The Places that Shape Us

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

This past week I had the opportunity to revisit many places from my past. My parents, after 32 years, are moving out of the home they raised me in and down-sizing their way into a town home in a retirement community. They live one sate away, and I drove with the whole family out to see the home one more time and to help them pack their three decades of accumulated stuff into boxes to prepare for the movers. My home town looks very much the same if you stay in the neighborhood of my childhood. The houses haven’t changed much – some are in need of repair, others have been well-maintained and updated. Some of the yards are well-kept, others less so. But the same was true during my youth. The only major change is that the trees are taller and there are a few extra cracks in the sidewalks. On the other hand, as I drove further afield, I noticed more and more changes. Old shops ripped down and replaced with new. Once-empty fields now filled to the brim with housing tracts. Bright new storefronts and restaurants. Even my old middle school had been completely demolished and replaced with a new building. The place I grew up in had continued to grow and change without me, as if it had a life of its own. It was more than a little disorienting.

Then, on the way home from our visit, we took a detour to the town my father grew up in, to see the old farmhouse once owned by my paternal grandparents. They’ve been gone for about six years now, and my uncle owns the house. I haven’t been back since he and my father decided to subdivide the old farm and turn it into housing lots. The house looks the same on the outside – the same red brick, surrounded by tall trees. The towering catalpa still casts shade over the driveway with it’s dinner-plate sized leaves, the old root cellar resting a few yards behind it. But the familiar fences and outbuildings of the old farm are long gone. Where once stood an old barn and granary there is now a row of ranch-style stucco-coated homes with SUVs parked in front drives and swing sets and propane grills standing in the back. The old bull-pen has been replaced by a street, and a round-about sits right about where another old shed once resided. The reality of progress has washed away the places of my memories, leaving only ghosts behind.

This nostalgia-filled journey got me thinking about just how much our sense of place informs our writing. I can set a story in a city, or a forest, or a frozen waste, or on a space-faring vessel, but in the back of my mind I see rolling fields and distant mountains – gullies lined with scrub and cottonwood – housing tracts and hay pastures standing side by side. Just how much of that makes its way into my writing? How does it inform the way I conceive the worlds I create?

In his study of the Apache sense of place, Wisdom Sits in Places, anthropologist Keith Basso writes:

“…places are perceived in terms of their outward aspect – as being on their manifest surfaces, the familiar places they are – and unless something happens to dislodge these perceptions they are left, as it were, to their own enduring devices. But then something does happen. Perhaps one spots a freshly fallen tree, or a bit of flaking paint, or a house where none has stood before – any disturbance, large or small, that inscribes the passage of time – and a place presents itself as bearing on prior events. And at the precise moment, when ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold, a border has been crossed and the country starts to change. Awareness has shifted its footing, and the character of the place, now transfigured by thoughts of an earlier day, swiftly takes on a new and foreign look.”

I’ve been seeing the places of my past as colored by this new and foreign look all week long. It makes me wonder how that disorientation of past memories colliding with present realities impacted Gimli when he stepped inside the mines of Moria, or how different Green Gables seemed to Anne when she returned from college with a new perspective, or how difficult it must have been for Odysseus to get used to his home after being away for so very long.

The interplay of one’s memories of a place with the alterations left by the passage of time is fertile ground for exploration in our writing. Now that I’ve had a taste of it in my own life it’s definitely something I’ll spend more time thinking about as I write.


Call it Instinct

Most authors don’t think about poetry when they’re writing, but they’re well aware of the flow of words, how the words will sound and the rhythm behind them. A battle scene uses smaller, focused words. A love scene (usually) uses softer, smoother words.

For most people the rhythm of language is instinctive. We use it all the time in conversation, in e-mails, in other forms of writing, but for some reason when we sit down to write we think that we need something different.

We don’t. Think of the last argument you had. Did you stop to think about how to make the words flow? I doubt it. And yet the argument moved without a hitch. If you have an argument between characters it’s going to flow in a similar way, with similar words and emotions.

