festival known as Folkmoot
     The final crisis will be a manipulation through trust that results in an unlawful “act” that robs Herm of his wealth, stature and freedom, but not his love for his angel, Gabriella.
That is the basis of my outline.  Now, without boring you with my entire plotline, I do also have multiple scenes and conflicts mapped out, as well as the details of the final crisis.  Additionally, I have my denouement planned, but let’s keep the horse in front of the cart.

     To see the power, and in my opinion necessity, of employing an outline, I would like to address the first installment of Gabriella.  Hopefully you will see that the power of planning allows the writer to build complexity into a story without the need to retrace steps in order to bring the end back to the beginning or get the beginning to reach the end.  I will warn you that as is a usual technique of mine, I like to start with a “post-apocalyptic” introduction that foreshadows the events that will unfold.

     I begin the story with a compound sentence: “The storm rolled in from the southwest; I watched it with studied disinterest, numbed by the day’s events.”  The storm is an allusion to Gabriella who hails from the Southwest; “studied disinterest” is an indication of his attitude towards his angel after his downfall; and “numbed by the day’s events” is foreshadowing of a post-crisis event at the end of the book.  The final sentence of the first paragraph, “It would be another long night of hopeless pondering and aimless planning,” begins the development of the ruined man still obsessed with a fruitless and destructive love.
     The second paragraph begins with, “The once gentle roll of the thunder now became punctuated with infrequent snaps like angry cannon fire,” depicting in simile fashion, a once distant disturbance that has come near.  This is a further reference to “the day’s events” that will occur later.
The next paragraph is the emergence of the post-crisis man, so that we may know that his life and home, “in spite of its staging and décor, no longer contained the warmth of invitation and friendship,” that it once had.  We have now, a glimpse of what the man would become, “the town’s people feared my hermitage and the grizzled man and dog that resided there.”  
     But for the story to work we must know who he was first.  The last four sentences of that paragraph give us clues:  “The once flirtatious cashier at the grocer now turned her head when I shopped for provisions.  The jovial crowds at the cafes and taverns disavowed our former friendships, and I graciously left them to their dishonesty by eating at home and buying my whiskey from the package store.  They would argue that it was I who changed, but if I were ever so disposed to engage in such a polemic dispute, I could remind them of what once was, and how that affected everyone, not me alone.  What once was is no longer, and that is only a part of the story, but all of the truth.”

     Moving on to the introduction of Gabriella, she was “a member of a South American dance troupe,” set within Folkmoot.  The importance of her education and heritage will become apparent later in the story, but the references are well documented in the outline of my story.  “She appeared to be somewhat older and certainly less graceful than her troupe mates.”  This is a hint at the unlikely inclusion of her as a troupe member and foreshadows the influence she will yield and the true purpose of her trip to Waynesville.  Gabriella traveled with an entourage, her protection and isolation, who were “later introduced as brothers and cousins,” a purposeful ambiguity hinting that their relationship may be a ruse.
     With my female character revealed, I move on to building the caricature of the Herm of old.  Sitting in a public place, sipping whiskey with “the members of our Arts Council,” discussing community involvement including his “expected financial support”; this is not the grizzled man we just saw in his hermitage on the mountain.
      His self-assured arrogance betrays the illogic of an enchantress who “attracted the eyes of every patron in the eatery” singling him out of the crowd to raise “her glass to acknowledge” him.  He is mesmerized to the point of distraction, ignoring his purpose, his friends, and the obvious absurdity Gabriella’s approach (without her guards) and her detailed knowledge of him so soon after her arrival in town.
      The remainder of the piece, including his formal conversation style and his generosity are developmental to the character that I outlined.  The note at the end is the premise upon which their second meeting will be based.

      So in less than 1500 words, I have introduced the skeletal characters on which to build the requisite personalities that will drive the story to its ending crisis, I have given you a sketch of the post-crisis results, foreshadowed the dénouement, and set the stage for my ending “day’s events.”  None of these details would be possible without a plan for the story and an outline of who, what, where and why the story is being told.

      To have written the entire novel and then attempt to come back and insert this kind of detail would require so much rewriting that the story would inevitably end as an uncomplicated and quite average piece of fiction.  When I write, I want my work to be above-average, I want to engage my readers, and I want to be the best author I can be.  There is an old saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there.”  I like to have a map.  Sometimes I take days, weeks, even months to construct that map, but I would rather have a well-thought out route before I start my engine.  I outline.