Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Write Like an Artist

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

Last month, I was a speaker at the League of Utah Writers annual Quills Writing Conference in Salt Lake City. I moved to Colorado in May, but I guess they still like me in Utah, because they haven’t revoked my membership yet. So it was fun and motivating to see old writing friends and make new ones at the conference.

At the conference, one of the topics I was asked to speak about was on writing personal essays. Specifically, I discussed how to steal a technique from artists to make your personal experiences actually matter to your readers.

Contrary to popular belief, personal essays aren’t a dead art-form. Plenty of magazines still publish personal essays (check the last page of some of your favorite hobby, lifestyle, or industry magazines – chances are fair that you’ll find a personal essay there). Literary magazines often have a personal essay category. Or you may want to write personal essays for your family, whether for a family history or for your own memoir. You may even write a personal essay for the newspaper op-ed pages or for your blog or website.

The key to making your personal essay compelling enough for someone else to want to read is to connect your personal experience with a universal truth, and vice versa. If you don’t, then you’re not really writing an essay, you’re writing an anecdote.

An anecdote says: “This is what happened to me.”

A personal essay says: “This is what happened to me. Because of this, I believe ______, and this is how/why it relates to your life.” (But without preaching, of course.)

So the first thing you must do when writing an essay is figure out the universal truth that your experience led you to believe (or reject). If you’re writing a persuasive essay, identify what you’re trying to convince the reader to believe or do. If you’re writing a memoir-type essay, what do you want them to learn about you, and why? What will this essay teach them about themselves?

Now that you’ve determined the universal truth, come up with one or more specific experiences from your life that led you to believe (or reject) that truth. These are the experiences you will build your essay around.

As you begin to write your essay, here’s where we steal a technique from artists: we are going to use background, foreground, and middleground to move our story from our personal experience to a more universal one, and back again.

In a painting, there is often a subject in the foreground, say, a portrait. That subject is usually what we see first. But when we look at the background of the painting, we gather clues that put the subject into context. For an example, let’s look at Christina’s World by the American artist Andrew Wyeth.

In the foreground, we see Christina, sitting on the ground, looking at the farmhouse. Christina was a real woman who had a disability that caused the loss of the use of her legs, and she often crawled to move around. If the painting only showed Christina in the grass, with no farmhouse in the background, we would not be as emotionally affected by the painting.

But by adding the farmhouse in the distant background, with a large bleak field of wild grass in the middleground, we suddenly see the physical challenge her disability presents. That farmhouse looks much farther away when we imagine ourselves crawling, using nothing but our hands. And we pay more attention to the details, such as the dirt on her dress. In effect, the background and middleground put the foreground subject (Christina) into context. Her story is stronger because the background helped us see that context and imagine ourselves in it.

For essay-writing purposes, imagine that the background is your universal truth, and the foreground is your personal experience. You can move back and forth between the background and foreground (and middleground) as often as you want in your essay.

So… As you’re writing your personal essay, look at your subject with a broader lens. What is the background (the universal truth) that will put your story into context for your reader? Moving from foreground to background in your essay will make your story stronger and help you connect with that universal truth.

For examples, look at some essays by writers such as David Sedaris or Anthony Bourdain. They move with skill between background and foreground, bringing their own stories into sharp relief against the background that gives them context and universality.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Goal + Fear = Conflict

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

(Note: Over the last couple of years, all my time and energy has been devoted to surviving being a member of the “sandwich generation” while still working and keeping some semblance of sanity. Now my parents are both gone, my son is away at university, and I find myself reclaiming hours in which to once again tackle fiction and creative nonfiction. So I apologize for taking a long hiatus from this blog.)

So there’s this guy. He’s tall. Bit of a loner. Okay, a lot of a loner, even when he’s with people. I know what he drives. I know what he drinks. I know he’s getting mixed up with a woman who may not be who she says she is.

But I don’t know what makes him tick. Not really. And I really have to know.

After all, he’s my protagonist.

The internet, library, and book stores are full of advice on creating characters. Some have you listing everything in your character’s bedroom, diving into minutia from their kindergarten days, discovering what they like on their pizza, and making up names for their fictional childhood pets. While I find that such details can help round out a character (like accessories), they are inept at defining them (like accessories).

