Getting Your Homework Done

I have a friend who, even as he has achieved septuagenarian status, remains the master of the bon mot. We were talking about the finality of life and about people of our age group — primarily women we had, um, known in the past — who had already gone ahead. The conversation turned to health, and how fragile it gets as that unknown sell-by date approaches. He capped off the conversation by saying, “Gee! I better hurry up and get my homework done!”

Indeed. It seems as if we are stuck in a Lewis Carroll novel, where we must run faster to stay in place. And what happened with that technological helping hand? Technology was supposed to help us get more accomplished; instead it seems to have inadvertently created more tasks, providing us with a longer reach which is ill-suited to work with our increasingly arthritic grasp. This doesn’t just apply to those of us who are old enough to remember when television consisted of three channels, either. My ten year granddaughter was recently assigned to write a one-paragraph essay as a homework assignment. She turned in an extremely sub-standard effort — one at odds with her stratospheric IQ — which ended with the sentence: “I wrote this in the car on the way to school.” She earned a grade of “SEE ME” from the teacher. It developed that our darling had gotten caught up in a roleplaying game the night before, which was more interesting than a writing a paragraph could ever be, and then gave it her all, if you will, on the way to school the following morning.

Writers are faced with this time balance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Life gets in the way of writing. Heck, life gets in the way of life. My way of dealing with this has never been perfect and is constantly evolving. I am accordingly going to share with you my current method for coping with the time crunch, which, as I approach the downhill slope of my life, actually works pretty well.

1) Eat the booger first. That got your attention, didn’t it? The “booger” in this case is the task you want to do least. It can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to drafting that letter that contains bad news for the recipient. Do that first. Do it as soon as you get the bad news that you have been appointed to pass on. Do it when the dishwasher light goes on, or it buzzes, or whatever. I have found in most cases that the freakin’ idea of whatever it is you need to do but don’t want to is often worse than actually doing it.

Here is but one example. I’ve been fighting the clutter monster, which for me consists of paper, paper, paper. I had reached the point where a home shredder wasn’t getting the job done. Lo and behold, I discovered that some UPS Store outlets have contracted with the Iron Mountain folks to shred paper at a reasonable price. Problem solved. Although I do get why some people need one as they are an essential part of their office supplies for obvious reasons. I started with the goal of going through one box a week to determine what I need (a closed file concerning a client that I still represent on other matters) to what I don’t (a receipt for a garage door repair done in…well, not this century). I am now enjoying it so much that I have to put a limit on the number of boxes I go through in a day, because I wasn’t getting other things done.

2) List your Big Four. List four things which you try to do every day, regardless of what else happens. Put them in your calendar (on daily repeat) at the beginning of your day. Assign one word to each task — Watch, Read, Write, and Listen, for example — and do each of those things for fifteen minutes each day. If you want to keep doing them, fine, but the first time that you start each one be sure to stop after fifteen minutes. Come back to each one later, if you wish and if you can, but again, in fifteen minute increments. Do it with tasks that you want or have to do regularly, and love or hate (or somewhere in between) , but do each for fifteen minutes at a time. You will be surprised at how long and how short a quarter-hour is, and how much you can get done in that time period. This is particularly true of writing. Depending on your typing speed, inspiration, and perspiration, you can get a couple of hundred words out of you and on the screen in fifteen minutes. What? You say that doesn’t sound like much? Count out two hundred Skittles and throw them around the living room. Now pick them up. See. Two hundred is a lot. Do that for ten days and you have two thousand words or more, where before you had nothing. And so it goes.

3) Schedule things realistically, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It isn’t going to take you fifteen minutes to prepare your income tax return, so don’t schedule that from 10:00 to 10:15 on the night of April 14. You’ll just be making an appointment to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment. Go ahead and block off fifteen minutes for it, across twenty different days, or block off an entire day, if you can do it. You have a pretty good idea how long it takes you, however, from past experience, which is usually a pretty good indicator of present performance. But be realistic in your estimates of how long it takes you and how long you can work on it at a stretch. Think of YOUR abilities and limitations. Mickey Spillane wrote I the Jury in nineteen days, and Georges Simenon could write a book in less time than that, but you or I aren’t going to do that (probably). Don’t get discouraged when it takes longer than you thought it would, and plan accordingly.

4) Stay the fu-heck off of the phone. And if you can’t, learn how to cut calls short. I am running over my scheduled time for writing this blog because my brother called me and I took the call, which he made to tell me a hysterically funny joke. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself behind the eightball. Some calls you have to take, particularly if you have children who need you for whatever reason. I’m currently helping a guy who is struggling with the first steps of sobriety. He calls. I’m there. Period. End of story, and to heck with the schedule. When dealing with most other folks, however, I tell them upfront that I am busy and can either 1) give them five minutes before I have to leave or 2) call them back the next day. Make it stick. Be polite, and most people understand.

The great part of all of this is that it doesn’t take two hours out of each day to set up. I’ve worked with systems that used cards, diaries, etc. This doesn’t. You can make it up and set it up fairly quickly. In the case of my granddaughter, she could have eaten the booger first by writing the essay as soon as she got home, then played her computer game for fifteen minutes, done her other homework, then gone back to the games. She’ll learn, hopefully, though it took me long enough to do so. And I didn’t think this up by myself. I got the fifteen minute thing from a woman who calls herself “The Flylady” and the suggestion to “eat the booger first” from a friend in Louisiana. So use what you like and what works for you. Which brings us to the end of me and the beginning of you: what methods have you used and acquired to stay productive?

