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_borderGoldberg Variations as NaNoWriMo

I am now trying to identify elements of fiction that equate to harmonic progression as well as possibly key and form (matching the series of canons). Number of bars is likely not a big concern as it comes out of the repeated harmonic progression, meaning, retaining the chord progression requires the number and sequence of bars because you cannot extend or shorten one or more chords without destroying the balance and flow, and Bach is all about balance.

(The Goldberg post was going on and on through numerous revisions and additions over many days so I opted to split it into two posts. I started thinking about this in early October and am keen on working my way to the point of being able to execute it for this year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

The harmonic progression is not unlike the 12 bar blues that is the basis of many jazz, blues, and early rock and roll songs. Or the 32 bar A-A-B-A form of I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin, which is the other classic jazz form and chord progression. Like these, the Goldberg progression is strong, complete, malleable, and capable of supporting many melodic inventions.

But it is also subtle. In most theme and variations forms the theme is the melody and I’m not sure the individual variations are capable of standing on their own or being listened to sporadically the way the Goldberg variations are. A bus stop or particular table in a coffee shop might offer the variety of stories but would not be as subtle.

And might time of day be similar to key? There are only twelve keys and if you progress in a sequence (semi-tone or fourth) through all the keys you end up back at the beginning, just as moving through twenty four hours will take you back to the same time of day. The ancients did believe that each key had its own personality but that was before the development of well tempered tuning.

Bach was a proponent of the well tempered tuning system, so I suspect the stasis of key is more a function of technical ease for the performer and ease of adjustment for a dozing patron, and maybe to eliminate any idea of hierarchy or relationship between the variations that might otherwise be implied or interpreted. I think Bach might have liked to use more than one key but unless he did exactly one, two, or three in each of twelve keys there is the risk of implying a relationship between the variations that I think he did not want. And since he had already done all twelve keys twice (the two books of The Well Tempered Clavier) there was no need to go there again.

So for fiction, finding the equivalent of the key is less important than making sure there are no implied hierarchies or relationships between the stories. And maybe use some staid element to help negate such.

So what are elements of fiction that I could reuse? Plot; no. Plot is like melody, too identifiable. Characters? No, because then the reader will look for connection and development. Setting? Maybe, though that’s more identifiable than harmonic progression, meaning obvious. Unless there is a means of disguising it the way Bach uses different meters and composition techniques and textures. Emotion? Again, too strong and too easily identified and connected. I could use the ‘theme’ of grief, for example, but it would be too easy to see how each story is related and collectively it might be perceived to be some wider statement about it. The same applies to a concept, say ‘inequality’.

But maybe that’s not bad. I’m no Bach; I’m no master at the peak of his creative abilities, and really, what I’m after is material. A couple NaNoWriMos ago I ended up with two short stories and a character which I may still develop into a novel, as well as the start of what turned out to be a 22,000 word novella.

So I could use location or a concept, but location would have to be flexible for multiple stories and styles, and something that promotes action, else I risk constantly having to struggle with dialogue heavy talking heads. A gym is too limited in its action, a playground too limited in its users. An event location like an arena which might have sports, concerts, ceremonies or trade shows would have the flexibility. A large city park with sports areas, kids play areas, picnic tables, hiking trails, ponds might have enough variety, but then most stories would have to be set outdoors. Of course, something larger like a city or even small town is almost limitless.

Concept is probably automatically more flexible than location, but it would need to be 1) a concept with sufficient facets to allow multiple approaches, and 2) a concept I’d be happy living with for 30 days straight.

Another step removed from emotion -> concept might be an object; say, a cup, so every story has in it somewhere a cup. But that might be too subtle and artificial. However, because it could be subtle, then perhaps I could *add* it as well; every story uses the concept, *plus* has a cup. The cup becomes the key, (G major/minor) and the concept substitutes for the harmonic progression.

And what about time of day? That’s fairly plastic as well; all sorts of things can happen at the same time of day, or, I could cycle through different hours of the day. Or I could keep the time of day and change time zones.

Cycling time of day is interesting in that Bach specifically did *not* change key, but, I have 24 hours to work with and he only had 12 keys, plus he’d done 12 keys before. 24 is close to 30, and I don’t have to write them sequentially, I could be flexible, label the general time of day and figure out the specifics later. Especially if they are to be presented in sequence. And I probably need more help than Bach anyway. Time of day might be the equivalent of the series of canons, the only thing that connects the series.

