Author’s Interlude

Busy weekend of packing  (I know, you wish you were here), but sipping the AM venti soy latte (a triple today, for obvious reasons), and sharing some thoughts from a Starbucks porch, listening to (what I think, believe it or not, is) Dolly Parton.  Well, no, now it’s a jazz trombone.  Probably a whole blog post just right there in that transition.

This past Thursday I was given the honor of presenting the current “version” of Beam Me Home, Scotty!: How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD & Combat Trauma to a group of my fellow providers, both active-duty and civilian, at the monthly Grand Rounds for the Department of Behavioral Health at my for-the-next-couple-weeks current employer, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. (And here’s the required disclaimer: no, that doesn’t constitute any endorsement by the United States Department of the Army. It does constitute that  the Grand Rounds organizer was delighted that she had finally found someone willing to fill in the hour in the middle of a hot July that everyone else had managed to finagle the annual leave (wisely) to escape.)

I viewed it as an opportunity, two actually.  One, I figured it would force me to get the current draft more solidly in my head, even if it were not yet in print.

More importantly, though,  I hoped it would help me see if the story so far, as Shawn Coyne puts it, “works.”  In fact, early in his book, The Story Grid, he recommends his starry-eyed pre-authors take the audacious step of actually sitting down with a couple of people before one gets oneself too enamored with a project and then, over a cup of coffee (ideally paid-for by said author), actually speaking the story. He readily assures his readers: quite soon you’ll know if the story works.

Probably the more coffee that is drunk, the worse the story. One has to do something, after all, with all that time anticipating the dreaded question: so, what do you think?

My results?

Opportunity One:  Success

Opportunity Two?  Well, it appears at least for quite a few people:  Success as well.

(Although given the strictly-enforced prohibition against drinks in the hall, I should not over-interpret the anecdotal data when empirical data was lacking.)

Still, I was relieved, and quite grateful for the feedback that I received.  So grateful, in fact, I had to go back to basics.

In other words, what “worked”?  The Story?  Or The Story-As-Presented?

The world of therapists, medical and non, is the world of introverts. As some of you who have followed the blog for a while know, I’m certainly among the former. However, as some of you who have followed the blog for a while know, when push comes to shove, I can play a pretty darn respectable extrovert on TV, if so needed.

Perhaps that is why I was attracted to a televised adventure series for a metaphor?  Perhaps.

People asked me whether I’d ever studied acting. I had to smile. There are plenty of reasons, after all, to become good at acting. Julliard and the Actors Studio ain’t the only ones.

Yet my colleagues’ question got me thinking:

Let’s go back to Shawn’s most basic question, the one I’ve been exploring recently:  What is the Genre?  And to do so, let’s go back to his basic of basics, Genre’s Five-Leaf Clover.  Borrowing from the work of story structure’s modern paterfamilias, Robert McKee, and the latter’s colleague, Bassim El-Wakil, Shawn asks the five questions every author must ultimately answer:

  1. How long will the story will last?

  2. How far will we need to suspend our disbelief?

  3. What will be the style, the particular experience of the story?

  4. How will the story be structured?

  5. What will the general content of the story be?

Notice #3.  Think “packaging.”   Literary?  Theatrical?  Cinematic?   Musical?

Time to rethink this.  (Don’t worry:  not musically. Although, true confession:  there’ll be a few folks who’ve known me “since back then” who’ll even now be wondering whether I’ll be able to hold to that promise. We were all wild and crazy in our younger years, after all. Enough said.)

As I’ve written before, ultimately this story cannot be a book, short or long; dramatic, comedic, or literary.  There has always been a practical reason.  Even more, though, there has always been a more nagging, ethical-interpersonal one lurking behind the scenes.  Time to make both clear.

The practical one remains:  I have no rights to make one red cent from the project. CBS owns those rights, and CBS has not granted me them. Their rights, their rules. I cannot even publish an e-book on something like Amazon’s Kindle: they’re a business as well, and they don’t do free books. Can’t say I blame either one. Business is business.

This is an educational, public-service project, plain and simple.  Notice, CBS:  educational, public service.  Seriously.

The ethical-interpersonal one, though, has always been the more challenging for me. I can assure you that I’ve yet to meet a combat veteran who, once s/he has come to know me, would have begrudged my making money off the project.  After all, that is exactly what I do every day: I am paid, at various times by sources private and public, to serve combat veterans as they try to pave their roads back home.

But I can assure you: every combat veteran who first enters my office has a question at least somewhere in his or her mind, whether at the forefront or in the back nether-regions: Are you another one just doing this for the paycheck?

Is it ever going to be just about me?

Never forget: at least in the United States—and I suspect in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well, throughout the whole world, in fact—combat veterans are used to being “thanked” profusely for their “brave and special” service and then given a number and asked to take a seat along with everybody else.

Life (and creative projects) is/are problematic enough. Let’s take unnecessary ones off the table, shall we?

Education, public service.

So with that freedom in mind, what if it were that, indeed, the story “worked”as much for its medium as for its message?

Well, why don’t I get more data and see?

So here’s the deal: as I continue to put this “Big Idea nonfiction story” together, why don’t I, at least for a while, put it forward  in sound and work on it with you all in that medium?   I guess, in an odd way, I’m going to put on a “one-man show,” although not in the usual sense (or at least I hope so).  One-person shows, after all, usually tell a story about the narrator. I hope instead to tell a story about those whom the narrator has seen and heard—and the brain that those far smarter than the narrator have “seen” for him.

A few people have said that “the show” has worked so far. So now, you be the judge.

As a result, let’s hold off about Villains (what I’d previously promised as this post’s topic), for there will be several points in the “performance” in which that discussion will make more sense. Instead, to buy me some time (packing, remember?), let’s talk a bit about characters. And archetypes.

See you next time.


Genre III, or The Outside Story

The joys of getting ready to move.  Been a few days since the last post, I know.

But, if I were to be truthful, probably some of the delay is the topic itself.

In theory, choice of external content genre should be where fiction writing starts—a semi-no-brainer, in other words. For me, though, it brought things to a halt.  It might even, after all these years of practice, change my work.  Maybe profoundly.

Stories One & Two

In his The Story Grid, author-editor Shawn Coyne stresses that for the external content genres (Adventure Stories, Love Stories, Crime Stories, etc.), there is always a pair of “external content values” that form the yin and yang of the story’s conflicts.  For a Love Story, for example, that pair would be Love/Hate.

So how about letting our Stories One and Two be, say, mysteries—although not your usual mysteries, of course, where the bodies show up somewhere in the first chapter. And perhaps not your usual pair of values for such mysteries:  Justice/Injustice.

Yet think of the central problem of those “outer” two stories of the “Russian Doll” as something like this: “What (or maybe who) ‘did this,’ i.e., what/who caused this change in the brain after War?”

Now maybe see the conflicting values as not “Justice/Injustice,” but instead “Relief/Torment.”  Maybe?  We’ll see what happens.

That was the easy part.

Story Three

We already know that Story Three, the actual “Star Trek Story,” is going to follow along the Hero’s Journey.  Plus if the Hero’s Journey is anything, it’s an Adventure.  Plus if Star Trek was anything, it was an Action-Adventure, with the classic Action-Adventure values of Life/Death.  (Remember: even if the main characters made it, the extras did not always do so. And, hey, in the movies, it got dicey even for the leads!)

So, why not an Action-Adventure?

Sounds good. But the question is: what kind of Action-Adventure?

Before that, a few rules:

  • Rule Number One:  Every Action-Adventure has to have a Hero, a Villain, and a Victim.
  • Rule Number Two:  Every Action-Adventure needs one, and only one, Hero. Break this rule at your peril. Many try. Few succeed. Maybe none.
  • Rule Number Three:  Villain and Victim need not follow Rule Number Two. In other words, who starts out as Villain/Victim might not end up so, and so on.  Therein lie the twists and turns of plot.

Shawn divides Action-Adventures into four subtypes, each with a different villainous “focus,” if you will:  Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, Man vs. the State, and Man vs. Time.

Notice: each differs in the villainous focus.  Therein lies my challenge:  the key to Action-Adventure is not the Hero.  It’s the Villain!

So, in Story Three who is—or maybe better, who are—the Villain(s)?

That was the question that changed everything for me.  More next time.

Genre II, or The Inside Story

Now that we have some idea of Jane’s and Joe’s wants and needs, let’s get back to genre.

“Genre” is a dirty word to many writers.  Even though you might get more than a few begrudging acknowledgments about the utility of The Hero’s Journey, woe to thee if thou useth that foul French word too freely among those who write their Muse.

But, hey: I’ve found Shawn Coyne’s arguments about genre’s  necessity (and its value) quite convincing. Say what you will.

I hope that by keeping my eye on my story’s genres and their conventions, I’ll not get too far off track. I’m a psychotherapist at heart, after all, and a psychodynamic/psychoanalytic one at that (although, I’ve got to say, I’m sort of a fan of Dr. Jon Allen’s “Plain Old Therapy,” but that’s for another time, another blog…).  When one spends one’s days moving (for the most part) where the Spirit leads, that can “lead” to some pretty confused storytelling if one brings that into one’s writing habits.  Whether or not good therapy is about good storytelling (intersubjectively [as they say] edited, of course), good storytelling has to be edited far more quickly—and ruthlessly—than good therapy.

(Good Lord: can you get any more parenthetical than that sentence?  Or this parenthetical? I know, ruthlessly edit, ruthlessly, ruthlessly…)

So here’s the deal: as Shawn (and many others)(!) point out, there’s always an “outside story” to a tale, i.e., an external content genre. Mysteries are about “who did it?” Romances are about “will boy/girl get boy/girl?”  Action adventures are about “will the victim be saved from the villain?”  Easy enough.

Many of the best stories, though, also have an “inside story,” or an internal content genre. Such stories are less about what the lead character does and more about who the leader character becomes.  A smarter person? A better person? A worse person? Richer? Poorer? In wealth or in soul?

So, I’m a psychiatrist, right? I’m telling a story about combat veterans trying to feel and to become better, right?  Let’s start out with internal content genre, then.

The “Outer Stories” of “Beam Me Home, Scotty!”

Shawn divides internal content genres into three types: status (change in one’s social position), worldview (change in one’s experience), and morality (change in one’s “moral compass”).  In his book, he divides them further, and it is one of the worldview plots that is the genre I’ll be using at this point for Story Two (and One):  the Education Plot, where the change in the protagonist  is from Ignorance to Wisdom.

It’s easy enough to see how an Education Plot works with the Hero’s Journey: the protagonist (here, primarily Jane) finds the elixir that will soothe her unsettled soul via epiphany, i.e., Love will conquer what it can. She then applies that epiphany in her ultimate confrontation with her personal pain of War.

So far, so good.

The “Inner Story” 

But remember: as I said in a the last post, what she wants (knowledge of how to get rid of the mess of War) is not ultimately what she needs: the experience that will allow her to move forward into her future.   Experience requires more than knowledge. It requires the body and all its emotions, felt, non-felt, not-yet-felt, the whole bit.

Something like that, in other words, just might well change your moral compass.

Ultimately, the inner content genre of Jane’s story is a Redemption Plot.

Now, I’m not so sure that Shawn would agree with me on this.  I can’t say that it wouldn’t be for good reason.

For as Shawn and his fellow-podcaster-in-crime Tim Grahl discussed in their Holiday 2015 podcast “The Martian Carol,” a true Redemption Plot, like that of Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, should show a protagonist moving from selfishness to altruism, with a theme that, per story guru Robert McKee, goes something like this:

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.

Now I can assure you:  as written there, that ain’t the Jane I’m hoping to present to you.

But if I change the wording a bit…

It would take too long to explain here, so let me show you over the coming posts. Remember this. Keep me honest. And if I mess it up, tell me.

I know you will.  Good for you.

So if those are the basics of the inner content genres, what of the outer content genres?  See you next time.


Whatcha Want, Whatcha Need

As I continue with the preliminaries for Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma, let me turn to another recommendation that long-time literary editor and The Story Grid  author, Shawn Coyne, makes concerning preparations for writing a story that works:  figure out the object of the main character’s desire, i.e., what that character wants and what that character needs.

If a main character does not want anything, or if there are no obstacles to that character’s getting his/her wants, then there’s no story.  When we ask “what happens next?”, we’re always asking “Did the character get what s/he was looking for?”

A character’s needs, however, may or may not be obvious (or frankly, even necessary). We know, for example, that James Bond wants to save the world, but at least in Fleming’s early novels, we’re not quite sure if he needs much else except the occasional gal and the occasional martini.  In many, if not most, books, though, the main character usually does need something, something that, at story’s beginning, may even be unconscious to them.

We shrinks know something about unconscious desires.  Shawn does too.

So for Beam Me Home, Scotty!, let me propose two sets of such want/need pairs, the ones that are making sense to me now.  As we go on, this might change, so stay tuned!

Set One

Both Jane and Joe  want relief:  relief from all the symptoms of combat trauma that have been plaguing them off and on for years. Simple enough.

Similarly, we could then say that what they both need in order to get such relief is knowledge:  knowledge—and the wisdom that goes with that knowledge—of what is necessary in order to achieve that relief.

In essence, these are also the wants and needs of any reader of the book who has experienced combat trauma.  This is a non-fiction, Big Idea book, after all, and so a reader is hoping to gain something from reading it.  One reads a book about one’s problems in order to experience relief, and one hopes that what one reads will provide knowledge that will promote that relief.

So far, so good.

Yet this is a story as well.  We want to know, “So what happens to Jane and Joe?”

Set Two

When we get into the story itself, we are going to find out that the one who most wishes relief now is Jane (or best, who is most willing to do what it might take to get that relief.)  At this inner-story level, Jane discovers (as, I will claim, all who seek to get better from War discover) that she gets her want and her need backwards.

For another way of saying she wants “relief” is to say that she wants everything to go back to the way it was so that she can experience relief.

Fair enough. But what “knowledge” must she obtain?

She must experience the connections in her lives that make and have made all the difference so that she can make everything go forward in a new way.

Her knowledge, in other words, cannot just be the knowledge of the head.  It must be the knowledge first of the heart and soul. Only then will the head be able to figure out what to do.

That is how Jane will ultimately come to know the theme of the book, which again is:

Until, and even in spite of, Death, Love conquers all it can.

 For think of it this way: how can Jane really know that Love conquers all it can until, at least in some small way, she experiences Love trying to do just that?

And that brings us back to Genre.  See you next time.

Genre I, or Moving Down the Hero’s Road

Recently I wrote that Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma will be a Big Idea nonfiction.  In Shawn Coyne‘s terms, that will be the  book’s “global genre.”  Yet it’s also a Russian-doll story-within-a-story (three stories within one), so there is more than one genre to think about. Given that the “real” story starts with  Story Three, the story opening with Jane, Joe, and Colonel Kirk on the USS Enterprise’s bridge, what will be that story’s genre?

On the road to finding out, let’s take a trip.

More than once in the Story Grid podcasts, editor-Jedi Shawn recommends a book to his writer-padwan Tim Grahl: Chistopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, a writer-friendly take on Joseph Campbell’s classic, The Hero with a Thousand FacesVogler’s title says it all: one of the most commonplace (if not the ultimate common denominator) stories of all cultures, all times is the story of the the hero who goes on a journey to bring back home the elixir that will heal his land and bring peace and prosperity to all.

It seems that writers and critics either worship at the altar of Joseph Campbell or roll their eyes on the naive notion of such an altar. I’m not entering that debate.

Let’s face it:  Don DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen, I ain’t.  I’ll be lucky to tell a story that makes sense, let alone one that works.

So here’s the deal: if this structure worked for the ancients (and many who’s-who on the New York Times‘ bestseller list), that’s good enough for me.

Consequently, here’s to myth, and here’s to the structure of Story Three:

  • The Ordinary World
  • The Call to Adventure
  • The Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • The Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • The Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir

Sounds impressive, eh?  I know: I’m doing Star Trek, not Star Wars, but, hey, myth is myth, no matter who’s the creative director.

It’s been a busy few days.  Moves are challenges. So I’m going to leave it there.

I’ll be fleshing this out much more, but before then, some more preliminaries. For before I go further into genre, let me talk about two other important “preliminary points”:  what does the hero want, and even more, what does the hero need?

Back soon.

Theme, or Love and War

Today, it’s  Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma and  theme, or as Shawn Coyne likes to call it in The Story Grid, the “controlling idea.”

Put one way:  if the “high concept” is what is this story about?, then the theme is what is this story trying to say?

Shawn stresses that a good controlling idea, or theme, should meet the following criteria:

A controlling idea/theme must be boiled down to the fewest possible words and cannot be longer than a one-sentence statement.

A controlling idea/theme must describe the climactic value charge of the entire Story, either positively or negatively.

And it must be as specific as possible about the cause of the change in the value charge.

So given that, how about the following:

In one of the articles linked above, Shawn concludes that the controlling idea for romantic comedy is simply Love conquers all.

In contrast, the controlling idea for romantic tragedy is Love conquers all…except Death.  (Ask the Capulets and the Montagus, if you so doubt.)

Love. Death. His ideas got me thinking, even about trauma and War.

So try this one out:

Until, and even in spite of, Death, Love conquers all it can.

Let me say it this way:

Anyone who has experienced any severe trauma—and especially anyone who has faced moments of War in which everything changes in a moment, with absolutely nothing that can be done about it—knows into the depths of the soul that, indeed, Love will not conquer all.

Upon their return to the “normal” world, however, many are not so sure whether or not, in fact, Love can conquer anything worthwhile if, in the end, it cannot conquer Death.

I would have you consider that anyone who finds relief from the trauma of War must, in some way, come to know in the same depths of the soul that Love (or, if you like better, meaningful connection with others) will conquer what it can, over and over again, if only one is brave enough to reach out and take its hand.

Love cannot change the past. But the future?

Well, there’s a story to that, a brain story that just happens to boldly go where, fortunately, many have gone before—but perhaps not in quite such a, shall we say, Enterprise-ing way.

On to genre.

Narrative Device, or the Russian Dolls

The groundwork for Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma continues.

Another big shtik of The Story Grid’s Shawn Coyne and of his business partner, Stephen Pressfield, the author of such well-known novels as The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire, is “narrative device,” i.e., “just how are you planning on keeping this story moving?’

For all of you who still remember Senior English, narrative device is essentially the set-up and management of point-of-view. Pressfield’s Bagger Vance is a story told by an older man looking back on his past, for example, while Gates of Fire is  a survivor’s recounting  of the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae, as told to the scribe of the king who defeated them—but who, in the end, did not.

So here’s how I’m going to try to manage this:

I’m going to do “story within a story,”  Russian-doll style, i.e., in this case, with three separate stories, one contained within another.

In Shawn’s advice on using Story Grid principles to guide the writing of a non-fiction work, he does stress the need to get the theme/point of the book out before the reader as quickly as possible. Thus, the top layer of the book will be—me, speaking directly to combat vets about what I hope they might gain from using Star Trek characters and settings to understand what has happened to many of them after war.

An important part of that introduction will be a request: that the reader-vets consider the possibility that by using their imagination, they might be able to learn more about themselves than they otherwise might have thought possible. Thus, I will quickly ask them then to imagine that they are watching a film with me, a film the opening sequence of which shows me looking out onto Boston Harbor in Massachusetts, USA, eventually pointing the reader’s “gaze” toward Logan Airport, across the water.

From there, we move into Story Two, as the reader and I watch “Doc” board a plan in San Francisco for an overnight flight to Boston. On the flight, he happens to sit between two combat-vet friends, GI Jane, a nurse from Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and a former medic in Operation Iraqi Freedom; and GI Joe, an English teacher in a community college near Columbus, Ohio, USA, and a former language/military intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War.

After Jane and Joe discover that Doc is a psychiatrist who has worked for the Veterans Health Administration in the US, they cannot help but ask him his thoughts about PTSD and then share with him their questions about the challenges of returning home from war. Consequently, Doc asks them if they would be willing to use their imaginations to enter a world where the answers to those questions might more easily be understood.  Jane willingly—and Joe less-so—agree to do just that.

And thus Story Three, in which Jane and Joe find themselves standing at first by themselves on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise, only to be welcomed soon after by none other than Colonel (not Captain) James T. Kirk.

And we’re off.

Story Three will come to its end with quite different results for Jane and Joe, but as it does so, the reader and I will find ourselves looking at them after the plane has arrived in Boston. There, they come to grips with what they have learned on the journey, showing the reader and me a couple of ways that the ideas of the Story Three can be used, thus bringing Story Two to its end.

And then finally, we come back to me, still standing at Boston Harbor. As you’ll find, though, Story One is not quite the usual “bird’s-eye-view” of the standard non-fiction book.  If you’ll allow me a quick move into the postmodern, it will turn out that Doc learns or, perhaps better, re-learns a lesson or two from the combat vets’ journeys as well.

So there you have it.

Before we get to the genres of the various stories (and what I’ve learned from considering them), let’s get to the book’s Big Idea itself, i.e., what’s going to be the point of all this?