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The Legos Theory of Storytelling as Applied to Turkish Television. Seriously.

Happy 2017! I spent the holidays reading almost nothing, writing a lot, and engaging for better or worse in self-reflection.  I concluded that the best thing I could do for myself and for my work was to go back to basics.

What follows is aimed more at those folks in our audience who are struggling with getting that first novel done. It is easy enough to explain in the context of childhood: rather than struggling to build a motorized crane using an Eitech Erector Set, I need to grab a box of Legos and start building little cars and and people and such, working my way forward by starting with the small and simple and building gradually, but steadily.

I came to this conclusion after watching two television series. You’ve almost certainly heard of one, and probably have never heard of the other. Our own Kathryn Lilley discussed Westworld on this blog a few weeks back. It was beautifully filmed, intricately plotted, startling, and full of surprises. The major rub against it was that it was difficult to understand what was going on from episode to episode. I still have a little callus on my thumb from rewinding it to pick up certain plot nuances that I missed. There were several — maybe a dozen — plot lines that spun off in different directions, some of which were relevant to the story, others which seemed to have been included simply to create a mood. All of them were interesting, but only a few minutes were devoted to each at any one time. Characters? More characters had been introduced by Episode Three than I could keep track of. I found it to be worth working through it — it raises some stunning and yes, frightening issues concerning reality, mortality, and other areas — but the general consensus seems to be that it arguably is a series that more people heard about than actually watched.

The anti-Westworld, if you will, is a series available on Netflix called Kacak (“The Fugitive”). If Westworld  is the result of the Eitech erector set I referenced at the beginning of this post, Kacak comes from the basic box of Legos, and it is wonderful. Kacak is a genre-blurring television series produced in Turkey, throwing together elements of thriller, suspense, romance, drama, and yes, a bit of comedy to create a slow-boil story that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. It is subtitled, but the story is simple enough, and the acting is good enough, that one could glean the context without it. It begins in a remote Turkish village where a man named Serhat operates a tea shop. He is loved by everyone around him, and one gets the sense of “why” from his interaction with his clientele and another shopkeeper. For his own part, Serhat is devoted to his wife and their young son, who somehow in a few moments becomes the cutest little guy to ever walk the face of the earth. All of this communicated with a few minutes of interaction here and there over the course of a day or so. Just when you think you’ve stumbled into an episode of Lassie, however, Serhat interjects himself quite forcefully into a dangerous situation. He is immediately hailed as a hero throughout his village; when news of Serhat’s heroism spreads to Istanbul, however, a danger from his past — a past of which even his beloved wife knows nothing — quickly intrudes and irrevocably blows up Serhat’s perfect life. Does this sound familiar? Sure. The movie A History of Violence explores a similar theme, as does Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Kacak goes further, however. Serhat vows revenge. As Serhat carries out his plan — and attempts to put what is left of life back together — the audience learns about his past, in dribs and drabs, not in meal courses but in tapas or dim sum, small portions which are easily digestible and brought out over the course of the very long meal, where the surprises keep coming. To put it another way: just when you think you’ve reached the smallest Russian nesting doll, there’s another one within.

Kacak does all of this without a big budget, or, interestingly enough, without nudity, graphic sex, or (much) gratuitous violence. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, and there are momentary but noticeable lapses of continuity, to the extent that on occasion the series is unintentionally funny. That is part of the charm of it, however. It isn’t subtle or nuanced for the most part. What it does, however, and does very well, is tell a story.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not much of a teacher. If I have a strength in the area of education it’s the ability to point people to something that will illustrate, quickly, how something is done. If you are having trouble getting your story off of the ground, or that you are getting bogged down under the weight of your own plot, or are having trouble keeping your characters straight, hijack the family Netflix account from your teenager and watch at least the first few episodes of Kacak. I have watched the first ten — Netflix lists fifty — but you can learn a lot just by watching and studying the first three or four. I think, however, that you will want to eventually watch the whole series, which takes that little box of Legos and slowly builds from it, using just a few parts at a time.

My question for you: is there a television series you use to jumpstart your writing, to clear the cobwebs, whatever? My own answer: in addition to Kacak…True Detective: Season One, which I have practically committed to memory (time, indeed, is a flat circle). You?

 

10+

Lost Volumes, Missing Pages

storm over louisiana

Photo: Storm over Louisiana by Joe Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

(Note: Before we get into today’s post…I am writing this while sitting in a very nice, dry place, probably somewhat similar to where you are reading it. Over 100,000 households were destroyed in the Baton Rouge area last week leaving people without nice, dry places to do anything. The area needs contractors, money, and building and cleaning supplies. It will be YEARS before the area recovers, and it might never recover totally. IF you can help, please do so: http://www.samaritanspurse.com; also, Billy Graham Ministries has sent a rapid response team to the area: https://billygraham.org/what-we-do/evangelism-outreach/rapid-response-team/about/.) Thank you.

What follows will no doubt seem depressing, though I don’t mean it to be. I’ll bookend what I’m about to tell you with the proposition that we should each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I returned to New Orleans this week after an absence of about three years. I’m attending a legal seminar that is held annually and visiting my many friends here, some of whom attend the seminar and others who reside here. Many are in the process, alas, of leaving the building. The change, which seems more dramatic after having not seen them for nigh on three years, is sudden. One, a goodhearted guy who jousts tirelessly at windmills and is often unappreciated by those he champions, has skin cancer which continues to advance despite painful surgeries. Another has had two strokes which have left him debilitated but nonetheless cheerful. A third, a woman who means well but who has suffered from a lifetime of impulsive choices, has succumbed yet again to addiction.

