Tag Archives: stories

Why Back Stories Matter (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part One of Why Back Stories Matter appeared on the 366Writing blog. In part two, we look at the specific reasons people love to hear the stories behind the story – and I share a few as well from my newest collection of essays and poetry, Backroad Melodies, which will be released on Summer Solstice, June 21.)

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

WHEN WRITING BOOKS, authors spend months or even years pulling together backstory. Novelists must know the ins and outs of their characters, and their characters’ lives, loves and tendencies, before committing the first sentence to paper (or screen). Non-fiction authors must track down all available background information on their human subjects or central topics in order to present their material. In both cases, extensive research precedes any writing. It’s quite normal for an author to pore through hundreds of source materials (books, articles, papers, videos, transcripts, etc.) before writing a manuscript.On top of that, fiction writers invariably pull nuggets of experience or perception from their own lives, and weave them into their characters, plots, or subtext.

The final books that reach bookshelves, online stores, and our admiring eyes compare favorably to icebergs: ten percent of the research and raw material makes it into print. Maybe ten percent of that is character, subject or topical backstory woven into the fabric of the narrative.

As for the other ninety percent? Many writers like to entomb their source and research material into cardboard file boxes or backup drives, never to see the light of day again. As for me? I want to know the backstories, and I want to share them. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I wove nearly a hundred personal anecdotes into the characters, events, lyrics, concerts, plot and subtext – not to mention the prose that took flame from research that included more than two hundred books and articles, two hundred CDs and another hundred DVDs. Will you know which anecdotes are from my life? Not unless you know me, well. Or unless I tell you. Behind each anecdote is another story, the agglomeration of experiences that created it. We could go on forever.

Which is the point: to give readers the experiences that shaped the wonderful experience they just had in reading a book. That’s why fan clubs exist. That’s why we comb through materials in all shapes and forms to find interviews, histories, biographies and reminiscences that add context, shape and perspective to what we just read. When we learn these back or side stories, lights switch on in our heads. Recognition parts our consciousness like Moses finding his groove on the Red Sea. “A-ha!” moments of realization break into smiles across our faces, accompanied by a warm, tingling feeling inside. Suddenly, we know more about what makes the author tick, what prompted him or her to write that passage in that way, or to drop in that particularly amazing detail. We feel good because we know more. Acquired and perceived knowledge always feels good.

51kzcyubVNL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_51S4MUUXEQL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_  Two of the best novels I’ve read in recent years – which I happened to read back-to-back in Spring 2013 – were Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. These two men were among four panelists at a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books discussion entitled, “Fiction at a Sideways Glance.” Well, as this piece might indicate, I’m going to be the moth drawn to any writing forum that looks at the craft from a different angle. Both men were engaging and insightful, their shared experiences delighting the capacity crowd. It so happens, too, that Fobbit and Beautiful Ruins are two of the most talked about novels of 2013.

Each book offers a fiesta for backstory seekers: Fobbit draws from a journal Abrams kept while serving as a public affairs specialist in Iraq, thus offering both a comedic (sometimes hilarious) look at the war and a troubling, in-the-trenches perspective we saw or read about nightly during Vietnam – the tragedy and heartache that happens before medals are pinned on our great servicemen and women – but which was expunged from our awareness by the 21st century Pentagon. Dark comedy? Fobbit is one of the best. You won’t think the same about the war in Iraq, or war itself, after reading it. (We will have the pleasure of hearing from Abrams later this month in a Word Journeys Blog interview).

Beautiful Ruins is an exquisite story of a romantic spark between two people that stretches across fifty years of life, in all its ups and downs, set against three backdrops that the author painted with a combination of personal observation, experience and research: the early production Italian set of the epic Cleopatra (or, to be more specific, what went on between Liz and Dick); a tiny hamlet with Italy’s majestic Cinqueterre coast; and the playground of golden dreams and brass-knuckle realities known as Hollywood.

