It’s over! (Whew!)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Here we are at the end of another March. How’s the writing been coming? You feel like you created something wonderful? How about your goals, did you meet those?

For myself, I hold my goal up against what I actually accomplished, and if I do that, I come to the conclusion that… well…

I suck.

I wanted to write 31 dramatic monologues, and I’m stuck at 11. And I got writing of any kind done on fewer days than that. Easy thing to do would be to blame my job, I’ve put in several 12 hour days over the past couple weeks. But I would be lying if I said that I don’t have time to write. I do, the medium I set out to tackle is so short–less than a page, usually–and I am not striving for anything really polished, just rough first drafts. I mean, an hour at most if I hunker down, and I definitely have an hour of leisure time, even on the busiest days. I’m not going to say I’ve run out of ideas, either. What has proven much more difficult than I was expecting was finding the voices to speak for more than a few distinct speakers. So, while I had plenty to say about compassion, forgiveness and resistance, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was compiling a 31-installment gripe, which was not the direction I wanted to go with this project.

Except, that doesn’t seem to be the note I want to go out on, the kind of judgment I want to pass on myself or anyone else who set a goal and didn’t make it. So,

no I don’t suck, and neither do you!

I have eleven pieces I didn’t have on March 1. Seven of them I’m not just happy with but am damn proud of. It’s not 31, but it’s more than zero. And ultimately, this is the message I want to go out with at the end of the month. If you smashed through all your goals, wrote the 50,000 words you wanted or the complete book of poems, or even if you really just sat down for an hour each day and actually wrote during that time, good for you. If you didn’t… good for you anyways for making the effort.

In sunnier times, I’ll look on the failure to meet some writing goal (a business model for improved productivity) as something I can afford to get down on myself for. But not when we’re weathering a storm. Under the deluge of the current administration, if I can produce a single life preserver to buoy and lighten the spirits of another person, to make them feel less alone or less persecuted, I have achieved something to be proud of. I keep going back to a different excerpt from the same video Sam plugged a few days ago, the commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. “When things get tough, this is what you should do: make great art.” I don’t see that necessarily meaning to churn it out relentlessly.

These are very trying times, and those in power have been unleashing a torrent of negativity in too many areas of civic and cultural life to even begin to enumerate here. Art is how we fight back. When the powerful are insistent on churning out ugliness, the beauty of our words, our paintings, our songs, and our prayers have the power to heal. I think they know that too, or else why would they be so intent on killing public funding for the arts even though it’s such a minuscule part of the budget? Well, that’s the great thing about writing, our supplies are dirt cheap.

One of the trends I have been following on social media and when I go to events like the Women’s March has been a flowering of folk art—quirky signs and tee shirts, beautifully raw yet sincere poetry, videos, and thousands of expressions of love in many types of media—all by people not trained as artists. We all serve to support and uplift one another, and though the burden may be great, there are many many kind souls helping to shoulder it. No need for anyone to beat themself up because they didn’t do “enough.” Do what you can, make the art as great as you are capable of, and of course continue to strive for the improvement of your craft. But whatever you do, don’t give up.

The Elephant in the Room

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Well, now, it’s been an interesting couple of months, hasn’t it? When I was asked once again to write a guest post for yet another March, the first thing I had to know was whether I would be welcome or encouraged to write about “the Elephant in the room,” because that would make a huge difference in how I would frame whatever I might want to say. And do you notice how I didn’t even have to specify which elephant I was talking about? Sam knew exactly what I meant when I asked her, and I bet you did too. It is safe to say that the recent election is one of the most polarizing events in recent memory. And since I am a guest (blogger) in this house, I wanted to be sure I knew the rules. Continue reading

Marching across the dunes

(Note: There were a few missed messages about who would be writing the farewell post for the last of the month, so here is a ¡Special Bonus! farewell to March, the final “Monday with Bob.”)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Hello! I hope A Writer’s March has been an enjoyable and inspiring experience for you. On this, the final day of the month, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the challenge, not as the end of a process of growth, but as another step in the journey. A chance to pause and catch our breaths and take a look back before continuing this march on into April and beyond. At the beginning of the March, Sam shared a video of a commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. One of the most striking devices Gaiman uses in this speech is the metaphor of the mountain. He gives the directions for anyone who wants to pursue a life in the arts to think of their goals as being on the top of a mountain, and to make decisions—life defining decisions, sometimes—based on what gets you closer to the top of that mountain.