The saddest, however, is a friend in nearby Baton Rouge who has experienced a sudden onset and subsequent rapid decline secondary to Alzheimer’s Disease. His twin brother died with the condition in December of last year. My friend said to me then, “Gee, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” He started slipping away in April. I visited with him at his home and then drove him around Baton Rouge, where he has lived all of his life. He pointed out many familiar landmarks but couldn’t remember the restaurant where he had eaten lunch several times a week before he had to stop driving. He’s an author who at one point co-owned a publishing company and was a mover and shaker in state politics. He had a million stories, including one where I accidentally almost got both of us arrested during a visit to the state capitol building. A conversation with him now jumps and drops and skips. I listened to him and thought of pages missing from a book, library volumes lent and never returned, with only gaps in the shelves to mark their presence. His decline is such that when I come back in three weeks he may no longer recognize me or otherwise remember me. That’s not a big deal, in the general scheme of things, but it marks a deterioration for him (even though he is only somewhat aware of it) and for his family. The term “tragic” doesn’t quite cover the extent of it.

So, that bookend: let us each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I will be unavailable for most of the day today but will attempt to respond to comments intermittently or later. Enjoy yourselves. And visit someone you haven’t seen for a while, or with whom you’ve lost touch. You don’t know how much longer you’ll have them. Time, alas, is short and the sand runs ever more quickly through the hourglass.

 

 

8+

Ending Up At The End

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

One of the most popular features of TKZ is our First Page Critiques. We invite you to submit the first page of your WIP and we will critique the good, bad and ugly elements of the work. We offer this feature because of the importance of grabbing the reader right off the get-go. A list of all the previous submissions can be found at First Page Critiques along with an invitation to submit your first page.

So we all know how important the first-page grab is, how a writer has to set the “hook” as soon as possible. But what about endings? Are they as important as beginnings? After all, they occur after the big finale, the gripping climax, the roaring finish. In a way, we can think of endings as anticlimactic. And yet, they have an important function to perform in any story. So today let’s take a Writing 101 Series look at endings.

First, the ending should resolve anything that was not addressed during the climax. Once the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is put to bed, what’s left must be brought together as a resolution in the ending. There must be closure to anything still hanging in the reader’s mind.

The ending also answers or clarifies the story question. Since the story question usually deals with character growth or change, the ending must make sure the story question is answered.

Let’s say that the main character had to stand by and watch his family perish in a terrible accident that he inadvertently caused. The story question might be: will he ever forgive himself and have the courage to find love again and perhaps start a new family? The actual plot might deal with something totally different, but along the way he finds a new love interest. Once the climax occurs and the plot is resolved, the reader must discover the answer to the story question. It has to be made clear in the ending. In most stories, the main character takes a journey, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. How he completes the journey is the answer to the story question and must be resolved in the ending.

Another function of the ending is to bring some sense of normalcy back to the characters’ lives. It can be the restoring of how things were before the journey began or it can be the establishment of a new normal. Either way, it must be resolved in the ending. Our hero has found a new love and plans to start a new family. It’s his new normal and the reader must understand the changes that he went through to establish that new normal.

If the story contains a theme, message or moral, the ending is where it should be reinforced. Not every story has an underlying theme, but if it does, it must be clarified in the ending. This way the reader can close the book with the feeling that the theme or message was accomplished or confirmed. The main character(s) got it, and so did the reader. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the message, it has to be confirmed in his or her mind what it was, and if it was completed.

The end resolution of the theme or message must be in sync with the story. For instance, if the theme is to accept a spiritual belief in the existence of a greater power in the universe, the plot and characters must touch upon or address the idea somewhere along the way so the end resolution confirms that they have changed their beliefs to support or at least admit to the theme.

The ending should also cause readers to feel the way the writer intended them to feel. Whatever the emotional response the reader should experience, the ending is where it’s confirmed. After all, the writer is the captain of the ship. He steers the story in a specific direction—a direction he wants the reader to go. The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port. Worse case is that it doesn’t dock at all. That’s the result of a weak ending.

The ending is how you leave your reader. It’s the last impression. And it just might be the reason the reader wants to buy your next book. Or not.

6+

Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

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For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

17+

There’s no such thing as a bad book

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Ever heard a writer ask, “I don’t understand why my manuscript is being rejected while so many bad books are published?” Or, “I keep reading books that are nowhere near as good as mine. Yet they wind up getting published while mine don’t. I don’t get it!”

Sound familiar? Here’s my spin on the answer to this never-ending source of frustration: there’s no such thing as a bad book. The reason I feel that way is I believe that all books are considered good or even great by someone.

No publisher will intentionally release a “bad” book. Doing so would be a doomed business plan, especially in today’s shifting publishing landscape. Their goal is to find the best written manuscript, give it the most professional editing possible, promote it within budget limitations, and work closely with the author to raise the awareness of the book in the marketplace.

Here’s the problem: No publisher has a plan that is immune to failure. Not all books appeal to enough readers to make back the original investment. The dumpster is full of great books that did not make it into the hands of enough readers. And we have all come across books that we didn’t like or thought were “bad”. (To be honest, I couldn’t make it through the first 50 pages of a huge bestselling novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Does that mean it was a “bad” book?)