I am a glutton for good stories, and all great books are loaded with creation points that spider outward as far as you can follow. They are all truly silken threads.

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

BACK TO THE BACKROADS. The roads listed earlier anchor the overall backstory of Backroad Melodies. Many of the poems were written about or on them. Since I’ve opened a can of worms, and encouraged everyone to either seek out or share the stories behind the stories, here are a few from this collection:

• “A Day on the Rake”:  I took a day of silence during a long meditation retreat in Northern California (on MacNab Cypress Road), grabbed a rake, and spent an entire day working on a mile of paths that wound between hundreds of plant species and statues of deities representing all the world’s major religions. Truly energizing.

• “Birthing a New Day”: An experience from the inception of my relationship with Martha, at the base of Mount Palomar, in her backyard on Ushla Way, twenty miles from the nearest town. Years later, I can gladly report that very day feels like this poem.

• “Fossil Light”: Standing outside on a crystal clear midnight in February, temperature three degrees above zero, viewing the stars through the prism of their original conception. What we see twinkling today is the way they existed before modern civilization, before humanity … even before dinosaurs. Fossil light.

• “The Way Stones Tell Stories”: Sitting in the San Luis Rey riverbed during dry season, holding a stone, admiring its age and stoic presence. Every sentient being has its storytelling style; our job is to know how to listen, and what to listen for.

• “Morning Prayer”: Driving through Capitol Reef in Eastern Utah just as dawn erupted on the cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges of this monocline, known to geologists as the Waterpocket Fold. I feel Native American spirit and energy most profoundly in the Four Corners region … as on this morning.

• “Ghost Riding”: This could be subtitled, “the songs of trees on back roads.” When wires, lights and busy minds aren’t present, wind feels and sounds like ghosts while whispering through trees.

• “Tea Time”: Over a three-year period, I had the profound pleasure of walking next door occasionally and drinking tea with my friend and favorite poet, Gary Snyder. Few people are more conversant on so many different topics.

• “Four Pool Quartet”: On a hot, late September day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, one of my students asked if we could hold an outdoor class. You don’t have to ask me that question twice. We loaded up cars, and I took them to an out-of-the-way spot on the Yuba River, reachable only by driving a road you don’t want to think about in icy or snowy weather, then hiking down a trail steep enough to tax a bighorn sheep. We sat on giant flatrock, deposited when the Sierra Nevada range was formed five million years ago, and wrote and swam for two hours. (“Did you know this snow-fed, rock-strewn river has five or six different currents,” I told them, “only three of which you see above the surface?”) This poem was one of my two contributions for the day, written behind a back road, while sitting in a river pool.

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15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of my two-part series that compares 15 points in common between the writing process – particularly book and extensive projects – and running marathons. Actually, it’s 18 points in common, but who’s counting?)

“The race begins at 20 miles”: Years ago, a friend, journalist and veteran marathoner said this to me. While most people might crash and burn at 20 miles (or before), serious marathon racers dig in the final 10K. So it is with book writing. The last leg is often the hardest. You’re tired, you’ve lived with the subject for months or years, and you want to be finished. But this is the most vital part of the book, next to the first chapter. Focus more intently than ever, tap emotional and creative reserves, and power through to the finish.

Enjoy the solitude: If ever four groups of people know and understand solitude better than the rest of the population, they would be runners, writers, artists and monks. We spend countless hours alone with our words. Enjoy the quiet time; enjoy the ideal atmosphere it provides you to create, think deeply, and work. Not everyone gets this chance. Ask someone who works in a cubicle or workstation all day. The material percolates in solitude. The more you can enjoy it and immerse in it, the more you can produce – and the more cohesive it will be.

Push the hills: One of the best road racing strategies is to push hills hard – and then surge for 30 meters or so at the top. All authors know there are many uphill climbs in the long course of writing a book – struggles with scenes, characters, getting the right information, fluid narrative description, etc. Some days, we feel like we can write anything; on others, our sentences feel like back roads clunkers. We all hit them; we all wonder how we’re going to get to the top. The answer: one word at a time. Push past the obstacles, while holding to the greater vision for your work. Write hard to keep the momentum going.

Increase focus as the race progresses: The same thing has happened in every marathon I’ve raced. For the first eight miles or so, runners talk to each other, compare strategies, talk about favorite runs they’ve ever taken, maybe shoot photos of the crowd (if they carry smartphones, which many do — not me!) and truly enjoy being out there. For the next eight miles, the focus tightens, paces become locked in, and the talking lessens. For the final ten miles, there is very little talking and very deep focus. Good authors take us deeper and deeper into their stories, a reflection of their increased focus as they deliver the goods. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t hit too many aid stations: One of the myths (and, actually, physical dangers) of long races is that it is important to drink at every aid station. NOT SO. When I run marathons, I only drink six times – roughly once every 4½ miles. Everyone has their number, but point is: don’t take too many breaks. This applies directly to writing. Momentum and rhythm are everything; when you’re on a roll, stay on it. If you must, take only small breaks when writing books to recharge, but never more than a week or two. Long breaks are a no-no, unless you’re between drafts.

There will be pain: To borrow from a surfwear manufacturer’s 1980s ad campaign, Every marathoner knows the feeling. It starts at about 15 miles, hits fully at 18 to 20 miles, and envelops you the final 6 miles. PAIN. We know it’s coming when we toe the starting line, but we know how to handle it – by reaching down and taking the race one stride at a time. Likewise, book writing can be (and often is) emotionally painful and mentally taxing, especially tell-all memoirs and novels with characters exhibiting emotions that grab you from the page. When you read scenes like this, you know the writer is feeling it. Embrace the pain, and turn it into your ally. Use it to drive more deeply within yourself, opening new thresholds of possibility for your writing – and greater perspective as a person. The more you can work with writing pain in all its forms, the more deeply touched readers will be.

Head down; one step at a time: This extends from the last comment. I ran the 2009 Boston Marathon with moderate plantar fasciitis. In other words, the last five miles were hell. However, I nearly held my earlier race pace because I pulled my cap over my eyes like I was in the ‘hood, looked down at my toes, and took it one step at a time. That’s exactly how I write books; by adopting that technique, I’ve gone from being a good starter to a good finisher. Keep your head down and write one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time – and one sentence at a time. This approach becomes especially important when revising and self-editing, when you make sure every word fits and every word counts.

Finish strong: One of the best ways to ensure good race results is to finish strong in each training run, picking up the pace at the end. Likewise with book writing. Good final chapters sew up the story or subject, and leave readers feeling: a) like they want more; b) wholly satisfied; or c) Googling you for more books, or for more perspectives based upon the great book you have given them. Reach down and give it everything you’ve got in the last chapter – just like a good racer.

Celebrate!: When we finish something as monumental as a book, or a marathon, it’s time to celebrate! Then take at least a week off from writing of any kind … your batteries will definitely need to be recharged.

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A Higher Purpose: Not Fearing Death Part 2 of Interview with ‘A Taste of Eternity’ Author Martha Halda

How do life-changing or transforming events affect our life purpose? And how do we integrate everything we do into that purpose – and then share it with others?

Martha Halda has found her way: By writing A Taste of Eternity, a forthcoming memoir about how one afternoon reshaped her outlook on life, and the way she chooses to live it.

On October 8, 1999, Martha suffered a horrific car accident, after which she was pronounced clinically dead three caa18c26a173d0dd5e52ba7e572fad9atimes. She remains the only person in the 50-year history of Palomar Pomerado Hospital (North San Diego County) to survive after scoring 0 on her CRAM (Clinical Risk Assessment and Management). Those who score 0 to 1 almost always die, or live in a paralyzed and/or persistent vegetative state. She recovered fully – even completing the 2002 Dublin Marathon.

