Plussing and Other Fundamental Elements of Good Writing

November 22, 2010

Want to learn the craft of writing?  Want your writing to go beyond good and step into extraordinary?  You don’t need to enroll yourself in a writer’s conference.  Try visiting the Pixar Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. 

This special event highlights all aspects of animated film-making, from character development, to world-building to plussing.  Never heard of plussing?  I hadn’t either.  Apparently, the term was coined by Walt Disney who would challenge even the best ideas put before him.  He’d tell his team of talented individuals to “plus it.”  Make it better.  Make it different.  Take it to the next level.  Every writer should take plussing to heart.

John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios says it takes three things to make an animated film:  world, character and story.  The same, of course, can be said of writing a good novel.  In the Pixar exhibit, each of these three elements is described within the essential foundations of creativity and believability.   One idea that hit on the mark was the idea that creativity is enhanced when parameters and restrictions are in place.  In line with that idea is the need for believability.  In order to have believability, there must be consistent application of the rules of the world.  The example that was given was the rule that toys must always become inanimate when humans are present in the Toy Story films.     

I found myself marveling at one picture in particular from the film, Ratatouille.  The night-time scene shows a restaurant sign in the foreground with a rat in a chef’s hat and a lit-up Eiffel tower in the distance.  Even if you were not familiar with the storyline, this one image would tell you world (Paris restaurant), character (rat) and story (chef’s hat).  The dark background could represent either the promise of conflict or be a sign of underlying realism since rats are active at night.  The Eiffel tower aglow in lights could represent the bright or comedic moments in the film or even the promise of a happy ending.

I ended my tour in Pixar’s Artscape where the audience quite literally enters a projection of digitally-processed images.  This animated delight is dialogue free and provides the viewer with an experience of exploring the exquisite details of the original artworks.  The experience holds all the elements of visual detail often enhanced with background noise.  If you’ve ever pondered what constitutes a scene, this presentation nails it.  Sometimes a given scene ends with a seamless entry into the next artwork, other times the scene provides a clear beginning, middle and end. 

The Oakland Museum of California is open 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. Fridays) Thursday through Sundays.  Admission is $12 for adults.  The Pixar exhibit closes January 9, 2011.  This is one exhibit that should not be missed!

Political Tips

November 20, 2010

Memo To:  Rich, politically inexperienced people who run for elected offices, in (but not limited to) California

Re:  How to win the race.  (Or, have you lost your mind?)

  1. Donate the $140+ million (from your own private money) for your campaign to the State Educational Fund and advertise what you have done so. (The California educational system ranks an abysmal 48th in the USA.  All funds welcome.)
  2. Announce that you will not accept the salary that comes along with the elected position.  (You’re already so rich that a governmental income would only serve to annoy your team of CPAs.)
  3. If you are now, or have in the past, employed an undocumented alien, don’t denounce them and advertise that “you didn’t know” their true immigration status.  (Sounds very much like “the dog ate my homework.) Instead, say you’re sorry for the oversight (try to sound sincere when you say it), and offer to pay for that person’s legal assistance.  (If all else fails, the illegal can claim political asylum.  Here in the US, we don’t like to send folks back to countries where they will be shot, tortured, beaten or jailed.  We’re big hearted that way.)
  4. Quit bragging that you’re a billionaire.  It’s rude to talk about money in public.  Besides, there is still a recession going on out there.  Poor, unemployed people receiving food stamps are not at all interested in your lucrative financial situation.
  5. If you are going to campaign that you will increase employment, create more jobs, tell us how you will do it.  (Us aging into Medicare and Social Security Baby Boomers have heard it all before.  We want specifics.  We do not believe anyone who promises “a chicken in every pot” or “forty acres and a mule.”)
  6. Get some experience in political office, such as town council representative, or dogcatcher.  (In spite of what you may have heard, president of the P.T.A. does not count.)
  7. Remember that every memo, email, text or Twitter you have ever authored will be discovered by your opponent’s Muck Raking and Dirty Tricks Department.  If you have ever failed to stand when the America flag went by, have had sex with anyone outside your marriage, or have partaken in recreational drugs, someone somewhere has a photo of that and it Will Make the National News.  (If you haven’t voted in any election in the last 25+ years, you’d best set your sights no higher than dogcatcher, not as future resident of the capitol building.)
  8. If you have a spouse and children, you’d best trot them out for the public we’re-just-like-everyone-else photo opp.  Not showing off your family makes the public wonder what’s wrong with them.  (Clearly Sarah Palin didn’t mind showing off her Down’s Syndrome child, and her very pregnant, unmarried, teen-aged daughter.  Who knew the Appalachian Mountains were in Alaska, too.)

Blending Fact and Fiction

November 18, 2010

I am one hundred percent convinced that writing has a different depth when the subject or event has really happened to the writer.  I credit the acceptance of my short story, “Broken” into the West Winds Centennial anthology with this very attribute.  Broken was inspired by an unexpected encounter with our old family van one morning while I was out walking my dogs.  We had sold the vehicle to a man that lived in Fremont and I never expected to see it again, much less in my neighborhood.   As noted in the story, the van was distinctive in color, although ours had been white with blue trim.  I also had received an email where the sender asked me to describe them in a single word.  Both of these aspects of the storyline are critical elements to the plot of Broken.

