Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Eating the Elephant

My rough draft for Assignment #1 is finished! I'm happy to report it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a believable protagonist with a real conflict, and the conflict gets worse before it gets better. The protagonist's actions and character--not coincidence, not her 2nd cousin's dog--create the story line. It has a climactic moment, and it has resolution. In other words, it is a real story, not an anecdote or a literary experiment.

Now, that may not sound like much. And it may not be much. But for me, it really is a breakthrough. A bite off the elephant's big butt. I told myself I could not plot, and I had to work my way through that mental block. It took a week or so of anguish. But now that I'm on the other side, it won't be as hard next time. That's the way I'll get through this course. One bite at a time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


A good story needs a good setting. How about this one? It's in the Dismals Canyon, which we visited recently. Temperatures in the canyon are about 15 degrees below the brutal summer norms in Alabama.

My First Assignment

Okay, here's why I enrolled in the writing class in the first place. The very first assignment addresses it. It's that four-letter word: PLOT. As in, I can't do it!

Assignment #1 has me writing a short story based on a picture (not the picture above). I know that should be helpful since the germ of the idea, the setting, and the characters are IN THE PICTURE. And, of course, if you want, you can depart from the picture details or from the picture entirely if your story idea leads you there. And while a picture is way better than starting from a blank page, it still requires so many decisions that it's paralyzing! Should the male or the female in the picture be the protagonist? What age should the protagonist be? Or put another way, what age group are you writing this story for? Is it realistic? A fantasy? A mystery? Should I tell it in 1st person? 3rd person limited? Who is the viewpoint character?

You get the idea. I haven't even reached the PLOT questions yet. And I can't answer the very first PLOT question, "What's the initial problem?" until I know who the protagonist is.

If and how I make progress on this assignment, I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Best Lesson on Craft

I've learned a lot from books on the craft of writing. But I've learned the most, by far, from a 165-page book: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Specifically helpful to me were Chapters 3 & 6.

Chapter 3, "Sentence Length and Complex Syntax," was a corrective. I tend to write long, complex sentences. But there's a place for a string of short, choppy sentences. The exercise directs you to write a narrative paragraph using sentences of seven or fewer words. I'd tell you what the result is, but then you won't do it and find out for yourself. But I guarantee that when you get four or five sentences down, you'll recognize the effect and someplace you've heard it used before.

Chapter 6, "Subject, Pronoun, & Verb," has an exercise called "The Old Woman," that is well worth doing in all variations of person and verb tense. I was amazed at the effects achieved by using one tense for the old woman's actions "now," and using another tense for actions she is remembering. If you write, you've heard the rule "Don't change verb tenses." This exercise shows you that you can, you should, and when and why.

I am now much more aware of sentence length and verb tense changes in my reading. This is at least half of the value of the exercises. You benefit so much more from reading other writers when you are aware of their technique.

I noticed a whole string of changes in verb tense on the first two pages of John Steinbeck's The Pearl. Nearly every sentence has a different tense. Finally, on p. 3, the book settles into a past tense narrative. A lot of the originality and magic of the book is due to Steinbeck's manipulation of verb tenses. Read it again and see if you agree.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Let There Be Light!

Day 1 of Creation

Welcome to The Writer Shade of Pale, a blog I created to chronicle my passage through a popular writing course. The journey should take about two years. Think of me as a Writer-Hero called to an Adventure. If you've read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, you know what I mean. (If you haven't, I recommend them.) I recently defeated a Threshold Guardian (passed a test) and entered the world of aspiring writers. No doubt there are dangers and challenges ahead. I will not have to meet them by myself, however. I have Mentors who are pledged to assist me.

If you are a writer or a would-be writer, follow along with me as I record my progress.