Storytelling insight hatched from Eagle Cam

Learning to look beyond our line of sight

Obsessed isn’t the right word, but my family has become, let’s say, enamored with the Eagle Cam. You probably know the one. Perched high in an aerie above Decorah, Iowa, a family of bald eagles, including three recently hatched eaglets, are proceeding with their daily lives, blissfully unaware they are the stars of a new reality show. And it’s a hit.


Live streaming video by Ustream

I was introduced to the Eagle Cam by my daughter, whose class has been keeping tabs on this patriotic family of predators, but the live stream is now marching across social media faster than Grumpy Cat.

It’s not uncommon now for the backdrop of our dinner conversation or evening homework rituals to include silent, beak-to-beak feeding of squirrel viscera or the devastatingly adorable snuggling of cotton-clad eagle babies keeping warm in their gusty perch.

It’s captivating because it is an uncommon sight. Plus, the pairing of the hunters’ implacability with their gentle parenting creates a lovely paradox, albeit perfectly ordinary in nature. It’s difficult to stop watching because you don’t want to miss what comes next, and that is where this conversation dovetails (see what I did there?) with a discussion about writing.

Great storytelling makes us long to know what comes next. I wrote briefly about this regarding the mystery that can be created through perspectiveThe eagles are interesting because they are unpredictable, and we don’t know how their story ends. It is still being written.

Even more, we often are drawn as readers to what is unique. As writers, it’s important to challenge ourselves to discover the stories that lie beyond our line of sight. Sometimes, that’s literal, such as a biopic about raptors living in the trees above our heads.

It can also be figurative. The bullied child. The homeless woman. The unseen act of kindness. The secret identity of a true hero.

I advocate for unlikely storytelling because I view writing and reading as a way to explore the unknown in the world around us as well as within our innermost thoughts. There may be no better method for learning than a story – and that goes for writing as well as reading.

I have learned a few practical things about eagles by watching them on video. They build strong nests. They are nurturing. They are powerful. They work as a team.

I have also learned that by veering from the norm and looking in unexpected directions, I might find a compelling story. I have the Decorah eagles to thank for that.

And now that I’ve become invested in their lives, I hope their story ends well.

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Perspective frames what a reader sees

Authors use perspective to build mystery

I don’t specifically blog about photography, but I was thinking this week about perspective and how it utterly influences the stories we tell.

Whether or not your story features a detective, most fiction – and even some nonfiction – writing is driven by mystery. Readers are motivated to continue reading by the desire to know what happens next and how the pieces of the tale fit together. They want to see what is hidden from their view, the secrets the writer has kept until the moment of revelation.

The perspective from which the author tells the story is significantly responsible for determining what information is revealed and what information is concealed. A narrator’s biased viewpoint, an era with particular cultural mores, a setting with a limited worldview – these all are potential contributors to the perspective we are given as readers. We can’t change the author’s perspective; we can only interpret what we “see” through that lens.

Sometimes the view is clear. Other times, the mystery remains intact until the reader receives enough information to broaden the perspective and see the context for the details.

Photography is remarkable in the way it illustrates the mystery of perspective while often giving us enough information to solve that mystery. Unlike in literature, that epiphany can happen in an instant.

These two images portray mystery through the use of perspective:

perspective frames what a reader sees 1

I took this photo looking upward at the ceiling of Parasol Down at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. The varying heights and the geometric elements add to the mystery of this image. For me, it also conjures an imagined memory, an invented scene that could have been found in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

perspective frames what a reader sees 2

This photo was taken at a ski and snow tubing park. Because the scale of the subject isn’t immediately identifiable, and the textures in each element are distinct and compartmentalized, the perspective of the image delays comprehension of the objects. Yet, within a few moment’s time, it’s possible, without further information, to deduce the scene.

The Daily Post discussed the use of perspective in photos this week.

I think the parallels to writing are constructive.

Expanding your descriptions tenfold

Creative writing exercise

If you find me scanning the horizon or hunched over with my ear to the ground, it is probably because I’m searching for a clever creative writing exercise to experience and share. The best leave room for interpretation. Personally, I enjoy attempting to manipulate the exercise. I want to develop an approach that’s unexpected but manages to fit the parameters, hopefully transcending the frontiers of the challenge.