 The integration of reality into my novels is even more pronounced.  I modeled a dog, one of the characters in my young adult novel, Between Shadow’s Eyes, after our family pet, Shadow.  .  Here are ten things about the real life Shadow that appear in the book: 

1). His bark.  It is the worst version of canine expression in the world.  I am not exaggerating.  When Shadow was my foster, I knew without a doubt that the one thing I would not miss about him when he was placed in his “forever home” was his bark.  Imagine a cross between a beagle baying at the moon, fingernails screeching across a blackboard and the yowling of a treed cat.  Yep, Shadow’s bark is that bad.  This aspect of Shadow causes major problems for the protagonist (Sarah) in my novel when the neighbors start complaining. 

2). Shadow LOVES to be petted in the space between his eyes.  In my novel, when Sarah puts her fingers between Shadow’s eyes, something extraordinary happens. 

3). My silly pooch loves to lay his head upon my chest.  I swear he is listening to my heartbeat.

4). His breed.  Near as I can tell, he is a cross between a border collie and a shar pei.   The shar pei is a guess based on his tiny ears and the black splotches on his tongue.

5). Shadow loves to poke his nose between my arm and ribcage and crawl into my lap.

6). Shadow generally doesn’t get along with other dogs.  Up until a few years ago, I would have never considered taking him to a dog park.  He has mellowed with age, however, and has learned to grudgingly accept his brethren canines.

7). Shadow’s fur is as soft as a rabbit’s.

8). It is very difficult to get a good photograph of Shadow.  Flash-photography is a guarantee of a red-eye picture.

9). Shadow is well-behaved.  He has never chewed up anything or dug holes in the backyard.

10). His name.  It didn’t seem right to change it when the character and my dog have so much in common.

Of course, there is a fair amount of fiction to my stories as well.  Our neighbors never complained about Shadow’s barking.  And, most importantly, nothing unusual happens when I put my fingers between the real Shadow’s eyes.

Proof in hand

November 16, 2010

Friday last, the postman delivered the Publisher’s proof copy of my novel. I’m in the process of proofing it one last time before ordering copies for friends, family, and sales.  Don’t know how long it will take to get a shipment in hand – before the next WOTJ meeting I hope. Thanks for your support and encouragement.  This has been an interesting experience.  😉

November 15, 2010


When I got home after the “All About eBooks Symposium” in San Francisco, the first thing I did was look in the mirror.  I had to make sure my head was not turned around backwards, a la Exorcist, from my informational overload exposure.  Yes, I was overwhelmed with all I heard.

There is no way I can re-tell all that was said, much of it technical and presented by former Silicon Valley self professed geeks.

Here are some high points:

  • Ebook sales have increased in sales 151% since January 2010.
  • Reading is accomplished more and more through PCs, smart phones, and iPads.
  • Within five years eBooks will overtake printed books.
  • EBooks can be published inexpensively on web sites such as Smashwords.
  • SEO – Search Engine Optimization – big buzzword – can be accomplished for you by
  • Kindle was the harbinger of eBooks.
  • Elisa Rolle is the world’s foremost eBook reviewer.  Get a good eBook review from her and you are golden.
  • Technology in the eBooks area is changing so fast even the people in the industry cannot keep up.
  • Do everything you can to be seen and heard everywhere including internet radio programs.

Website References:

Even writing this has given me a headache.  Now, where is our aspirin bottle?

The Story in Paintings

November 5, 2010

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to take advantage of the availability of art in the region.  Up until last weekend, I had focused my art excursions to museums in San Francisco.   Last Saturday, I embarked on a day trip to Stockton to visit a little known treasure called the Haggin Museum.  The collection includes paintings by 19th- and early 20th-century American and European artists, including Jean Béraud, Rosa Bonheur, William Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, George Inness and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.   This three-story brick building contains more than 34,000 square feet of exhibition space and houses the largest collection of major Albert Bierstadt works.   His depictions of Yosemite, particularly Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, are worth the trek to the Central Valley. 

As impressed as I was by Bierstadt and the Renoir (La Toilette) as well as The Juniata River by George Inness, it was  the historical paintings of Jehan-Georges Vibert,  mainly Check, Napoleon and the Cardinal, that inspired the writer in me.  It never ceases to amaze me how an artist can tell a whole story in the painting of a single scene through the use of facial expression, color and symbolism.  In this rendition, Napoleon has just been placed in “check” while playing a game of chess with the Cardinal.  Napoleon’s grimace, the fingertips placed upon his brow, as well as his slouched posture communicates the man’s displeasure.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal’s hint of a smile, his commanding red robe billowing at his feet, and relaxed pose, suggests the man feels comfortable and composed.  The polar bear rug at his feet is reported to symbolize “Russia”, a country Napoleon has failed to conquer.  It has been reported that Vibert reproduced Napoleon’s luxurious bedroom at the palace of Fontianebleau with great accuracy and that he replicated the attire of his subjects down to the Legion of Honor medals.  Compared to the two dimensional canvas a painter has to recreate his setting and cast of characters, writing seems easy. 

Here is some basic information if you are interested in visiting the Haggin Museum

Admission is a steal at $5.00 per person.

The Haggin Museum is located in Victory Park:
1201 N. Pershing Ave.
Stockton, CA 95203
(209) 940-6300

12:00-5:00 p.m.

1:30-5:00 p.m.

1:30-9:00 p.m.
1st & 3rd Thursdays

For more information visit: