Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Creative Habit: From Marcel Proust to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Mozart to Yogi Berra

An elegant book physically, pleasing to the eye and the hand, THE CREATIVE HABIT by choreographer Twyla Tharp, is generous, authoritative, intelligent and well written.  Each page brims with advice, specific how-to’s, questionnaires and exercises about how to open your mind, overcome fear, deal with failure, defeat distraction, clarify your thinking, make your way through confusion and find solutions when you know something’s wrong but don’t even know quite what the problem is.
Using a wide-ranging set of examples ranging from Homer to Proust, from Ulysses S Grant to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Pope LeoX, from Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine to Ansel Adams, Raymond Chandler, Mozart and Yogi Berra, TCH offers a detailed road map based on Ms. Tharp’s own experience about how to define your creative identity. Practical, down to earth and never flinching from the nitty-gritty, Ms. Tharp explains the importance of routine, ritual and setting goals, how to know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, how to recognize ruts when you’re in one and she offers explicit guidelines about how to get out of them.
Of special interest to Boomers is her candid description of the impact of aging—in her case particularly significant since, as a dancer and choreographer, her life is all about physical expression and movement.  She talks about her recognition of the decrease in stamina and the need to set new challenges and tells how she turned the same brutal honesty on herself that she relies on to guide her dancers. She tells how she changed her approach and work habits when, moving through her fifties, she recognized that she wasn’t the same dancer she’d been twenty years before and was confronted by the need to change.  She describes what, specifically, she did to make the transition from habits that had served her well for two decades to establishing new approaches that turned the reality of aging into an absorbing challenge.

You will find out about the value of “doing a verb” and about building a bridge to the next day, about the relationship between failure and success, the miracle of second chances and what to do when denial is no longer an option. It is hard for me to imagine anyone who won’t learn from or be inspired by a book that is part memoir, part manual, part how-to.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Big O for writers. Organization!

This week you'll find me at Anne R. Allen's blog.

The subject: Organize Up. Clutter Down. A cyber Container Store for writers. "A place for everything and everything in its place." Good advice from my competent and organized Mom!

It's episode #3 in my series: The Writer's Toolbox.

Case in point:  ZURI. It's a love story set in an African animal orphanage that needed lots of super-interesting research.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to turn "real life" into bestselling fiction.

I found out this week that this post, originally published at Anne R. Allen's blog, is being used as an academic resource in a Tennessee prep school. I was, of course, flattered but it also occurred to me that ideas that might help students might also be of interest to readers and to other writers.

Writing a novel based on a real life situation is a lot more than just regurgitating a story you happen to know—even if it’s a whizz-bang, humdinger of a story. The challenge is turning real people and real events into compelling fiction. Having no guidelines at the time I wrote DECADES, I figured it out as I went along. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but had several advantages even I wasn’t aware of. 

Learn your craft

It’s basic but bears repeating: first of all, learn the nuts and bolts of creating fiction—story structure, characterization, dialogue. DECADES was my first major bestseller, but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years. I wrote weekly articles for men’s—and women's—magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms. 

Publishing salaries were as lousy then as they are now and I needed the money. In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create a cliffhanger. That knowledge of the craft would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.

Be a good listener—and don’t gossip

Coincidence—and real life—provided me with the initial inspiration for what would become a novel about a marriage in crisis. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. They were:  a successful but restless husband, the shy, rather insecure, rich girl he marries on his way up, and a glam fashion editor who would become “the other woman.”

Over time, I heard separate versions of the adulterous relationship from the husband and the girl friend. They each told me “their” version of the affair because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. I knew the man’s wife only slightly and did not hear her version. None of them knew—nor did I at the time—that years later I would turn their real-life story into fiction.

Just because “it really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction

In writing a novel based on real life, I faced the same challenges a writer does with any novel—the need to create believable characters and  a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness, confusion, and indecision of everyday real life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real people” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle.

Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters

Of course I changed their names but, as I began to write, I went further and changed their initials, too.  I learned it wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Dawson. A radical name change—to Mark Saint Clair, for example—guaranteed JD’s privacy and had the secondary effect of freeing me from any reminders of the real John Doe/Jack Dawson. I also changed the character’s physical appearance, details of his family and childhood, gave him military experience he never had, and invented a professional success story for him. 

 Help your reader relate to your story

In real life, my fashion editor friend was a stylish, Manhattan single girl who led a glam, high-profile social life.  For the novel, I wanted a character more in touch with everyday experience so I left out all the glitzy fashion-world details. Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the times who marries young, has two kids, goes thru a drab, depressed, is-this-all-there-is? period. She divorces the husband who was her college boy friend & learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world.

Each of the other characters got a similar makeover. I made the husband taller, handsomer and more successful than he really was and gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her. 

Give your characters room to roam

The "real" story took place mainly in Manhattan but, as I drafted the novel, I found the setting too confining and added scenes in Florida, Nantucket and the Caribbean. Using different settings helped me show how the characters behaved in different geographies and in different social milieu. Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is a lot different than a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair!  For the novelist, pure gold.

Expand the scope of your story

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to a small circle of the people directly involved. (Unless your story is about a friend who happens to be President of the United States.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters took shape, I wanted to show that the unintended consequences of what started out as a casual affair affected people not directly involved. I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go Sixties. 

Look for the larger significance of your story

 I don’t mean hitting your reader over the head with The Meaning Of It All. The final element that transformed real life into fiction came to me as I was halfway through the draft and paused to write what passed for an outline to the end (outlines aren’t exactly my strong suit!). I realized that the age difference between the married couple, the younger “other woman” and the teen-aged daughter led naturally to portraits of three transformational, mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.

By the time I was finished with my makeovers, fabrications, plot twists, and search for a more substantial framework for the story, the characters had taken on their own, fictional lives. The plot moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life and I was able to portray massive personal, cultural and social changes in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cry of a baby rhino.


That morning, just like every morning, my mother began to stir before the sun rose. Still drowsy, I followed her from the dense bush where we lived to the grassy savannah beyond.
I stayed close to her so she could take care of me. Not that anything bad could happen because my mother was very strong and always knew exactly what to do. Besides, we lived in the protected Nakuru Reserve which the government had set aside especially for us.
Mom and I made our way to the water hole for our morning bath and we splashed around in the water for a while. After, we enjoyed a soothing mud wallow which protected us from the strong African sun and the pesky mites that lodged in our lines and folds and irritated our skin.
Later, when we felt clean and refreshed, I joined the other little rhinos. We ran around and played while Mom settled down to exchange information with the other mothers about places where tender vegetation grew and warnings about hungry lions who might be prowling in the area. Of course, Mom didn’t have to worry about lions—and one day I wouldn’t either. They are so small, slow and pitifully weak compared to us.
I heard the sound of something called an engine, the slam of two doors and a harsh trilling noise I’d never heard before. It was followed by a flash of bright light. Nearsighted like all rhinos, I was blinded, too. For a while, until my eyes adjusted, I couldn’t see what was happening.
I heard the rustling of wings as flocks of birds flew away. The elephants moved nervously for a moment, then froze. A moment later, the mothers and their calves cantered off. Right after the elephants disappeared, the herds of zebra and eland ran away, too. Something was upsetting them but I didn’t know what it was.
Then a loud, sharp boom broke the normal morning sounds of the savannah and I turned toward my mother and asked her what was happening. Instead of answering, she made a wheezing sound and fell down. She flailed her powerful legs and tried to stand up but she couldn’t.
She made a distress call and I sounded a response but she didn’t answer. I was scared and I nuzzled my mom with my nose (my horn hadn’t grown in yet) but she didn’t nuzzle me back the way she always did. Instead, she huffed but this time she didn’t sound like herself. I didn’t know what was wrong but it made me feel weak and trembly. 
A two-legged creature appeared—he looked like one of the ones called tourists but he had a nasty smell and he wasn’t holding the little black thing they use to take our picture. Instead, he walked up to my mom and poked her in the tender spot just behind her neck with the end of his long shiny stick. She huffed in protest but he didn’t stop. Instead, he raised his shiny stick and pointed it right at her and made that loud boom noise again.
This time, my Mom didn’t try to get up and the tourist-creature raised his shiny stick again—the one that made the boom noise. This time he pointed it at me. My heart began to pound. I was scared, more scared than I thought anyone could ever be. My legs began to shake and the awful weak trembly feeling came back worse than before. I was afraid he would make that loud boom noise again.
Instead, another tourist-creature appeared, pulled something he called a knife out of his belt and waved it around. He talked to the first one who went to the van and came back with something that made a loud buzzing noise. He used it to cut off my mom’s horn and I rushed at him to make him stop but he pointed the buzzing-thing at me and I ran away
I hated those two and their nasty smell and their loud noises and I wanted to make them go away but I was afraid of them and didn’t know how. I saw the first one put my Mom’s horn into the back of his van and bend over and wipe his hands on the ground.
The other one came toward me, the one with the knife, and he pointed it right at me. I knew he was going to do something bad to me. I wanted to run away but I didn’t want to leave my Mom.
Mommy! Mommy! I signaled but she didn’t answer.


The elephants of the Kihali Animal Orphanage, located in Western Kenya, are the first to know.
Lanky, dark haired Renny Kudrow—he is Director of the Orphanage, an authority on animal communication, and host of popular television specials called Animals Have A Word For It—will be the second.
He is sitting on the veranda of the main cottage of the Orphanage, drinking his first mug of hot, sweet, milky tea and watching as the night’s dark sky gives way to the light of the rising sun and turns the tall, yellow grass of the distant savannah gold. He has just finished a less-fraught-than-usual phone conversation with his wife, Phoebe, who is living an ocean away in the United States.
He has been doing his best to focus on the orphaned animals the Kihali team rescues and then prepares for return to the wild when they are ready. Instead, he is distracted. He is thinking about Phoebe and their lives in Atlanta—the good times and the bad and the moments that pushed them apart. He is wondering if there is a way for them to be together again when the five Kihali elephants stir restlessly and then freeze.
They silence their usual morning vocalizations and stand motionless in a listening posture, their ears fanned wide. From Maisie, the oldest and the matriarch of the group, to Doris, Kihali’s youngest orphan, rescued after her mother died of Elephant Pox, they are paying attention.
Renny knows they are heeding information being relayed in at least two ways: by infrasonic rumblings too low in frequency for humans to hear and vibro-tactile cues transmitted through the ground and received by their sensitive feet.
They are paying attention to important messages coming from other elephants as far as two miles away.
But what are they saying?
Renny doesn’t know. He knows only that an alarm is being sounded. Somewhere in the 23,000 acres of the protected Nakuru Reserve that adjoins the Orphanage, something has happened. Something that is distressing the Kihali elephants.
“Jomo! Muthengi!” he shouts as he untangles his long legs and jumps up. The two experienced keepers, best friends since childhood, run across the courtyard and scramble onto the open flatbed of the Orphanage’s dinged and battered pick-up.
“Dr. Higgins!” Renny calls as he crosses the courtyard where the elephants, their trunks now extended along the ground, continue to receive messages only they can understand. “Starlite!”
It is the new vet’s first emergency since coming to Kihali. She is already dressed, wearing the same outfit she wears every day—beat-up jeans, a grungy rumpled tee, a pair of well-worn hiking boots. Her fair skin is freckled and peeling from sunburn and her unruly copper-colored hair is braided into messy pigtails. She picks up her black medical bag with its ointments, syringes, antibiotics and anesthetics and races across the dirt courtyard.
“What’s happening?” she asks, breathlessly tumbling into the front seat of the pick-up as Renny is starting the engine.
“I don’t know yet but the elephants do,” he says, glancing at her, irritated by her disheveled, unprofessional appearance.
Using the direction in which the elephants have turned their heads as a guide, Renny hits the accelerator. He speeds as fast as he dares out of Kihali’s gates and over the rutted dirt roads, traveling deep into the Nakuru Sanctuary.

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