bookmark_borderDreaming Emotions from the Story

Before I went to sleep last night I wrote a few hundred words in a scene where my main character’s cheek is grazed sparring in karate class. The near miss triggers her and she retaliates, out of control, not pulling and controlling her kick and she hurts her classmate. I also started sketching the next scene where her Sensei has to talk with her after class.

As the writer, I’m playing the role of the triggered heroine who feels confusion and fear and shame but also the roles of the teacher/mentor and of the system/rules/morals. What does the community center require in the case of an injury? What is the Sensei required to say, either per the community center or per the karate association or per karate tradition or per his personal morals and position of leadership? And how does the heroine react to what she has done and to what the Sensei tells her?

I am (kind of sort of) the leader of a fiction writing group. In a dream last night I did something out of bounds, something connected to the group. I don’t remember what the infraction was but I had decided to penalize myself by not allowing myself to attend the next one or possibly the next two group meetings. I had not told anyone about this decision and I’m not even sure who knew of my transgression yet.

In the next scene that I remember a bunch of us (not writing group people) were in a vehicle travelling though a touristy area. We stopped at a store like an ice cream shop that displayed treats behind glass and I ordered something. My father (who in reality passed away at 94 but when he appears in my dreams he’s often in his fifties, which makes sense because I’m usually in my twenties) didn’t think I should be ordering anything. He felt that given what I had done I shouldn’t be allowed a treat but I went ahead and ordered anyway, paying for it myself. I already knew that I planned to penalize myself by missing the next group meeting and that was enough.

So in my dream I played the guilty main character as well as the judge determining my penalty, just as in writing my story I was playing the heroine and the Sensei and the community center.  I’m less clear on the role my father was playing. My writing insecurity? He was a bit off to the side, not directly involved, almost like a reminder. Perhaps my writing group, evaluating my story?

Or the role of the karate association or even the law; some higher authority overriding my judgement? Or the court of public opinion? Or just my father?

And what does it say that I chose to ignore him?

I’m not certain that these scenes are going to stay in the novel. In the drafting stage I’m throwing vignettes against the wall and seeing which ones stick and which ones play well with others. These ones last night were painful to write (and still are as I work with them, filling them out and extending them). I have to experience the regret and shame and confusion inherent in the moments to be able to write them.

I am pushing myself toward these kinds of difficult-to-experience plot choices. Not because it’s good for me personally (it’s like digging at scabs with a knife by myself, as opposed to having a trained surgeon do the work or just using a fingernail). I do this because I hope that these are good for the story. Some of my original ideas were lacking in conflict and were too simple, too safe, too YA-ish. So far I’ve pushed the narrator and her father further apart by making them combative rather than just distant, and I’ve removed a random rapist and instead had an existing character unexpectedly try to rape the heroine, and now have taken a safe and supportive karate club environment and forced a wedge between my narrator and the club by allowing her to snap and lose control and hurt someone.

The goal: to up the stakes, to increase the pressure on the heroine, to make the arc more meaningful, to push the reader along.

bookmark_borderPerchance, to Sleep

Over the past few years I’ve had difficulty staying asleep. A dream might shock me awake, or, more often, sleep will slip away as if it were a veil and someone simply drew it from my face.

There seems to be popular times for this. 4 AM tops the list, followed by 2 AM, followed by 5:30 or 6 AM which is awkward given that I normally get up at 7:30. This might happen even two or three times in one evening up to four or five nights in a row. If it gets to that point, I’m struggling to get through the day and will have to crash for a nap.

In order to go back to sleep, I’ve learned that I need to keep from wandering through various rabbit holes. I need to focus. Focus on something simple yet complicated enough to keep my attention. Something visual and simple like counting sheep but a little more challenging to keep my mind’s attention.

These worked for me, for a time:

  1. Count your breaths, from one to ten and repeat, while visualizing the numbers (Arabic or Roman) – I worry that this is too close to basic mediation and I don’t want any future attempt to learn to meditate to be disrupted by this.
  2. Count breaths backward from ten to one, and visualize.
  3. Count breaths forward in another language, and visualize. – This works better. In the process I’ve become more fluent with my French, Japanese, and German counting.
  4. Count breaths backward in another language, and visualize.

These sound simple but it takes work to get my nighttime mind to stay with the plan. My mind wants to meander over residue from the previous day or to worry about the next. I need to focus, to be mindful and it will work.