During her passing over, she had a profound near death experience. How that experience transformed and shifted her life, and how she carried it forward, is covered in A Taste of Eternity, now making its rounds among major publishers through literary agent Dana Newman.

Martha also offers behind-the-chapters stories pertaining to the book at her blog, http://atasteofeternity.wordpress.com.

This is the second of a touching, life-affirming two-part interview with Martha, which comes at a most fitting time, as millions begin to celebrate Easter or Passover.

Word Journeys: Why do so many people find it hard to believe someone can have a near death experience, taste eternity, or have direct perception of God?

Martha Halda: I feel it’s because we are too busy judging.  Judgment causes the unbearable fear of non-acceptance.  Think about it, from our first day on the playground, all we want is to be accepted, to be part of the group, invited in.  Some people can’t accept what they haven’t seen, touched or felt themselves. Some need science to prove anything or everything before they will accept it, Often, people are afraid that society will think them odd or mentally off.  To talk about this, I needed the faith that comes from knowing that what I experienced was 100% real.   Faith can go a long way, but first we must to get out of our own way. We need to remove the mighty ego.  Many people still need society to accept it, before they are willing.

WJ: That’s a great point – and leads to my next question. A Taste of Eternity crosses all religious lines – and goes beyond them. When I read it, I saw how you touched and experienced the unifying point behind ALL religions. Could you speak to the essence of spirit, based on your experience?

MH: For me, the essence of spirit is sharing, caring, love, a unity of all things.  I mean all things: everything is energy, it is all particles or atoms or cells, and they are all part of each other.  During my experience, at one point, I had a mental vision or thought that a waterfall would be nice; suddenly, particles from all over a meadow came together and re-formed as a waterfall.  It was as if everything existed to bring pleasure.

img_1293WJ: Three years after your accident, after being told you would never walk again, you completed the Dublin Marathon. How did the marathon intensify your desire to live life to the max, without fear of what may or may not happen next?  

MH: I know that any day could be my last. When it’s my time, then it’s my time, I have no fear of death; in fact, I welcome the day.  I won’t do anything to bring it on myself, because I want to be sure I get to go to Heaven again, and I don’t want to feel the hurt I would cause my friends.

WJ: How does your family view your experience now, compared with how they first responded to it?

MH: They don’t really view it differently at all.  We don’t talk about it much.  It may have changed their views of life indirectly, but it is a personal thing.  I feel they have a beauty inside their souls knowing that God is there for each of us, and there is no reason to fear death.

WJ: How did your life purpose change from your experience?

MH: Today, I don’t know if I really have one, in the traditional way. I used to have a very clear purpose as a mother. Now, it is just to see life in all things with joy. I want to understand how and why religions say their way is the only right way; the loving embrace of the God I met was not that condemning.  I feel if people would open their hearts and minds to another’s way, they would see the commonality in our beliefs, customs, and lifestyles, and not the differences.

WJ: You came back with heightened senses, one of which is a particular affinity with animals, which you discuss in the book. Could you elaborate?

MH: I just look into the eyes of birds, dogs, cats, birds or deer and can tell if they are happy and well or not.  They don’t fear me, and some will become very assertive toward me in a good way. They know they are safe with me.  That’s all.  When you bring this up, I get the opportunity to feel the way some of the people in my life felt about me talking about my near death experience – shoosh! someone might hear you. (laughs)

WJ: When people read books like A Taste of Eternity, or talk with you about it, what would you like them to take away from the experience?

MH: Simply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  To give, share, and express love; it’s the most important thing we have to offer! Love is the only Eternal possession we have. When we die, the only thing we take is the love we shared, the memories we make, and our integrity. Everything else stays here.  No U-Hauls in Heaven.

WJ: Finally, last year on your birthday, you did something not a lot of 50-somethings would do: jumped off a 50-foot cliff into the Ganges River near Varanasi, India – not once, but several times.

