Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Bridge from Facts to Fiction, By Stephen Gallup

Story ideas come from real life. Even when we are inventing new worlds and new dimensions, the events we set forth in words follow recognizable logic and have their origin in lived experiences.

Many writers feel drawn to subjects that are obviously autobiographical. As a memoirist, I think that’s fine. But over time that kind of writing can create a very deep groove. Here’s a suggestion for venturing out of it.

If you feel that the character you are writing about is too familiar, stop and make a list of descriptive phrases about yourself. Then pick a feature and change it. Make that new trait central to your character.

For example, I love music, but due to a few poor decisions along the way I cannot with any honesty call myself a musician. The phrase not musical showed up in my list. So I tried my hand at writing about a violinist. As sometimes happens, this character began to take charge of his story. I was pleased to see that he had the wisdom to decide differently when faced with pressures that might have pulled his career off track.

Encouraged, I tried again, this time writing from the perspective of the opposite gender. That seemed to turn out even better than the first try.

These exercises were my first step in returning to the craft of fiction, which I had set aside for many years while doing another kind of writing. And I believe in their own way they contain as much truth as anything else.



Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy? A Father's Pledge to His Disabled Son (2011). He blogs at fatherspledge.com.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Author's Road Interview Features Verlena Orr

We’re pleased to bring you the first author interview with one of our favorite poets, Verlena Orr.

Verlena grew up on an Idaho wheat farm where she learned to recite Shakespeare while driving cattle on horseback. Twice nominated for a Pushcart, she’s published three chapbooks, two full-length books, and her work has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies. She has lived in Portland since 1963, and received her MFA from University of Montana.

We interviewed Verlena on a rainy afternoon in June. She was patient while we set up, warmed up and moved around, chatting easily about life, writing and the many paintings friends have made of her.

She nestled in front of her computer in her cheerful Las Vegas tee shirt and wrapped in "Aunt Eunice's Writing Stole," and then we began.

We hope you will be as patient with our first efforts as Verlena was. We learned a lot, and Verlana gave a great interview. What she has to say more than compensates for our sometimes bumbling efforts.

Click on this link to view the interview.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Northwest Author Series Presents Karen Karbo on Passions Into Paychecks: Make a Living without A Brand

In 1990 Karen Karbo quit her full time job and has been making a living as a writer ever since. Known for her quirky wit and broad range of interests, she’s done it all without a “brand.” In this lively presentation, Karbo will discuss how to parlay your interests into a paycheck while building an eclectic body of work, and also offer tips on creating a platform rooted in your own personality.

Award-winning writer Karen Karbo has penned it all: nonfiction, novels, memoir, short stories, essays, articles, and reviews. How Georgia Became O’Keeffe is the third and final nonfiction installment in what she calls her “kick ass women trilogy.” How to Hepburn was published in 2007, and The Gospel According to Coco Chanel was published in 2009. Each of her three novels was a New York Times Noteable Book of the Year. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction. Karen grew up in Los Angeles, California and now lives in Portland, Oregon.

For more info, please contact The Wilsonville Public Library at (503) 682-2744.

Northwest Author Series
January 29, 2012
Location: The Wilsonville Public Library in the Oak Room
Time: 3:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Cost: $5.00 at the door
Door prizes: Two copies of How Georgia Became O’Keeffe

Monday, January 16, 2012

Story Notes - The Hunger Games

by Bill Johnson
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins offers an example of how to tell a story about a familar if alien world, here a future United States divided into mini-states and ruled with an iron fist by the Capitol. This kind of story requires raising questions and introducing information about this new world that draws an audience forward to want to know more. This is easy to do, hard to do well. The following is a review of the opening pages of the novel.



In the beginning...

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.


The novel starts rooted in the POV of Katniss, a young girl. The opening conveys subtle information about the world, waking up cold, a mattress with a canvas cover, the question, what is the reaping? It also raises character questions, who is Prim? Why is she having bad dreams? What do her dreams have to do with the reaping?

Next...

I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

This conveys a stronger sense of place, but more questions. Why does the mother appear 'beaten-down'? What happened to the once beautiful mother? Who is this 'they' who commented on the mother's former beauty?

Continuing...

Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the ugliest cat in the world. Mashed in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash.

This conveys a description of a cat, but also a subtext about this world, that pets fend for themselves in a harsh world. There's also the subtext here that the narrator does not like this cat.

Continuing...

Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least he distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home.

Again, another question: why did the narrator feel compelled to kill the cat? With the title, Hunger Games, the reason is implied; one more mouth to feed.

Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed.

That confirms the why the narrator wanted the kitten dead, but raises another question: why is she responsible for feeding her mother and sister?

But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches an occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

This conveys the narrator's desire to make her little sister happy. That a pet is fed entrails and not cat food again suggests something about this familiar yet alien world.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

There's a subtext here that in this harsh world, accomodations are made, but only grudingly.

This is the first page of the book. It continues with the narrator getting up and ready to go out hunting, and relates that she lives in District 12 that is crawling with coal miners. Again, questions are raised that will soon be answered, and the answers will raise new questions.

The author next relates that District 12 is surrounded by an electrified fence to protect the inhabitants from wild dogs and other wild animals. District 12 is sounding more like a gulag, which it comes out that it is for most of its inhabitants, but the narrator is willing to go beyond that fence.

Suzanne Collins demonstrates a deft touch in introducing thttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifhis narrator in a harsh world, but also showing her inititive to not be fenhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifced in. Novels that lack this clearly defined, carefully crafted character and plot and scene development from their opening lines risk being static and dramatically inert.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quick Cuts - Story Notes on the Movie Take Shelter

This movie demonstrates a central issue of storytelling, narrative tension. I define narrative tension as the tension a character feels to resolve or fulfill some issue, and the tension that increases as that character takes action. Romeo in Romeo and Juliet is a great example of narrative tension, because everything he does to act on his love for Juliet puts him in deeper conflict with his clan.

Novels that lack a main character in a state of narrative tension are often episodic, a series of events but lacking a clearly defined central conflict.

In Take Shelter, the main character is a blue collar worker of 35. The film opens with him standing outside in the rain, but the rain drops include oil. As the film continues, he has nightmares about a powerful, deadly storm, and also attacks on himself and his six year old, deaf daughter. But then he has a nightmare while awake. Are the nightmares a premonition of something looming or symptoms of mental illness? At 35, his mother began to experience the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

To save his family, he excavates around a tornado shelter using equipment he's borrowed from his job. This gets him fired, just before his deaf daughter is slated for an operation to restore her hearing. But he can't stop what he's doing if it means the safety of his family.

This film's main character is always in a state narrative tension that is accessible to the audience. He fears he's descending into mental illness, but if he's not, how does he save his family? But his actions to save his family threaten to tear his family apart and seem to prove he's mentally ill to those around him.

When he confesses what's happening, his loving wife helps him get through the aftermath of a storm, and they take a family vacation to a beach before he'll be put on a regime of drugs and institutionalization. While the father is on a beach with his daughter, the fear in her eyes causes him to look up. The monster storm he's seen in his visions is now approaching. As his wife comes out onto a vacation rental deck, she realizes the rain is mixed with oil.

That ends the film and answers the central question of the story, but raises more questions about how and why he was having these premonitions and why they manifested as nightmares about him and his daughter being attacked.

This film also demonstrates the difference between horror and psychological terror. In a typical Hollywood horror film, there are often a series of 'boo' moments, where some sudden action is designed to scare the audience. Here there's a creeping sense of terror that is transferred from the main character to the viewers of the film. I found the film much creepier and more horrifying than most of the horror films I've seen in the last ten years. A well-made, well-acted if unsettling film.

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A fourth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Quick Cuts - Capsule Movie Reviews

by Bill Johnson

These capsule reviews of current movies offer a basic overview of what these stories did (or didn't do) to engage an audience.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher

This American version of the Swedish novel has opening credits that suggest the movie will be about S&M and bondage. More so than the Swedish film of the novel, this movie is more visual and more compressed. This movie also does a better job of conveying Lisbeth's journey, from anti-social misfit to a woman potentially capable of being in a loving relationship. The Swedish film ended on a strictly plot note, which undercut the power of that film. It left Lesbeth's journey unfulfilled.

The journalist Mikael Blomkvist operates to solve the mystery of the missing girl with Lisbeth. In the novel (and the Swedish film) his goal of saving the magazine he helped found comes across much more strongly.

I'm more removed from the novel than when I did the early capsule review, but I still found Lisbeth to be the more interesting, compelling character.

The movie does have a quality of coming fully to life when Mikael and Lisbeth start working together.

Reducing a novel with a complex web of characters and plot threads is difficult. Fincher and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, got the job done.


Sherlock Holmes, a Game of Shadows

Unfortunately, this movie takes the title too far. For most of of the movie, it's not clear what Moriarty is trying to accomplish in the shadows. The result is there's a lot of beautifully staged action, but for most of the film, no sense of an underlying point. What Moriarty is trying to accomplish comes out at the end of the film, but too late to make this a powerful story or an engaging plot (although viewers with an understanding of history will guess what Moriarty is aiming for).

The film does have the easy camaraderie of its two stars.


The Guard

On the surface this film is a fish out of water story, with the fish being an ivy-league, African-American FBI agent sent to Ireland to help intercept a drug shipment. Circumstances force him to work with a braggart, racist cop. The FBI agent can't stand the man, but he also wonders if his seemingly uneducated, vulgar partner with a large sexual appetite for hookers is really much smarter than he lets on.


The plot is generic but the storytelling is organic. What happens, and why, is based on who these two men are, and the choices they make based on who they are. Different characters would change the outcome of the plot, versus action films where the characters are in the service of the plot.

A pleasure to watch.


The Skin I Live In

posted 12/6/2011

This film by Pedro Almodovar demonstrates how a shift in time and perspective can affect an understanding of a story. The film begins with a scientist/surgeon living in a secluded mansion and keeping a beautiful young woman in an isolated, locked room. A housekeeper suggests it would be best if the young woman were dead. Then, a man in a costume shows up, the wastrel son of the housekeeper. He ties her up and rapes the young woman, while commenting that she looks just like 'her.' The surgeon comes in and shoots and kills the rapist.

The film now shifts to six years earlier. The surgeon is at a dinner party with an unstable daughter. It comes out that her mother recently died. Unnoticed by her father, she goes out with another young man. He expects this is for sex, but when she resists, he panics, hits her, tidies up her clothing, and flees. The father finds his daughter, who has undergone a psychotic break and later commits suicide.

He captures the young rapist and performs a sex change operation. Over the years, continued operations turn the young man into the beautiful young woman seen at the beginning of the film.

This explains who the young woman is, but it also completely changes the perspective on what this is a story about, that it is a kind of modern day Frankenstein story.

Odd but compelling film.


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A fourth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V020N0

Authors Road Features Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

Authors Road


Our first interview after leaving Portland was with Carola Dunn, author of the popular Daisy Dalrymple cozy mystery series. She is English by birth, and although she has lived in the U.S. a good many years she still sounds delightfully British. We joke that we could just listen to her read the phone book with that lovely accent.

Carola is the author of over 50 books, and began her career in the late 70s with a Regency romance written longhand at the kitchen table. She sold her first book and generally stayed under contract for the next 15 years. She then turned to mystery, moving her stories to the Golden Age between the two World Wars in England. She says that “my characters are real to me” and that she doesn’t want to “live with nasty people in her mind” so that generally even her villains are nice people. She researches by Internet, book, letter and travel. The result? Characters that readers want to spend time with, places they can really see, and factual historic details to tickle the mind.

And we’re pleased to note that her latest Daisy Dalrymple novel, Gone West, comes out mid-January.

We hope that you’ll cozy-up with a warm blanket and a cup of tea to listen to our conversation with Carola. She says that “There are three things you need to be a writer: luck, talent and persistence.” We hope you’ll enjoy seeing how that fits with Carola’s writing life.

George, Salli & Ella

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Author's Road Features Lawson Inada

Lawson Inada
Writer # 10

Happy New Year!

We are so pleased to start the new year by sharing with you an inspiring interview with poet Lawson Inada, Oregon’s 5th poet laureate who proceeded Oregon’s current poet laureate, Paulann Peterson.

Our interview with Inada is proof of how a good poet can make lemonade from lemons. Whatever could go wrong the day of his interview did, starting with giving wrong directions and his getting lost, having to change venues, unusual and disruptive road noises and a blazing sun.

The quality of the resulting film from our interview may leave a lot to be desired, but we think you’ll agree, nothing stops or even slows Lawson down as he finds joy and meaning in every nuance and around every corner, and how his voice weaves wonderful stories.

Lawson is a Sensei, born in Fresno, California in 1938, and four years later he and his family were confined to concentration camps until the end of the war. After the war and following his college career he began teaching poetry at Southern Oregon University in 1966. In 2006 he was named Oregon’s poet laureate and won Willamette Writers' Lifetime Achievement Award.

Like the other poets we’ve interviewed, Verlena Orr and Paulann Peterson, Lawson is hypnotic to watch and listen to as he and they speak, often using their hands to orchestrate the music of their words, and always using their minds to paint the vivid colors of a good and universal story. They are our bards, the people entrusted with the art of storytelling since our earliest times on this earth.

George, Salli & Ella



The Authors Road

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fourth Edition of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling Available

by Bill Johnson


A fourth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle.

This new edition offers new, unique tools for creating vibrant story characters and recognizing some of the main flawed character types in novels: characters who are emotionally numb, stuck, or too wounded to act.

If you've ever been told your minor characters are more interesting than your main character, this workbook will give you the tools you need to transform your writing.


The book is available on several other e-book formats--including Nook, Kobo, and Sony, and Smashwords.

The book is also available as a trade paper back via Amazon.