In celebration of my novel Love at Absolute Zero reaching four years old recently, it’s being sold for $2.99 on Kindle. The novel itself reminds me of being “centered”—I wrote it with amazement in me. To be an artist is what this column is about.
Because I teach creative writing at the Art Center College of Design as well as at Santa Monica College, I’m teaching an art in a nation where it's difficult to make a living in the arts. My son happens to be studying computer science, and there are many jobs in it. He will be able to apply to places. Medicine, law, physics are some of the many other subjects where finding a job is clear. To make a living as a writer is not cut-and-dried.
I see two general paths for a writer. One is to research and see what types of writing pay the most. When I go onto Kboards’ Writers’ Café, an area where fiction writers publishing eBooks hang out, I see that the best-selling writers fall into the genres of thrillers, romance, and erotica, among others. At the Writers’ Café, you can read first-hand accounts of what small publishers and self-publishers are doing.
In short, if your goal is to make money writing, then select a genre and learn it well. You’re not writing for yourself, per se, but writing to fill a market need. You’ll be competing with people who are passionate about their genre.
Then there’s the path I took. Most people who get MFAs in writing programs go this way, too: not concerned with genre, but in seeking certain truths about living. Their stories might fall into a genre, but more likely than not, they’ll straddle genres or fall into the “literary” category, which is a catch-all. One truth is if you choose this path, you’re not likely to make money.
Still, the most popular books seem to be ones where the writer was not concerned with money or marketing but writing the best and most truthful book possible. For instance, I got to know Janet Fitch at the University of Southern California when we both taught at the now-defunct Master of Professional Writing Program.
Like me, she started as a journalist and learned about deadlines and writing all the time. Then she started exploring poetry and incorporating sound and rhythm into her fiction, which started getting published. As she said, “I always read poetry before I write to sensitize me to the rhythms and music of language. Their startling originality is a challenge. I like Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Sexton. There are parts of White Oleander which use cadences of Pound.”
Her first novel White Oleander landed her on Oprah Winfrey’s show and in Winfrey’s Book Club. The book became a major hit and a 2006 film. Her last novel, Paint It Black, will also soon be a film, directed by Amber Tamblyn. In a Salon article from 1999, Fitch talks about the twenty-two years it took to become a best-selling author. Much of it is luck. “Luck” isn’t a great way to plan a career, but this is where “centering” comes in.
Centering is about what drives you as an artist. If you write for acclaim, then your fortunes will rise and fall with positive and negative reviews. If your goal is for a lot of money—rare in the arts—then your motivation will dry up when funds only trickle in.
I think of composer Phillip Glass, whose music I often listen to as I write, who drove a cab for a good chunk of his life as he composed. Composing is what he loved to do, and his style did not, and does not, sit easily with everyone. (For a sample of his work, click here.) Only after his opera Einstein on the Beach made a name did he start getting enough commissions to live on.
After teaching at a few colleges including CalArts, Santa Monica College, USC, and Art Center, I’ve come to know a number of faculty in writing, dance, film, theatre, music, and the fine arts, and most of them have made modest names for themselves if not more. All have one thing in common: they are centered on their art. That and curiosity drive them.
As poet Dennis Phillips told me recently, “What do you do when something really good or bad happens in your life? If you’re still writing, then that’s where you’re centered. Your art is your focus. Most people don’t make it big, but you can be respected. You keep exploring. You keep doing what you do.”
I look for different ways to inspire my students. Recently, I showed parts of a documentary Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey. Campbell studied and taught myths and mythic structure for years. He made a name for himself with the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. My favorite book of his is The Power of Myth, where Bill Moyers interviews him. I bring up Campbell because after studying myths from hundreds of cultures across time, he came to see many answers about living. Origin myths try to make sense of the world. Adventure myths have a certain structure, including having a mentor help guide the protagonist.
One of Campbell’s big realizations about myths is that they instruct people who are now alive to “follow their bliss.” I don’t take this to mean, as many of our popular films and books show: “If you are persistent, you will succeed.” Rather, it says that your art centers you, gets you through the labyrinth of life. As Campbell says to Moyers, “The function of art is to reveal this radiance [transcendence] through the created object. When you see the beautiful organization of a fortunately composed work of art, you just say, ‘Aha!” Somehow it speaks to the order in your own life and leads to the realization of the very things that religions are concerned to render.”
Your writing, your art, can lead you to what others might call spirituality. It’s your center.
*For Vanessa Carlton’s great cover version of the Rolling Stone’s song “Paint It Black,” click here.
