Adrian Fogelin

Author & Book Coach

Invitation to a book.

All writing projects come to an end, shutting the writer out, saying, thank you very much, but I’ll take it from here. If the project is big, like a novel, the urge to lie in the sun and smile for no apparent reason is strong—then it passes, leaving a void the project filled for months, maybe even years. So where is the next book, story, essay, poem? I feel as if all creations exist, somewhere–I visualize a door that opens into the attic of ideas, all of which are waiting for someone to dust them off and carry them out into the light. That attic is the subconscious, and the trick is to figure out how to open that door so you can stick your head up into that shadowy space, flashlight in hand. But how?

During this locked-down time I started a file titled “Invitation to a Book.” I open it, put a date at the top of the page and begin to write with zero preparation, zero forethought. Here’s the opening from one of these spills:

It was a year of scraps and snippets, of get-bys and do-withouts. Because folks were so much more at home, a year of cleaner-than-usual kitchen counters, sour dough starters, a long-overdue mastery of French parroted back at a screen, a year of hungry stay-at-home kids, of yelling, tears, and laughter.  

And another…

Zena sat on a porch stool, the open thesaurus cradled in the hammock of her denim skirt. For once she didn’t have to sneak it. Her older brother, Billy, was at work selling tires. It made his muscles bulge and put folding money in the pocket of his jeans, even if it left his brain unaltered. Billy was a big man in the small world of Randal Junction, cock-sure enough to ridicule her for stuffing her head with fifty-cent words—he said it was about as dumb as her dream of going to college. “Now if it was the Bible you were reading…” he’d say.

The file is getting longer, day after day, beginning after beginning. I have faith that if I keep showing up the next story will too and that one of my beginnings will stretch and grow in response to the sunlight of the page. If you are a writer between stories in these between times, give it a try, send an invitation. Send as many as it takes. Your next story is out there, waiting to be told.

Writing Trauma.

Life does not come with a safety net. Fiction doesn’t either. 

But how do you bring the experience of trauma to life with words on a page?

If your story is being told through the point of view of a character, a highly charged traumatic scene has to mirror the real-life perceptions and responses of a person in danger.

Details which, in less charged scenes, would be exposition must be something more. Everything mentioned or noticed must be significant. Anything the reader needs to know in terms of backstory and exposition should have been handled earlier—a traumatic scene unfolds with each tick of the second hand, doing so with absolute clarity and no diversions.

The mental state of a person in a traumatic scene is highly alert, noticing everything in an active way: the person who walks in on the burglar in their house sees the skillet on the stove, but does not remember the steak they cooked the day before, or the fact their mom fried eggs in that pan when they were a kid; they see a weapon. Scenes of trauma can be descriptive, but every bit of the description must be emotionally charged, none of it merely decorative.

Your POV character’s sense of time will slow down, things being noted in exquisite detail. Your character may be mildly aware that they are seeing things with an unusual clarity and they may notice, in a detached way, their body’s reactions as the fight or flight response kicks in.

I remember the light making the cracks in my shattered windshield glow moments after my car was hit by a truck, and the numbing silence that followed the horrific crash of metal against metal. Although I knew I would be unable to stand up if I tried to get out of the car, I felt detached from that terrible truth. Instead I stared at the bright pattern of lines in that fractured glass.

Whether the trauma was physical or emotional, we have all experienced such moments. As you write a traumatic scene, pay attention to your body’s responses. Chances are you will feel your heart accelerate and be uncomfortably short of breath.

Your words on the page should induce the same reaction in your reader.

Flat or round?

Main characters are round, complex, in flux. They are built through an accumulation of traits and behaviors, not summed up by labels.  In fairness, all characters could be given the attention and dignity of being portrayed in the round, but that would crowd the plot, weaken the focus, cause confusion—whose story is this anyway?

Flat characters do not distract from the plot arc of the characters central to the narrative. Flat characters typically do not change in the course of the story. They are static, and for that reason a flat character is not the person the story is about. So why are they there?

Flat characters ballast a story. They often embody the status quo.

Sometimes they are there to prop up and support the main character by taking roles like sidekick, encourager, arguer for a certain plot path (You gotta join the team!) Sometimes they are there to hinder as critic, antagonist, foiler (You’ll never amount to anything!).

A flat character can be the embodiment of a widely held opinion (i.e. the church deacon who articulates the community’s opinion that gays are going straight to hell). Fiction often pits a main character against an idea. The flat character can embody the idea—which is what the intolerant church deacon is doing.

A flat character can be a collective, a group of people acting like a chorus: the small strictly-white neighborhood faced with the black family that has just moved in, the gang the young social worker has to try to pacify.  The collective will speak in individual voices, but the opinions expressed will belong to the whole group.

Choose which characters to render this way carefully. The adversary of your main character can be flat if what your character is trying to overcome is, in a way, flat as well, the possible outcomes binary: the main character will/will not get the job at the paper, the main character will/will not marry the rich man’s daughter.

If the adversary’s motives and desires are central to the story, complexity and nuance are needed in the adversary as well. You don’t want to pit a breathing human being against a cartoon when the conflict is more shades-of-grey than black and white.

Take a look at your story in progress. The main character will be obvious, but how many of the other characters deserve to be portrayed in-the-round?

Example: Your main character is an executive who is fearful that, with the way things are shifting in his company, he may be laid off. He depends on maintaining a sharp, professional appearance—this façade represents success and reassures him. Give him a kid who spills the exec’s cologne spraying himself down for the school dance, rifles through his drawer to find a tie for the school choral performance. The kid’s only job in the story might be to make the man’s tense situation worse. If we detour deeply into the kid’s character we will lose the tension of the precariousness of the main character’s career. That doesn’t mean the kid can’t play a huge role in the plot—he “borrows” dad’s lucky tie clasp on the day that dad is going in for his annual evaluation. Or, in the middle of that tense meeting the call comes in that his son, who has hit up the home liquor cabinet has crashed the car.

So, which characters should be flat?

Ask yourself, who will remain unchanged in the course of the story? The character who can endure the tumult of a blistering plot unchanged is almost always a flat character.

Can the character be summed up with a simple label: gossip, bully, lazy bum? Flat, flat, and flat.

The plot we are living.

Say a rogue meteor is hurtling toward earth…

Or a volcanic eruption is bringing on years of global winter…

Or a pandemic is circling the globe, sickening and killing millions. 

Science fiction writers would feel comfortable telling the story of now, a time when the individual seems insignificant, just a tiny part of that greater collective, humanity, as it faces a destructive, overwhelming force. The plot of now is sweeping, apocalyptic.

Most fiction tells the story of an individual facing an individual challenge, the scale of the conflict appropriate for that lone protagonist. The situation in the larger society is relatively stable; it is the character who is in flux, the character who engages the reader.

In the disaster-plot we are living, the struggle is shared and universal. The individual character seems suddenly too small when it comes to building a story. In essence, the main character is the pandemic. Such a story requires a wider lens than most. The writer will come down to the granular, human scale, but first must somehow account for the sweep of what is going on.

If this were your novel how would it begin if you did not start it with that old favorite, the main character taking the stage on page one?

Consider the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in another time of upheaval, the French Revolution:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Characters will appear, but first the stage—a vast stage—is set by Dickens.

How might the stage for The Tale of 2020 be set? How might that story begin?

While we are in lock-down…

By nature, writers tend to be quieter and more introspective than most–we lock down voluntarily any time we sit down to write. We are also more powerful. While looking very much like anyone else we create worlds, then turn them on their heads (this is called plotting). We go inside the minds of our characters, put words in their mouths, often stealing snippets or co-opting whole-cloth from those around us; even a fourth grade teacher left behind years ago can still show up in our work. No one is safe from the long reach of a writer.

Writers create order as they create their stories. Disaster often strikes–disaster is one of the more robust plot types. In all its horror, disaster-on-the-page makes sense, and the reader has faith that the disaster will pass and resolve, creating (lo and behold!) a new world order.

We are now living a disaster plot and we cannot turn the page and see what is next. Real life is doing to us what we do to our readers all the time; worrying us and holding us in suspense.

So, what do we do now?

We do what we always do. We process the real world through the lens of our writing. And perhaps the words we write will have an affect on that new world order as yet unknown but on its way.

Although we look like everyone else, we are powerful. We are writers. As scared and discouraged as anyone else, we still do the work of creating meaning out of chaos. While we are in lock down, we write.

Three Statues.

It takes a team to move a book from idea to launch.

R. Juan Harris’s novel, “Three Statues” began with three metal sculptures fabricated by the author. But as he lived with them, they began to suggest a story.

Ron Harris

What if the three statues were three women who, in turn, occupied the central spot in the sculptor’s life?