Not liking a book is individual preference. Someone else may love it, which is usually the case. If a book is truly written poorly–spelling errors, typos, incorrect punctuation, etc.–that’s the failure of the line editor. If it contains erroneous information or blatant factual mistakes, that’s the failure of the copy editor. And if it’s built on weak or sloppy writing (massive plot holes, 2-dimensional characters, stilted dialog, pacing issues, redundancy, cliché, etc.), that’s the fault of the acquisition editor. In all cases, the book should not have been published.

I have never met an author who said, “Today I’m going to write a mediocre book.” I’ve never dealt with an agent who was seeking writers with minimal talent. There are no publishers out there willing to risk their money on a sure-fire loser. All books are considered great by someone. That’s why they were written, represented and published. Did enough readers agree? Better yet, did enough readers even get the chance to agree? And if they didn’t, where does the fault lie? Marketing? Distribution? Promotion? Bad luck?

But even if we write a great book, there’s no guarantee that it will ever be published, much less sell enough copies to earn back the advance (most books fall short of that task). Don’t get me wrong, we all have to write the best book we can. But there are more great books that fail than succeed.

How about you, Zoners? Ever read what was positioned as the next Great American Novel only to put it down unfinished? Ever read a book that you considered awful but it went on to set new sales records?

6+

What the heck is the Inciting Event?

Today TKZ welcomes K.M. Weiland as our guest blogger. Katie will be sharing a critical but often misunderstood element of the novel: the Inciting Event. Enjoy her insights and be sure to visit her highly informative, award-winning writer’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors.

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katie1What the heck is the Inciting Event? That’s a question just about any writer can answer. The trouble is that sometimes we all have a different answer.

  • Is the Inciting Event the first thing that happens in the story?
  • Is it the moment that kicks off the plot and the conflict?
  • Is it the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act?
  • Is it something in between?
  • Is it something that happens before the story ever starts?

The chief trouble with identifying the Inciting Event is that the term is used rather wildly to apply to just about any of the above. One writer calls the Hook the Inciting Event, another calls it the First Plot Point. Argh! No wonder we’re all so confused.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165The confusion has grabbed me in its claws as well. In Structuring Your Novel, I wrote the following about the Inciting Event:

What’s important isn’t so much nailing down your Inciting Event to a specific place in the story, as it is presenting the Inciting Event at the optimal moment. Sometimes that means throwing the Inciting Event at readers right away, and sometimes that means holding off a bit.

I admit it: that’s a little vague, isn’t it?

Since writing Structuring Your Novel, I’ve made some extremely interesting discoveries about the Inciting Event, which have helped me refine my own stories far more than did such vague notions. So let’s all advance our understanding of this frustratingly important moment in our stories, shall we?

The Single Most Important Thing to Understand About “The Inciting Event”

The most important thing you can take away from this post is this: There isn’t just one moment that can be called “the inciting event.” There are three.

The vast majority of confusion over this structural pillar is the fact that we find different writers referring to three very distinct moments in the story by the same name. I’ve been guilty of it too, if only because I hadn’t yet grasped the differences between the three. These three different story structure moments are completely different from one another and all equally necessary to your story.

First Act Timeline

The 3 Different “Inciting Events”

1. The First Moment in the Story

Probably the most common understanding of the Inciting Event is that it’s the first moment in your plot. This is the beginning of your story–possibly even the first sentence. This opening scene will introduce your main character and the main conflict. It’s the first domino in the line of dominos that forms your plot. It’s the beginning of your story. If you open before this moment, then you’ve opened too soon.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

It’s no wonder we think of this moment as the Inciting Event. “Incite” seems to indicate the match striking the tinder of our plot. Therefore, this moment necessarily has to be the starting point, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, this first moment in your plot is what starts the whole thing moving. But, no, this moment is more about introducing your story than inciting it.

What It Really Is

This first crucial moment in your story is more properly the Hook. There is, of course, more involved in the Hook than just this (namely, its responsibility to grab your readers’ curiosity). But the Hook is the first structural moment in your story. It’s the first interesting moment, and, as such, it’s what flicks over that first domino and starts things rolling.

Where It Belongs

This opening moment–the Hook–belongs (surprise!) in the opening. It’s your opening scene–the first thing that happens in your story–possibly even the first line.

What We Should Really Call It

The Hook.

Examples

Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker arriving in Budapest on his way to meet with his strange client, Count Dracula. This moment launches the plot (after all, prior to Harker’s meeting with Dracula, there is no story) and grabs reader curiosity.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with the famous sequence in which Indy–dogged by his nemesis Belloc–infilitrates the South American temple and steals the golden idol. The sequence itself has nothing to do with the main conflict, but it brilliantly introduces the protagonist, grabs the viewer, and kicks off the rivalry between Indy and Belloc.

Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age kicks off with the subplot character Scrat, whose single-minded pursuit of his acorn causes the Ice Age.

2. The First Plot Point

Okay, so if the Hook is something different from the Inciting Event, then perhaps the Inciting Event is the all-important big moment that happens at the end of the First Act: the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is where your story gets going in earnest. Something dynamic and irreversible happens at this moment. It kicks your character forever out of the passivity of his Normal World and launches him into a desperate series of reactions as he scrambles to gain some control over the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Like I said, this is the moment where your story really begins. This is the moment that fully engages your character in the conflict. He couldn’t walk away now, even if he really wanted to. It’s definitely a moment that incites your character. But if this is the first incendiary moment in your story, then your pacing is likely to be pretty dull. Remember, the First Plot Point is going to take place around the 25% mark in your story. Something had to happen in between the Hook and the 25% mark, right?

