Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Writer's Process: Christopher Meeks

Christopher Meeks is a prolific writer who teaches English at Santa Monica College, creative writing at CalArts and at UCLA Extension, and children's literature at Art Center College of Design.

The author of four non-fiction books for children and a collection of stories for adults, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, he has published short fiction in Rosebud, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Southern California Anthology, The Santa Barbara Review, Midday Moon, and Writers' Forum.

You may have seen some of his more mainstream articles in The New York Times, Writer's Digest, Chic, and online at Efuse.

Meeks recently took a moment from his work to share his thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer:

Everything is eventually related to structure, if you ask me.

As I began as a writer, I didn't even think about structure. But as soon as I started teaching narrative writing, I realized a few things.

First, in my own first drafts of short stories, I often come up with an interesting character with a problem. That problem usually relates to one or more people, so now I have a couple of interesting characters. As one of my own mentors, the late playwright Robert E. Lee ("Inherit the Wind"), said, "Plot is nothing more than what interesting people do."

That's one way to write: write what interesting people do focused on a problem. Even so, a writer can gain a lot by learning structure. I'm not talking about formula fiction, but rather, understanding how stories work. How does your story work? I was a theater reviewer for seven years, and this was a question I had to ask in every play I saw. Why were the great plays great? Why were other plays promising and then unfulfilling? The answers were often connected to structure.

Energy can dissipate from a story in many ways. One way is if there's not a clear dramatic question. A reader gets bored if he or she doesn't know what a story is about. A man might wake up feeling troubled and hungry. He eats and feels better. He's late for work, but gets there on time. He meets an interesting woman in the elevator, but it turns out he never sees her again or even thinks about her. This may be life, but you as a reader start wondering what the story is about.

If the character doesn't have a goal beyond having a good day, and nothing's standing in his way, and he has a good day, you feel like you've wasted your time. I just came back from my Children's Literature class where my students write stories for kids. One story we discussed today was about a kindergartner's perfect day. Everything went well for the kid and not a thing went wrong. In fact, every day for this kid might be like this.

The students in the class, without my saying anything, had interesting reactions to it. A few said, "He had a good day. So what?" One guy said, "It made me angry because kindergarten wasn't like this for me. I had problems, such as someone stealing my crayons." Instantly, the crayon incident became interesting because there's conflict. Our stories have to have conflict.

How? First, you have to have a clear protagonist. Some of my students' stories have two or more characters. They do things, but a single character doesn't stand out. "Who's the main character?" I might ask a student. The student hadn't thought that far. It shows. We don't know who to focus on because the writer doesn't focus on anyone. A skilled storyteller such as Robert Altman in almost all his movies is clever to have multiple storylines going--there is no single protagonist but several, and the several together tell a story. Such a structure, though, is difficult to pull off.

Second, once you have a protagonist, what's he or she want or need? If the person is happy and needs nothing, we don't have a story.

Third, who or what is standing in the way of the protagonist's goals or needs? It might be a lover. It might be an enemy. It might be the protagonist him- or herself. It might be a situation, such as financial. If nothing is standing in the way, and the protagonist's needs are easily met, again, you have no story.

These three parts create the dramatic question: "Will [insert protagonist here] get [insert goal or need here] when, standing in his or her way is [insert antagonist or antagonistic force here]."

The thing most writers hear but may not fully understand is "Show, don't tell." Telling is having a sentence like "Jenny was disappointed when she went to the zoo." Now imagine a full scene. Jenny wakes up when the sun peeks through the curtains and hits her eyes. The first thing she thinks is "Today's zoo day!" She bounds out of bed and wakes up her parents. "The zoo! The zoo!" she shouts, and her parents wake up, her father laughing. "That's right. We promised you the zoo." They pack up a lunch, and the grandparents come over to join them, excited. Then they get to the zoo and see a sign: "Closed." Jenny bursts into tears. We know she's disappointed without the author explaining it. The turn there told us so. The reader gets to participate. "Telling" allows no participation. "Showing" takes longer. There are places for "telling," such as transitions between scenes, but, for the most part, you should be "showing."

Thus, in my mind, my job as a fiction writer is to create scenes, just as in plays and movies. Scenes have turns. A turn is a change in value. If a scene starts out happy, then a turn might make it sad. Don't always think of opposites, however. You can go from happy to angry or to frustrated or to frightened or to astonished or hundreds of other states of mind. And what motivates the turn? If it's arbitrary, it doesn't work.

Your job as a narrative writer is to give readers experience. As I write, I usually try to anticipate where a scene is going. I might not know where the whole story is going, but I do have my eye on the next turn or two. Stories themselves advance with each turn. If you have thirty pages of a character going on one good date after another, the reader will get antsy because there are not enough turns. Yes, each date may be new, but the same things are happening. The story is going in one direction only. Turn, turn, turn.

Many turns, too, should also be a surprise, but motivated. If you anticipate that a horse in a race is going to win and it does easily, the reader may not be excited. The turn was expected. When the horse stumbles and falls, the reader is shocked. The rider and horse get up and run. Now the reader isn't sure what will happen.