After hearing the speech, I spent nearly a week trying to determine exactly what my mountain was. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t have one. I am wandering—not exactly lost, but without definite purpose—through a desert where my horizon consists entirely of dunes. I clamber up to the top of one dune, slipping in the sand as I go, sometimes getting winded and needing to take a short rest, but getting there eventually. Then I take a look around and—still not seeing any mountains off in the distance anywhere—pick another dune and start the climb all over again. Continue reading

Write it!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Last year, I took part in some writing challenge for March, the name of which escapes me for the moment. I set the “modest” goal for myself of a thousand words a day, for a grand total of thirty-one thousand words. I called this “modest” because I’d easily cleared fifty-two thousand words for NaNoWriMo a few months earlier, during a month which is one day shorter. I put “modest” in quotes because I failed miserably last March. Quite simply, in March I stopped myself from writing anything I didn’t consider meaningful, while in November I let myself fully explore whatever I felt I had to say. In other words, by stopping myself from writing anything that wasn’t “meaningful,” I stopped myself from writing, period.

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. I am a firm believer in writing for the sake of writing and the writer’s right to write for nobody other than him or herself (try saying that five times fast). Anything you write—whether it is suitable for anybody else or not—is a whetstone for further sharpening your craft; practicing dialogue, understanding characters, testing images, whatever you feel your weaknesses may be.

You ever have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but then stopped yourself because “it’ll never work in this story”? Think character x from story A would be a worthy adversary for character y from story B but don’t want to mix story A with story B? Write it anyways. Here’s a helpful equation:
—————————————x+y=practice writing dialogue.
Maybe there’s a situation you’d like to put a character in just to see how he handles it? Write it, it’ll help you get to know that character better. Want to write a sex scene but feel it’s totally gratuitous? Don’t even worry about justifying it, if it wants to be written, then write it!

Don’t stop yourself from writing because you feel you need to do more research. Let’s say you want to set a story in a cheese factory but don’t know the first thing about making cheese. You will need to do research in order to create a believable environment and believable characters to inhabit it, but don’t let a lack of research keep you from getting whatever wonderful idea that had you wanting to write a story about a cheese factory in the first place down on paper. Write it! Make it up as you go along, and make adjustments as needed when you do get that research done.

Last but certainly not least, do not stop yourself from writing something just because you know you’ll never be able to publish it. You know what I’m talking about: fan fiction. Interesting characters and settings from established books, movies and television shows should spark the imagination, and just because those characters are somebody else’s “intellectual property” doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them for your own personal use. If you think it would be fun to have Alex from A Clockwork Orange steal the TARDIS, escape to the antebellum south and run afoul of Scarlet O’Hara… WRITE IT! Sure, you’ll almost certainly never acquire the rights to publish it, but that’s not the point, the point is to practice writing. Alex and Scarlet. Just try writing a page or two of that without needing to flex some underutilized imaginative muscle.

So, your writing prompt for today: Alex from A Clockwork Orange steals the TARDIS and takes it to________.

A Writing prompt from a spammer

A special Thursday post from Bob

I was cleaning out the spam filter of my ballpark blog when I came across a very unusual comment. Usually, spammers like to make innocuous-sounding comments like “cool post” or “you know what your speaking about” to get you to approve the comment, and unwittingly put up a link for a Canadian pharmacy specializing in Viagra or some similar business venture. And this particular comment did indeed have such a link embedded. But as my cursor was hovering over the “delete forever” option, it occurred to me that this really could be a very good writing prompt, so here it is in all its unedited glory:

First off I want to saay superb blog! I had a quick question in which I’d
like too ask if you do noot mind. I was curious to ffind out hoow you center yourself and clear your toughts before writing.
I have had difficulty clearing mmy mind in getting my ideas out.
I truly doo take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are
usually losxt simply just trying too figure
out how too begin. Any deas or tips? Kudos!