OK, that’s waxing a bit melopoetic. (Phrase-coining alert). Let’s just say you’re travelling from point A to point B, but you want to change the mode of transportation.

That is why I like this particular exercise. It is ripe for interpretation, manipulation and customization: Take one thing and describe it ten different ways.

That “thing” can be anything real or imagined, tangible or ethereal, republican or democrat. You get the idea. There is sky, but there is no limit. One thing. Described ten ways. One sentence each. I’d say “on your mark, get set, go,” but I’ve already started.

The lie you told

The lie you told polluted the room like carbon monoxide – odorless, invisible and toxic. It sounded like a sonnet but echoed like a dirge. I was frightened by how comfortably it spilled from your mouth. You addressed it like an old friend. The language tore through me like shrapnel and ricocheted in the hollowed space between my ribs and spine. Tulips wilted when you exhaled. I could taste the ashen remains of integrity consumed by guilt fire. The weight of the words submerged my body, driving me ever deeper to join other victims of narcosis. The lie drained the remaining light from your eyes. It wasn’t until I tried to find you in its residual darkness that I realized you were already gone.

That’s my ten.

I’ll link here to other great 1×10 descriptions as I discover them. Let’s make a pact never to see the world in the same light again.

  1. Describing description
  2. My computer’s making a weird noise again
  3. Because I just had lunch…

Five tips for improving your deadline efficiency

Become a more reliable writer

Better late than never? Don’t settle for either.

Your ability to meet deadlines is the trait perhaps most demonstrative of your dependability. You may be employed in public relations, marketing or journalism. You might be a freelancer or a student. Even as an author or editor, it is important to build trust with colleagues, clients and other associates.

Timely communications can cement that trust, but failure to meet deadlines can erode it. Simplistically, the key to deadline efficiency is effective time management. For writing projects, however, you may benefit from specific strategies that put you in position to hit your completion targets.

1. Start early

I might have called this “don’t procrastinate.” It is easy to postpone work on the project that requires a telescope to see the finish line. It that’s a tendency of yours, ignite your effort by assigning yourself mini-deadlines. Create a calendar that includes due dates for project components. Appoint firm dates for the completion of initial steps, such as taking inventory of reference material or organizing contact lists. Set that alarm clock and don’t hit snooze. You’ll appreciate the early start.

2. Prioritize shrewdly

Breaking a larger project into smaller, manageable tasks is classically sound advice, but how you order and schedule those tasks will affect your deadline progress either positively or negatively. Determine which components of your project require external input or feedback and focus on those first. You can address items fully under your control at your convenience, but you don’t want to be chasing information at the eleventh hour. At a given juncture, if you are choosing between reaching out to sources or content owners for information and penning your opening paragraphs, you should make those phone calls or send those emails first. You will have time to write while you await responses.

3. Preemptively strike problems

There are pitfalls in every project, and chances are, you already know which challenges could disrupt your deadline. Do you know a source is particularly difficult to reach because they travel frequently? Do you have an editor or a manager who is notoriously heavy on revisions? Get copy to them early. Do you need to request statistics from an agency that updates data on a periodic basis? Learn its schedule – the day of the month or the month of the year its reports are released – so you can run with the timeliest information without holding up your deadline. If you predict problems, you’ll be poised to overcome them.

4. Coordinate with other projects

I don’t need to tell you how busy you are, but I encourage you to find common threads in your work and thereby identify opportunities to save time. Juggling multiple projects requires you to maintain a longitudinal view of your deadlines. Don’t let a single project consume all of your thought and effort. Instead, look for efficiencies across your projects. Designate a day to pound the phones. Book multiple face-to-face interviews or field research on the same day, regardless of project, for travel economy. Block large periods of time for writing to minimize interruption. If you sustain momentum on all of your projects, you bring each closer to timely conclusion.

