Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book as Experience--Week 2: Space, Part 1

Every so often I wake up in the morning with math on the brain. Today was one of those days so I decided to start my post with a theorem.
Gabi's Tension-Expectation Theorem: Tension = Expectations

When we write, we establish patterns for the reader. These patterns--if repeated enough times--will raise the reader's expectations. When we raise expectations but then turn around and give the reader something she wasn't expecting, we create tension.

And Here's a Corollary: There are no accidents in writing. If you're going to create tension, do it with intent.

This Theorem will come up again and again as we look at "Book as Experience." The writing techniques we will discuss are all tools we can use to raise the reader's expectations, and break these expectations if we so choose.

Which brings us to our first technique...

Today's Topic: Space (Part 1: Positive and Negative Space)

In design, we talk about positive space and negative space. These are not value judgments; positive space does not mean space that it is "good" and negative space does not mean "bad" space. Rather, positive and negative space refer to the space occupied by an object versus the space around the object.

Positive Space: This is the space occupied by the object.

Negative Space: The space around an object. Note that by looking at the space around the object, you can gain information about the object itself.

A great example of positive and negative space at play, of course, is the faces/vase picture (shown below). Do you see two white silhouettes on a black background or a black vase in front of a white background? It all depends on which object is the positive space and which is negative space. Notice also that it is virtually impossible to see both as positive space at the same time. In order to see the vase, you have to let the faces disappear into the background, and to see the faces, the vase must become negative space.

At this point, you're probably thinking: "Thanks for the design lesson, Gabi, but can we get to the writing now?" Here's the thing: whenever we write a story, we have to take positive and negative space into account. Think of the positive space as the space occupied by the story; this means the negative space encompasses all the other "stuff" that never makes it into the story proper. As writers, we need to be ever conscious about the interplay between positive and negative "story space," making active decisions as to what we will include and what we will leave out.

Axiom #2: Negative space can tell you as much about your story as does positive space.

Rosencrantz-&-Guildenstern-Are-Dead Exercise: (A study in positive and negative space)Select a minor character from your story. It doesn't matter which character it is, as long as it is not the POV character. Follow this character "off stage" and write a short scene (2-3 pages). The idea here is to examine the negative space around your story with an eye to better understanding the story itself.

As for the Theorem from the beginning of this post, when we write a piece, we establish rules for the reader regarding the positive and negative space of the story. If, however, we flip the positive and negative space, this creates tension for the reader. If we pull this swap artfully, we can create conflict and increase the reader's interest, but if we are not careful this type of switch can confuse the reader and be disastrous to our story.

The key is to understand how positive and negative space work and make them work for you.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

He's Just Not that Into You

I recently saw the movie He's Just Not that Into You, and it got me thinking about my writing. I know you're already wondering where I'm going with this, but trust me, there is a connection.

In the movie, the protagonist Gigi realizes that the reason guys weren't calling her back or asking her on a second date was not because of some bizarre male dating strategy she must decode. The ugly truth was: they just weren't all that into her. The movie's title, based on a line of dialogue from Sex in the City, becomes a mantra for Gigi as she makes her way through the ups and downs of dating.

So what does the mantra "He's just not that into you" have to do with writing? Well, oftentimes, I find myself getting obsessed about the craziness of writing... and eventually getting published. How is it that a story I wrote "on the fly" gets accepted for publication within 24 hours but another story I've polished for months keeps getting rejected. Conspiracy theories immediately pop up in my twisted mind. This is when I reread a passage from one of my favorite books on writing: Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost.

According to Provost, if you're not writing well enough to get published, then you are not qualified to judge the merit of your own work. "The writing's just not good enough" is the aspiring writer's version of "He's just not that into you." Sounds harsh, I know, but this concept is actually very liberating.

In Provost's own words:

"If I told you that your writing is fine, but that the peculiarities of editors and other machinations of the publishing world have conspired to leave you out, I would be telling you that there is no hope... But I'm telling you that constant rejection means you are not writing well enough yet, and that means you have control of the situation. You, not them. All you have to do is work harder and study more and keep an open mind about your writing. Be persistent, be humble, and be curious, and your writing dreams will come true."

