Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The October Westside Writers Schmooze Gets BLOODY!

Hi there Schmoozers - we're trying something a little different since Charlie missed our last Schmooze. This month we present...a conversation.

Hey Karol! How did the Schmooze go without me? Don't feel bad if the answer is "terrible.” I'm sure you did the best you could given your abilities.

Actually, Charlie, I thought it went great! We had a smallish but passionate group of 27 Schmoozers (28 if we include you, and as it turned out, you were there with us in more than just in spirit…but I’ll get to that…).

After announcing upcoming events and the customary brief introductions, we dove right in to the topic at hand: Blood On The Page – what the heck is it and how do we mere mortal writers achieve it?

Our discussion got kicked off by…well…YOU!

God, I AM good. I don't even recall being there. I recall being at my sister-in-law's house eating very healthy, un-charred, un-browned, uninteresting food. My thoughts were with you, though. I was really sorry to miss this one: it's dear to my heart. Hey, that's a pun: blood/heart! Get it??

Anyway, how exactly did I "kick it off" and what in heck did I say? And what did our intrepid Schmoozers say in response (besides the inevitable "Kudos!")?

Well, after I stammered a bit about how you and I had discussed what blood on the page really means and decided that it had to do with emotion rather than tense plot points, your Schmoozerific stand-in, Greg Pincus, cleared his throat and suggested that he read what you wrote, because, well, it was “really terrific.”

He then read the following:

Lately I’ve had to read a lot of teenager’s college essays, and I’ve noticed they all share the same problem: they don’t reveal anything about the actual teen. Kids want to protect themselves, hide themselves behind “wit” or lessons learned. Anything but reveal who they really are.

I always tell them the same thing: it’s fine, but there’s no you in it. You tell us all these things that happened to you, but you don’t tell us how you felt about it; what it did to you inside, etc. Put some skin in the game. Some blood on the page. That is, put some you into it.

I feel the same holds true for many of the things folks write. They’re nice, fun stories, but the have no real pressing need to be told. And if there’s no need to be told, there’s no need to be read. They are soulless constructs.

Blood is NOT the thing that makes you anxious to read on, to turn the page, to find out what happens next. It is the thing that really makes you believe and feel what you’re reading right now. The thing that makes you forget you are reading and feel you are experiencing.

Blood is the essence, the heart, the juice behind the story. It’s what makes it alive, not a story but a living, breathing thing. Another way to put it is that blood makes the story feel lived rather than invented.

Blood can also be passion. Something bigger than the story that informs it. Something the author believes to his or her core, that the authors are burning to say or show. This is not the same as whatever lessons the character is learning. It can even be the writerly passion to tell a new kind of story, or tell an old story in a new way. (e.g. Reservoir Dogs: That movie is as much about Tarantino’s excitement to make a new kind of movie as it is about any plot.) Whatever the passion, if the writer allows it to inform the work, it can make the whole thing come alive.

At the risk of making your sizable ego even bigger, I will report that the Schmoozers seemed to hang on your…er, uh …Greg’s every word (and one even asked me to e-mail her a copy). I assured everyone that your profound ruminations would be included in this blog post.

Ego is a funny thing, you know? No matter how big it gets (and it really did inflate quite a bit just now) it’s never big enough to make me feel like I’m up to the task of writing well. Fortunately, that’s not a bar I choose to hold myself up to.

But back to the Schmooze: What happened next? My schedule says you guys were going to talk about how you get the page bloody.

Not so fast, partner. Your brilliant kick off launched an interesting conversation about what blood on the page means. (Contrary to what your ego may be telling you about how “beat all/end all” your statement may have been, others did have stuff to add.)

A number of bloody good authors were named – folks like Ellen Hopkins, Libba Bray, Suzanne Collins, Donna Jo Napoli, Neil Gaiman and Laurie Halse Anderson – who all seemed more than willing to put their characters in peril. One Schmoozer wondered whether using first person is inherently “bloodier” than third person and another made the distinction between blood and voice.

Greg chimed back in with the idea that successful authors often have themes they need to explore and, while the plots of their books might not mirror the circumstances that they experienced personally, often times the themes speak to something personal. He gave John Green’s Looking For Alaska as an example, saying that Green’s intent was to explore how the characters dealt with tragedy.