See you next time.


Fiction or Non?

Shawn Coyne, whose work I’ll be referencing quite a bit, emphasizes over and again the question that every author needs to hear, yet dreads: “So, really, what kind of story is this you’re telling? A crime story? A love story? A young-adult thriller?”

In other words, what’s its genre?

Before I even can get to that, though, I have to ask an even more basic, more dreadful question of myself:  Is this fiction or nonfiction?

As of today, this is my take on Beam Me Home, Scotty!:  it’s  “fictional non-fiction,” or rather, non-fiction that claims up front that fiction is the best way to make sense of it.

I’m in trouble.  I know.

Actually, what I’m most afraid to admit is that I’m sailing into the waters of Allegory.  I’m about ready to sink and drown in the Pilgrim’s Progress’s Slough of Despond, in other words. Good Lord, I can’t believe I just wrote that, but there you have it.

Any of you who who survives this mess: tell my family that I loved them.

What I am  now going to do is ignore that I have written yon, two previous paragraphs, although. of truth, they will endure there in cyberspace, for me to revisit one day as I look back with chagrin and e’en amusement at this venture.  Instead, grant me, O fellow traveler, a few more posts of self-delusion, meager scraps of Hope that this endeavor—yea, verily—will actually work, as I continue forthwith to humiliate myself before thee.

Back to fiction vs. non-fiction.

I do believe that I have to err on the side of non-fiction because, yes, I do have a “point” to make:  that through the use of a fictional device, we can better understand a non-fictional reality that otherwise seems too confusing to grasp.

That, in Shawn’s words, is my “Big Idea”:  specifically, by envisioning a story told on the USS Enterprise, we can better understand how the brain reacts to—and, more importantly, moves on from—traumatic experiences.

That brings us back to genre.

On his website, Shawn extends his Story Grid conceptualization from fiction (the subject of his book) to non-fiction, and he claims that there are four main “genres” of non-fiction:  academic, how-to, narrative nonfiction, and Big Idea.  He claims (I think, rightly) that all four genres benefit from storytelling, but especially the latter two.

Beam Me Home, Scotty isn’t narrative nonfiction, à la Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or Unbroken. There is not (so far) a literal USS Enterprise, the story of which I can literately extol.  Instead, it’s a Big Idea book, a very-distant cousin of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  

Shawn analyzes The Tipping Point on his website, using his Story Grid method. He stressed that, as a “story,” Big Idea nonfiction should look at a truth and find something surprising in it, much as how Gladwell noticed Hush Puppies’ suddenly becoming big in Soho and eventually, as a result, came up with a provocative theory about, among other things, mass hysteria.

I’m going to try to do the same with my claim that the “fiction” of Star Trek can help us understand more clearly some important truths—physical, mental, and spiritual—about life after the witnessing of and, sometimes, the participation in the world’s violence.  I hope to surprise, at least a little, as well. Here’s to hoping.

Next, on to “narrative device.”


What if . . . ?

In the world of writing (and especially screenwriting), it’s called the “high concept” or the “elevator pitch,” the latter always introduced by the same hypothetical: “Suppose you were on an elevator, and the door opens, and in walks Steven Spielberg.  He pushes the button for an upper floor, and you’ve got that much time to interest him in your story. What would you say?”

Knowing me, I’d spend at least three-quarters of my time asking myself, “Is that really Steven Spielberg?”  The other one-quarter, I’d be thinking, “Good Lord, we’re all getting older, aren’t we?”

No matter, it all boils down to this: what, many writing coaches ask, is your “what if?”

For now, how about:

What if the brain were set up like the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise? How would that better help us understand what happens to people after a traumatic event, and especially after the traumatic events of combat?

There it is, my elevator pitch, such as it is.

You know, come to think of it:  what if the brain really were set up like the Starship Enterprise? What would it look like on the inside? Who would be manning it? Would Captain James T. Kirk still be in control? If not, who, then? And how would the ship respond to the next Romulan/traumatic vessel coming into view?

Those are the questions that I’m going to try to answer in this book.

On “Pantsers” vs. Plotters

In the writing world, a “pantser” is just that: someone who writes by the seat of his/her pants, typing whatever the Muse sings, wherever the Muse leads. I’ll leave you to figure out how “plotters” differ. Nature vs. nurture, briefs vs. boxers, pantsers vs. plotters:  the debates go on.