Another piece of advice I see a lot is to make your characters flawed. Give them a dark secret, or an addiction, or a broken past. Or give them a funny or disturbing habit, obsession, or hobby to make them “real.” Again, this can help make the character a little more 3-D in our mind, but a funny quirk or awful disease alone does not define a character. I’ve read too many stories where the female protagonist smokes cigars for no apparent reason, or the male protagonist is an alcoholic, but neither trait seems particularly essential to those characters. It feels like the author read “Give your protagonist a unique trait,” and suddenly a cigar appeared in the heroine’s hand. These personality aspects may be interesting, and they may even be helpful to the storyline (the bad guy smokes cigars, too, so our heroine identifies him by the smoke on his clothes), but they still aren’t the thing that defines the character. After all, line up 100 alcoholics, and you will have 100 remarkably different personalities. All of them are dealing with alcoholism in unique ways, but even with the alcoholism, they are still 100 profoundly different people.

Defining the person beneath the alcoholism is what we’re after.

That’s where I am right now with my protagonist. So I’ve been playing with writing exercises, I’ve been rifling through the writing books on my shelf, I’ve been thinking about him while I drive to the grocery store, I’ve been looking for his motivations while I’m washing dishes.

But there’s no easy way to learn about my guy, until I learn two simple things about him: 1) what does he truly want in life, even though he might not know it, and 2) what is the thing inside him that prevents him from reaching that goal—in other words, what is his fear that is holding him back, again even if he doesn’t know it?

It looks deceptively simple: Goal + Fear = Conflict. And there we have it. The basis for a real character in a real story.

So I’m wallowing around inside my hero’s head and history, looking for his innermost wants/needs and his biggest fears/obstacles. And I find that it’s the same process I use a lot when trying to figure out what makes my twenty-year-old son tick. Yep, it’s that hard. And that worth it.

If you’re interested in exploring character development more deeply, two books I’m finding particularly helpful right now as I delve into my protagonist’s inner goals and darkest fears are Story Genius: How to Use BrainScience to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You WasteThree Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron, and the slightly more succinctly titled The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby.

Good luck in your own quest to learn who your characters really are.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why We Need Other Writers in Our Lives

By Kelley Lindberg

You know what they say. They try to tell us that writing is a lonely calling. That we should be huddled in attics, with our eyesight failing and our shoulders hunched, madly scratching away at our craft while the world rotates somewhere out there, beyond the window, without us.

The problem is, that’s not necessarily the best way to go about this obsession we have.

First off, if we’re not out there living in the world, how are we ever going to bring it to life in our writing? If I decide to write a thriller about a bunch of corporate accountants killing each other over year-end financial reports, I’m probably going to have to leave my desk at some point and go talk to some actual accountants. If I want to write about a cop who has an epiphany about street-gang violence and how to channel that into a fashion empire, I’m probably going to have to, I don’t know, maybe chat with a cop and perhaps a fashion designer and a gang member at some point? I mean, Google is all-knowing and all, but still. If we don’t want reality to slip through the cracks in our writing, we might want to keep reality on our radar in the real world, too. That generally means interacting with other people.

Second, isolationism is hardly ever healthy for humans. And we’re not even discussing politics here. If the only company you keep is your own, you’re bound to develop a few odd ideas and habits. We humans are a social species. We band together. We seek out like-minded organisms who can help entertain us, keep us warm, contribute to our welfare, and keep us from wandering around in our birthday suits with mouse nests in our hair. We fill in each other’s weaknesses, complement each other’s strengths.

That’s why writers need writer friends. Or at least writing colleagues and contacts.

I meet a lot of people in my travels who have written entire novels without having ever shown them to another person. I understand how that happens. It’s fear, mostly. Occasionally it might be arrogance (“I’m brilliant, and if I show this to anyone else, they’ll just be jealous”), but it’s almost always terror. The terror of embarrassment and shame (“What if they laugh at me and I’m too humiliated to show my face in public anymore?”), or the fear of learning that you might need to practice your craft a little more (“But I don’t want to work on this anymore, I just want to cash that million-dollar check!”).

Here’s what I always find interesting: people who are too embarrassed to show their early work to friends who can help them revise and refine it often leap at the chance to show that same work to agents and editors who have neither the time nor interest in helping them revise it into publishable shape. And by doing that, the writer blows their one chance with that agent or editor.

There are several problems with writing in a vacuum. One is that, whatever weaknesses we have, if no one is there to point them out, we will keep repeating them over and over until they are so ingrained they are nearly impossible to eradicate. Another problem is that we are hopelessly incapable of objectively measuring our own talent. So we are blind to both our faults and our strengths, and it is ridiculously easy to confuse the two.

This is why I’m a strong believer in writing helpers. Whether they are professional editors (who can be expensive, but useful), critique groups (which can be online or in person, and are MUCH cheaper—as in, free), or just a single writing friend hoping that if they read yours, you’ll read theirs, these folks can help you spot the weaknesses in your writing, weed out your bad habits, and strengthen your story to the point where an agent or editor might actually give it a second look. And wouldn’t you rather practice on a cheap friend than a once-in-a-lifetime agent?