Structure is something you cannot see in reading per se. You can proof and proof and proof and never notice when your structure is off. You can only make an analytical outline of a full draft of a story to see how each scene is built and where the turns occur in each scene. You don't need to create a Roman numeral-type of outline. Simply make a bullet for each scene and sub-bullets for turns. If there are no turns in a scene, do you really need the scene? It's probably all just exposition, information that you deemed important to the reader but a scene where the story stops cold. Layer in the exposition elsewhere within a scene where action occurs.

You also have to ask yourself is it clear who the protagonist is in your story? What does your protagonist want? What's standing in the protagonist's way? These questions may seem utterly simple, but those basics are easy to miss.

For more information on Christopher Meeks, check out these resources:

A recent interview with Meeks at http://www.expandedbooks.com/

A short video of Meeks talking about writing at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6533001761275561589&q=%22On+Books%22+Meeks&pl=true

An interview with Meeks on his book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-43235636820709059&q=%22On+Books%22+Meeks&pl=true

And you can also check out reviews of the book at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1411647610/sr=8-1/qid=1143755039/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-1799699-7764839?%5Fencoding=

His website is http://homepage.smc.edu/meeks_christopher/

6 comments:

Borscht said...

Hey Wordswimmer, I've been a fan of Chris Meeks' for a while now, and it's good to read yet another side to Chris' views on the scribbling craft.

It's evident from his collection, and some of his other writings and articles, that not only does he talk the talk, but his sage views on structure, protagonist, and conflict are clearly adhered to in his own stories. Middle-aged Man and the Sea was one of the better books I've read this year -- and I was telling a friend recently: "you know, I read at least a couple of books a week, and that means that I get to a heapful in a year. But then this one sort of book comes along...a book that I've rarely seen before. And then, it all makes sense. It's the one book that I've been waiting for among the multitudes. Finally, an author who doesn't have any compunction about saying what is truly on his mind."

I'm not exactly sure how Chris manages to do it always, but with each public appearance he makes -- whether it's in blogs, in his stories, or as part of his lectures on the artform, or the interview sets -- there's always a brand-spanking new gleaning to be derived from the experience.

As one of my friends from India always says, Chris seems to be gifted with something of "an amazing internal hard disk."

Over time, and if you get to know Chris often and well enough, you end up realizing that what seems like his writer's "master plan" is precisely that! Indeed, his mastery lies in the small nuggets of wisdom Chris leaves behind as sustenance along the long, but edifying, journey.

Leaping from one lily-pad to the next, you end up realizing there's something of a magnificent super-structure to the thoughts nestled within Chris' brain -- stick in there long enough, and you're bound to learn a bundle.

Chuck Entwistle said...

Bruce,
I thought Christopher Meeks on Wordswimmer was an excellent blog. I was particularly impressed by his comments on creating scenes. "Scenes have turns. A turn is a change in value." Those two sentences describe the fundamental usefulness of scenes . . . to illuminate the shifting values put in play by the characters in the scene. And writing great scenes is the basis for great fiction. . . Charles Dickens is credited for being the father of linked scenes and shifting values in them. . . recall Scrooge and Bob Crachit. What does the protagonist want? And what's blocking that want? Meeks' paragraphs form a nice review of the fundamentals of fiction, stuff I need to hear again and again.

Borscht said...

Hey Chuck -- now I'm thinking we've got to entice Chris to write a non-fiction how-to, which is maybe a concentrate of his lectures and classes. I mean, what about the rest of us that aren't living in his vicinity that might want to get a good daily dose or extract of it?

Thoughts? Maybe we should tell Chris?

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Excellent advice.

jo'r said...

The discussion by Meeks about writing “turns” into each scene is good information and something to think about. It may be more readily apparent that at least one turn is needed in each scene of an hour-and-a-half or two-hour play, where there might only be up to three or four scenes. But I would think that a writer might well use a couple of scenes in a novel to build to a turn. Still, Meeks implies that the turns don’t have to be big events, maybe just turning from happy to frustrated, as in his discussion. Using turns would certainly move the story along, and it could be worthwhile evaluating a story that seems to lag by using the method he described, bullets for a scene and sub-bullets for a turn. A good presentation—thanks, Chris.

Anyone been following the Kaavya Viswanathan brouhaha? Ha—writers probably couldn’t avoid noting it. The poor girl was ambushed and hung out to dry. You’d think she’d robbed timeless material from “The Great Gatsby,” or something, instead of scattered lines of teenage banter from a not widely known novel (?), which lines didn’t seem all that unique or astute anyhow. It could have occurred unconsciously, as Kaavya said. A great deal of credit seemed due Megan McCafferty, the injured author, who probably was satisfied she’d wrote a successful story and wasn’t going to seek any damages over the copying incident. Megan's publisher, on the other hand, seemed to have sensed a publicity bonanza. Today I noted on the NY Times web page that another reader has recognized a couple of other scattered similarities of Kaavya’s book with other previously published books. Good grief, the slight similarities noted in the new Times article were really a stretch. What a distraction. With all the books out there, probably little can be written without some similarities to previous work, somewhere. Something else to worry about.

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