There was general agreement that the real goal was to get to the root of the problem and the feelings around it – rather than to focus on the “symptoms.”

We wound up our What Is Blood discussion with the question of whether picture books could also have blood on the page.

The Schmoozers were quick to site several picture books that fit that bill, mentioning titles like Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Judith Viorst & Ray Cruz) and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary: A Cautionary Tale (Mo Willems). It was also noted that the blood can be in the pictures rather than – or in addition to – the text.

DAMMIT, DAMMIT, DAMMIT! That sounds incredible! Who would have thought other people had such interesting things to say?

That does it: one of these days I’m gonna actually listen to someone. Man, I’m sorry I missed it.

Yeah – so after ALL that – we did get around to the “OK, So How The Heck Do We Get The Blood On The Page Now That We Know What It Is…HUH?!?” portion of the evening

Lots of people had suggestions, running the gamut from using music or soundtracks for particular projects to get you in the right frame of mind to Sara Wilson Etienne’s tactile approach of creating character boxes full of physical items from her characters’ lives.

(Interjecting: If you ask me, Sara's just a big show-off, working harder than the rest of us for a little extra character oomph when she could be relaxing with beer and pizza.)

(Interjecting back: Jealous! …Okay, so we all are.)


Of course the tried-and-true theory of Show, Don’t Tell came up, and it was pointed out that Anastasia Suen has a wonderfully succinct explanation of the difference between “showing” and “telling” in her book, Picture Writing: Writing for Kids and Teens.

Another really helpful book that was suggested was Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein.

Don’t know if Greg mentioned it, but I found a terrific Chekhov quote about that:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Yes, of course! I meant to let you know that we did, indeed, use the awesome Chekhov quote you’d found. My bad.

Now, where was I…?

Right. After much discussion, I decided – enough talk, let’s see if we can get some blood to flow, right here, right now! You guessed it – it was time for our fabulous writing exercise.

Since you were too busy with your highly important personal stuff to show up for your Schmooze co-coordinator commitment – and for anyone else who might have missed out on the bloody fun, probably for much better reasons – here’s your chance to participate:

First, close your eyes (okay, close them after you read the rest of the exercise set up). Imagine yourself at a particular age. It could be the age of a character you’re currently writing about, will soon be writing about or the age you write about most often. Now try to remember how you felt. Free write.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

…Sorry sister, it ain’t happening. Not that I’m self-conscious or anything. Just wouldn’t want to intimidate our readers with my brilliance.

But what happened when you did it at the Schmooze?

Wuss!! Okay, fine. Be that way….


After allowing time for people to finish, I asked if anyone wanted to share what they’d written. One brave Schmoozer volunteered to go first, and boy was she a tough act to follow! Her raw, emotional stream-of-conscious writing about need and shame pretty much stunned the room – no more so than when she said the age she’d imagined was five! (Personally, I was thinking much older, at least 13 or so.)

She helped to open the floodgates and many stunning pieces followed, covering subjects like sibling rivalry, riding a bike for the first time, the freedom of climbing a tree, being uprooted due to a new marriage and, of course, sexuality – which ran the gamut from awkward to tense to hilarious.

I was seriously BLOWN AWAY by the talent in our group and by how willing people were to read what they’d written. A few have even volunteered to let me post what they wrote here!!

Angry and scared and mad that I am getting older and more responsibility is expected of me—4 younger siblings and an out of control mother, resentful of what is asked of me and wanting to be a kid longer, wanting to play, don't want to be mother's emotional caretaker. Then—guilty, bad, unloved, manipulated, used, ignored.

Age – 9

I am intense, hyper aware, with strong beliefs, the world is mine. I owned it. My future was about to begin...I couldn’t wait. I wanted my freedom. I wanted it badly. I couldn’t wait. High School would be over soon. I was free to go...I wanted out. I counted the days. I wanted nothing more. Nobody could tell me what to do. No more rules...The air. The sky. The open road. College as far away from home as possible. Graduation couldn’t come soon enough.

