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This is a Wordle of this blog post

A Wordle is a very simple form of digital storytelling.

I have another blog focused on digital storytelling that still gets regular traffic, even though it has lain silent for some time now.  But I have recently been thinking about making some changes to the novel I’m working on, and realized that digital storytelling might help me flesh out these ideas a little more before I commit to making wholesale changes.

Digital storytelling is a powerful medium that helps people tell stories through voice, imagery and music using simple technologies available to most people with computers.  It was founded on the idea that everyone has a story to tell.  As writers, we live that every day.  At the end of 2010, I reviewed my favorite discoveries in digital storytelling for the year.  The examples tell both fiction and non-fiction stories.  And digital storytelling can also help you as a writer, both in the writing process and in building your platform.

To create a digital story, a person first develops a script 2 to 3 minutes long, then generates a storyboard to consider imagery that can illustrate the ideas of 15 to 20-second sections of the script.  After creating or finding the appropriate digital images, the storyteller digitally records the narrative.  Using free video-editing software available on most computers, the person creates a 2-to-3-minute video, and can include music and effects to complete the soundtrack.

Let’s take a look at the seven elements of effective digital storytelling developed by Joe Lambert at the Center for Digital Storytelling, and how they can help writers.  These elements were originally outlined in Lambert’s Digital Storytelling Cookbook.

1.  A Point of View –  Writers can use digital storytelling to try different perspectives using digital storytelling.  If your work-in-progress is written in third-person perspective, try creating a digital story in first-person.  The short length of the script and the visual nature of the medium can help you develop the character’s voice and physical characteristics, as well as develop plot points.  Digital storytelling is traditionally written in first-person, but if you want to try third-person to see how it feels, digital storytelling can give you a small enough canvas to experiment with.

2. A Dramatic Question – You probably already know the dramatic question of your work in progress.  Digital storytelling can help you develop the dramatic questions of scenes that lead to the climax and resolution of your greater story, or can provide a medium for you to present a synopsis of your work more creatively.  It can also help you develop subplot or back-story.  For both fiction and non-fiction work, it can help you process your research into a more meaningful and relevant story arc.

3. Emotional Content – If you’re finding that your work is lacking in emotional texture, digital storytelling can help you focus on creating the feelings you want.  Choosing digital imagery that helps you visualize your settings and characters is invaluable. Using descriptive language rather than explaining the emotions that a character feels or that a situation evokes is as important in a digital storytelling script as it is anywhere else in our work.  But combining it with imagery and music can really help us draw out the emotions we need to tap into as part of our creative process.

4. Economy – This element is what makes digital storytelling so useful to the writer.  Because the script is so short, (one double-spaced page of text for 2 to 3 minutes of narrative) the production time needed is manageable, and creates a product that your audience is willing to view in the time they have available.  It also helps you focus on what is essential to the story.

5. Pacing – Recording the narrative with effective pacing can help both you and your audience connect more deeply with your story.  Speeding up your narration in high tension/high action moments, pausing for dramatic effect and using different inflections for different characters’ voices add a lot of dimensions to a scene, and can really help you develop the tone and style you want to use in your larger work.

6. The Gift of Your Voice – Some of the best-read books-on-tape are those read by their authors.  The author records the exact pitch, tone and inflection intended.  With digital storytelling, you don’t have to wait for Audible to purchase your story to convey what the story should sound like. It also helps your audience connect with you in a new way. Reading the text out-loud is an excellent editorial technique, and can help you make significant breakthroughs in what is missing or just isn’t quite right.

7.  Soundtrack – Many writers listen to certain kinds of music to get them in the mood for the writing they have to do.  Movies use music to underscore and enhance the emotional content of the story.  Why not music in your digital story to accomplish both ends?  Don’t forget, It is important consider copyright when you use music. Websites like the Creative Commons  offer music that can be used legally.

Whether you are working on fiction or non-fiction, digital storytelling can help you share your topic with your audience in a new way.  In a short amount of time, you can introduce characters to your audience, share important research you’ve done to help you develop your story and setting, or explore avenues that you haven’t gone down before to help resurrect a stalled manuscript. It can add a new dimension to your platform that draws in new audience and engages your current audience more deeply.

Have you used digital storytelling to develop aspects of your work-in-progress?  Share them here!  Do you have other thoughts about how it might be useful to your creative process or platform building?  I’d love to hear them.  If you’ve done digital storytelling as part of your writing process, contact me, and I’ll invite you to do a guest post to share your work.

