I read a lot of books on writing. I have to, since all I know about writing can fit on the point of a Ginsu blade. But I wanted to share one of the most useful things I’ve learned in the past few years. It involves writing chapters.
What is a chapter? Definitions abound, but I think it is a unit of story that covers elements important to the plot and/or development of character. It is the stuff books are made of.
One thing that has helped me is to think of a chapter in terms of a scene. A good deal of what we write in novels can be thought of as scenes we might see in movies.
So what are the elements of a scene and how can learning about them help our writing?
One of the most useful writing books I know is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981). First published in 1965, it is often overlooked in lists of writing books, and that is a shame; I would rather have it than most any other writing book on my shelf.
What does Dwight Swain say about writing scenes? He says scenes have three components: 1) goal; 2) conflict; 3) disaster.
First the goal.
Fiction is all about characters trying to achieve things they desire. These are goals. In the simplest terms, you have two fighters in a ring. The bell goes off. The goal of Fighter A, let’s call her the protagonist, is to knock out the other woman.
But guess what? The goal of Fighter B is to knock out the protagonist. So what do we have?
Fighter A will attempt to knock out Fighter B, all the while Fighter B is attempting to do the same thing to her.
Now, enter disaster.
Say toward the end of the first round, Fighter A gets knocked down. That is a disaster, and not a bad point on which to end a scene/chapter.
Sounds simple, right? It is. And that is why it’s so powerful.
The scene we just discussed, one with a goal, conflict, and disaster, is called an action scene. There is a second type of scene that Swain calls sequel scenes. Next time we’ll take a closer look at the elements of sequel scenes.
Randy Ingermanson has written a terrific summary of the main points of Swain’s analysis of scenes in an article called, “How to Write the Perfect Scene.” It can be found here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/.
I was recently interviewed for an article on substance abuse and mental disorders that appears on The Fix, a first-rate, informative website that deals with issues related to addiction, including dual diagnosis.
The article entitled “Substance Abuse Issues and Mental Disorders,” by Jeanene Swanson, can be found here: http://www.thefix.com/content/difficulty-dual-diagnosis.
The article talks about the high rate of comorbidity of addiction and mental illness–fifty percent of general psychiatric patients also have a substance use disorder–and what might be done to treat the condition more effectively.
Your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.
As of this writing, four people have been arrested in conjunction with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. No charges were filed against one. Another was released on her own recognizance, and a third was released on a $35,000 bail bond. Only one remains in jail.
Yes, it is terrible that Hoffman died. But is arresting people really going to help the matter?
In a recent article on “All Things Crime” (click here for article), BJW Nashe argues that such an approach only exacerbates what is primarily a public health problem.
Indeed. And just for the record, addiction is a public health problem. For addiction is a disease. What does that mean?
The American Medical Association says a disease has three primary components: it is chronic, progressive, and fatal. Addiction meets all three criteria. It is chronic, in that it affects the body in a very adverse manner; progressive, in that it gets worse as time goes on; and fatal, meaning you can die from it.
And arresting dealers responsible for the death of Hoffman is tantamount to arresting retailers who have contributed to the death of a person by selling him or her cigarettes or alcohol. On a personal note, my mother died from smoking but never once did I consider seeking punitive damages against the retailers who sold her the cigarettes that led to her lung cancer.
No, criminalizing the drug problem doesn’t help. Nor, in my opinion, does legalizing drugs. Fighting supply is not the answer. Curbing demand is.
But how to do so?
Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. But I do believe part of the solution lies in the choice that a person makes to use drugs–and alcohol and nicotine are drugs.
It has been my experience that long-lasting sobriety or clean-time comes down to creating a life from which you do not seek escape. This is the long and slow road to combatting the addiction problem. It is not pretty. It is not easy. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. But helping addicts, or substance misusers create lives for themselves from which they do not seek escape is the best hope we have in combatting the scourge of addiction.
The devil, of course, is in the details.
Tyler Johnson’s collection of short stories, entitled Tales from the Red Book of Tunes, tells the stories behind tunes originally collected by fictitious thirteenth century musician Mil Harei, as he crossed the fantastical northern isles of Hollean. Each short story is accompanied by a tune allegedly set down by Harei in The Red Book of Tunes. Interspersed throughout is an interview with Jiri Hansom Felding, fictitious editor of The New Book of Red Tunes, and professor in the Department of Folklore and Cultural Preservation at Highlands University, Telm.
The stories span the centuries: from Hollean’s distant past, to the present day. We learn much about the people and the place through the music and through the stories that seem to flow effortlessly from the mind of Johnson. From the first story, “The Standing Goat,” one is captivated by Johnson’s lyrical prose and his strong evocation of place.
The themes are universal: lost love, jealousy, fear, dysfunctional families, folk legends, yet they are set in such a way as to be unique. Though the setting is fantastical, the people who inhabit Johnson’s stories are real people with real problems that undergo some sort of transformation; we learn to care deeply about the characters in the short space dictated by the form. And we feel the theme of each tune, deftly composed by Johnson, course through each story. For one doesn’t as much read these stories, as sing them, as they flow ceaselessly through the reader like the movement of contra dancing through the initiated.
One is left wanting more, waiting for the stories to continue, eager to step again into more tales, to be swept up by their powerful and melodious appeal. An excellent and brilliant debut collection, Tales from the Red Book of Tunes is a must read for anyone who has ever been touched by the power of music.
A recent study by the Washington University of Medicine St. Louis and the University of Southern California found a link between severe mental illness and substance use. Of the 20,000 individuals studied, 9,142 were diagnosed with severe psychotic illnesses. The data were collected over a five-year period. Among the findings:
–30% of those with a severe mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorder) engaged in binge drinking (four servings of alcohol or more) compared to 8% in the mentally healthy population
–More than 75% of those with severe mental illness were heavy smokers and 50% were heavy marijuana users compared to 33% and 18% respectively, in the mentally healthy population
–Women, who, when compared to men, have lower rates of substance use, did not benefit from any protective effect
–Participants of Hispanic and Asian descent, who typically have lower rates of substance use, did not benefit from any protective effect
“Putting this on the radar as such a huge problem in this population of people with severe mental illness will help us both with the clinical treatment of the comorbidity and it will also help us researchers begin to understand the overlap,” Washington University researcher Sarah Hartz said.
To read more about the study, see: http://www.thefix.com/content/severe-mental-illness-and-substance-use-linked
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a tremendous loss. The Oscar-winning actor gave a performance of Truman Capote that I watch periodically and will never forget.
But his death is more than simply the loss of a fine actor. It speaks of the scourge of addiction and the seriousness of this illness that has claimed the lives of so many people, both famous and non-famous.
Yes, Hoffman was found dead in his bathroom with a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm, and, yes, heroin was found in his apartment.
And I ask you this question: does the fact that Hoffman died in such a manner lessen your opinion of him as a person or as an actor?
If the answer is yes, I want to challenge that perception. Suppose Hoffman had died of a heart attack while eating a piece of cake. Or died of diabetes-related factors while eating a candy bar? Or had met his demise from lung cancer after years of smoking cigarettes, or had liver failure after decades of drinking?
Are these more socially acceptable methods of death fundamentally different than dying with a needle stuck in your arm?
No. Addiction is no less a disease than any of the other more socially acceptable killers out there.
But only junkies, low-lives, and losers die from drug overdoses, right? And those people have nothing to live for anyway. No harm, no foul.
The fact of the matter is that Hoffman had everything to live for–as did Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger. The fact of the matter is that they were all extremely talented individuals who suffered in ways most people can’t or won’t imagine. The fact of the matter is that any of us, regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic background, or religious views could just as easily be dead on that bathroom floor with a hypodermic sticking ignominiously out of our arms.
But I’m not an addict, you say. Well, good for you. The fact that you are not an addict is as good news as the fact that you don’t have colon cancer.
Let Hoffman’s death be a reminder that addiction can strike anyone. And let it be a reminder that addiction is a disease, one that needs to be treated just like any other disease.
RIP, Mr. Hoffman, you will always have a special place in my heart.
The other night, as I searched the shelves of my public library for a novel I haven’t read by Zola my girlfriend turned to me and said, “You need to read trash.” Her point is that seldom do I read for “pleasure.” My idea of a good time consists of working my way through a classic, with maybe a philosophical treatise on the side for kicks.
Let me just say, I am a former academic. Oh, THAT explains it, you might say. Yes, I chose to pursue a higher degree and emerged tainted in ways I’m still trying to understand…and undo. I have a Ph.D. in Political Science (can you say, “Do you want fries with that?”), but a few years ago decided to throw in my lot with fiction because, among other reasons, the only thing that seemed real was fiction.
Because of my education I may not know much that is useful–I believe Ph.D.’s are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to functioning in the real world–but what I do know is this: if you want to become a better tennis player, you have to play with someone better than you.
So, tennis anyone?
Now what in the name of all that is holy you might ask (and rightly so) does tennis have to do with literature?
The answer is that reading literature makes you a better reader and subsequently a better writer in the same way that playing tennis with a stronger player increases your skills on the court. Literature saturates your mind with fine dialogue and sound plot development, builds your vocabulary, and often leaves you thinking in more “writerly” terms.
Let me give another example.
Growing up I did not have good role models. What I saw was total dysfunction, and for a period in my life I had similar relationships. These days I am fortunate enough to spend time with my girlfriend’s parents, an amazing couple who have been married forty-six years. That is what I want to be exposed to. That is what I want to see modeled.
Every day I aspire to become a more effective writer. And I believe I become a better writer by reading people are who better at writing than me.
So for now I’ll stick with good books. Why waste time with anything else?