Age – 17, Senior Year

There she is. You Know Who. I can’t say her name. You know I can’t. I can’t. I’m hiding behind a tree because she might see me. There she is. She’s looking this way. How do I get her to notice me? Maybe I’ll wait for her after school and carry her books. Maybe I’ll be walking home with her and that German shepherd that’s always barking at me will attack us and maybe I’ll defend her. I’ll punch the dog in the noise and it’ll run away and maybe You Know Who will fall in love with me and maybe she’ll want me to be her boyfriend then maybe, maybe we’ll walk home holding hands. I’m really scared of that dog.

Age – 10

HOLY CRAPOLI! These people are too good. Now I’m glad I wasn’t there: it’s too intimidating! Besides, it sounds like I’m (sniff) completely (sniff, sniff) UNEEDED-WAHHH!!

Fear not, Charlie. Just after we got done blowing ourselves away with the writing people shared, Greg did that clearing-of-the-throat-thing and made sure people knew YOUR thoughts on the trappings of autobiographical writing by reading the following:

One way to short circuit it, and get to real juicy stuff, is to make your work autobiographical. This gives you access to all kinds of emotion and observations. But it’s risky. Because autobiography by itself is not blood on the page. Just cause something happened doesn’t mean it will come alive when you write it. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that, the closer you get to the actual event, the less real it will feel. Why? Because for something to live, breath and bleed on the page, it must first be digested. It must be at least once removed from real life, infused with your sensibilities. For as anyone who’s lived it should know, real life is pointless, unfocussed, and uninteresting.

Sounds like me. “Leave ‘em suicidal,” I always say.

We finished up the Schmooze with a few fabulous examples of Blood On The Page from the following books:

Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan

Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff

What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

Horray For Amanda & Her Alligator by Mo Willems

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Not A Stick by Antoinette Portis

After that, it was time to pack it all up and go home. You missed a good one, my friend. And we really, really, really missed YOU! (Well, at least I did!)

Yeah, just one more question - how did the red velvet cupcakes go over?

They were devilishly delish! (I was going to say they were “bloody good,” but I think I’ve definitely overused that phrase big time.)

Last but not least, we both want to give a HUGE thank you to Greg for filling in so valiantly! (Apparently coordinating the Schmooze is like riding a bike because Greg seemed to have NO trouble remembering what to do.)

And there you have it Westside Schmoozers – all the details on our Blood On The Page Schmooze!

Sad you missed it? Well, don’t miss the next one on November 9th (this includes YOU, Charlie). Our topic will be GIVE IT AWAY NOW, where we’ll be discussing whether it’s possible to monetize your art by taking money out of the equation. We'll also be talking with some of our own intrepid Schmoozers who have made money by first giving stuff away.

PLUS – save the date – at our December 14th Schmooze, we’ll welcome author Allen Zadoff, winner of the Sid Fleischman Award for his debut YA novel Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have. (If that title sounds familiar, it’s because a passage from the book was one of our “Blood On The Page” examples noted above).

Until then…

Keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol


  1. Confidential sources tell me that the person who read the Age 10 example, "There she is. You Know Who.", never wrote anything down. That person stared at a blank page, pretending to read, and recited the lines from memory.
    What a show off!
    Envious in Encino

  2. You guys are HILARIOUS! LOVE the C/K format. This was one of my favorite topics of all time, and I'm sorry I missed it. Thanks for the delicious--and "rare"--recap!

    One of my own tips for capturing life: I keep photos next to me as I write--of people I know and that I've cut out of magazines--that remind me of my characters. Then, whenever I'm writing that character's dialog, I stare cross-eyed at the relevent photos and let lines come to me. It saves a lot of time and inevitably turns out better than what I would have come up with, without.

    I did the writing exercise just now, by the way, while you waited. It was awesome--and I did it before I read everyone else's, which I didn't know you were going to share, and which totally validated the intensity of my bit, too! That REALLY gave me the experience of being there-- THANKS!!

    See you at the next Schmooze!

  3. Wow! I feel like I was there. Oh, wait. I was. Still, this is a great recap... and Charlie, you really were a part of the whole night. Your definitions and descriptions really kicked everything off and gave us all clarity. Good stuff!

  4. You guys are too kind. KEEP IT COMING!!