MH: Well, I was also the only high school girl skateboarder in the mid-1970s who bombed the steep La Costa hills in Carlsbad (Calif.), where I grew up! So it’s not that much of a departure for me. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d been white-water rafting all morning with two young ladies from Scotland who were also go-for-it women. I saw the cliffs, told our guide to beach the raft, walked past some Indian men who were thinking about it but were afraid to jump … and I stepped in front of them and jumped. I laugh every time I close my eyes and see the looks on their faces! It was one of those extraordinary moments. I’m always ready for them.

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It’s Time for NaNoWriMo!

What will you be writing for NaNoWriMo?

After nearly a year-long wait, NaNoWriMo has finally arrived. National Novel Writing Month used to be another convenient literary designation on the calendar where librarians, bookstore owners and people in the literary world paid a little special attention to the novel — like they do in April with National Poetry Month. 

However, a few years ago, someone came up with the crafty idea of giving National Novel Writing Month a clever acronym and a community-based

The month of November is a great time to dive deep and write a novel — or any kind of book.

website, designed to help writers actually spend the month of November writing a novel.

The result has been extraordinary: the advent of NaNoWriMo. Beginning Thursday, Nov. 1, more than 1 million writers — along with many college and high school writing programs, community writing groups and professional writers clubs — will log on to their personal pages on www.nanowrimo.org and take the wordsmith’s challenge: to write at least 50,000 words in one month.

I’m going to be among them. While my effort won’t necessarily be fiction — it will be the start of my memoir, working title Do I Have a Story For You! —  I’m just as pumped up as everyone else. During this month, I will spend a couple hours per day (or more, on some days) writing out the stories for my memoir, while also chatting with and supporting other writers in my NaNoWriMo support group. My goal will be to write about 2,000 words per day, to get to that magical 50,000 word mark. And I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.

It sounds daunting to write 50,000 words in one month. If you’re soloing, it can be very daunting. Which leads to the beauty of NaNoWriMo: while you’re cranking out your novel, memoir or story, so are more than a million others. There is a group energy and consciousness that, I swear, you can feel. Everyone is elevating everyone else. For a golden month, we’re not the only writers engaged in the solitary act of writing a book. I sure felt it last year, when I jumped into the fray very late (because of teaching duties) and still put out the first 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress, Open Mic Night at Boccaccio’s, in the last 10 days of NaNoWriMo.

In 2011, more than 3 billion words were recorded on NaNoWriMo’s official count, which is drawn from the individual daily word count updates of each participant. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of minds stretching out to produce their works. Several of my writing support group partners started and finished entire novels; others really got into it and wrote 14 to 16 hours per day.

Do you have a story you want to write? Do you want to try this out? I sure hope so; NaNoWriMo is an absolute blast. Log onto the website, fill out your profile and a few words about your desired story — or collection of short stories — and be ready to log on Thursday and write, write, write. And let us know how you did!


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Meet “Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned” author Richard S. Jaffe

On February 1, Word Journeys client Richard S. Jaffe celebrated the national release of his first book, Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned (New Horizon Press).This book culminated 2 ½ years of organizing, writing, revising, re-writing and editing by Richard and me, one of the most meaningful projects with which I’ve been involved. Lisa Maine, our senior graphic designer and right-hand person, designed his official website as well.

For those who don’t know, Richard is one of the top high-profile defense attorneys in the nation. He is especially effective when it comes to murder cases when the death penalty option is on the table. His tireless work has led to the exoneration of six innocent and wrongly convicted men who spent from five to nearly 20 years on Death Row before their verdicts were reversed. That’s the most successful such record of any attorney in U.S. history. Furthermore, only one of more than 70 capital murder cases Richard has defended from the beginning resulted in a death sentence.