Overcoming fear is a challenge, but let me tell you what I've learned. That fear of embarrassing yourself? While we all share it, it’s something you can get over. No one has ever said, “Wow, you used a dangling participle in that sentence, so our friendship is now over.” And that fear of learning that you have some more hard work ahead of you? Well, if you’re afraid of honing your skills to become a better writer, you just might be pursuing the wrong career. I’m just sayin’.

So if you’re writing in isolation, I strongly recommend you steel your nerves and find yourself a writing buddy of some sort—preferably someone who doesn’t love you (moms and significant others are notoriously bad choices), and someone who is also a writer. You want honest feedback, not affirmation. Sure, affirmation feels better, but it doesn’t get you published. Distance doesn’t matter—critique partners can be invaluable whether they are meeting you for coffee in your hometown or emailing you from the wilds of Borneo.

Let's shake off those cobwebs and venture out of our writing attics every once in a while. There’s a world of like-minded writers out there, and we all need each other to become the writers we want to be.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Teenage Boys Who Read and Other Mythological Creatures

By Kelley Lindberg

Reading material on my teen son's
nightstand right now: H.P. Lovecraft
stories, a Nick Hornby novel, and
snowboarding and gaming magazines.

Just when I think I’ve got him figured out, my teenage son does something unexpected.

He buys a book.

Doesn’t he know teenage boys don’t read books? Doesn’t he realize he’s defying all the publishing experts who have written him off as a demographic?

Does he ENJOY being a rebellious anomaly?


Honestly, my 16-year-old boy doesn’t read nearly as many books as he used to. He used to devour books every night and would get in trouble for reading them in class. Then he discovered video games, built his own computer, and found like-minded connections on the internet, and books began to take a back seat to his technology interests. Like every other American teen, he has a lot of competing activities vying for his time now (school, work, social life, technology, TV, movies, and music).

But just when I start to worry that he’s forgetting about books, he surprises me. Last night, he went to our local Barnes & Noble (we don’t have an indie bookstore in our town) with his girlfriend for a study-date. When he came home, he couldn’t wait to show me what he’d bought there: a monstrously large volume of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Tales of Horror. It was on sale for $7.98, and he said his ninth grade English teacher had introduced them to H.P. Lovecraft stories, and he’s wanted to read more ever since. (Thank you, Ms. Bryson!)

But that wasn’t the most surprising thing he told me. No, the next statement out of his mouth was, “They also had Dante’s Divine Comedy in a really fancy leather binding, but it was $30, so I didn’t get it. But my girlfriend bought the cheaper version for $8, so she’s going to let me borrow it. I read a little of it at the store and it seemed really interesting.”

Seriously? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What American teenager willingly goes out and spends his or her own minimum-wage-part-time-job money buying Dante’s Divine Comedy?

I despair for this generation.

Oh, wait. No I don’t.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Finding Familiar Stories in Sicilian Ruins

By Kelley Lindberg

A ocean scene mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale
near Piazza Armerina in Sicily
Standing in the remains of a palace built nearly two thousand years ago, I stared at mosaics on the floor depicting stories I knew. And those stories aren’t just two thousand years old. In fact, those stories were already a thousand years old when the Roman nobleman who lived here was yelling at his flooring craftsmen to hurry up and finish before the in-laws arrived for the holidays.

Those millennia-old stories are stories we still tell.

Sailors load an elephant
onto their ship
I was in Sicily this May, just outside the town of Piazza Armerina, walking through an incredibly well-preserved Roman estate called Villa Romana del Casale, thought to have belonged to a nobleman or perhaps even an emperor. The floor of every room in the palace is covered in mosaics reputed to be the most remarkable displays of Roman-era mosaics in the world. Created 1700 or more years ago, then preserved by an enormous mudslide 900 years ago, intricately crafted scenes of hunting expeditions and sea travels are vibrant in color and breathtakingly detailed. Forgotten for centuries, the buried palace was rediscovered in the 1800s and excavated over the next couple of centuries.

The floor of the "Girls in Bikinis" room
One incredibly long hall contains the mosaic called “the Great Hunting Scene." In it, a master and his assistants are rounding up an amazing number of exotic animals, including tigers, elephants, ostriches, giraffes, and jaguars, and loading them onto ships bound for the circuses of the Roman Empire. The detail in the mosaic is astounding. Another famous scene shows women competing in sporting events, wearing bikinis that would look right at home at the local swimming pool today.

Where there are children,
there are ABCs
A room used as the children’s playroom or school room shows children learning their ABCs (or rather, their Alpha, Beta, Gammas).

Odysseus tricks the Cyclops

But it’s the familiar stories that always make me catch my breath. One room depicts Hercules’ twelve labors. In another, Odysseus is offering wine to the giant Cyclops to make him fall asleep so that Odysseus and his men can blind him and sneak out of the cave disguised as the Cyclops’ sheep. In yet another, Pan and Eros are fighting in what some speculate is a timeless battle between erotic love and romantic love. An elaborate mosaic tells the story of Arion, a poet whom sailors threatened to rob and throw overboard, but who was saved by dolphins because of his beautiful singing and chitara-playing. Other rooms honor various Roman gods and goddesses whose exploits still entertain us and are retold every day in our modern books, video games, movies, and television shows.

To escape his impending murder, Arion
plays his chitara and escapes on a dolphin
No one knows for certain the name of the nobleman who commissioned these incredible mosaics. The real man is lost to time, but the stories he loved still live. And the medium he chose to tell those stories—tiny bits of colored tile on the floor—have long outlasted the written records that once declared him a man of immense power and wealth.

Never, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

12 Reasons Why Writers Like Lists

By Kelley Lindberg

1. A list captures thoughts quickly before they escape into the ether. Thoughts are slippery little devils, after all.

2. When you start making a list, word-association becomes a common by-product, leading to creative tangents that sometimes prove to be exactly the thing you were looking for.

3. Writing a list makes you look busy, and when you look busy, no one interrupts you, even if you’re just listing TV shows you wish were still on the air, or vegetables that might taste better breaded and deep fried.

4. No need for transitions.

5. Or backstory…

6. …Although a list can explore elements of backstory without derailing the main story that’s running in your head.

7. Less editing—no one’s going to see your list but you.

8. Unless you post it on your blog.

9. You can try out—and discard—a dozen terrible plot ideas before breakfast, all without wasting a whole chapter (and untold hours) on each one.

10. Lists tell your mind it’s okay to brainstorm, fast and furiously, without having to be logical, practical, or linear. A wild, logic-free brain is where the most creative stuff lives, after all.

11. Lists will sit around quietly and patiently for years, until you’re ready to go back and explore those ideas again. They never sigh loudly and make you feel guilty for taking so long.

12. Creating a list feels exactly like writing—without the pressure of all that writing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Postcards from New York City

By Kelley Lindberg

The cabbie, with one hand pressed firmly on the horn and the other making exasperated gestures, crammed his way between a city bus and a gray Rolls Royce while keeping up a running Senegalese-accented and highly colorful dialogue with a colleague on the phone. Dirty snow from last week’s storm fought with piles of black garbage bags for space on the sidewalk. Sirens wailed, seemingly at random. Pedestrians jay-walked with impunity every few feet, tossing occasional glares at drivers who inched too close and completely ignoring the chirping sidewalk signals. Voices, engine noise, and the roar and clang of building construction echoed off canyon walls of concrete, stone, steel, and glass that rose impossibly high. Arctic winds funneled through those canyons, whipping at scarves and high-buttoned coats. Steam rose, as it always does, from vents in the street, while neon flashed and paraded in wanton glory.

It was, unmistakably, New York City.

In Grand Central Station, tourists craned their necks to take in the zodiac signs painted across the famous, cathedral-high green ceiling dotted with tiny electric stars, while a TV shoot wrapped and a hundred black-clad crew members packed up their gear. Business people in expensive suits brushed past homeless men shuffling through garbage cans, and young people spilled up the stairs from the subway, their flirting and laughter echoing against marble steps as they headed into the subterranean shopping court to pick up some soup or falafel or perhaps a new handbag.

It was, iconicly, New York City.

Patrons packed the lobby, escaping from the cold sidewalks and frenetic flashing lights outside, tucking hands tightly into coat pockets to warm them. Then the doors opened, and the 1920s-era theater filled with aficionados, newbies, locals, and those few tourists brave enough to stray from the Wicked ticket lines. The house was as painted and as costumed as its actors—all ornate style and passion, red and gold, velvet and plaster, beautifully adorning walls and ceilings saturated with decades of poetry, music, death, love, anger, intrigue, despair, insight, joy, and broken hearts. But those walls were ready to hold more, to expand just enough to welcome the creativity pulsing, nearly unbound, in that night’s performance.

It was, dramatically, New York City.

And I was there. For a few days only. For a conference. The Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators conference. Eleven hundred other creative souls and me, listening to keynote speakers discuss perseverance, opportunities, honing of craft, targeting of audiences, social media, voice, inspiration, pure dumb luck, big-dollar contracts, failure. And story. Always story. Thankfully story. Relentlessly story.

Outside, New York City ignored all the stories but its own.