Dignity of the person and the character of characters

droughtThere’s been a lot of bad news this summer. Drought, unrest, domestic violence, hacking the Cloud, hacking off heads… in the 21st century. We’d hoped we would be better by now.

One of the most important things the arts can do is allow us into another person’s world. Of course, if you set out to do that, you probably won’t achieve much of anything beyond preaching to those who already agree with you. But if you’re willing to allow it to unfold as part of the process, magical things can happen.

Some are calling the leaking of nude photos of celebrities sexual assault – no – sexual assault is sexual assault. What is closer to the mark is a disregard for the dignity of another human being. Intentional humiliation is attempted murder of the soul.

Disregard for the dignity of another human being. How do the characters you create feel about that

Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version
Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version


At their best, stories help us understand each other and ourselves. If you can tell one honestly, passionately, through writing or acting, you will affect others. Watch the actors who allow their vulnerability to shine through; think of the books that stayed with you. What was it that resonated? If you are willing to dive into your unconscious, if you have courage, if you are willing to be still and let us see, you can give that gift. Michael Redgrave shows us the secret part of himself – he allows us to see his vulnerability – and a quiet performance becomes powerful and deep.

What do you know that is yours? That thing you’re fighting. Your success. Your failure. What do you feel deeply about? Why? If you allow the real you, with all the fears and insecurities and secrets to shine through, we will love you for it. And you will make our load just a little easier to bear.



Guest Post from Grammarly: Are Style Guides Poisonous to Your Fiction Writing?

grammarly 2 This week’s guest post comes from Nikolas Baron of Grammarly. Thanks, Nick!

When I sit down to learn how writers write — their styles, preferences, and techniques — I fluctuate between feeling limited and focused. Most companies have official style guides to help writers communicate in a clear voice with tense, tone, vision, and style. Some writers find style guides constricting; but to become a published author, a writer needs to adhere to the guidelines of the magazine in which he or she wants to be published. Writers dream of being published in “The New Yorker” not only because of the prestige, talent, and luck they must have to make it between the pages, but also because they like the style of the magazine. Publishers have a distinct voice they want to resonate through the ink and text of their magazine. It is a good idea to look into what kind of material a magazine, newspaper or publishing company publishes before contacting the business with your work. Style guides help writers see the end of the tunnel and the path they should follow to a successful piece. Although they can be limiting, style guides are an important branch of the writing tree.

Writing fiction novels is far different from writing a short story and hoping to publish it in a magazine, newspaper, or literary journal. When you write a novel, you can write however you want, for as long as you want, about whatever you want. When you are a writer for a fiction literary journal or hope to publish a piece in one, it’s important to remember that a style guide keeps the magazine going. Readers are buying and reading that magazine for a reason; they like the content and style of the material. Violating the style guide and writing something outside the material defeats the purpose of having a magazine devoted to that particular niche. When you’re looking for a place to publish your material, do your research. Spending the extra few hours finding a magazine that caters to your style, techniques, and genre will not only show the editors you understand their goals, but your material has a better chance at becoming published. Also, when you submit your work for publication, an online proofreader can be key. Proofreading your work will help to incorporate different stylistic elements you identified in their previously-published pieces.

Would you publish a Stephen King short story in a children’s literary magazine? Probably not. This is the same sort of idea that goes into professional writing. You wouldn’t want to send a query letter to a science fiction journal if you write romance stories. It’s unprofessional, shows that you blatantly don’t care about their journal, and that you’re too lazy to spend a few minutes looking into what they normally publish. Styles of journals, along with their style guides, are critical to keeping your favorite publications going. By ignoring them, you’re only putting your publishing career at a disadvantage.

When you book a writing job, you want to make sure that you fit in with their style; you could be writing in it for quite some time. Do style guides limit grammarly 3you? Perhaps in some ways, but if you have chosen the right place for you to write for, those limitations will most likely be small. When you begin proofreading your articles, it’s a lot easier to fix and incorporate pieces of the style guide. It’s also easier to find those mistakes when using an online resource like Grammarly. Grammarly has a great proofreading tool that will help you look at your writing in a mechanical sense and identify your most common errors. If it seems like a style guide is too limiting, it could be because your writing is mismatched with what the editors are looking for. Although some style guides are extremely specific, sticking to a style guide is what keeps writers employed, and magazines, newspapers, and literary journals afloat by being consistent with viewpoint and style.