If you think this might be a helpful topic to meditate on your own process, then grab a pen, set your timer for 16 minutes or more and see what you come up with. If you’re looking for Canadian Viagra… well, that’s your business.

Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a plot hole!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Note: Ok, so, nobody told me about this sky-themed week, but for me, it’s turned into a blessing—and not even a disguised one at that—because the post I’ve been trying to write all week about nitpicking simply was not coming together for me. (Maybe I was picking at it too much…)

If you know me, you’re probably already aware that I am a huge fan of the movie Up. If you’ve spent any time discussing narrative structure with me, you’ve probably heard me say quite a bit about what Up does very well. (If you haven’t, how many hours do you have free?) To put it as briefly as I know how: there are two stories in Up. One is the big, silly “Hollywood” movie, featuring action-adventure sequences, big sets, lots of spectacle and a “to-the-death” conflict. Then there’s the smaller, more intimate and much more touching narrative of an old widower named Carl who hasn’t reconciled himself to the loss of his wife. What Up has the guts to do that so few mainstream films do these days is to make action and spectacle subservient to the human drama. At the climax, the big “Hollywood” story comes to a screeching halt until Carl can find some resolution to the smaller, quieter inner conflict. It satisfies both as a lighthearted cartoony  action film and as a very real human drama.

Well, I do know the focus of this blog is writing and not movie appreciation, and I do indeed have a point that has to do with writing. I have a number of writer friends who have wonderful, fanciful ideas for stories they’d like to write. One of them will be so excited about an idea and will spend the better part of an hour explaining or even brainstorming the characters and the world and a general outline of what he or she would like to have happen to those characters in that world. That person will leave itching to get it written, and leave me itching to read it. More often than not, when I next see him or her, I’ll ask how the writing’s going, only to get the disheartening response, “It just wasn’t working out,” followed by a litany of plot holes that can’t be filled. Usually, my suggestion that they try writing their stories anyways falls on deaf ears.

And this is what brings me back to Up. As perfectly constructed and as personally satisfying as it is for me, there’s a monumental plot hole in the movie that I didn’t notice until the director pointed it out to me on the commentary track of the DVD. The basic premise is that Carl—under pressure to sell his house and generally mad at the world—decides to get away by tying thousands of helium balloons to his house in order to get away:

To get both plotlines started, the writers needed to strand Carl in the middle of the wilderness of South America with an unwitting stowaway, an 11-year-old named Russell who just happened to be under his porch when the house lifted off. How do they get there? What’s to keep Carl from dropping Russell off at some police station before he gets to the wilds of South America? A giant storm comes out of nowhere (while Carl is in the middle of trying to ditch Russell, as a matter of fact), buffets the house around and knocks Carl unconscious. When he comes to, there is no hint of a storm and the house is floating within a few kilometers of his goal. Pretty convenient storm, don’t you think? I’m trying to decide whether to call this “Hurricane Plot-hole” or “Tropical Storm Deus ex Machina.”

Which brings me—finally—to my point. Suspension of disbelief is no mere myth. If your story is compelling, your characters engaging and with an emotional heart that resonates deeply, then readers (or viewers or listeners) will happily grant you that suspension of disbelief, and either not notice or choose not to care when you need to hedge “reality” or common sense in order to tell that story. You’ve got a story that wants to get out for some reason. Have trust that the story will resonate with someone else, someone who won’t mind a giant cumulonimbus plot hole any more than I did.

Week 2 – Post 2: Shape it up

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

You may recall last year Sam shared a video of a talk by Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of plot. If you’re new to The March or if you want to refresh your memory, you might want to check it out here. Don’t mind me, I’ll wait. Now, I enjoyed the video immensely and suspect that Vonnegut is pulling our collective leg. However, there was something about the idea of writing stories to fit specific shapes that I found deeply unsettling.

I’m a firm believer that stories should tell themselves, that while broad structures could be useful in giving guideposts to a writer who is lost in a piece, but if the writing is going smoothly it should be allowed to explore. After all, what’s the point of taking a road trip if you don’t get off the Interstate once in a while?

