Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Yellow Notebook

I heard this interview on NPR with Jorma Kaukonen, guitar god of the ‘60s and ‘70s talking about his life in music. Now that the halcyon days of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna are past, although he still performs, his main project these days is a ranch in Ohio where he teaches seminars on electric and acoustic guitar. It’s a kind of pleasant elder statesman semi-retirement. People come to learn from the master as well as Jack Casady, regarded as one of the greatest electric bassists in the world. Kaukonen observes that the great composers and musicians most often made a living by teaching students. Partly because it was steadier work than writing music, but also because it forces you to think about your creative process. Kaukonen says “I have to break down into parts what I used to do intuitively.” He goes on to say that when he first started with Jefferson Airplane around 1966 he had to practice guitar about eight hours a day to be confident enough to go on stage. Teaching he describes as “practicing in front of people and getting paid for it”. Explaining an art to someone else is how you go at breaking it down to its raw elements and explaining to yourself how the creative concepts you’re doing intuitively hang together. For writers, that’s the benefit of giving the crit. In giving a generous and thoughtful critique to another, you have a chance to observe how the concepts work when they hang together and what happens when they don’t.

The crit is a delicate communication. It’s different from someone holding up their new baby and saying “Isn’t he beautiful?” The correct answer is always and ever “Yes, he’s the most beautiful baby on God’s green earth.” With creative works in progress more often the baby doesn’t come to you looking all that good. The difference is the other guy knows that. Some of the time.

Writers, in their private world, are usually writing for one person. Mark Twain confessed that he wrote to impress his sister, even after she died. Stephen King writes to impress his wife,Tabby. I always think of Lisabet as the person I am writing for, the person whose socks I am hoping to knock off all the way into the laundry basket. I want to knock Lisabet right on her ass if I can, because she is one of the most skillful readers I know. And make no mistake, the soul of a good critique is how skillfully you know how to read.

Reading is an art in itself, just as much as writing. There are many levels to reading skill, and the difficult thing is to be able to read what has actually been written the way it was written and to see under the surface as to what is trying, however poorly, to be said. This can be very difficult especially with apprentice writers who are still learning the craft and aren’t always as pleasant to read as the professionals. One of the hardest things about a new story is being able to see it cold, at a distance, the way a reader sees it. That’s what makes a skillful first reader so precious.

By giving crits I learn how to read.

Critiques are the lab where I learn how to break down the elements I’m always studying – and I’m always studying – and bring them down to ground as practical ideas. Also by giving crits to fellow wanna-bes I give something back to all the people who slogged through my sloppy stuff when they could have been doing more pleasant things with their time.

I have this yellow pocket notebook I keep handy. I take this notebook to the movies with me, and I keep it around when I read short stories. Inside I have the rules I use for going through a story, and when I go to work on somebody’s stuff I go through my checklists. Some rules apply to all stories. Some only apply to plotted stories. My first rule is “Do no harm.” If a story is so totally off the rails I can’t get a handle on it, I’ll politely cough and move on and read a different one in the pile. If I can’t escape, if someone has given it to me, bursting with expectation, I remind myself of how much encouragement people gave me, especially when I was starting out and sucked relatively much worse than I suck now, and how the kindness of strangers gave me life. I owe them.

The great curse of creative work, in any art form, is that if nobody is giving you money for it, you never know if you’re any good. Even if they’re giving you money for it you might not be any good. There are determined, faithful writers full of high hopes out there banging away, who maybe really shouldn’t be. This goes back to the sci fi editor Kathleen mentioned in her post. In the movies fathers/mothers/superheroes/wizards/etc are always grabbing some troubled kid by the shoulder and earnestly pleading “You can do anything - anything - if you just believe in yourself!” Well. Honestly. That’s a lot of shit. One of the hard bitter lessons of life for me is that you can have fervent faith in something and be dead wrong. But you have to have faith to do something creative. You’ll never really know until you give your guts all the way, so you may as well do it. The good thing about writing is that it can be learned. It is unique among the creative arts in that even if you're short on talent, you can still beat it to some extent by sheer effort. All the writer's of craft books I've read agree - talent is a luxury which is nice to have, but hard work is better than talent.

First – do no harm. Remember where you come from. Offering critiques is an act of gratitude.

Next – read well. I always start out a crit the way Roger Ebert does when he reviews a movie. Ebert always starts out with a synopsis, showing the events, and showing how the characters have interacted with the events. I start with a synopsis to show the writer the extent of my understanding as to what the story is about. From there he/she will have a way of deciding if everything that follows is total bullshit or not. You shouldn’t waste someone’s time by reading badly what they’ve worked so hard on, and everybody in this game works hard.

When I posted “The Lady and the Unicorn” on ERWA, in its near final form, it got two critiques– both bad. People hated it. Then later Rose stumbled on it and she liked it a whole lot and sent it to the gallery, where it was later nominated as one of “The Best Stories of 2009”. Then Mammoth Books picked it up for an anthology, one of 44 chosen out of 2000 stories offered. God bless Rose. My point is, sometimes you have to ignore the bad reviews when the critter hasn’t done his job of reading well. Of the two bad critiques, one didn’t like violent stories and didn’t finish it when it got rough. And oh Friends of the Inner Sanctum – that story gets very, very rough. The other critter read it so badly he didn’t realize it was a vampire story at all, in spite of several references to blood, and even a graphic attack scene.