By Nikolas Baron

Nick’s Bio:

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

Movement & Character, part one

Benedikt Negro
photo kateconklin.com

Sunday evening, I had the great pleasure of taking a workshop at Body Chance from Benedikt Negro, lead performer in Cirque du Soleil’s O for the past 11 years. Let that sink in a moment. 11 years, 10 shows a week and no injuries, thanks in part to the Alexander Technique. That’s something like 5,000 performances. He studied mime and pantomine for 3 years in Berlin in addition to dance, acting, etc. It is astounding to be taught by someone who has that much control over his body. And we had a lot of fun!

Shorthand difference between mime and pantomime? In pantomime, you walk the dog, in mime, you are the dog. Paul Curtis, Founder/Director of the American Mime Theatre, uses the following definitions: Pantomime is the art of creating the illusion of reality by dealing with imaginary objects or situations. Its art rests on the ability to imply weight, texture, line, rhythm and force to the air around them. Mime, on the other hand, is the art of acting silently through various kinds of theatrical movement.

Among other things, Benedikt taught us about progressive and digressive movements (as in throwing and catching an imaginary ball bouncing off a wall). The movement is big to small and then small to big in terms of the body – torso to fingertips, fingertips, hand, arm back to torso. It’s expressed in the body, not the face, which is an important note for improvisers, actors and fiction writers creating characters. Concentrate on the body, the shape, how it moves and you can learn a lot about character and emotion.

After the workshop, he performed for a small group of us and it was extraordinary. At O, the audience is 2,000, so to see a performer of his caliber in a studio was a very special treat. There was a Q & A and my question was how he keeps the performance fresh for himself after years. He said that once he regarded it as part of his daily routine, then it is like anything else, some days you notice a spectacular sunrise, or enjoy the smell of coffee, birdsong, or a friend’s smile. You look for the small pleasures and that’s what keeps it fresh not only for himself but the audience. He was very aware of the obligation to the person seeing the show for the first time. Good advice for anyone, especially those of us living the creative life.

More next week….


Don’t fall on the idiot side of stupid

IdiotIn an ongoing conversation about men and women with my friend, Chuck, he remarked that men often fall on the idiot side of stupid where women are concerned, whether it’s about seeing what’s right in front of them, breaking old patterns or choosing destructive over healthy. Women have their own issues around bad judgment, such as bonding before they have any idea of what they’ve gotten themselves into and then literally fighting their own biochemistry to break free (see Dr. Pat Allen).

I’ve been thinking about what it means to fall on the idiot side of stupid in other areas and it seems that a lot of it goes to the issues of change and habit. I’ve been taking improv classes for about six months now and can recognize habits and patterns. Some of them are very successful, but as with any art form, they can also be a trap.  Light side/dark side. At TEDGlobal, I learned the Greek root for idiot, idios,refers to the self, so there’s a self-centered component in all of this. What happens when you look past yourself?

If you always date the same type of person and it always crashes and burns, you might want to change your type even if it feels weird, wrong, scary or uncomfortable at first. Challenge your assumptions and pre-conceived ideas. Same with the acting, writing, music, painting, or improv habits you’ve developed. Some of them may not be serving you; some of they may be serving you exceptionally well, but there might be challenges to learn from if you shake things up.

There’s a great tribute to the late Elmore Leonard by a man who had a life changing encounter (yeah, NRO, get over it, arrived via libertarian). It’s a testament to the power of habit and how to churn out a great deal of work over a lifetime. After reflecting, and particularly after a time of day exercise in improv and seeing how scenes change when the time of day changes – for example an office at 8:30 am is different from right before closing is different from the office in the middle of the night (H/T Craig Cackowski) – I began to wonder how it might affect one’s writing if a writer mixed it up, if one did not always write first thing in the morning. I realize not everyone has the luxury to experiment due to jobs, kids, spouses and other family obligations, but if you can vary any part of your creative routine, do so and see what happens.

Zeus says don’t be an idiot.

Elmore Leonard’s routine worked for him and I’m not saying you have to change what works – far from it! – but consider the habits, routines, choices and so on that you know in your gut are hindering your progress, your growth as an artist and as a person. Try something new once in awhile – a new routine, work with unfamiliar characters or forms; if you’re single, date someone “out of your league” or against type; try a new activity such as rock climbing, improv, singing, learning a new language, anything that sounds both intriguing AND scary, so you don’t fall on the idiot side of stupid.


The Unforgettable Image, Part Four

Here’s the next installment from Lee Stoops. Been a crazy week, so apologies for the delay in posting!

Building the Case for Changing the Way We Think 

balanco-clouds-girl-perception-swing-Favim.com-55374We need to make sense of our perceptions.