From his offices in Birmingham, Alabama — the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement — Richard has defended men and women from the internationally notorious (1996 Olympic Games and family planning clinic bomber Eric Rudolph) to regional celebrities and local businessmen. He has saved some of his best work for those who needed him most: impoverished men who either made bad choices or were in the wrong place, and had nowhere else to turn.

That’s where Quest for Justice hits its spiritual and narrative stride. Richard’s passionate discussion about the inequities of the death penalty, direct relationship between available money and legal options, and his sharing of the intimate details of several cases (to the extent client-attorney confidentiality allows) offers a rare, inside look at the criminal justice system from the trenches. It also spotlights a deeply caring, brilliant, spiritual man who started off his legal career not knowing it would become what it is today: a platform for his larger purpose, to make sure everyone is treated fairly and respected for their right of innocence until proven guilty.

Richard Jaffe (L) with Gary Drinkard, one of the innocent Death Row inmates he helped to exonerate.

The stories are riveting, written in Richard’s charming, detail-rich Southern style that makes him so endearing and indomitable in the courtroom. However, what I found most appealing about Quest for Justice was that it’s a compelling story about how we relate to each other — and how simple caring can go a long way. He hopes the nation’s compassion rises to the level where we do away with the exorbitant financial and emotional costs of the Death Penalty and replace it with life imprisonment for the worst offenders.

What follows is Part 1 of an interview I conducted with Richard in July 2011, after we finished principal work on Quest for Justice and New Horizon Press purchased the manuscript through the efforts of literary agent Verna Dreisbach. In it, I trust you will see the compassion, drive, gentle relentlessness and storytelling savvy of one of the most high integrity and successful attorneys practicing law today.

Question: First of all, Richard, you grew up in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle, in Birmingham during the late 1950s and 1960s. How did the events you witnessed and heard about, and the struggles of blacks to achieve equal rights, shape you as a crusader for justice?

RICHARD JAFFE: I and almost all of my friends grew up in Mountain Brook, the relatively affluent “over the mountain” area of Birmingham. Our parents shielded us from the tumultuous and violent civil rights hosing, beatings and jailing that occurred daily and especially the lynchings and killings. But the manner in which people of color were treated could not be hidden. The separate bathrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains in public places also were plainly in sight as was the unearned deference showed whites by those of color.  We observed the humiliation and disrespect constantly and I knew there something inhumane about it. By contrast, my father treated everyone the same, regardless of the color of one’s skin. These observations and experiences profoundly affected my view that the majority will must be questioned and that truth to power is essential to a free society and the rule of law.

Q: How much did To Kill A Mockingbird influence you in not only your career choice, but the drama and stagecraft of the courtroom?

RJ: To Kill a Mockingbird took place in a fictional town of Macomb, but the author, Harper Lee, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. The racially motivated false conviction of Thomas Robinson for raping a white woman, who clearly could not be believed, influenced me and most criminal lawyers in the country. Atticus Finch did not hesitate to heed the call to defend Mr. Robinson. His passion, eloquence and character served as a role model for me as an attorney who defends death penalty cases in the Deep South. My sister, Sandy Jaffe, was also significantly influenced. Her documentary Our Mockingbird (soon to be completed) highlights two of the individuals I write about in Quest For Justice.

Q: You started out as an Assistant DA and Assistant Attorney General, then switched over to become a defense attorney. What was it about defending the accused that appealed to you? Anything in particular?

RJ: Due to my background and experiences, including watching Perry Mason as a child, I always desired to defend those who the government accused of serious criminal offenses.  The state has all the resources and lawyers it needs. Well-trained and devoted defenders area always needed to protect and defend someone who cannot defend himself, which often entails also standing up for their invaluable and sacred constitutional rights upon which our country was founded.

Q: In Quest for Justice, you talk early and often about cases that appear won, only to be lost — and vice-versa. It’s an unpredictable side of trial law we don’t often see on TV or movies or read about. Could you share a couple of the misconceptions we receive about trial law that simply don’t square with the real thing?