But each of these methods have worn out over time. They became less effective, which is why I needed to make it more difficult. Partly it was me becoming better at counting in French, Japanese, and German, even backwards, but the predictability of the sequences made it too easy.

Now, I’ve modified it, again. Now I pick three digits, like 937, and do the sequence in English twice, then French twice, then Japanese, then German. Then, three more digits, different than the previous three, again in the four languages. Finally, the remaining three. I don’t know zero in the other languages and ten is not a single digit so I avoid that.

Once I’m done, I have worked myself into a state that allows me to go back to sleep, most of the time.

It works, for now, until that gets too easy.


There is a contest running on EveryDayFiction. The site gives ten words, you must use at least four, plus there is a saying which is optional as a theme. The maximum word count is 250 words. The contest is open for submissions for eight days, and I’ve decided to write a new piece each day. At the end I’ll select one as my entry.

What I’ve learned so far:

  1. There is a tendency to write all dialogue, skipping and implying the action and description, or, no dialogue and all description or inner monologue. This is the result of the pressure to cut words.

  2. It’s not hard to force the key words in, but it becomes like the theatersports game where you have random items or words and you must justify them in the scene that you are improvising. Then it becomes silly, or at least the logical connection becomes thin and forced. Getting the words to integrate seamlessly is not so easy, especially when I’m trying to write something entirely different each day while restricted by the same ten words. In other words, if I find a nice thread connecting a few of the words, I can’t use that thread again next day because I would write almost the same story again.

  3. Integrating seamlessly and balancing dialogue with description and telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, and, trying to get it to say something meaningful too, is not easy. I can end up with slice of life miniatures, which is okay, but I don’t want them all to be like that.

And it’s hard, and getting harder. My expectations are rising as I learn from this experience. I’m aware of the weaknesses and imbalance of my writing as I’m doing it. Plus, the further along I go, the more I run out of ways of combining four of the ten words within the realm of my personal experience and knowledge. Just putting those first few words down gets harder each day.

bookmark_borderNarrative of the Seahawks

I’m a pretty big fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t bleed blue and green or have a room full of swag, but I do have an official NFL football autographed by Mack Strong. My fandom goes back to the days of Zorn to Largent and Krieg to Largent, followed by years and years of enduring the mediocrity. I remember spending the Christmas holidays of 1999 at my brother’s place in Phoenix when Mike Holmgren was announced as the coach, and hoping that his arrival was the light at the end of the tunnel.

I regularly read Seahawks web coverage and listen to Seattle sports podcasts. One sportscaster, Danny O’Neil, is fond of referring to the ‘narrative’ of a situation. As I write this in early February of 2015, the Seahawks have just lost Super Bowl XLIX, and I’m wondering to what degree the narrative of the past three seasons necessitated or predicted this loss.

Here’s how the narrative runs: in the last part of the 2012 season, the team’s offence exploded with some big scores; 58-0, 50-17, and 42-13. You knew this was an anomaly. No NFL team consistently blows out opponents by that wide a margin, but it bode well because the young team had been improving all year. In the second game of the playoffs they were behind by 20 points late in the game but scored three touchdowns and took the lead, before the defense inexplicably failed and with only 31 seconds left to play, Atlanta completed two long passes and kicked the game winning field goal.

This was the beginning of the narrative. One of the youngest teams in the NFL, with a rookie quarterback, was only a few pieces away from being one of the best teams.

The hopes that sprouted at the end of that season became the expectations of 2013. San Francisco and Denver, along with Seattle, were picked as the best teams going into the season and they remained on top all year long. Seattle’s defense grew stronger, more consistent, and they beat rival San Francisco in the conference final before demolishing Denver and Denver’s record setting offence 42–8 in the Super Bowl.

So, next part of the narrative; how does a young team that won the championship handle success and the target on their back that comes from being the champions?

They opened the season with a win against a good Green Bay team, but followed that up with a surprising loss in San Diego. Eventually their record was a mediocre 3-3. They traded away a major talent that had not fit in with the team and their record went to 6-4; a far less dominant record than the previous year, and the media was worried they were falling too far behind teams with better records. The leaders of the team held a meeting, with the claim that the key coming from the meeting was about ‘playing for each other, trusting each other and loving our brothers.’

After that meeting, the team won the rest of their regular season games and was the first team since 1990 to retain the top seed in the playoffs the year after winning a Super Bowl. They won the playoff game against Carolina and were the first Super Bowl winners to win a playoff game in the following year since 2005.

In the conference final, facing Green Bay again, they were down 19-7 with just over two minutes remaining. Post-game computer analysis says that they had less than a 3 percent chance of winning, but they came back to win in overtime, leading many players (and hometown media and fans) to tears. In doing so, they were the first team since 2004 to repeat as conference champions, and the first team to go to consecutive Super Bowls as the top seed since 1991.

At this point the narrative, to me, starts to become strained. If I were writing this story, I think they had taken it as far as they could go. From the end of 2012 to the championship in 2013 they moved up the hill to the pinnacle. In the middle of the 2014 their season seemed ready to fall off the rails with the 3-3 and 6-4 records, and missing the playoffs, like many other past Super Bowl winners, seemed almost likely. But they got their mojo back and started putting up some strong defensive games by, 1) ditching a talented player on offence who hadn’t contributed much? Or by 2) having a meeting and deciding to play for each other?

We’ll never know exactly what was said in that meeting, but for me the narrative of a young, talented, confident-to-the-edge-of-arrogant team that has climbed to the top of the game cannot extend into the next season and beyond without domination, like the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, or the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky, or the Yankees with their unlimited salary. Or consider the Montreal Canadiens, who won the Stanley Cup in 1974-75, then 1975-76 they set a record for most wins and points in a season and won their second Stanley Cup in a row, then in 1976-77 broke their own record with even more wins and won another cup, followed by another the year after that. Climbing the mountain, then domination at the top, leading to dynasty.

The narrative of the 2014 Seattle Seahawks was not strong enough for a Super Bowl win. They were young enough and talented enough and played well enough to get farther than the last ten or so Super Bowl winners. They had enough doubters after their mediocre start to make the conference final win highly emotional, but the narrative was not strong enough for a Super Bowl win. If this was their first, if they had not won the previous year, then it might work, but a difficult, emotional, come from behind conference win was as far as this narrative could extend.

Does this make sense? I’m saying that they needed to rebuild the momentum of their narrative by losing Super Bowl XLIX. Going forward they don’t need to dominate, to set records like the Montreal Canadiens. They only need a record like 2014; a very good season, and combined with the Super Bowl loss this year they will have the narrative to win the next one, or maybe even two.

I’m not saying they lost the game intentionally, I’m saying they were destined to lose, that the narrative says they hadn’t undergone the right kind of challenge or overcome the right way, or conversely hadn’t dominated enough to win again. If they had lost one of their most important players or their coach in the off-season, or dominated the entire season, or had someone develop as a superstar at one of their weaker positions thereby changing the narrative, they could have won. As it was, they were only a marginally different team from 2013 and in spite of their talent and youth they did not dominate the league, and so the narrative was not in place for them to go all the way.

At least, that’s how I would have written it.

And that was what I sensed even in the two weeks before the game; that the narrative had been completed for this year with the conference finals, and that’s why I wasn’t as upset as some others by the loss.

bookmark_borderWaiting to start again

The past month has been no writing. Some fiction reading, some learning from “The Longman Guide to Intermediate and Advanced Fiction Writing”, but no writing. My brain has been in a fog, uninspired, drained by a month spent moving from one house to another. If you’re moving, take my advice; don’t try to do it slowly. Too much wasted time and effort picking and choosing what to move first and last, too much panic at the end scrambling to throw the last bits into something and get it moved.

I got my results from the 3DayNovel, which is to say no results; no listing in the winners or top ten. When I finished I thought that I had a chance. I was happy with the results, convinced that I had managed to get a good story line across. But when I went back to the story, during my NaNoWriMo additions, I started to see missing elements. Then after that I tried to paste the sections together and to revise and come up with First Draft 1.1. This pointed out more weaknesses, so by the time the results for the 3DayNovel were due I wasn’t expecting anything. Still, I’ve taken First Draft 1.1 and entered it in Amazon’s contest.

But I do want to get back to writing. I miss the envelopment, the second life, the pushing and prodding of characters and situations. I miss new stories, new people, new curiosities to explore. But I’m just not inspired. Yet.