Sunday, March 14, 2010

Northwest Author Series: Naseem Rakha

"Writing that Works:
Learn from What You Read
and Write What People Remember."

Naseem Rakha is a geologist, journalist, and
award winning author of The Crying Tree.

Ms. Rakha was the sixth speaker of the 2009-2010 Northwest Author Series hosted by the Wilsonville Library. I was very interested in attending her session, since I've heard some of her segments on National Public Radio.

I am further convinced that the methods of writing fiction are as individual as the authors.

Ms. Rakha worked with Elizabeth Engstrom and Eric Witchey while writing The Crying Tree. I've attended sessions presented by both of these individuals at the Willamette Writers Conference and enjoyed them immensely.

She also extensively studied Snow Falling on Cedars (the book as well as the abridged audio version) to examine what worked -- especially since she intended to use a similar "basketed" story structure for her novel.

Ms. Rakha is an "organic" writer who discovers and develops her characters, setting, and conflict through the process of writing. Once she had her entire first draft completed, she made a detailed outline of the document to assure that she was increasing the tension with each chapter and eventually answering all the story questions raised. Her extensive outline was 180 pages long and she estimated that she wrote 300,000 words to eventually end up with a 100,000 word novel.

She described writing as a "dream state" during which the creative mind enters a Theta Wave State. I suppose others would describe it as The Zone, or Flow. That state where the analytical/critical portion of the brain is turned off in order to access the subconscious mind. Ms. Rakha further likened the very beginning of developing a story to peering into a room through a keyhole. One can only "enter" the room to find the extent of the conflict, characters and setting through the act of writing.

That's the writing process that worked for her, and she is applying the same process to her second novel. Her publisher is asking for an outline of the novel before the first draft is completed -- but that's not how Ms. Rakha creates.

I, on the other hand, have found that a general outline guides me toward and away from the key scenes.

Interestingly, Elizabeth Engstrom had her students write four "Anchor Chapters" to develop their novels: the first chapter, last chapter, turning point, and darkest hour before the climax. This sounds similar to Laura Whitcomb's crosshair moments from Novel Shortcuts, Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft.

Eric Witchey believes in outlining before writing. Obviously, this didn't work for Ms Rakha; however, she applied his scene elements to her outline. That is, for each chapter and/or scene, she outlined the characters present, the agenda of each character in the scene, the setting, the emotions of the characters within the scene as well as the emotion she hoped to evoke in the reader, the questions raised in the scene that must be answered for the reader at some point in the story, and her goals for the scene/chapter.

My interpretation of all of this was taken from Larry Brooks' Storyfix blog. He addresses story architecture and describes the required structure of a sellable story. He used to believe that an outline was needed before writing to assure that all the required elements were present. He now understands that some folks create "by the seat of their pants" without an outline or guide of any kind. However, they still must make sure the basic structure is in place regardless of how the words get onto the page.

Ms. Rakha offered the following guidelines for making novels work:

* Clearly defined conflict
* Powerful, enduring characters with satisfying and congruous arcs
* Escalating tension that leads to an unpredictable yet fully believable and fully realized end
* Provocative narration
* Description and dialogue that support the premise and build tension

I bought a copy of The Crying Tree on the spot, the first time I've done that at the NW Authors Series. The story premise sounds intriguing, the "basket" structure seems like an interesting method of interweaving the story elements, and the setting is in Oregon.

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