We live our lives to be conflict-free—yet whose life is conflict-free? How we deal with conflict shows who we are: monsters or milquetoasts, psychopaths or empaths. All told, people love conflict—not to be a part of it but to understand it.
Look at when the freeway slows down. Sometimes it’s in your lane, but other times it’s on the other side of the freeway. Why does the clear side slow down to nearly a stop? It’s because people want to know what happened. Is anyone hurt? How did it happen?
My wife and other people I know love the new cable television channel Investigation Discovery (ID), which I’ve dubbed “The Bludgeoning Shows.” The programming features real-life mysteries, most of them involving murder. These are horrible situations, and yet people want to know what makes an otherwise friendly and reasonable person kill? Is it for the insurance? For revenge? For love? What makes anyone want to kill?
When it comes to writing a story, the engine of your story will be its conflict. It’s simple enough to create: invent a protagonist with a need or goal. Put up roadblocks to that goal, such as a person or thing that stands in the way. Then see what happens.
Let’s say a young man looks for the right young woman. He finds her. What could stand in the way? His shyness or another suitor would work. Perhaps his family and her family hate each other. Shakespeare used that in Romeo and Juliet, as did Arthur Laurents in West Side Story and Stephenie Meyer in Twilight. Another way is that two people are polar opposites of each other, an odd couple, as in Beauty and the Beast, The Taming of the Shrew, and Pride and Prejudice.
Ideally, your story has three or more major hurdles so that you have rising action. Offer surprises, and your readers may hang on. A study of J.A. Rowling’s Harry Potter series will tell you a lot.
Supply Rich and Deep Conflict
As simple as it sounds, writers often avoid conflict—perhaps because as people in the real world, we’re trained to stay out of danger. However, a huge fatal flaw in writing is when there isn’t enough conflict. I was reminded of this recently in my latest creative writing class as well as screening a friend’s first feature film, which he wrote and directed. Something inside many writers makes them avoid conflict or jump over it.
Let me give an example. In my recent creative writing class, the writers had to turn in a final project of one long short story or two pieces of flash fiction. One of the most talented people in class wrote a sensitive story of two young men in the fifties finding they were attracted to each other. Instantly, one could imagine the conflict: distraught parents, homophobes who might beat them up, and ridicule in society.
However, in this case, when one mother finds out, she’s okay with it but warns them. The two men become roommates, but no neighbor seems to notice their relationship. However, they worry, so they move out to the country, where they become huge fans of opera and are beloved by all the neighbors who never put together their relationship. (I also had to wonder which small town in California is big into opera?) Everyone is friendly, even if the two men remain wary of the larger society. In the end, they die as old men, only their dearest friends knowing about their relationship.
Most people in our class discussion said they loved the characters, but something didn’t feel right. Most didn’t notice it was a lack of conflict. They felt the lack of conflict, though, even if they couldn’t point it out. A lack of conflict also created a lack of passion. Because these two men did not have to confront anyone, we did not witness what they could do for their love and beliefs.
In life, most people believe they are brave and good, but what happens when a disaster strikes? Those fire fighters and police going into those burning buildings on 9-11 showed a lot. Another real-life disaster was in 1982, when an Air Florida flight crashed into the icy Potomac River in Washington D.C. Some people in the water called out for help. Some witnesses ran from the scene, freaked out, but one passenger who survived, Arland Williams, went back into the water to rescue others before he succumbed and died.
Thus, conflict reveals character, and deep conflict reveals true character. One of your main jobs as a writer is to reveal character by showing how a person acts versus “telling” the reader about the person. “He was a brave person, very, very brave.” Do you think adding another “very” will make him braver?
This is where “show don’t tell” comes into play. You reveal character by creating scenes of conflict, offering motivation, turns, and surprise. In upcoming scenes, you make things even worse. You are the god of your story, creating worse-and-worse conflict until we see your characters take charge, flee, or others succumb to too much pressure.
Have Clear Conflict
One of my former students started out his story well enough. His protagonist, a twenty-two-year-old young man living in Manhattan, wakes up late for work. Panicked, he dresses quickly, grabs a cold Pop Tart, which he eats on the way, and manages to flag down a taxi to get him to his job as a graphics designer. No one notices he’s late. He’s fine.
Then he has a meeting to show off his latest ad, which he hasn’t finished. He makes bold decisions and draws like Da Vinci. Just as it looks like he’ll fail, his delivers and wows the clients. Then he needs to meet with his girlfriend at lunch. While she’s upset he couldn’t meet her parents, she loves him anyway.