RJ: Trials, especially jury trials, have fascinated people since ancient Greek and Roman times. Trials by a jury of twelve were an intricate part of the Magna Carta in 1215. Before T.V., the criminal trial was the hottest show to attend. Now, with the advent of social media, people feel they know the characters and are a part of the drama. Yet, the outcomes of jury trials are often unpredictable. Jurors must decide the trials through the prism of age-old legal principles. The outcome of a trial is only as good as the evidence presented. We know that 138 people have been exonerated from death row. We do not know how many innocent people have been executed. We also know that sometimes, someone who is probably guilty gets off due to a lack of evidence or some other breakdown in the system. Because human beings investigate, bring and defend the charges, human witnesses offer evidence and twelve people decide what is credible or not, trials will always be unpredictable. But one thing is for sure: the only way to have a valid view is to sit on the jury that decides the case.

Q: An interesting point you make along these lines concerns the definition of “winning a case.” Society looks at it in black-and-white — an acquittal is a victory for the defense lawyer, a conviction is a defeat. Yet, you see it in layers, relative to the nature of the charge and potential worst punishment. How do you weigh “wins” and “losses” with your clients — and your own high standards?

RJ: Winning is a relative term in any context. The Government may bring over a hundred charges, but if it wins in one, the punishment can be severe. On the other hand, as in the Casey Anthony case, the jury found her guilty of lesser charges and thus the defense won. In a death penalty case, the defense lawyer may know that a life verdict is a win – saving the clients life. The prosecution may feel it lost. The defendant may also feel he lost.

(Part 2 of the interview with Richard Jaffe will post on Monday, February 13)


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The Eyes Have It

To order The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life

As I watched the closing ceremonies of a fantastic 2010 Winter Olympic Games, I looked out the window of the Southern California condo that serves as my West Coast office. The full moon shone in its silver glory. On the TV, a golden full moon beamed over Vancouver. Appropriate, considering the Canadian hockey team had just beaten the U.S. for the gold medal, and the host nation had just reminded the world what the Olympic spirit is all about. The Canadians’ hospitality – and performances – were truly golden, as they set an all-time record for gold medals won in a single Winter Olympics.

I digress … but only slightly. While considering the different shades of the full moon, I started thinking about eyes, and how vital they are to our perception of the world – and our readers’ perceptions of the people who make our stories. Whether we’re writing novels, articles, essays, poems or journal entries, we can show and illustrate our subjects’ inner and outer worlds by writing effectively and evocatively about their eyes. I’m not just talking about simple descriptions of color or shape, although both are very important to give readers a visual imprint of the subject or character. I’m talking about peering so deeply into one’s eyes that we see the truth of what is percolating, simmering or resting in their hearts, souls and psyches.

This involves what I consider to be the other side of deep listening – listening to the language being spoken in the eyes of the person sitting across from you, or staring out at you from the pages of your story. The way people focus (or not), divert their gaze, increase their rate of blinking, widen or narrow their eyes says much about both the inner character and what is really happening emotionally. Plumbing even deeper, eyes literally cast different qualities of light or shadow to reveal the emotional gravity, pace and impact of situations, no matter how convincing the words they may speak – or even the disarming smiles that may cross their faces.

A quick example from my forthcoming novel, The Voice, an exchange between the father and daughter protagonists, Tom and Christine Timoreaux:

He could apologize no more; every word carried deepest sincerity. There was nothing left to say. She smiled in acceptance, yet the light and shadow swirling in her eyes suggested something else, a conflict, a grip that refused to let go.

Great writers use the eyes of their subjects or characters to build dramatic scenes without describing a single emotion. They simply show the subject’s eyes in full action, reflecting the one part of our physical body that, unless we’re ice-cold psychopaths, cannot lie. They dive as deeply as possible, riding the eye-to-soul highway to tell the stories that lips, egos, body language, emotional walls and secrets do not otherwise reveal.