Confession: in the late 2000’s, I wrote a first draft of a novel. It was about 1/4 plotter and 3/4 pantser.

I can now admit it:  it was a flop.  Details are unimportant. Trust me, it was.

So I’ve been, over the past many months, trying a different ratio: 3/4 plotter, 1/4 pantser.  Together, let’s see what you think.

For now that we have my “what if,” let me begin to tell you about genre and theme. More next time.

On Minimizing and Making a Move

To those of you still following—Many Thanks!  Bless you!

Announcement One: 

Life is changing for me again, i.e., yes, another big move. Hopefully, by this fall my family and I will be living in the Goshen-Elkhart-South Bend area of northern Indiana, just off the Michigan border, in the center of the state, about three hours north of Indianapolis and two hours east of Chicago.

The move is purely a personal one, as I have greatly enjoyed my work this past year with the United States Department of the Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  It does appear, though, that over the long haul our family will be settling into the northern Indiana area, so in spite of the Lake Michigan snow, Hoosiers we will once again be.

Yet fear not (as if you were):  the good fight remains to be fought, and thus I have accepted a position again with the United States Veterans Health Administration, this time as a staff psychiatrist at the Community Based Outpatient Clinic in South Bend, just down the street from the ever-Irish University of Notre Dame.

This upcoming move has led me to realize, though (finally). that I might best be served by focusing on just one project at a time and go from there.

So, Announcement Two:

I’m going to write my book “on the blog,” i.e., Beam Me Home, Scotty:  How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma.

I’ve been doing a whole lot of thinking and (even) private writing on such a book over the past many months, while I’ve tried to use the blog and podcast for other purposes, i.e., getting out information about resources around the English-speaking world for struggling combat vets. The latter has been noble goal of which I’m proud, yes, but I’m afraid I have to face facts: I lack the requisite proper combo of youthful energy and sufficient time to fight a good fight on two fronts.

So here we go.

I’ve been struggling with the book for the past eighteen months, for reasons that I’ll outline in future posts, because the struggles do go to the issue of “what it is to write a book,” at least for me.  During the struggles, the great Amazon “I’m tracking your clicks” Big Brother offered up an interesting suggestion one evening as I was sipping a venti soy latte at my then-local Starbucks:  Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.

Coyne is an experienced book editor who has written, in my opinion, the best book, bar none, on how to write, in his words, a “story that works.” He’s opinionated, but warm-heartedly so, and speaking myself as a very inexperienced writer, yet an experienced shrink and reader, he’s, IMHO, as right-on as you can get. He’ll play a prominent role as I write my book before your eyes over the coming months.

So then…

Last fall, Shawn teamed up with another writer, Tim Grahl, to start a podcast based on the book, entitled The Story Grid Podcast.  I had known of Grahl from a previous book that he had written, Your First 1000 Copies, a compact, well-written, and well-advised primer on book marketing.   It turns out that Tim is also an ever-hopeful novelist, and he convinced Shawn to join him as he very publicly exposes his soul to write his first novel.

What has ensued is a great venue for would-be writers, with an atmosphere reminiscent of Click & Clack on NPR’s Car Talk, except here one “brother” is constantly reviewing the “engine” of the other.  Again, good-heartedly, I might add.

But as Tim has found out, a good heart can be a pointed one as well.

Well, for good or for ill, I don’t have a good-hearted taskmaster over me, but thankfully I do have a good-hearted band of faithful few who occasionally check in on the blog, so I’m sure that here and there I will have good suggestions to consider and to use.

I had thought of trying to write the book for commercial distribution, but I’m simply too much of a small fry  to get the attention of CBS for permission to use the ideas in a commercial venture. What’s more: I’ve used the ideas quite a bit with many of the combat vets I’ve been serving, and I’d like to have a place to send them for more detailed investigation—should they be so inclined to do so, of course! So the blog’s going to be the place.

And, thus, we’re off.  I’ll be using Coyne’s approach, and thus will start out with my thinking about the overview of the book, and then will present my current ideas about its set-up—and then we’ll work on the first draft.  (And I do mean we, truly.  Any thoughts from anyone in cyberspace will be more than welcomed.  Not necessarily implemented, mind you, but always welcomed!)



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