And so, Max’s story began.

Here we are at the launch in Apalachicola, FL.

Ron (R. Juan) is the handsome guy on the left.

I’m next. I served as content editor.

Debbie Hooper shot the cover. She faced a challenge taking three statues created on very different scales and combining them in a single, balanced image.

Finally, there is Sue Cronkite. a retired newspaper journalist who did the copy edit–there is nothing like a typo to remind the reader that this is just a story.

As you work on your own book remember, seeking help is part of the process.



The good thing about being God.

mountain vista

The omniscient point of view, which gives the writer license to go into any head and no head at all and to speak as a God-like observer, or even to address the reader directly, had its golden era in the 19th century.

Modern readers and writers prefer the more intimate view of first person or limited third. Both are much more natural. After all, we live confined to one consciousness, one point of view.

Omniscient creates an often chilly distance between the reader and the story; it provides the broader vistas seen from a mountaintop as opposed to what can be observed when studying an object in your hand.

But what did that 19th century novelist, and those who buck the trend and use the omniscient point of view today have that the modern intimate writer lacks?

The ability to get in backstory and exposition in a way that is natural and unobtrusive.

First person narration has to practically stand on its head to do the same. First person often disguises needed information as dialogue, but that only goes so far. A character who says, “You and I grew up in New Jersey.” is stating what the other character clearly knows. It is only in there to inform the reader.

The first-person narrative can divert briefly into a bit of backstory or exposition, but it always takes the reader out of the “now” of the story and weakens the sense that the reader is listening to the voice of the narrator.

If you have any doubt that this is true, notice how hard it is to transition back into the “now” of your story and regain the sense that the story is being told by an individual “I.”

Here is a example of the ease with which a broad description can be written, unencumbered by the need to justify its presence by having someone observe the scene or talk about it. This is the view from the mountaintop that is so easy to achieve when writing in the omniscient point of view.

“Every day at the same time the schoolmaster in a black skull-cap opened the shutters of his house, and the rural policeman, wearing his sabre over his blouse, passed by. Night and morning the post-horses, three by three, crossed the street to water at the pond. From time to time the bell of a public-house door rang, and when it was windy one could hear the little brass basins that served as a sign for the hairdresser’s shop creaking on their two rods.”

From Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” published in 1857.

Morning Pages.

img_0194Writers tackle big, daunting projects, like novels.

The stakes are high and the inner critic–that voice that dogs all writers–provides a nattering litany of discouragement.

You think you can write a book? Really? You think you have 80,000 words in you that someone would want to read? Give me a break!

To dodge that critic while building the muscles needed to write 80,000 words someone would want to read, try writing things that don’t matter, like Morning Pages.

The word “morning” is important. The inner critic armors-up as the day goes on, but as you leave sleep you are less guarded, less self-censoring.

The inner-critic sleeps later than the imagination.

I do this wandering form of writing every morning, spewing anything that comes to mind. Subjects I have covered include pain, a good dog, a brief imaginary scene from the Civil War, the value of habit, the nature of creativity, ripe fruit. My morning pages are a no-fault opportunity to try things out, to be foolish or serious, to stand up on my bicycle seat and show off, if only for myself.

Sometimes in that junk heap of words I find usable passages, but I maintain the habit in the same way an athlete maintains muscle by going to the gym.

Bottom line. Writers write. And if you don’t want to wear yourself flat grinding out a novel that may take years, throw in a few sprints, like morning pages.

Pinning your story to the clothesline of time.

Clothes pins on a line

The real world imposes external timelines that must be observed when writing realistic fiction.

The first is the pattern of the calendar year.

I’ve been working on a novel that opens in the fall just when the year begins its inevitable tilt toward the holidays. I didn’t bother to include the holidays. They were not necessary to tell the story I had in mind, but in revision I realized I had to work them in.

Any American story that passes through November and December traverses a landscape that includes holly berries, overeating, and family gatherings–what you do with these ingredients is up to you. Those holidays served to point out to my characters how alone they really were.

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Tell don’t show.

Telling.I know, show don’t tell is the opening line of the fiction writer’s bible—but now read the fine print.

Show don’t tell–but only if you are building a scene.

“Telling” is a shortcut used to convey information quickly and economically without a lot of fuss.

Okay, some kinds of “telling” deserve their bad reps.

Telling can be a form of laziness, a way to dodge the effort of building a scene with all those pesky details and he-said-she-saids.

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