Imagination is the core of our human experience. It’s how we build memories and process. I’m not talking about imagination as we often hear about it (cliché). Rather, I mean imagination in how we’re constantly creating everything we think as we think it.

We label these skills as innate, and therefore, forget how impossible it is our brains can do what they can do. We can invent complete realms within the unseen space of our minds just using the things we derive from our perceptions of a shared world. And that’s just the beginning.

If we’ve forgotten anything we learned immediately as children, it’s that we should be giving our imaginations carte blanche. Instead, we listen to critics and doubts and just about every voice we can hear, those in our heads and otherwise, and we lock up our brains up as they age.

We claim we don’t, but we do. We say things like “the more I know the less I know” and think we’re being clever and profound and mature. But what are we really saying?

That we recognize we have trouble using the first tool we ever learned how to use. Simple is sophisticated, here, but we’re so focused on sophisticated, that we forget how beautiful and natural it is and should be to let our minds just go.

As we age, we use our creative capabilities more for easy rationalization or occ

asional problem solving. Somewhere along the line, most of us have started thinking about imagination and memory as a perk of existence rather than the means. They certainly are the benefits – why we love books, movies, art, music.

As we hear all the time – this experience is magic. It’s what we’re constantly after, both in our reading and in our writing. We’re looking for the things we don’t have/know/understand, and we’re trying to make sense of the things we do.

But, think about this – outside our little world of narrative lies a world of problems being solved by imagination.olivier_hamlet3 For example – being able to imagine ourselves in other people’s places is how we gain social relationships and understanding. But it takes knowledge and memory to do this.

Knowledge. Things we know. Things we remember. Things that start to inform our imagination. We hold onto everything, not just for the sake of storing information, but because it enables us to make sense of future experiences, and it gives us the ability to predict outcomes, or, in the case of the impossible, imagine outcomes. We all daydream. Why don’t we give ourselves more credit for what we can cook up?

In the next post, we’ll look at methods of identifying unforgettable imagery in what you read for developing unforgettable images in what you write.



The Unforgettable Image Part Two: The Link Between Imagination and Memory

by guest blogger Lee Stoops:

but I’m such a cute cliché…

 In our generation of images and scenes, we tend to recreate the things that have strongly affected us. I need to note something about cliché here. Something is labeled cliché when it affects (or has affected) a lot of people. The problem with cliché, and why it doesn’t work for unforgettable imagery, is that it doesn’t have power. Because it’s common, overused. Clichés don’t surprise or evoke…anymore.

So, getting back to what we know and how we imagine: There are those few experiences that infect us, the things we can’t forget, especially the things we often times want to. These experiences are deeply informed by both imagination and memory.  So let’s break it down a bit.

Imagination: It has a fundamental and paradoxical dichotomy. It’s sensory, yet exists separate from the physical. Imagination makes hearing possible when there is no sound, remembers smell when there is no scent, makes images available when the eyes are hidden behind the flesh of lids.

But, the purpose of imagination is to provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge. It is the fundamental faculty through which people make sense of the world. It plays a key role in our human learning process.

Imagination, informed by memory, makes it possible for us to create, deepen, and understand the idea of the “other” – something I’m suspect we, as humans, are alone in our ability.

Memory: It is nothing if not imagination. The generation of feelings, both emotional and sensate, past and present, is the work of imagination.

While imagination is the tool with which we tell stories, paint pictures, sculpt statues, and compose music, process our world, make sense (or try to) of everything that happens, and then draw connections, what we’re really doing is forming memories to inform future experiences.

When we write, we use both imagination and memory to develop our scenes, our images.

When you write a scene, whether something you’ve a sense of for a story or something you remember for a personal essay – what happens?

As soon as it’s in words, it sharpens. And becomes permanent the way you imagine/remember it.

We’ve all heard that our memory is our truth. But what’s more? When we take the time to write these things, fiction or nonfiction, they also become our memory – they round memory out, possibly even replace memory.  

In the next post, we’ll dig into the science and how we can use it as storytellers.

so much &*^#$@%( hyperbole!

less is more? whaa…?

Want to stand out with your writing? Or in general? Remove hyperbole from your writing and, for that matter, your speech. Have you noticed that people now seem to be incapable of speaking without it? We’ve become gushers of adjectives, adverbs, and expletives. A touch of hyperbole can strengthen a scene, but if it’s not there for a specific purpose, cut it. If you read the scene aloud and it calls attention to itself, cut it.

too much?