5. Play mind games

You won’t forget the drop-dead deadline for your project, but that doesn’t mean you can’t establish a pseudo deadline to ensure you meet your goal with time to spare. Giving yourself a deadline cushion relieves some of the pressure associated with final due dates for deliverables. The key is to establish your pseudo deadline right from the start. Coach yourself to accept the pseudo deadline as authentic. Base your schedule and your mini-deadlines on it. You’ll benefit by regularly exceeding expectations while providing yourself with a safeguard against crisis or other unforeseen complications. The size of the cushion should be proportionate to the project. Anything from several days to several weeks might be appropriate, depending on circumstances. Ultimately, it’s about your comfort level.

Deadlines may sound morbid, but they ensure that communications are lively and relevant. Meeting them will help ensure your professional relevance as a writer.

Do you have additional tips for meeting deadlines? Share them in the comments section below.

Walking a path to better writing

How to liberate your creativity

My best ideas come to me when walking. I mean this in the simplest sense: Point A to Point B. Motion conjures magic that shakes free closeted thought patterns and the corresponding words and sentences locked away by a stubborn or weary mind. Movement is a chisel for writer’s block and salve for writer’s rash.

Why walking is a path to better writing 2Showering seems to conduct some of the same inspirational current. I assume yoga might work, though king pigeon pose isn’t exactly my thing. Even answering nature’s call can result in a call to action for the brain. And I’ve learned through the years that I am not alone. Plenty of other writers have been struck by coffee break creativity or the morning commute muse.

Why, then? I’ve decided it is liberation. Liberation from the utensils of writing. Of the pressure to put ink to paper or keystrokes to monitor, as it were. By briefly disconnecting from the binding relationships we establish with our desks and devices, we give our minds greater freedom to investigate ideas that are stalled on the launching pad.

I might stare at a computer screen for 10 minutes, devoid of all but involuntary physiology function – forget high-level creative thought – but as soon as I escape my chair and stroll down the hall, the spigot begins to flow. It has happened often enough that I am certain it is not coincidence.

Humans have plenty of latent instincts, seldom employed for lack of necessity. Deep within, however, are the ancestral user manuals for hunters, gatherers, workers, warriors and, so it would seem, writers. We are the descendents of the cave-dwellers scratching ancient text and line drawings into the smooth rock. We can channel that free-flowing artistic spirit. We just need to cut the tether from time to time and let the creative mind work without anyone looking over its shoulder.

Give yourself permission to re-calibrate and discover organically the words you really want to write.

So how do you separate this exercise from procrastination, its wicked stepsister?

Focus.

I am suggesting a change in venue, not an abandonment of thought. Your goal is exploration, as opposed to distraction.

Ponder while you wander.

As you journey – whether it’s through your office, across your yard, down the sidewalk or over the hedge – take your ideas with you. Let them stretch their possibilities while you stretch your legs. Often, they will grow wings, and you’ll find yourself sprinting back to your computer or notebook so you can capture them before they break entirely free.

Don’t be aimless; choose a target.

These excursions work because they are finite and concise. Don’t free yourself from writer’s block by going grocery shopping. Make the task so simple that the act is subconscious and the rest of your RAM is dedicated to teasing out that perfect phrase or killer conclusion that had so far eluded you.

Fetch a glass of water. Get the mail. Walk the dog. Fill the bird feeder. Make the bed. Your options are nearly limitless, but what’s important is to release your creativity from whatever has been binding it.

Editor’s note: The idea for this post came to me while I was walking a distance of 14 feet from my desk to the kitchen. Now get out there and discover your own anecdotal evidence!

Related: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/daily-prompt-best/

Don’t let familiarity prevent appreciation of A Christmas Carol’s superb storytelling

Redeemable villains can compel a story line

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

– Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843

When art is so ingrained in our collective conscious that its removal would throw into question our basic understanding of the world around us, it is easy to overlook what made it ubiquitous in the first place. We take its brilliance for granted or fail to see the ingenuity in what we now consider commonplace.

Having just seen the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s spectacular 2013 rendition of A Christmas Carol this weekend, I was reminded how embedded this 170-year-old story is in the fabric of our holiday traditions. The adaptations on film are countless, with casts featuring men, Muppets and Mickey Mouse alike. The concise novella is so perfectly suited for stage that it can be found in playhouses throughout the country each December. 