And time of day is flexible; I don’t have to decide what specific time of day for most, and I don’t have to label them even in my own mind until I’m well into it and decide that it’s going to work for me.

So, we have:

  • concept,
  • and / or location,
  • object,
  • possibly time of day

Now, I need come up with potential concept, location, and object.

bookmark_borderGoldberg Variations

Long ago I wrote a paper for a music grad class comparing the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations, written by J. S BachNowadays I listen to the 1981 release once in a while through a sleep app on my phone.

But it wasn’t until last night that I noticed the similarities between the Variations and my fiction writing exercise where I wrote the same scene with the same characters, the same motivation, the same location, and the same sequence of events, changing POV, proximity, attitude of the narrator, voice, and writing style.


The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations. All have the same bass line, chord progression and number of bars (like a jazz chart), and 27 are, like the aria, in the key of G major and 3 in G minor.

An artificial structure that one of the greatest composers turned into a work of art.

Each third variation is a canon—a composition technique using imitation and counterpoint. In each canon the second voice imitates at an interval one step higher than the previous canon, beginning at the unison (zero) in variation 3 until the ninth in variation 27. Other variations are in the style of dance forms from the period or familiar musical forms such as toccata and fughetta and French Overture.

The work is a significant accomplishment by one of the greatest composers at the peak of his powers (Bach lived 1685-1750, the variations were published in 1741), and the fourth and last in a series of publications that included the Italian Concerto and the French Overture. A work that has been referred to as “most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven“.

All within a structure as restricted and repetitive as the writing exercise I did.


I’m not trying to compare myself with Bach but rather to look at what he did within his restrictions and to be inspired to do more with my own. I don’t think it’s possible to turn my collection of exercises into something that has any artistic value (beyond the possibility that, were I a writing master, I could create such a range of presentations that would inspire beginners).

Bach is a master of creativity: only two of the variations are reputed to have musical connection beyond the repeated structure. The variations change melody, meter, style, tempo (though that is performer interpretation; in Bach’s day tempos were not specified), level of keyboard difficulty, and largely mood, though many are rather joyous in tone, perhaps with the goal of helping Count Kaiserling, Goldberg’s employer, relax and sleep.

Each variation is a story unto itself, which would be useful if you drifted off and woke up again. But in my exercise, the restriction of the primary characters with the same motivations and personalities and the same events eliminates substantially different stories.

So is my exercise more the equivalent of different performances of any one piece? Wanda Landowska versus Angela Hewitt? Gould versus Gould? Me versus anyone who can actually play the piano? I think there is more variation than that: it’s not just the interpretation and execution that I was changing, there is POV and voice and tense and style.

The Goldberg Variations is more like a collection of flash fiction pieces, each complete in and of themselves. But if one were to try to construct a fiction/writing equivalent, these flashes would have some structural element that ties them together, and maybe more than one. Location, perhaps, is similar to musical structure; they could all take place at the same bus stop. And perhaps the bus, or maybe the bus is like the mode; present most of the time but not all, like the Goldberg is in G, mostly major, but three in minor.

But I don’t think you can restrict it to multiple renderings of the same incident. That’s what I was writing, and that’s more like trying to create different arrangements of one song: as a bossa nova, a waltz, a rap tune, a fugue, an uptempo jazz chart, an unorthodox version in 5/4 or 7/8, and so on.

You could use the same major characters, but the situation would have to change, it would be a series of events over time like a couple having breakfast. The problem (or advantage) of this would be the tendency to want the flashes to work together for some greater meaning, perhaps a progression reflecting the evolution of the relationship.

But that is not what the Goldberg is. The sequence is pleasing and has a structure of its own (the series of ascending canons in every third variation) but the later canons do not develop the earlier canons. Each variation can stand alone, like Bach’s 20 children. So perhaps the bus stop, with the bus present often, but different characters, different times of day, different weather, different events, each flash complete by itself, so if you fall asleep and miss a few, you won’t be lost when you pick it up again.


Because my objective with the exercise was to force myself to find different voices and styles, it does seem to be more like multiple arrangements of the same composition, so maybe it’s not as similar to the Goldberg as I originally thought.

But maybe this can make for a good NaNoWriMo structure; to use the same location and a few other similar structural elements and write 30 short stories, one for each day of November.

bookmark_borderJust writing moments; Doing the 3 Day Novel

Over the September long weekend I did the 3 Day Novel. I don’t want to write about that experience so much (though if you write fiction and have never tried it, give it a go!) but I went through a new, for me, writing experience in the process.