At this point, we don’t know what the story is about. He has a continuing series of little conflicts, but they add up to nothing. We don’t yet know his larger goal or what stands in his way. You, the writer, need to be clear what your protagonist needs. Get to it as quickly as possible.
Don’t Jump Over Conflict
One of the most common things I see in my students’ work is jumping over conflict. That is, they are often adept at setting up a situation, such two women fighting over the same young man. The women come to duke it out. One brings a knife, the other a gun. They show up at the right time in the park. Cut to them drinking together later, laughing, saying, “Why were we so obsessed with Johnny? You’re my friend, babe.” The other might say, “Yeah. We almost killed each other over something so stupid. I love ya, too.”
We need to see the climax. Basic to traditional storytelling is that the protagonist and antagonist meet in the climax. Luke Skywalker meets Darth Vader. It doesn’t work to jump over the fight scene and flash to the next day with Hans Solo telling Luke, “Glad you did in Darth. The universe is better place for that.” Nor do we want to see Darth not show up in the climax. A nerdy little guy arriving who tells Luke, “Darth couldn’t make it, so I’m his cousin standing in” would not satisfy. Make the climax a climax.
Avoid Passive Characters
As simple as I’ve made the above sound, writing stories is hard, and I was reminded of this last week when my children’s literature students turned in their first short stories. It’s incredibly rare someone nails a good story on his or her first try, yet I always see potential in these first projects. An example is a woman who wrote about a clock named Pepe standing on a shelf of clocks in a hardware store. Our protagonist and goal become clear: Pepe wants to be bought. What does he do? Nothing. He simply watches as other clocks are bought, and he feels sad. That’s because he’s an inanimate object. He’s passive.
Another of my students once had a similar problem with a ball of yarn who wanted to be bought. All the yarn did at first was yearn and do nothing about it. Once I suggested movement, the writer gave the yarn the ability to roll. After the yarn yearns, it rolls off the shelf right to the feet of the right older lady. Voila! Sale! From there, the yarn yearns to be used. The yarn finds a way, and we cheer for it.
Scenes Need to Turn, and Conflict Helps
This brings me to my friend’s feature film. I’ll call him Robert to keep his privacy. Robert has worked in the film industry for years on the production end, often as a second-unit director or cameraman. He wanted for years to direct a feature film about his grandfather, an Italian-American dry cleaner who became involved in the Mob.
The two-minute trailer for the film makes it a must-see. I kept asking to see the whole film, so he showed me yesterday with some cast members. It’s shot well, acted well, edited perhaps as well as can be done, yet there’s not enough conflict.
In part, that’s because many scenes do not turn. At the start, for instance, we witness an older man whose wife lovingly makes his lunch, and his adult son comes to help in the business. The scene is there to show how his family loves him. About ten minutes in, the wife accidentally bumps into a powerful mob boss’s car and damages his bumper. Instantly, we fear for them all, but the Don laughs it off, and our protagonist agrees to become the Don’s tailor—something he was hoping for anyway. The conflict quickly passes.
My friend’s problem isn’t in the way it was shot or acted but in the script. Perhaps it can be re-edited for maximum conflict, but he may not have shot enough conflict. I mention this to show that even experts sometimes miss things. I repeat: creating a great story is hard.
Humor Has Much Conflict
I happen to have a funny streak, so when I focused on writing my novel Love at Absolute Zero, I first created a situation ripe for conflict. My protagonist, Gunnar Gunderson of Wisconsin, happens to be one of the world’s leading physicists. After his latest research project runs into a snag, he has three days free. He focuses on his own deepest yearning: to find a soul mate. Using the Scientific Method, he sets off to find his future wife.
I throw all sorts of things in his way. While he may be a genius and a great professor, he’s also clueless in matters of the heart, including not understanding sex or love. He wears the wrong clothes, says the wrong things, misunderstands situations. I laughed to myself as I put on more pressure. At one point, he accidentally steps on the toes of a visiting Danish kindergarten teacher, falls for her as she does for him, and he moves to Denmark, a fish out of water, where things get progressively worse. You laugh at how bad it gets.
In short, as a writer, you need to train yourself to revel in the conflict. You might create an outline for yourself and come up with possible conflicts. Perhaps you write out a dozen potential scenes where things are bad for your protagonist, and then use the best of them. Once you have those on your outline, imagine the situations getting even worse.