What made it so? Certainly, it struck a chord with citizens of Victoria-era Britain who lamented how industry and greed had sullied the revelry and the spirit of Christmas in its time. Its longevity has root in how timelessly translatable the tale remains. Basic lessons of human decency, thankfulness and charity are appropriate for any era. Despite these qualities, the small book might easily have been discarded with the shredded gift wrap as a preachy primer on the Golden Rule.

In my mind, the storytelling convention that sets A Christmas Carol apart is Dickens’ portrayal of a redeemable villain. And Scrooge is not just any villain; he is the story’s main character. Dickens transforms a completely unsympathetic wretch into a hero, and he does so in fewer pages than constitute the chapters of some books.

In literature today, we tend to evaluate our heroes by how villainous they are and our villains by how heroic they are. We long for flaws. Gray areas make characters real. But the idea of a villain turned hero was much less common in Dickens’ time, and he doesn’t employ smoke and mirrors. Scrooge isn’t a good guy masquerading as a villain. He is unforgiving and cruel. Dickens’ words say it best: “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Yet, it is through this hyperbolic lens that we relate to Scrooge, not in full, but in hints and whispers of our own imperfection. Dickens forces us to see ourselves in Scrooge. It’s not that Scrooge is particularly likable, even as we see his sad history unfold before us. But we come to empathize because we see elements of ourselves; ghosts of our ambition and pride, and, as the story personifies, Ignorance and Want.

Our relationship with the main character’s plight is the signature element that makes this story so compelling. We need Scrooge to be saved so that we may consider ourselves worthy of salvation. For Ebenezer, it’s a 180-degree shift. For the rest of us, with fewer proclivities toward malevolence and parsimony, change doesn’t seem quite so daunting by comparison. That is why Dickens’ Carol continues and will continue to be a integral part of our holiday celebrations and storytelling traditions.

For if the villainous Scrooge may earn reclamation, surely it is within our grasp.

Scrooge and Marley's ghost (John Leech, 1843)

Scrooge and Marley’s ghost
(John Leech, 1843)

Who else has been blogging about A Christmas Carol recently?

* And if you live anywhere near southeast Wisconsin, go see the Milwaukee Rep’s version of A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theatre. This is a group that truly knows how to keep Christmas well.

Write like a painter

Improving your approach to creative writing

A blank white page. A blank white canvas. Writers and painters have a common starting point, and some of the principles that produce a beautiful piece of visual art apply to the creation of excellent written work.

Most writers feel ownership over their creative process. There is no single correct way to arrive at a finished written product, but I advise writers to develop a custom blueprint. Creating an outline is perhaps the most tried and true planning method, but its rigidity makes it unsuited for many types of projects. And let’s face it, Roman numerals are so MCMLXXXVI.

Instead, approach your plan as you would a sketch. Imagine you are making light strokes on the canvas, just penciling in the general shape of your article, story, poem or book. Get a sense of size and proportion. Shade in some key features, the elements you expect will become points of emphasis or will advance the action of your story. Remember, it’s in pencil; you can always erase and revise.

Using your sketch as your guide, begin painting the broad strokes of your story. Artists paint in layers, overlapping images and colors to create depth. Similarly, you can build on the foundational layers of your story with added detail. You need to write in three dimensions. Give your characters, your settings and your situations complexity by layering aspects of history, relationship, emotion, and motive that you will reveal in time.

A great painting appears as a doorway into another world, a passage you can seemingly enter. That is a hallmark of great writing as well. Don’t write flat.

Shaping your writing into a finished project requires the addition of fine details and the refining of rough edges. These steps are like adding shadows and highlights to your painting. The contrast serves as context for your story, accentuating your message and amplifying your meaning. Painters must be mindful of their light source because its relationship to the subject determines which details are revealed and which are obscured. A writer’s light source is generated by voice and point of view. Your perspective, or that of your narrator, influences in large part which information and beliefs are illuminated and which remain in the dark.

Finally, you have to know when to put down the brush. Sometimes, the best sentence is the one you don’t write. That, however, shouldn’t be an excuse to write with restraint. You can proceed with creative abandon, since writers have one clear benefit over painters. We can edit. But that’s another art project.