I was uncertain about participating in the competition because 1) I had been struggling to write lately, and 2) I had no plan; no plot, no characters, just a vague idea that I wanted to try my hand at some YA simply because I like to try my hand at different genres.

In the last couple of days prior I researched some typical adolescent worries. Then I took those and thought about how they might present themselves as characteristics or actions. For some I had more than one since any one could present themselves in a number of ways.  For example, take school grades and homework. One person might study and worry, another person might procrastinate and panic, but that same person may in another situation actually study hard. Adolescents are human too, and their choice of action or reaction can vary.

Having a list of possible ways in which these concerns might present (I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of “House”, btw) I started attaching some of them to three different characters. But as of midnight on Friday, start time for the 3 Day Novel, that’s all I had.

For the novel competition you can prepare as much as you like but you cannot do any writing. I spent the first hour or so of my time not writing but creating “moments”; story elements that are, for the most part, shorter than chapters or scenes. For example, one “moment” was “girl 1 tells the others that she heard that someone at another school committed suicide”. That’s too short for a chapter, but I decided on a number of moments that would present the characteristics of my characters to the reader.

When I started writing, all I did was to pick and choose moments to write, moments to flesh out and bring to life. I didn’t necessarily do them in order of occurrence and I didn’t worry about how long or how these moments would work together. I just made these moments into fiction.

Toward the end I started thinking in terms of balance and time lines and rearranged some of the planned order of these moments. I also started to add to some of them and fill them out into chapters, and in a couple instances joined two moments into one chapter. Eventually I realized that I was pretty much done; all the moments were down on paper. Then it was time to finalize the order and to write the ending and the opening.

As it turned out, this last stage happened during the evening of the second day, meaning that I was way ahead of schedule. It also cut my novel short resulting in a 10,000 short story rather than a novel. But forcing more material into the story would only decrease the quality as the word count increased. That’s not to say that a year from now and after multiple reviews that this won’t be a 25,000 word story, but within the single remaining day I wasn’t going to improve the story and add substantial length at the same time, so I edited it and sent it off for the competition entry as it was.

I think the result is not a bad short story, but more important to me is the approach to writing that I learned; defining characters with characteristics, figuring out how those characteristics might present (or in reverse order; characteristics then characters), designing moments to represent the characters to the reader, then putting those moments down on paper without thinking about chapters or flow or sequence.

bookmark_borderOutline, 3DayNovel, and writing

I did the 3 Day Novel this past September. The word count is half what I get from doing NaNoWriMo but it’s a complete story, though a short one. I went into this with a detailed outline which helped a lot. In the process of doing the writing I hit most of the outline targets but I know that the story is short; some scenes are missing, possibly some secondary stories are not formulated yet, and some elements that I hoped to bring out need padding and reinforcement.

I reread the story two days ago for the first time since the Tuesday after the competition closed but in the meantime I have spent time thinking about where the words are missing. Yesterday I had the image of building a fence and I think this process makes a useful analogy. I imagine a stone fence, like in the English countryside, running over damp green rolling hills.  The outline is like the first placement of stones to mark targets. The targets are selected for even spacing but connected in a line, row, or however it is imagined that the completed fence should travel. Then with your first writing (rushed, in the case of a 3 Day Novel or NaNoWriMo project) you try to hit the targets and to build them up and fill them out.

Having done that writing, my job now is to re-evaluate the posts of the fence, to see if they connect with each other properly, and more importantly to see where it’s misdesigned, where there are still holes where the sheep or goats might wander through. Maybe I need a whole new secondary fence, one that runs parallel with the original, with posts that fill the gaps of the original. Maybe I zigged left where I should have zigged right, or maybe there’s a huge gap that I didn’t notice where I need to add four more post/targets, or spots where two posts are much too close together and I need to space them out better.

bookmark_borderNaNoWriMo at the half way point

This year has been tough. For my first NaNoWriMo I came up with a characteristic that I wanted to investigate (creativity), applied different versions to have three different characters (recombining, unorthodox, people skills) and then figured out a way that the three would have some connection to each other (famous artist returning to birth city, daughter of gallery owner, son of gallery owner) and then let my protagonist work her way through developing relationships with each of these three in turn. Just let my characters interact.