On the second reading I take out my yellow pocket notebook and start scribbling down impressions and questions. What is the character arc, what are his/her needs and desires and obstacles? What is his governing characteristic? What is the relationship between the opponent and the hero? This is all stuff I’ve read in craft books that I’m supposed to know when I’m writing my own stuff. This is how I practice. This is what Jorma Kaukonen is talking about.

My breakdown reading is where I’m practicing my book learned concepts in front of someone and seeing how things work when they work and why they don’t when they don’t. Why do I care about this character? How can I be made to care more? What is the narrative arc, if there is one? Plotted stories have a three act narrative arc, vignettes don’t, so again you have to read what is there the way it was put there.

Sometimes I’ll draw a “clothesline” sketch of the scene progression to see how one thing leads to another. I also think a lot about dialogue, because I love dialogue. Dialogue is the musical language of fiction. There are screen writers like Quentin Tarrantino and Diabalo Cody whose movies I snack on because I love just to hear the way the characters talk. I read plays by Martin McDonagh to hear how he twists language when poor Irish folks cuss and fuss. It’s all beauty to me. I can forgive anything wrong with a story if the dialogue has a beat and I can dance to it.

In the opening scene – does its start at the strongest paragraph? Ray Bradbury used to throw away the first typed page of a story and start the rewrite from the top of the second page and most of the time the first page was never missed. Does it introduce me quickly to the deciding character, and his governing characteristic? Does it introduce the problem or obstacle? Most people decide whether to read a novel or not after the first dozen pages. A short story, they decide after the first couple of paragraphs. Do the middle scenes support the setup of the opening, and does the tension rise with each scene, increasing pressure on the deciding character? Is there a sense that if even one of those scenes were missing the whole thing would fall apart? Does his response to problems arise organically from his character based on his needs and desires? Does the ending rise organically from the events leading to it? A good tight short story has a feel of “inevitability”, you read it and you can’t imagine it turning out any other way.

What follows here, offered for what its worth is one of the many checklists from my little yellow notebook. It’s my basic breakdown list for a plotted story or a movie. Not everything applies but it covers all the bascis:

Short Story Reader Breakdown
If a famous author, what traits is the author
known to be strong at? Strong Character? Strong Plot?
Dialogue? Beautiful Language?
If a plotted story make a clothes line.
Copy out beautiful paragraphs to feel them.

Narrative Arc What is the progress of exterior change?
Opening Scene elements
Opening hook, unpacking of story. Approach
Introduce the Deciding Character
Panoramic View
Causative situation
Obstacle appears and first attempt to solve
Eleven Elements of Scene
Five senses
Time and place
Light, character, POV
Purpose of scene
Minor characters and functions
How is tension increased in the progress of the scene?
How is description technically presented?

Middle Scene Elements
Additional obstacles and failing solutions
Pursuit and clarity of governing characteristic
Introduction of sub plots.
The black period (Come to death)
The Come to Realize

Ending Scene Elements
Should solve without accidents or tricks
Should be prepared for, including any hidden guns
Should rise organically from the character's
governing characteristic

Character Arc what is the progress
of interior change?

How is the deciding character different at the
end from the beginning?
Is the hero active or passive/
Descriptive tags - how is he introduced?
Governing Characteristic
Goal / first attempt
plot arises from what the deciding
character cares about.
Who is the opponent and ally?
How is pressure increased on the character?
Emergence of values in response to obstacles?
If there is an opponent how does he mirror
the hero's values?

Movie and plotted Story:
Premise (stateable in one sentence) source of plot and theme

Designing Principle the internal logic of the story that makes
the story larger than the sum of its parts. Source of orginality.

1. Weakness and Need (character)
2. Desire (The outside goal provoking action)
3. Opponent
4. Plan
5. Battle
6. Self Revelation
7. Equilibrium


  1. Hi, Garce,

    Well, you certainly answered my question. You're MUCH more analytical than I am when you do your crits.

    I do think that there's room for both approaches. I also agree very strongly with your commentary about critiquing being a kind of warm up or practice for the writing itself.

    Thanks for sharing your modus operandi!


  2. Hi Garce,

    A bloody thorough approach to critiquing. I am genuinely impressed, and would dearly love to share these insights with some of my current students.



  3. Garce,
    Very detailed post. Interesting.

  4. Hi Lisabet!

    That is my modus thing. Its partly gratitude, this is true. But also it forces me to think about process and that's very beneficial. I think that's why a lot of writers go into teaching for a while. Its steady pay, but also it helps you think.


  5. Hi Ashley!

    Please, with all my heart, go ahead. I hope it helps. I forgot - you;re a writer who teaches writing!

    Just to show how creepily geeked out I am, here's what I've learned about notebooks if its of any use to your students or anyone - dig - what I have developed recently is a system for keeping a living or dynamic notebook on hand. I still write notes in longhand, but i try to write on a little PDA or laptop when I can. I upload my notes to the cloud, and store them in folders on my Yahoo mail account. That way I can access them anywhere and make changes. I download them when I want to change or update them, and then I print them out in a format that I can cut and paste into my yellow notebook, using "repositionable" glue stick glue. That way I can peel them out of the pocket memo book and replace them with updated notes without damaging the notebook. Weird? Anal? Cheap bastard? Yeah, I am all that, and 5 billion Chinese don't give a damn. It enables me to keep my notes on any subject where I can get at 'em. Try it!


  6. Hi Kathleen!

    Thanks for reading my stuff. I know it gets long winded.


  7. Garce,

    Thank you. And I think the email idea is pure genius. I will have to share that with them.




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