Every time we write, let’s work to master the language of the eyes. Listen with your eyes when talking to others, or hanging out with them. Look for quality of eye contact, movement, joyful dances or shards of pain – and the sense of light or shadow that comes along with it. Tune into your heart and intuitive mind, and try to feel the other side of those expressions, what is happening in your subject’s heart and soul, what they’re hiding, what they’re revealing. Then write the material. Just like good eye contact itself, that level of writing will keep readers staring at your pages. It will also help your writing become more and more authentic, so that it touches the place where all of us can relate – the universal truth.

The eyes definitely have it – in life, in writing. Showcase them and uncover the deepest stories that they reflect.

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Twelve Days of Christmas…in Writing

For those who celebrate Christmas, today marks the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas, a measure immortalized in our culture by 12 pipers piping, 11 drummers drumming…and a partridge in a pear tree.

This is a time of family get-togethers, gift giving and receiving, traveling to meet friends and relatives, dealing with snowy and icy road conditions, drinking egg nog, and other observances of the season. It’s also a time of heightened emotions, poignant feelings, remembering those we’ve lost, appreciating and honoring more fully those who may not be with us much longer, and luxuriating in the feeling of a new love kindled.

Because of the heightened emotion and sense of presence the holiday season often brings, the time can also be ideal for writers, artists and musicians to lay down new stories, poems, paintings, sculptures, drawings and lyrics. It’s always such a joy to chronicle the season, to find nuances, angles or relationships, match them with setting and write your own Christmas or holiday stories.

I’ll be teaching a Christmas story-writing workshop Tuesday night, always an enjoyable occasion. In advance of that event, I’d like to share 12 prompts for writing Christmas stories:

1. What moves you this season?
2. What event, person or circumstance stirs you and reminds you of the most important values and virtues of the season?
3. Ask an older relative about his/her first Christmas that he/she remembers—and create a short story around that setting
4. Take your older relative’s memory and compare it with a modern-day Christmas. Note the differences … but also the similarities.
5. What is the most surprising Christmas present you’ve ever received—and how did it change your day, week, year or life?
6. Who is the craziest person ever invited to a Christmas event you attended? What made them crazy? What did they add to the day? Characterize them as they interacted with you?
7. What was (is) your favorite Christmas dream or fantasy? Hanging on the North Pole with Santa? Building toys? Hijacking the reindeer? Become childlike for a couple of hours and write a fantasical story
8. Spend the next two weeks capturing specific images of this particular season in your journal — settings, faces, moods, storms, twinkling lights. Write little vignettes or poems, then string them together into a commemorative chapbook of your holiday season.
9. Where is the coolest place you’ve ever spent Christmas? Deep in a snowbound New Hampshire forest? Rubbing your toes in Hawaiian sand? Take yourself back there and write a Christmas travelogue.
10. We all seek to extend helping hands to the less fortunate during this season. Remember the person who needed your help the most—and received it? What was his/her story? Recount the story, with your interaction as the plot line. Show the dance of giving and receiving in its most significant form.
11. During which holiday season were you immersed in the deepest love of your life? This season? Or another? Take your lover by the hand (literally or in words), walk to a fireplace, sit or lie with each other, and write as if you’re staring into your lover’s eyes and every word is a beat of your heart. Go deep. Feel all. Be smoking hot. Embrace the love.
12. Dig into your stocking of ideas, pull out some of them, and treat yourself to the special gift of storying out these ideas, either entirely or in preparation for a fast start to the 2008 writing season.

See what you can write during these Twelve Days of Christmas … and I look forward to hearing all about the collection you put together!

Buy Now!
Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences In Everything You Write — $10.95
Coyotes in Broad Daylight: New Poetry & Essays — $11.95
Shades of Green: Selected Poetry & Essays — $11.95
Freedom of Vision, edited by Stephen Gladish and Robert Yehling — $15.95

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