This time I started much earlier in the prep process and came up with a handful of characters to fill out the plot that I built. And this story covers some 50 years or so, though most of it is focused in the present. The result is that I’ve had to write a dozen or so almost stand-alone short stories using the existing characters and trying to come up with examples that will demonstrate the personalities of the characters. It’s a heck of a lot more work, and difficult to manage any kind of flow. And lacking flow in the writing process it becomes much more difficult to imagine or hypothesize what might happen next.

But, I’m barely keeping pace right now, so I just have to keep chugging along.

bookmark_borderWriting assingment: Differing opinions at a wake

George  took the smallest broccoli from his plate, covered it’s head with dip, and popped it into his mouth. Once he had something for his mouth to do he turned to view the room. It was full; all wall spots were taken and the more active  people were chatting in small groups in the center of the room. Not all the lights were on, out of respect for the situation, and combined with the dark clothes, the hushed voices, and the low lighting it could have been an opportunity for intimate, even romantic conversations.

George noticed a woman near his age leaving the food table and looking for a spot. She noticed him, the area beside him, and smiled though tight lips. He returned her smile out of habit and then looked away but it was too late. She moved toward him.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Jean.”

“Nice to meet you Jean. I’m George,” he replied. He started to move some knickknacks. “Would you like some room for your plate?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine,” she replied.

“I don’t know why Mom keeps this stuff,” he said after clearing a spot for her anyway.

“Oh, you’re her brother?”

“Step-brother,” he said, picking up a shrimp. “Dad married Mom, Rachel’s mom, when I was fifteen, Rachel was a year younger.”

“I’m sorry. It must be difficult.”

“Thank you.” It was all he could say. He put the shrimp into his mouth.

After a moment she said “Such a tragedy.” He just pursed his lips and nodded. “In the prime of her life, with so much promise, trying to build her life out of so much despair.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. “Um, how did you know her?”

“I met her during the trial. Our abuse support group was there for her.”

Again George wasn’t sure how to answer. “You know,  the trial was never about abuse, it was about her lying on loan applications, making fake documents, not paying employees.”

“Yes, but I can just imagine how difficult her life was after the abuse she endured from her father, her real father, I mean” she added quickly.

George wiggled his head back and forth as if trying to find his way through difficult terrain. “I don’t know much about her and her father. I just know her from when I met her.”

“And was she as wonderful a person as she seemed?”

“Mmm, well, she was brilliant.”

“Um hum.”


Jean waited for more, and when none was forthcoming she offered, “She seemed so sweet and oppressed.”

George shook his head. He had to respond. “That was her act,” he said. Jean was stunned. “You can chalk it up to sibling rivalry if you like, but she never told the truth. Everything was twisted to make her look innocent, to make someone, anyone, look guilty. Me, Dad, teachers, the system, …”

“George, help me, please.”

“Coming Mom.” He turned to Jean. “Sorry, excuse me,” he said and left.

bookmark_borderCharacterization exercise: Mother of a murderer

Carol sits at her dining room table, her right forearm resting on the table, hand wrapped around a tumbler half full of merlot. She’s leaning forward, elbows supporting her, almost oblivious to the cigarette in her left hand. Her expression is fixed, and she moves only to take another sip of wine, or a breath of her cigarette, or to tap ashes into the crystal bowl that other people might use for candy. Her ex-mother-in-law probably intended it for candy, but Carol gets more use from it as a pretty ashtray.

The other times were Joshua’s fault. Stupid things; B&E, selling drugs, things he might eventually outgrow, but this time, this time it was just bad luck, and bad judgment. He should have just come clean right away when the cops arrived. She sighs. Just like me. Thinking that the less information you give them, the less trouble you can get in. He should have just told them. After all, the guy was known for his temper problems. He beat his girlfriend. He carried a knife. It’s obvious that it wasn’t Joshua’s fault; the guy was a walking menace. It’s just Joshua’s bad luck to run into him.

“God, I wish I could be there,” she says aloud to the empty room and sinks back in her chair. “At least I wouldn’t be sitting and waiting.” But there’s no way I could, she thinks. Not with all the media there, not when my own sentencing is less than two months away. There’s no way I could hide if I were there. She takes off her glasses and places them on the table so she can rub her eyes, one by one. No, this is my own punishment for being a mother; I have to sit here and wait.

She glances at her cell phone lying on the table, and it shocks her by ringing. She sits up, grabs the phone, checks the number; it’s David, Joshua’s lawyer.