What It Really Is

The First Plot Point is just that–the First Plot Point. It’s the doorway between the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. It’s also very likely to be the Key Event (which I’ll get into below).

Where It Belongs

The First Plot Point always ends the First Act. Optimally, it should be placed at the 25% mark.

What We Should Really Call It

The First Plot Point.

Examples

In Dracula, the First Plot Point is the moment when the dreaded Count arrives (via spooky shipwreck) in England. Lots happens prior to this scene, but this is the moment that irrevocably engages all of the main characters in their mortal struggle with the vampire.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the First Plot Point occurs when the Nazis burn down Marian’s bar, forcing her to escape with Indy to Cairo. Again, lots happened prior to this, but this moment irrevocably launches the main plot by bringing the two primary characters together and sending them to the primary setting.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

In Ice Age, the First Plot Point happens when Manny and Sid rescue the human baby and meet Diego. This launches their main story goal (return the baby to his father) and the main conflict with the saber-tooth tigers.

3. The First Act’s Turning Point

And now, at last, we reach the secret member of our trio of “Inciting Events.” This is a vital structural moment–and yet most authors overlook it completely. Halfway through the First Act, something happens–a turning point. Usually, this is the Call to Adventure (which the hero starts out by rejecting). It’s the moment when his Normal World is significantly rocked by the conflict for the first time. His world won’t yet be upended by that conflict (not until the First Plot Point), but we might think of it as the moment when the match is officially lit and held over the tinder of the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Technically, most writers don’t think of this turning point as the Inciting Event for the simple reason that they really don’t think about it at all. But let’s think about it now, shall we? Aside from breaking up the potential monotony of the First Act and providing focus for the first quarter of the story, this turning point fulfills one of the most important roles in your story’s beginning.

The first eighth of the story (from the Hook to this turning point) is all set-up. Readers are familiarizing themselves with your characters, figuring out the characters’ goals, and learning the stakes. Readers need that time in order to get their bearings before the main conflict really starts heating up.

Then comes this all-important turning point at the 1/8th mark (around the 12% mark). It shakes everything up, redirects readers’ focus to the primary conflict, and sends the protagonist hurtling right for the deciding moment of the First Plot Point.

The next eighth of the story (from the turning point to the First Plot Point) is where you then start positioning the final pieces necessary for the main conflict, while ramping up the tension to lead right into the First Plot Point.

What It Really Is

This turning point doesn’t have a proper name other than the Inciting Event. It’s the moment that truly launches the main conflict. It’s inciting and (hopefully) exciting. When I talk about the Inciting Event (including in the Story Structure Database), this is the moment I’m referring to.

Where It Belongs

The Inciting Event–the turning point in the First Act–should optimally be placed at the 12% mark, halfway through the First Act. The timing is important because it gives you the space you need in the beginning of the book to get everything set up, and then provides the necessary space to build upon the Inciting Event before you reach the place of no return that is the First Plot Point.

What We Should Really Call It

The Inciting Event.

Examples

In Dracula, the Inciting Event is the moment (back in Budapest) when Harker first witness the Count’s unearthly powers when he sees Dracula crawling down the castle wall, upside-down.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Inciting Event occurs when Indy is summoned from his classroom and recruited by the U.S. government to track down the Ark of the Covenant.

In Ice Age, the Inciting Event occurs when Manny the mammoth and Sid the sloth meet for the first time.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

How Does the Key Event Play In?

The final element in this intricate tapestry is the Key Event. What is the Key Event? Think of it as the missing half of the Inciting Event. The Inciting Event Screenplay Syd Fieldkicks off the plot; the Key Event is what then involves your character in the Inciting Event. In Screenplay, Syd Field describes it like this:

The Inciting incidentsets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.

As such, the Key Event will always take place after the Inciting Event and within the First Act. Almost always, the Key Event will coincide with the First Plot Point.

The Inciting Event (remember: that’s the turning point halfway through the First Act) brings the conflict to the protagonist’s awareness. But the protagonist still won’t fully engaged with the conflict. He may make a half-hearted attempt to resolve it. Or he may try to walk away from it entirely. Until the Key Event.

The Key Event is what sucks him irrevocably into the conflict. Sounds an awful lot like the First Plot Point, doesn’t it?

  • Dracula‘s main conflict is that of his preying upon the Englishwomen Mina and Lucy. As such, the Key Event occurs at the First Plot Point when he is shipwrecked in England, bringing the conflict right to their doors.
  • Indy’s Key Event is also his movie’s First Plot Point, since it is both the first time Indy has engaged with his Nazi antagonists and also the moment when he becomes personally involved thanks to his relationship with Marian.
  • Same for Ice Age. Up until the Key Event at the First Plot Point, Sid and Manny didn’t even know about the human baby’s danger, much less have any stake in helping him.

If we recognize the Inciting Event as this oft-overlooked turning point in the First Act, the entire structure of our beginnings becomes much clearer, much tighter, and much more effective. Take a look at some of your favorite books and movies. How are they using the time before the turning point to set up their stories–and then utilizing the turning point to tighten the focus up until to the First Plot Point? Even more importantly, how can you do the same in your own stories?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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The Ten Commandments of Writing Failure

new_cokeMr. Donald Keough died this past week. He was 88 and was for a time the number two man at Coca-Cola. This was during an era called the “soda wars.” Keough’s job was to beat back the challenge of Pepsi, which was winning the younger set while Coke was out there trying to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Keough was also the mastermind of one of the worst product blunders in history.

The original formula Coke (at least the one that came after they took the cocaine out of it) was, and is, the best tasting cola ever. It was Fred Astaire to Pepsi’s journeyman hoofer. It was Spencer Tracy to Pepsi’s high school senior starring in the school production of Our Town.

But for some unknown reason––probably due to overpaid consultants––Keough decided to change the formula, and “New Coke” was born. With great fanfare they rolled it out. And the country responded with a loud, collective YECCH!

So passionate was the push back that only 10 weeks later they brought the old formula back, calling it “Classic Coke.”

timenewcoke-copyAnd sales boomed. The controversy had become national news. The publicity turned out to be priceless.

Some cynics suggested the whole thing had been planned.  If so, it was brilliant. But when asked Keough said, “We’re not that dumb and not that smart.”

Later on, with a bit of self-deprecatory wisdom, Mr. Keough wrote a book called The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. I thought they might also apply to writers, especially now that self-publishing is a viable business option for the “authorpreneur.” Let’s have a look.

1. Quit Taking Risks

Resting on your laurels. Mailing it in. Doing the same old, same old. Maybe that works for a few traditionally published and bestselling authors. But for the true writer, the one who wants to honor the craft and get better, risk taking is part of the plan. Risk in characterization and plot and style and theme. That, in turn, brings a certain excitement to the writing, and you know what? Readers can sense that you’re excited. That makes your writing more appealing.

2. Be Inflexible

“Flexibility,” writes Keough, “is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances.” These days, every writer, no matter who butters their bread (i.e., New York or Seattle) needs to be aware of process, changes in the marketplace and distribution channels, and quality improvements.

3. Isolate Yourself

Success in business means being in touch with both workers and customers. A good manager is one who walks around and knows what’s going on in the building and in the satellite offices.

Writers, who by the very nature of the work spend most of their time alone, need to know how to nurture a fan base, work social media wisely, grow an email list and, if contracted with a traditional house, schmooze a little with the increasingly nervous staff therein.

4. Assume Infallibility

You want to fail at this game? Then put a chip on your shoulder and always blame somebody else. Your critique group is a great place to start. Tell them you’ve forgotten more about writing than they’ll ever know. Reject editors’ notes. Then rail at the marketplace when your books don’t sell. Do anything but admit you have weaknesses that need to be addressed.

5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line

What Keough means by this is that cheating, even a little, will eventually catch up with you. In recent years we’ve seen instances of plagiarism and sock-puppetry snag writers and impact careers. Trust is built up over time but can be lost in an instant. Just ask Brian Williams.

6. Don’t Take Time to Think

The saying in business is “data drives decisions.” You have to stop doing things that don’t lead to profit and do more of the things that do. Which is why traditional publishing companies drop authors who aren’t selling enough books. If you are a midlist writer and that has happened to you, maybe it is time to think … about going indie.

For the full-time indie writer, data is available so you can see what’s selling and how certain promotional ventures pay off. You can keep on developments via many fine blogs (start with The Passive Voice, a good aggregator of publishing news).

When I was running a small business I took time each week for “thinking, planning, and studying.” I called this my “TPS time,” which must never be confused with the TPS in this clip.

7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants

Writers, more than ever, need to take responsibility for their own careers, no matter what side of the walls of the Forbidden City they’re on. You cannot simply hand everything over to an agent or publisher. You have to know what questions to ask and what terms to refuse. You have to know how to limit a non-compete clause and define “out of print” in a way that is meaningful and fair.

If you self-publish, the worst thing you can do is give some outfit thousands of dollars to get your book out there, and then thousands more for them to “market” your book. You need to know how to do this yourself. You need a plan, like the one I’ve followed and put into a book, which is on special now for 99¢ (you also have to know how to spot a real bargain, and this is one of them).   

8. Love Your Bureaucracy

In business, the bigger the organization the harder it is to move. Traditional publishing has been living this challenge for the past five years. Why only five? Because when digital publishing took off in 2008-09, the main reaction of the Bigs was to see it as a blip, nothing to worry about. They had their comfy bureaucracies.

Oops. Now we see all the changes that have been happening inside the Forbidden City, from the cutting of editorial staff, to tussles with Amazon, to new direct-to-consumer programs. It’s been a difficult transition period and it’s still going on.

The indie writer, on the other hand, can move quickly, but can also fall in love with systems that aren’t ultimately helpful. For example, if you’re spending 80% of your time on social media and 20% on your writing, you’re actually heading backwards.

9. Send Mixed Messages

In business they say “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a writer, your main thing is to tell great stories. If you also want to be a bad-boy blogger, or a mouthpiece for some political persuasion, just know that readers will have mixed reactions. If that doesn’t bother you, fine. Just be intentional about it.

I consider myself a writer first and a teacher of writing second. What I do on this blog and in social media is consistent with those two things. That doesn’t mean I won’t share the occasional opinion, or even write a book with opinions in it [drop intriguing teaser about upcoming book here]. But I keep most everything consistent with those two roles.