Less is more in these days of overstatement. “I was so f-ing exhausted.” You go beyond exhaustion, you’re probably dead. “No, really, I nearly died from exhaustion.” Did you just finish the Ironman? Then okay. But thanks to advertising, politics, and the entertainment industry, it’s become our standard way of speaking. No one is wrong, they’re diabolically evil. They can’t have a different opinion, they’re horrendously stupid. Along with it, mercy, the benefit of the doubt, even common ground have disappeared (and in this climate, you want to stop bullying? Good luck with that). Once hyperbole becomes the norm, it loses its effectiveness as a device. We get jaded as stories push the envelope further and further. Get simple. Get back to a good story, well-told.

what else do you need?
simplicity is beautiful

If you need a bit of hyperbole for effect in your writing, combine it with a simile or metaphor. Also, use different levels – and that would include zero – of hyperbole in the character voices. Allow your characters different speech patterns. Let the characters be as varied as people in the world. As with any literary device, be aware of what you’re using and why.

Hyperbole done right? The master, as always (from Hamlet, Act V, sc i)


O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:

[Leaps into the grave.]

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

 Hamlet is not about to be outdone – he even says so at the end of his speech later in the scene:

‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

don’t OD with the hyperbole, son

the sin in writing

mantiI’ve been following the Manti Te’o debacle for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that am a Notre Dame football fan and though not an alum, part of the ND family and have friends who are professors there. The truth will out, if not soon, then eventually. That’s usually what happens and my point is not what did he know and when did he know it or whether he was duped or in on it. As of now, besides one statement, he has not come forward. (UPDATED 1/18 he spoke to Jeremy Schaap) I’d just as soon give him the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are in, but right now it doesn’t feel like it will end well, no matter how it plays out. I can see several scenarios – in on it, totally duped, or partially duped, then trying to avoid public humiliation by continuing the story after he realized there was no girlfriend. However, my point is to look at what can we learn from this story – a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story – and how that applies to writing. Coincidentally, the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is “traduce.” 

Someone told a lie and over time a web of lies was created. For a number of reasons, the story blew up. Notre Dame kept winning. That was an unexpected element. Reporters had a talented football player, a nice kid, a team leader with a compelling story and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Some of them scratched the surface – at least one reporter looked for the girlfriend’s obituary and did not find anything. But though no obit is unusual, it happens. Plausible deniability. Could happen. Could a naive young man of faith be so taken in? Well, one of his strengths in football is the kind of focus that doesn’t allow for other possibilities. Just win. Could happen.

mjQnY24-580x386But look at the ripple effect. The original lie, the original impulse to deceive, started rolling, picking up steam, more lies, more deceit, and suddenly it’s all over the news, tabloids, talk shows, breaking out of the sports world to the general news. Seasoned reporters with over thirty years experience say it’s the most bizarre story they’ve ever seen and they don’t know what to make of it. Don’t underestimate the power of shame or the damage of humiliation. Humiliation is a murder of the spirit. People behave in ways that invite a number of different interpretations when shame is involved. And just because you would not feel one way about a given situation, does not mean someone else wouldn’t – slipping into another’s skin is essential to being a good writer.


How does this relate to your writing? Drama comes from conflict. Truth vs. lies. Good vs. evil. Gullibility vs. cynicism. Narcissism vs. altruism. You get the idea. What is your central conflict? How can that ripple out to affect the greatest number of characters? What’s the unexpected element beyond anyone’s control? In the Te’o story, one lie mushroomed and affected not only Te’o, but his family, his teammates, his coaches, the University, the fans, even the way sports reporters will cover the human interest angle going forward (which is sad because the last thing we need is more cynicism).

white-roses_1920x1200_15316Sin has gone out of fashion. It implies a divine intelligence, a moral standard. I’m not here to debate that. I do argue that having a moral viewpoint will make your fiction stronger. The best definition of sin I’ve heard is that it begins with treating other people like things and lying is foundational to that. When you wrong someone, when there is conflict, often it begins with a lie to the self or to another. Someone who plays the “catfish” game, who creates a deliberate deception, may do so out of vanity or thinks it all in good fun and no one will get hurt, or worse, that the deceived person deserves it for being gullible. Think of the pedophile – they lie to themselves that it won’t harm the child. The thief lies to himself that he’s justified in taking what does not belong to him. What do your characters lie to themselves about and what are they lying about to others? Do they treat others as things? Does it all escalate? Add the element of surprise and watch it ripple out in your fiction. And please, keep it to fiction. Don’t muck up real lives. As to motive?

in the mood…

oceanPart of the writing life is managing your moods. You’ve heard that if you wait for inspiration to strike in order to write, well…. Yeah, that novel doesn’t write itself. Do you catch yourself indulging in any of these three behaviors? They’re all part of the same thing with different time references:

Self pity – the past

Complaining – the present

Worry – the future

Managing emotions and moods is one of the disciplines of the creative life.