I’ve had the luck over the years of having people from Pixar Animation speak to my now-former animation students, and the professionals explained something they did called “Plusing.” Once they created a scene, they would think of ways of making it even deeper, designing in more conflict and truths. Sometimes they’d spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to redo a scene.
You have to be the god that tortures the people in your world—often to a good point. Comedy or drama, it’s conflict that engages your readers. Play with it. You’ll see.
In the zone. Been there?
At times when I write, I may as well be sans body. I’m elsewhere. I could be a character on a gurney whose heart has stopped, and his spirit rises above the gurney, flows into the LED surgery lights above while he hears an echoey voice not unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s saying, “Do you like black licorice?”
“Yes,” I say. “Red Vines that are black.”
“It’s time for the tunnel,” says the voice, “which is as black as black Red Vines.”
My character, you see, is having an out-of-body experience—while I am.
Writers, more often than not, tend to sail in their heads rather than on a real stormy sea. Hemingway? Okay, he was different. He liked boats and Buicks and running with the bulls. He’d say it was good. I’ve never found that good.
Thus, I had to ask myself a few weeks ago why was I standing on the white edge of the Cornice at Mammoth Mountain in California, skis on my feet, contemplating the edge? I’d never skied the Cornice before, which required taking a gondola to the top, over 11,000 feet high. The snow was fast up there. Perhaps one shouldn’t stand on the edge of such a steep drop, with fast snow, especially on skis. The Cornice required some courage.
Let me freeze frame me on that edge. The fact I still skied was nothing short of amazing. When my uncle took my cousins and me to Buck Hill outside of Minneapolis when I was twelve and threw me on skis, I was terrified. I hated heights. I hated being cold. I hated falling down.
For the next sixteen years of skiing, I remained terrified. I stayed on the gentle slops and kept it up mainly because I liked the idea of skiing. I especially liked when the day was over and I’d survived. “It feels so good when I stop,” said a friend in high school, explaining why he was a long-distance runner.
In my late twenties, on my yearly Lake Tahoe ski trip with my college roommate, Stew, I finally found a run I really loved, and I kept skiing it over and over in a fog that enveloped it that day. I could only see about fifteen feet in front of me. It was my kind of gentle slope. When the fog lifted, my eyes grew wide. My favorite run was actually long and steep. I realized then that my fear had been inside my head.
“It’s in your head,” I reminded myself on the edge of the Cornice. I pushed off, curious to see what’d happen. Could I really make that first turn? My heart flew when I did. I created a kind of dance on the way down, not falling but quickly turning, quickly observing, quickly avoiding ice and heavy bunches of snow.
I’m explaining this as a way to also explain how writing stories is for me. I might have a great idea for a story, but I don’t know where it’ll go, or what it’s about, or even why I want to write it. I push off into it to see what happens.
Skiing is of the moment. Sometimes things work smoothly, but there are always surprises—ice, rocks, turns that throw me off. Similarly, writing always surprises me. Characters say and do things I didn’t expect, and such moments can change my plans. I might zip off on a tangent and have to get back.
Like author Kurt Vonnegut, I often think I can’t do this again—either write or ski—but I try anyway as with this very piece. All I knew for this was I wanted to write about the mind/body experience. For my last novel, A Death in Vegas,all I knew was that my protagonist had his own company that sold beneficial bugs for organic gardening—ladybugs and the like. I knew he found a dead woman in his hotel room on the morning of a Las Vegas convention. He had nothing to do with it. The Las Vegas police suspected him. Wwhich ho set him up?
Once I started writing the story, I paused to outline, following paths, adjusting, trying new things. That’s because I can think faster than I write, and brief notes in an outline lets me zoom quickly. Six drafts later, after I honed, adjusted, tried new things, I was done. My characters and story had grabbed me.
I’m not prone to exercise. I have to push myself. I swim because it gives me energy to write. Skiing takes me away from writing—yet I always return refreshed and energized. To write well requires being physical. I have to put my body into the world.
The skiing at Mammoth beyond the Cornice on my recent trip often made my thighs scream. The snow was heavy. I fell twice, not having fallen once in my previous nine days of skiing this season. Yet I amazed myself that I could do this. Skiing requires precision. It requires stamina. It requires a belief that your body will know the way.
Philosophers often focus on three elements: mind, body, and spirit. If you push off into the white page as well as onto a white slope, that third element, spirit, seems to soar. You find yourself in the zone. I love the zone.
I originally wrote this for Free Kindle Books and Tips, which you can see by clicking here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.