10. Be Afraid of the Future

Oh, this is major. For 150 years the publishing industry has operated one way. It had a settled distribution system and there were plenty of bookstores for their stock. All that has changed in a flash, leaving agents, editors and trad-based writers wondering how this is all going to shake out. To which the answer is: no one knows. It’s like what old Carson the butler says with a sigh in a recent episode of Downton Abbey: “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

So the successful writer keeps writing and doesn’t let anxiety freeze up his flying fingers. Keep writing, keep trying to get better.

Keough finishes his book bonus eleventh commandment:

11. Lose Your Passion for Work, for Life

You’ve got to find ways to keep the joy in your writing life. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be unicorns and rainbows. A lot of the time it’s tar pits and tsetse flies. But an inner core of love for what you do, and hopes for what you can achieve, will keep the fire burning.

When the flame begins to dim, take a couple of days to relax, regroup, rethink. And reread. Take a few of  your favorite novels off the shelf (or off your ereader) and look at a few chapters. Get caught up again in the romance of great storytelling. Soon enough you’ll be itching to get back to the keyboard.

So here’s today’s command: write your best scene ever. When you’re done, pour yourself a Coke … the real thing. Once in a blue moon the calories won’t hurt you!

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Top Ten Things You Need to Know About the Writing Life

Jean Arthur

10. You have to love it

If you don’t love to write, if it’s not something you are virtually compelled to do, you’re not truly living a writing life. You could be a business person who wants to use writing as a vehicle for making some extra cash. You could be someone who journals as a form of therapy. That’s all legit. It’s just not a love for telling stories.

But if you have some inner compulsion to write, embrace it, because that will show in the writing itself. And you’re also going to need some love when you get hit with disappointment. Thus:

9. You have to learn to handle discouragement

If you’re going to do this, write for your life, you have to become a bit of a Sherman tank (as opposed to buying a fifth and getting tanked). You need a tough hide and forward drive. Because there are plenty of things to get you down.

Like the sound of crickets when your book launches. Or the screech of a hater leaving an unfair review. Or you looking at your work and thinking, This stinks. Who am I kidding?

Just know that all writers have gone through similar discouragement, it’s part of the life, it’s even part of the training. Those scars on the soul make you human, and humanity is what you need in your fiction.

8. It’s hard work

If your writing is going to be any good, that is. The best writers sweat over their labors, always trying to get better. They produce the words on a scheduled basis. This is called a quota.

By the way, I don’t want to hear any whining about a quota. There were times I didn’t want to go to court to defend a man so guilty his dog left him. But that was my job. I went and did it.

Show up. Write. Do your best. Take a break now and then—I take Sundays off completely—and then get back to the keyboard.

7. It’s a craft

The writing life is also about skills. Painters have paint, musicians have notes, surgeons have scalpels and forceps and malpractice insurance. And they all have mentors and journals and long periods of study.

Super Structure blueprint coverWho would tell a young golfer just to grab a club and start hacking balls around? All that produces is a menace to gophers. Sure, every now and then one might succeed, like a Bubba Watson. But you can count those guys on one foot with a toe missing.

Write and learn. Learn and practice.

(This seems an apt place to tell you that my new book, Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story is now available in print as well as E.)

6. It’s about steady growth

Forget the million-dollar advance on your debut novel. Or the viral downloading of your first e-novella. Not going to happen.

If you want to lead a writer’s life and even make some money at it, be prepared for an apprenticeship of years. I’ve been at this business for over two decades. The first five years brought me nothing, but all that time I was studying the craft like a madman and writing and writing.

I eventually landed a five-book contract, but did not quit my day job. I still had to get better, and that was my goal. It was only after ten years of steady production that I felt I could call myself a professional writer.

Even if you self-publish fast, it’s going to take time to grow a readership, and that’s only if you’ve followed all the above steps consistently.

5. It’s a fellowship

No, we don’t have a ring. Or even a secret sign. But writers do have each other, and we are, in large part, supportive. Every now and then a sour apple slips in––some egomaniacal writing brat, a sock puppet who tears down his rivals under a false name, or (worst of all) an odious plagiarizer.

But at conferences and local gatherings, online or in person, wherever authors congregate you’ll find fellow travelers willing to give you a tip or some encouragement. It’s good to remember that while we write alone, we are also “social people who can greatly benefit from balancing solitude and community.”

4. Don’t get hooked on the ups

It’s fun to land on a bestseller list, or making it to #1 in an Amazon category, or getting an email from a true fan who loved your book, or finding your bank account unexpectedly and substantially expanded one month. All these are nice, and to be enjoyed for what they are.

Just remember one thing: Don’t let them go to your head. Don’t expect that they will be easily repeated. Don’t let them inflate your ego. And especially don’t let them keep you from continuing to work and grow. The literary landscape is littered with the dry husks of careers that flowered briefly but were not sustained because of hubris, ego, fear, booze, or simple neglect.

Enjoy a victory for a day or two, then concentrate on your current project.

3. Now is the best time to live the writing life

We’re in year number eight of the digital era in publishing. Since the introduction of the Kindle at the end of 2007 more writers are making more money than at any time in history. Some are killing it, many are making a living, scores more are realizing a nice side income, and almost anyone who is serious is making enough to support at least a Starbucks habit.

This was never possible before. Ever since old Gutenberg set movable type, the power to publish belonged to those who owned the presses and dealt with bookstores selling paper copies. Writers were at the mercy of commercial interests. If those interests ever felt your value had diminished, they could end your participation––and maybe your career––by not offering you another contract (or, worse, canceling the current one).