I thought of doing a sarcastic response to this video by charting some of my own work. (Shameless plug in ten… nine…) “What did he plot?” you’re probably thinking. Well, I’m glad you asked. I decided to plot the first section from my book of short plays. Ok, was that too shameless? Perhaps, but it is pertinent. At no point when I was writing any of these plays was I thinking of structure, and yet each one is—to me, anyways—very satisfying.

At first I thought I’d just draw a random mess of lines on a page and call it a plotting of that section of plays, but struck by a sudden and inexplicable bout of honesty I decided to do my best to accurately chart each one of the 33 short plays according to Vonnegut’s grid. I mean, what if I’ve so internalized the “boy gets girl” shape or the “man in a hole” shape that I’m writing them without even thinking of it? What if I’d charted out my plays and found them clustering around those few tried-and-true curves? It would seem to invalidate my argument, don’t you think? I sat down with the manuscript and three different colors of pens. Here’s what happened: Continue reading

Week 1 Post 2: Add it all up

The first of several “Mondays with Bob”
By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

In some ways, I’ve got an ideal writer’s job. Without going into too much detail, I work from home for a call center that doesn’t get very many calls. I’ve come to the realization that I’m not getting paid so much for the work I do as I am for agreeing to tie myself to a phone eight hours a day and watch the nicest February/March weather I can remember out my window. As someone who likes to be kept busy, it became clear that I had two options. I could sit there and bemoan the fact that I was inside doing nothing, or I could find something to occupy my time. Naturally, the bulk of that time is spent writing.

The goal I set for this Writer’s March was to fill out a 100-sheet comp book from cover to cover in the month. After two days of sitting next to the phone and answering it when it deigned to ring, I can see that I might need to expand my goal. I noticed even with frequent distractions and interruptions, I’d average about 1 page an hour, and when things got really slow and I found myself in a groove, I could get closer to three or four pages in an hour. At the pace I’ve set, I could very easily get through the 200 pages well before the 20th.

“Well,” you may be saying, “that’s all very nice for you, but what about those of us who have to do work?” Or school? Or parenting? Or—in some cases—work and school and parenting? No matter how modest or grandiose your goals, you should take some time to celebrate your accomplishments. One thing I told fellow wrimos over and over again during the course of the madness that is NaNoWriMo is that no matter what, whether they were working on a single novel or if they were using the month to sketch out many different projects, they should keep everything together in one document. It was extremely gratifying on November 17th to open up my NaNoWriMo Word file and scroll down to page 100 to pick up my writing for the new day.

And I’m suggesting something similar for the March: take a moment to put together everything you’ve written. If you have the time to fill out a 200 page comp book in the month, feel the heft and the thickness of it and revel in the fact that it was blank at the start of the month. Of course some of it will be crap, of course it’ll “need a lot of work,” but we’re writers: cleaning up crap is part of our work. And unlike waiting for a phone to ring, writing is work. Even if you’ve only got the time for a page a day, that’s still 31 pages. It’s a healthy chunk of a tree, it’ll need quite a bit of extra postage to mail. Enjoy that feeling. Heck, if you’re so inclined, mail it to yourself so you can see that great big envelope with all those stamps arrive and know it was something you accomplished.

Day 24: Showing up really is half the job—Book it

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

As long as I could remember, I wanted to write a book someday. Longer than that, even. I recently came across papers from my elementary and middle school days, and what do I find over and over again? Spiral notebooks with some scribbled sketches—I hesitate to call them illustrations, exactly—on the cover over a very carefully lettered “by Bob Sabatini.” Once I could steel myself to open them up, what did I find? A title page on the first sheet, and then—I kid you not—a table of contents, with chapters listed as “Chapter I” through at least “Chapter X” and space for yet-to-be-determined page numbers, followed by somewhere between five to ten pages of almost illegible scrawl. Following that, I’d find some notes, some doodles, a few half-completed homework assignments, and a whole bunch of blank pages.