Here are a couple of links on mood repair kits or how to manage your moods which will fluctuate as you write a novel, deal with agents and publishers and all the rejection that goes along with that process, market it, sell it and prepare the next one.

Feel Better Faster, Learn More Effectively: Use Your Mood-Repair Tool Kit


5 ways to help authors; 5 things for authors to avoid

ImageSeveral times this past year, I had people ask how they could help me with my books. The first question I asked was whether they’d bought any of them.     No.      Well, there’s a start! You want to help an author, buy their books. Forget all the fancy posts on book marketing – there’s some helpful information, but the main way to sell books is by word of mouth. That is what I’ve heard consistently from publishers, agents and other authors. Word. Of. Mouth. You like an author, please tell other people! Buy their books as gifts for your friends. Spread the word, use social media, post it on Facebook, Twitter, put the book cover on Instagram. If you know a photographer who’d take a good author photo in exchange for credit and building up their portfolio then pass along that information. You don’t have to come to every single reading, but show up once in awhile and bring someone with you. After the reading, say something nice to the author, even if it’s just “Good job!” (thanks, Kate!) It is hard for people who spend most of their time alone with imaginary people to get up in front of a group and read. Say something nice to them – acknowledge what they did.

There’s a ton of noise that we have to break through, so anything you can offer in the way of help, support, networking is GREATLY APPRECIATED! (and if it’s not, a pox on that author!) We writers are largely an awkward bunch who often don’t know what to ask for or how.

Summary for if you know a writer:

1. Buy our booksImage

2. Tell others

3. Post kind reviews (they don’t have to be 5 star, but there’s no need to trash them either; if you don’t have something nice to say…)

4. Use social media to spread the word

5. Come to our readings once in awhile

Okay, writers, you are not off the hook. It’s tough out there and you want all the help you can get. But don’t be a narcissistic taker! Say thank you. Help other writers. There’s none of that fixed pie nonsense in this. There’s plenty of publicity and readers to go around. If someone helps you, say thank you! I know you’re socially awkward but, come on, two words. Too shy to say it in person? You’re a writer, write a thank you note. No excuses. Again, don’t just take. Someone does you a favor, acknowledge it and at some point, if you can, return the favor. Especially if it’s another writer. Be nice to everyone – if you knew what secret burdens people were bearing, you’d be nice to everyone, even the mean ones. Maybe especially them. Plus you never know who someone knows. Word spreads. True in the literary world, super true in Hollywood. A manager never bothered calling me back over a business matter – I took notice because it was rude and totally unnecessary. He also made his client look bad.

I’m not saying you have to get all tit-for-tat about it. A favor is a favor, not an obligation. Don’t keep score. Do your best. Have integrity.

If you give readings, practice. Be entertaining. Put some life in it. People have taken time out of their day so make an effort. If you have to get a coach, make friends with an actor and get some tips (you can offer to run lines with them or something similar in return). Film yourself. Show your audience some respect. This falls under the same consideration as making sure your manuscript is as good as you can make it before you send it out.

Something Kate Maruyama pointed out is the Acknowledgments page and I’m going to include one in my books from now on. Seems to be more of a tradition in non-fiction than fiction, but there’s no reason we novelists can’t do it. None of us get there on our own. People help whether they read our manuscripts, provide moral or financial support (we should all be so lucky!)… anyway, you get the idea. Proclaim them! Do an Acknowledgements page and list them. Maybe you don’t have an agent or manager yet, but there are other people who helped and encouraged you along the way.

Pay it forward. Help other writers. Promote their work. Don’t ask people to go comment on your short story, essay, etc, if you have no intention in doing so for them at some point or haven’t in the past. Don’t keep going back to the same people every time you put a piece of writing out into the world. It looks like you’re manipulating the comments (fair point) and everyone’s busy. You can tweet or Facebook general requests, but be careful of asking specific people. Don’t over-ask and let it go if they don’t respond. Yes, I’ll say it again: everyone’s busy. Assume goodwill and move on.

Summary if you are a writer:


1. Say thank you or write a thank you note

2. Return the favor

3. Be nice and if you can muster it, entertaining

4. Put them in your acknowledgements

5. Pay it forward