I doubt that you took time to elucidate the abstract considerations of the debate or describe the color of the walls. Um…no. So in writing an argument, description comes far down the list–unless the argument is about the color of the paint, your characters are not going to notice. Nor will your readers, if the scene is constructed properly.

When I think of a battle, I’m thinking lunge, thrust, crunch, dart. Single syllable words that make the reader move faster through my prose. Short, punchy sentences because the scene is moving fast in my head.

In an emotional scene I don’t necessarily want the words to flow faster–I want to give my readers time to absorb what is happening, to experience it. So I choose words and structure sentences that will create a setting and a mood–far more setting and mood than I would use in the battle scene.

People in a battle are going to be paying more attention to their footing and avoiding that sword than to the color of the sky or the fact that their father is missing. Those are considerations for after the action.

You really don’t want people getting lost in your lyrical prose while a sword is swinging toward your MC’s head. You also don’t want your readers speeding through an emotional goodbye scene.

Pacing, rhythm and flow are mostly about scene logic–they should be instinctive. Just like a conversation, if we choose the correct words and structure we’ll end up with a scene that flows and leads readers through to the next, without drawing attention to the fact that it was carefully constructed to do so.


On Outlining

I think every fiction writer faces the question: “Do I want to outline, or not?” at some point in their career, and revisit it from time to time. As to the particular style of outlining, they probably revisit the problem from time to time.

I’ve known some writers who write detailed chapter by chapter outlines that are not only long, but include actual snippets of description and dialog. Others write vague lists of major plot points and then free-write their way from plot point to plot point. Still others will come up with a basic story concept, spend time writing character sketches, and then put their characters into their basic story and see where those characters take it through free-writing. There are methods based on a three-act structure, or other multi-point systems, or circular cycles of rising and falling action leading to new cycles of rising and falling action. A simple google search will produce dozens of different outlining systems.

None of these systems are right or wrong. It’s a matter of experimentation to find what works best for you.

For most of my short stories I come up with a basic concept and then free-write until I’m finished. I’m generally happy with the results. On the other hand, when I tried to free-write a children’s fantasy novel, the resulting manuscript was so messy and inconsistent that I’ve had to revise it about five times, and I’m still not happy.

I’ve set that manuscript aside for the time-being, and for my two new works in progress I produced outlines of all the key plot points. I’m currently using the 7-point plot system taught by author Dan Wells in this series of videos, or summarized in this episode of the podcast Writing Excuses. Give it a listen – it might be the system for you. And if not, there are dozen of other systems out there, just waiting for you to try them.

So far I’m very happy with this outlining system. It provides a clear path for each of my major characters, as well as an overarching story to tie all those characters together. But it’s not a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline. There is still plenty of room for me to make changes here and there and to free-write my way to better world-building and character development as I work all my outlined plot points together.

What outlining styles (or lack of outlining styles) have worked best for you? Share them in the comments to help other readers find the right fit for their writing method.


Writing for a Living

Many fiction writers have to hold down day jobs, but most of us would rather write for a living. What does that really mean? Not living off of our fiction income – that’s a rare and special privilege held by a small percentage of writers. No, for most people, writing for a living means writing mundane things for money and fiction in our free time. Here’s a great info-graphic from The Write Life Magazine to help you start thinking about how you might be able to earn a living as a writer.

One word of warning – while writing for a living might give you more personal satisfaction than many other career choices, it might also burn you out on writing while working on your bread-and-butter writing and before you turn to your personal fiction projects each day. If you think you might fall into that trap, consider jobs that require minimal emotional input and/or give you space for daydreaming/project planning.

For instance, best selling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson spent several years as a night desk clerk at a hotel so he’d have plenty of time to work on his real ambitions while also bringing in an income. Not everyone can find jobs like these, or make them work with personal situations, but if you can, this might just be the right work for you.

What jobs have you tried out to facilitate your fiction-writing ambitions?


Writing Snippets Classics: Revision

In this classic podcast, first posted in May 2011, the Writing Snippets Crew discusses how we revise our novels (or don’t in some cases). We also touch briefly on the difference between short story, poetry and article revisions. Please note – the giveaway mentioned in this podcast is closed.

(about 23min.)

Download here (Right click and select “save link as” to download)


Writers group seeking new members!

The Writing Snippets crew is looking to add one or two new members to our monthly writers group. If you live in north Utah County or south Salt Lake County, or wouldn’t mind driving further afield once a month, you might fit the bill.

We meet one Saturday evening a month for anything from four to six hours. We all exchange 20 pages of material 1-2 weeks in advance for critiquing. We spend 1/2 of every meeting critiquing, 1/4 eating and visiting, and 1/4 having our own writer’s support group! We are seeking only serious writers – already published (self-published counts) or actively working toward publication (writing, editing, submitting, querying). If you fit that qualification and feel like that schedule and format would work for you, please email us at writingsnippets (at) gmail (dot) com. Include your name, a short writer’s biography, and any other information that you think would be pertinent. If you sound like a good fit, we’ll ask for a brief writing sample.

Even if this would be your second group, we welcome you to contact us.

And for those who live too far away for our in-person meetings, we are trying to figure out the logistics of starting a supplementary online-only critique group. We’re not sure what format this will take, yet, but we already have two interested writers. If there is enough interest, we’ll try to get something going by early this fall. If you are interested in an online-only group, please email at the above address and put “online writing group” in your subject line.

We can’t wait to hear from you!


Technological Dystopia

Can I just say I love this life?  There’s so much to see, so much to do, that my short attention span (call it ADHD if you wish) is seldom a hindrance.  I can flip from writing (which takes up most of my time) to laundry or dig into research on spinal meningitis.  I can fly with dragons over a distant mountain range and then decide to swim in the deep ocean–all without leaving my home.

The internet is part of this, although I think that even without technology I’d be scatterbrained.  Technology just makes it easier to flip from one topic to another.  And we are surrounded by technology.  Cell phones, internet, cars, even kitchen blenders use tiny pieces that are constantly broadcasting the details of our lives.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone could read all those details, from what you had for breakfast to the kind of laundry detergent you use?

In reality, “they” can.  “They” can track what kind of detergent you buy, where you go in your GPS equipped car and how much gas you buy.  “They” can find out who you called and the exact location of that call.  “They” know how much water you use and control your electricity.  “They” control what we watch on TV, what movies are available, and the price of gas.

Do we already live in a form of dystopia?

A modern, technological dystopia would be a little different than the dystopia of earlier ages.  Based on the world around us we already know that it is possible for people to know every detail of our lives.  We accept this.  We understand and accept that “they” can control those details.  We seldom question it.

In our theoretical dystopia, a law is passed (for our protection) which limits the amount of salt used in a day.  The dystopian government (Lets call them the Harks) know that you have 3 people in your house.  They know how often you go out to eat. They know how long it should take for you to use the box of salt you just purchased.  If you use it too quickly, the salt police may show up at your door.

The Harks also know that you’re having a dinner party, since you put it out on social media, and they know who is invited.  They have a good idea what you’re making (ingredients list, you know) and the computer power to put all this information together.  They know that the recipe you’re using (downloaded from the internet) uses more salt than would be allowed for that number of people.

Yourself and all your guests vanish, leaving the food untouched on the table.  Neighbors wonder about alien abductions and go on with their lives.

It is not that far from collecting information to using it.  From using it to abusing it.   Each of these theoretical (dystopian) societies got to a point where someone was capable of using technology for control and chose to act on it.  Each technological step makes that kind of control both simpler and more likely.

That is a world I choose not to live in, so I’ll stockpile salt against the evil Harks world domination schemes.  I’ll put my (lack of) holiday plans out on Facebook and let the world know where I am by GPS.

I’ll celebrate a society where we are still free this 4th of July.


Writers Supporting Writers

Hi, my name is Jocelyn, and I’m a burned out writer.

This is essentially an introduction that I could use at every one of my writing group meetings, and the other members feel the same way. Yes, we come for the critiques. We all need and value the critiques. But what I’ve discovered over my years of participation is that the support, encouragement, empathy and camaraderie are even more important.

Writer’s are odd ducks. We devote a great deal of our mental and emotional lives to people who don’t actually exist. Our occupation is solitary and often isolating. It’s easy to feel detached from reality at times, or frustrated that reality continues to intrude on our ability to flesh out the worlds in our minds. And then comes the frustration and hopelessness that sets in when we’re trying to sell the stories that we’ve poured our hearts and souls into, and we have to face the harsh reality that the children of our mind are now mere commodities that we have to pitch to potential buyers. Buyers who might not love them as much as we do.

If anyone needs a regular support group, it’s writers.

Though our group only meets once a month, it’s an occasion that I always look forward to and always benefit from. Before, after, and sometimes during critiques we vent our frustrations, air our concerns, rant about the industry and the challenges we all face both in our bizarre vocation and in our relationships as they are impacted by our writing. This chance to speak openly in an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance is one of the most valuable things in my life.

Because of our once a month schedule, we often have to look for secondary sources for more frequent critiques, such as online beta partners. But the interactions with online critique partners are never as uplifting or rejuvenating as those monthly “support group” meetings.

Even if you have several wonderful online critique partners, I highly recommend that all of you writers out there search for a local in-person writing group, or at least a few writers that you can meet with socially on a regular basis. The value of this mental and emotional support cannot be overstated.

If I didn’t have my group, I don’t know if I’d still be writing.

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin


Networking

I’m a plant freak.  That doesn’t mean I’m a freaky plant (either vegetative or the spy variety) but that I love plants.

This week it’s strawberries.  Strawberries are interesting little critters.  They’re invasive, but sneakily so.  During the summer, under the guise of spreading out their leaves to soak up the sun, they put out runners that move into places where strawberries are not supposed to go.

They’re very strong and can survive things that kill other plants.  Part of the reason for this is all those runners.

The parent plant puts out runners not only to perpetuate itself but also because the baby strawberries send nutrients back to the parent plant once they put down roots.  In reality you have not one plant but a colony, all interdependent and interconnected.  If one plant grows in a place where there’s lots of water, and another is usually dry but has plenty of nutrients, the two can trade and each fill in the gaps in the other.

Eventually all those runners dry up, when the plants are strong enough to survive on their own.  

As writers we’re much the same, or at least we should be.  One writer alone has weaknesses.  I might not be able to see the problems with my plot, while another person doesn’t understand grammar.  Standing alone, neither of us could do what needs to be done.  Working together we’re both stronger.

I’ve also heard of successful authors who mentor others, who in turn mentor others, creating a support network that is seldom found in any other career.  Those sneaky little runners go out, feeding the baby authors until their roots are strong enough to survive on their own.

But unlike strawberries, those runners don’t dry up.  The network just continues to grow, authors helping authors through the generations.  

If we used that network to its capacity, the author community would have everything.  Like strawberries, we already have everything.  We just don’t know it yet.


Tips from Pixar

By Jocelyn Nash Carlion

I’ve always admired the Pixar movie studio – not just for the brilliant animation, but for their wonderful storytelling. Pixar films consistently win more critical praise and more awards than any other animation studio not just because of their technical expertise but because of their focus on telling a good story, and telling it well. In my opinion they not only tell better stories than most family films, but better than most Hollywood films, period.

So, even thought it’s about a year and a half old, I was delighted to find this list of storytelling tips from senior story artists at Pixar, as compiled and tweeted by former Pixar story artist Emma Coats.

Here’s the complete list:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Not all the tips will apply to you and your writing at this exact moment, but there are enough gems of wisdom on this list that something on it will probably resonate with you. Numbers 8 and 17 really speak to me right now. Which tips speak to you?