That was where doubt crept in. “You’ll never be a writer,” it would whisper, “this isn’t any good.” It was the same story with a number of the writing projects I attempted in the years off between graduating high school and beginning college, I’d spend weeks outlining a story or diagramming character interactions, and then I’d start writing, get discouraged, give up, give it another try only to get more discouraged.

By the time I discovered that there were such things as creative writing classes, I’d hit on the notion of the short-form work. I remember saying glibly “I can get a good beginning and a good ending, but I have trouble with the middle, so I’m just bringing the two together.” Ok, so now that book that I’d write “someday” would be a collection of short stories. Except… my doubts were still wearing me down. I’d start fussing over my short stories, even the shorter middle sections wouldn’t cooperate with my excellent beginnings and endings, and I was still not getting anything finished. By the time I transferred to UNM, I’d given up on the dream that I’d ever write that book.

BookOk, so how do you explain this?

This is me holding the final printer’s proof of my new book, A Play a Day Keeps the Grey Away. Clearly, something has changed. And as much as I’d like to tell you that change was brought about by some magic bullet or non-prescription pharmaceutical, the answer is about as prosaic as it gets. The answer, in fact, is something not exactly the same but freakishly similar to Writer’s March.

In the fall of 2009, I was in a playwriting class, the only objective of which was to have a 10-minute play ready for an undergraduate showcase to be performed the next spring. And on October first, I already had a 10-minute play mostly written. I had a fantastic beginning and an earth-shattering end, and I was fussing and fretting over the middle. In a one-on-one meeting with the instructor I was told, “Bob, you’re drunk on this piece.” He advised me to put it away before I worked it to death, and then gave me the most productive homework assignment I’ve ever gotten: “On Monday, I want to see ten pages of something completely new. I don’t care if it’s total crap, just as long as they’re new.”

What I decided to do was to write a miniature play, a scene, or some dramatic moment every day. Because the day I was given the assignment happened to be the first of the month, I decided to extend the project through to Halloween. So, just to review, one 31-day month, a commitment to write every day, a clearly stated daily goal and a ban on fretting over whether what I’ve written is “any good.” Sound familiar to any of my fellow Marchers? The result was 56 pages of new material, and—somewhat shockingly—very little of it was crap. It was one of the most freeing and generative times in my life, and once it was over, I was in a creative space that allowed me to write, very quickly, a completely new 10-minute play for the festival, better than the one I had been fretting over.

On a whim, I decided to try again in October 2010, and again found it to be a wonderfully creative and rewarding endeavor. What had once been a 10 page assignment became an annual tradition. In November of 2012, with four years worth of October plays threatening to bust the seams of the pronged folder I was keeping them in, the thought struck me, “there’s enough here to make a book.” All from making a commitment to write and then seeing that commitment through.

Now, those same doubts still whisper to me occasionally. “Your book is self-published,” they say. “It doesn’t have the cachet of having been ‘discovered,’ you won’t sell a dozen copies,” and so on. And here’s what I say to those doubts:

respectful response

Some (play)Writing Prompts:

1—The “White Elephant” in the room.

This is an exercise in working out how characters avoid talking about what’s really on their mind. Decide on two characters who have some hot-button topic (for absolutely no reason at all, I’ll give “abortion” as an example) which is very much on both of their minds, but which neither wants to discuss. Write a page or two of dialogue (and nothing else) in which the topic in question is never directly mentioned.

2—Dust off the White Pages

Open a telephone directory to a random page. Scan the names you see and look for the first one that jumps out at you. If you see the name of someone you know, keep looking or go to a different page. Once you’ve found a name, write it down. Examine the name for some time without really thinking about it. Set that timer Sam made you get for 10 minutes and write a monologue: what that person would tell an audience about him/her self if she/he were one of your characters.

3—Something poetic

Read a poem, then read it again. Adapt it in some way for the stage. If it’s a narrative poem, put that narrative on the stage. If the poem is more image-based, hold a striking image in your mind and turn it into a physical place. Put characters you write into that place and see what happens. If the poem evokes a “mood” or “tone,”  find ways to exploit/subvert/explore that mood with characters on a stage. The most important thing is to have fun with it.

Incidentally, to see one example of what can be done, you might want to check this play out