The landscape has changed forever. There are new challenges to face, of course (*cough* discoverability *cough*). But writers have always had challenges. What’s new and life-altering is that they now have options.

2.  It’s a business life, too

A writing life, as opposed to a writing hobby, must include plans based upon sound business principles. I’ve written a whole book about those principles, but suffice to say here that you only grow a business in two ways: First, by finding new customers. Second, by selling more products to your existing customers.

Learn how to do both and keep on doing it, and you’ll be living the writer’s dream.

1. It’s a great way to live, period

A life that nurtures your creative side is a great life, an expanded life. As long as you don’t forget the other things that matter—your loved ones, friendship, community—being a working writer is about the best thing there is to be.

Why? Because you see things deeply. You vibrate with emotion. You are not a mushroom stuck in the bog of existence. You have feeling, will, verve, and even joy if you’ll allow it to happen. As a writer who cares, works, trusts, produces, and keeps on trying you will be living proof of the credo of one of my favorite writers of all time, Jack London:

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out

    in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom

    of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

So what about you, writing friends? Anything you’d like to add to the list?

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Yo! Muse!

muse (1)

O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
— Dante, The Divine Comedy

By PJ Parrish

If you are like me, you take your inspiration wherever — and whenever — you can get it. Writing is not easy. (Warning: tortured metaphor ahead).

Writing is like sailing a Hobie Cat in the ocean in the middle of a squall. I know because I used to sail Hobies during my first marriage, which is probably why it didn’t last. The marriage, not the Hobie. The day is always sunny when you launch your Hobie from the beach and you’re all aglow with hardy-har-har-endorphins. So it is when you sit down and type CHAPTER ONE.

Then the storm hits and there you are, hanging onto a 16-foot piece of fiberglas and vinyl, hoping lightening doesn’t hit the mast and fry your ass. You are out there alone in the storm, out of sight of land, riding the waves and the troughs, hoping you can make it home. You might even throw up. This is usually around CHAPTER TWENTY for me.

End of metaphor.

I often wonder what keeps writers writing. Tyranny of the contract deadline? Blind faith? The idea that if you don’t you might have to do real physical labor for a living, like paint houses? All of those work for me. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps me going is a visit from my muse.

Now, let’s get one thing clear here. I don’t believe in WAITING for a muse to show up. I get really impatient with writers who claim they can’t write until they feel inspired because frankly, 90 percent of this gig is writing DESPITE the fact your brain is as dry as Waffle House toast. (or as soggy, depending on which Waffle House you frequent. The last one I was in was off the Valdosta Ga. I-95 exit in 1976 and the toast was so dry it stands today as my singular metaphor for stagnant creativity).

But I do believe that sometimes — usually when your brain is preoccupied with other stuff — something creeps into the cortex and quietly hands you a gift. And these little gifts are what get you through.

There are nine muses in mythology, who were supposed to be the origin of all artistic inspiration. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Urania and Thalia. (I always thought it was cool that Dobie Gillis’s unobtainable ideal woman was named Thalia — the muse of comedy). The muses ruled over such things as dance, music, history, even astronomy. No muses for crime writers, unless you count Calliope for epic poetry but I think James Lee Burke has her on permanent retainer.

I don’t have just one muse. I’ve figured out I have a couple who specialize in particular parts of my writing. And they never come around when I am at the computer. Never get a whiff of them when I am actually in writing mode itself. They are like cats. They only come around on their own terms.

SweetSmell_081Pyxurz

First, there’s my dialogue muse. I call him J.J. because he sounds like Burt Lancaster’s gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Always chewing at my ear saying oily things like, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” J.J. comes to visit me only when I am jogging. Never on the threadmill, mind you, only outdoors. J.J. makes my skin crawl, but man, can this guy write dialogue.

Tvpinup

Then there’s my narrative muse. I call him Cat Man because he slips in on silent paws, sings in a fey whisper and only visits me just as morning has broken. He looks like Cat Stevens, but the old hot young version not the later one. Cat Man comes around about dawn, just as I am waking up as if from death itself. See, my husband’s insomnia means we sleep with blackout drapes, a white-noise machine and the A/C turned so cold the bedroom is like a crypt. So when I wake up, it is with a gauzy gray aureole rimming the drapes, icy air swirling around my nose and a soft swoooshing in my ears. And there is Cat Man, spinning a long segment of sensual exposition that salvages my stagnant plot. I have learned to lay there, very still, until he is done with his song, because if I get up and try to write it down, he vanishes. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise of the springing, fresh from the word.

alice flo 2

And then there is my third muse. She’s my favorite. Her name is Flo because her voice sounds like that waitress who worked in Mel’s Diner on the old “Alice” sitcom. You know, like the door of a rusted Gremlin. Flo is my muse of getting real. Her Greek name is Nike (the goddess of victory) and her slogan is “Just Do It.” Because whenever those other two guys fail me, whenever they don’t show up, Flo is there. She is the muse who knows that the only way I am going to get the book finished is through plain old hard work. Like Nike, Flo has wings. They symbolize the fleeting nature of victory. Or, as Flo often tell me, “Honey, if you don’t get off your ass and just write the damn thing, you’re going to lose your contract and you’ll have to paint houses for a living.”

I’d be lost without her. Who — or what? — keeps you going?

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