She puts the phone to her ear. “Hello, David?”, and then she listens, and listens. There is a pause and then the voice asks “Carol? Are you there? Did you get that?” That’s the cue for her veneer to break, for her emotions to erupt, and for her world to shatter.

“No! No, not again. That’s bullshit. Why is the world out to get us, David, why?”, she wails. David’s voice says some more things but Carol doesn’t hear. The phone is still talking on the table beside her elbow but her eyes are buried in her forearm as she sobs. “How can they do this?” She pounds the table with her the fist of her other hand, tipping over the tumbler and sending a splatter of red across the table. “Why are they all out to get us? Why can’t they all just,” she raises her head and shouts, “LEAVE US ALONE!” She puts her face back into her arm and continues to cry.

bookmark_borderBob (characterization excercise)

Bob had worked in sales for years. He and his three co-workers had kept the organization going, kept it moving. They were the ones who enabled the company to reach its goals, each and every time. The city was divided into four sections and together the four of them covered it all, out on the road, always working together. Sometimes they might rotate, to keep things fresh, but like pallbearers they relied on the others to each shoulder their share of the load.

They were all well rounded people, and Bob shared many interests and activities with his partners. Golf, bowling, bridge. One was rarely seen without the company of the other three, and sometimes people suggested that the four of them were interchangeable. Little did these outsiders know that once or twice a year the four of them and their wives would get together on a Saturday afternoon and swap partners.

Over time Bob started to notice some wear and tear. Years of being out in the sun had caused his skin to lose it’s elasticity. His hair, once a source of pride, was now thin and he was close to being bald in some spots. Sometimes he found it difficult to get a grip when conditions got tough, and his body found it very hard to get moving on cold winter mornings.

For a long time Bob’s doctor had warned him about his blood pressure. As a result of the economic downturn, money was scarce and the owner of the company tried to get as much mileage as he could from everyone, including his aging sales department. Bob and his partners were driven hard, well beyond what is safe and recommended. The pressure was too much, and Bob suffered a stroke.

For a while Bob tried to keep up, but it was difficult. He could still communicate but often his favorite jokes fell flat.

It didn’t take long for the owner of the company to notice and to slow down in order to get things under control. The first thing he did was to let Bob go. Then he let Bob’s partners go too, and brought in a group of shiny, fresh, young salesmen to replace them. After all those years of faithful service, Bob and his partners were put out to pasture.

Bob’s condition continued to deteriorate and he was no longer able to keep up with the other three. The other three kept themselves busy by hanging around in playgrounds with children, by working around the garden, or by going to football games and track and field events to support the athletes, but Bob wasn’t able to do any of that. Instead Bob went off to an assisted living situation, and spent his last days watching seagulls search for food as other unwanted items piled up around him. The last any of his friends saw of Bob he was reading through a Michelin travel guide and dreaming of all the places that he had never had the chance to experience.

bookmark_borderWriting class assignment: Characterization

Honestly, the class is not very challenging. We’re covering basic-basics and had very limited “improvement” oriented feedback on our first assignment readings. I know it’s a first reading and we’re all beginners, but I dunno if anyone’s going to improve very fast until people start to suggest things to work on, things to consider changing. We’re a little too polite, too supportive.

Anyway, assignment two is characterization. My job; to write about a person who has the characteristics of … a tire. Nice challenge at least. My personal approach will probably be to be somewhat obtuse, maybe a little cute, and to give sufficient clues as to make it not too difficult to guess what my inanimate object is even though I’m not planning to mention it.

So, let’s look at some characteristics of tires.

  • round, from the side view
  • flat or rounded rectangular shaped from the front/bank perspective
  • symmetrical
  • rolls well (once moving, continues moving easily?)
  • support/carry the vehicle (like pallbearers)
  • soft rubber, with hard metal core
  • – circle filled with circles
  • rubber inflated with air
  • vulnerable to nails/screws
  • vulnerable to over or under inflation
  • can rotate/spin rapidly

And potential associations with things like:

  • cars, trucks
  • Michelin; either Bib or with the restaurant review that they are known for
  • Goodyear and their blimp

Play on words, like:

  • re-tired
  • Tired, as in exhausted, needing sleep
  • Tired, as in bored or had enough
  • Wheel, as in “wheeled around”
  • wheel, as in square dance? (I dunno why square dance groups are often called “wheels”. Or maybe the question should be why a square dance when they dance in circles?)