In other words: the publishing world isn't out to get you, or me, or any of us writers. It's just that the writing's not all that good enough. Yet.

The only thing you have to do is make it better.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ode to Nemo and Fifi

There once was a striped orange kitty
Who fell for a poodle so pretty.
They cuddled and napped
Until one day he snapped
And he bit her without any pity.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book as Experience--Week 1: Devices

Today's Topic: Devices. Literary devices are perhaps one of the easiest ways to superimpose an experience on a book or story. Using a non-traditional format (diary, play, screenplay, letters, journalism, etc.) the author can alter how the reader interacts with the story.

Exercise: Select a character, situation and prop at random (or using our handy-dandy booklet). Write a 1-2 page piece in a nontraditional format, using a literary device of your choice. Literary devices can include (but are not limited to) poetry, epistolary form (letters), journal/diary format, song lyrics, play or screenplay, an interview, etc.

Questions to Consider:

  • How does the author create a unique reading/listening experience for the reader/audience?
  • What is this experience?
  • How does the literary device play a role in creating this experience?
  • How does this piece redefine what it means to “read”?
  • Does the format of the piece force the reader/listener to adopt a particular role in relationship to the text? (Audience, voyeur, investigator, etc?) If so, what is this role?

Axiom #1: Stories are not just written or told, they are designed.

Book as Experience--Introduction

First off, my apologies to my readers for my lack of posting these past few weeks. It's been a hectic two weeks and unfortunately the blog--along with my other writing projects--had to go on hold for a little while.

But now down to business. This week I began a mini-lecture series for my writing group. This lecture series sprung out of a term paper I wrote last semester on the idea of Book as Experience. I've designed several different mini-lessons, along with companion writing exercises that illustrate them. As my group meets weekly on Tuesdays, I will be posting my lesson notes on the blog after our meetings.

Today I kick off this sequence of posts. Check in every Tuesday for a new post and writing exercises.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year, New Decade, New Goals

I'll admit it, I've been in denial about this whole New Year / New Decade thing. Resolutions freak me out. Sure, I may have all these great intentions but inevitably, I can't sustain the changes for long and I give up after a few weeks (or days). In recent years, I've given up on resolutions altogether. After all, if I'm just going to give up on them, might as well not do them in the first place and save myself from all that added guilt.

Then I read the latest post (Hello, New Year) by fellow writer and blogger, Ghenet, and it inspired me. So this year instead of making resolutions, I will set a few specific goals. Goals are good. I can do goals. They're specific. Compact. Manageable.

Goals for 2010:
  • Yarn Diet. Yes, it's that time of year when I need to stop acquiring more yarn than I can knit. Yarn diet works on one simple principle: before I'm allowed to get new yarn, I must complete a project of equal size and scope and either gift the item or find room for it in my closet. Easy right? Considering I have upwards of a dozen half-finished projects right now, I'm not sure "easy" is the right word.
  • Writing. The idea is to start by writing 500 words of something every day. Once this starts to feel easy, I'll gradually increase the number by 100 words until I've come to 2,000 per day (which is the actual goal).
  • Blogging. This blog needs a schedule. The idea of "blogging whenever I can" makes it too easy for me to procrastinate and leave the blogging for tomorrow. I need figure out a schedule and give myself deadlines so that my posting stops being so erratic.
  • Healthy Decisions. I'm resorting to self-bribery on this one. I know myself and I'm fully aware that eating right and exercising is not going to happen if I do it just for the sake of "being healthy." So from now on, every time I make a healthy decision (choose a healthy food option, go to the gym or running, walk instead of taking the subway, etc.) I can take one coin from my loose change and put it in my piggy bank. This bank is my yarn fund and it trumps the yarn diet.
Notice how nowhere in the above goals do I mention my thesis. Let's just say the thesis situation is a bit of a mess right now and I'd rather not think about it at the moment. I may have gotten over my New Year's denial, but I'm still very much in thesis denial.

But that's the point of these New Year's goals after all; I only need to worry about one thing at a time.