I’m going to try creating a digital story with my novel’s main character, using first-person.  It may take a couple of weeks, but I really want to test the waters before I go diving it to a totally new revision of the second draft I’ve been working on.  Watch for it here!

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My husband recently reminded me of an experience he had while doing some consulting work in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He had some free time, and decided to explore the town.  He came across a neighborhood that was razed to the ground. Dozens and dozens of foundations laid exposed, with grass growing around and in between the cracks of the cement.  He realized that it must be the site of the 1921 race riot, and shortly afterwards found a marker that said something about it.  He said it was so eerie, standing in the middle of the desolate and abandoned area decades after the atrocities of that riot, and only blocks away from the bustling, dynamic center of this small city.  I asked him what started that riot, and he said he couldn’t remember, but that it had something to do with a black boy and a white girl.

The novel I’m working on features a young interracial couple in a small fictional town that is facing racial tensions in the present. I knew almost nothing about this event in Tulsa, so I decided to do some research about it.   First, I went to the website of the Tulsa public library, and scanned the Oklahoma history timeline that local history page features, the history from 1541-1940.  I had to scan it several times before I realized that this riot wasn’t on the timeline at all.  I couldn’t believe that an entire neighborhood being burned out didn’t show up on the State’s historical timeline.  I dug a little deeper and then found some pages on the riot in the African-American Resource Center’s section. What I learned stunned me.

In the early part of the 20th century, Tulsa had developed a vigorous economy, especially among the black and native American residents of the city, in an district called Greenwood.  It was known as “Black Wall Street”.  Perhaps because of this, though I am only speculating, there was also a significant presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa.  Race relations were not what one would call harmonious.  Here is a fairly in-depth look at that history.

It all started the morning of May 31, 1921, in an elevator of the Drexel Building.  Something happened between a black 19-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl.  Some say she was assaulted, others say it was a lovers’ quarrel.  It could have been just an accidental foot-stepping.  In any case, the boy was arrested, and plans were made to lynch him. At one point, there were up to 10,000 people gathered at the court-house where he was being held, trying to get to the boy to lynch him, with a small number of Sheriff’s deputies and some black men trying to protect him.   You can read a quite thorough and compelling timeline of the riot, with maps, here.  The facts that I find so astonishing are that over the course of the night and the following day, over 1200 black-owed homes and businesses were destroyed, and over 300 people died.  It was the first time airplanes were used in combat, EVER, and they were used by white people to shoot at and bomb black people.  State and national authorities were brought in to control the violence, but they actually just helped in the massacre and destruction, which were systematic and thorough.  There are many sources of photographs and video available on the web, as well as the visual history I have posted above.  Please take the time to view at least some of it.

What overwhelms and disgusts me most is that I think I may have heard about this before, but I’m not sure.  How can that be?  How can the largest race riot in the history of America be so buried?  Tulsa’s own public library has a timeline of state history that doesn’t even list the tragedy.  I can think of three events that even the most ignorant of American’s should know about Oklahoma’s history, and they are: the facts surrounding the Trail of Tears, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and this riot, the most costly one in the history of the United States.  Why is it buried?  I learned about the Trail of Tears.  It is a mark of horrendous racism, just as this riot is.  Is it too embarrassing?  Is it still too close to home?  Is it because racism is still the most challenging issue facing the country, even though we have been able to change our language to be more politically correct, and to elect a president based on the content of his character rather than on the color of his skin?

What I mean to say is that I don’t see the coverage of this event by mainstream…anybody – media, academia, civil society.  Websites that document the event are mostly amateurish in production, though they contain well-written and researched content.  Even Tulsa’s Public Library’s website buries the more polished site created by the AARC .  Why aren’t we remembering this atrocity as a nation?

I think it is important, but not because we need to place blame.  This thing is festering, as all the other hidden “embarrassments” of our country’s past are.  I watch from afar, from across the ocean, and I see our country no longer just fragmenting, but rather shattering into a million pieces, and part of me weeps to see it.  Our diversity as a nation is its greatest strength.  But we seem to have not gotten that fact yet.  We let these notions of difference cause conflict and strife, and then act as if they don’t exist. There is another way.  We could begin to recognize that we can only reach real understanding and progress when we appreciate, but also value, our differences.

I hope to contribute to that dawning awareness, one that signals our maturity as a nation.  What do you think we can do to help bring about healing, rather than blaming, as these negative aspects of our history come more to light?

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DUT City Institute

The main (and only) entrance to the teaching building. Those other things that look like doors are only for show.

Gates and building entrances drive me crazy.  Here in China, movement sometimes feels quite restricted.  I hear that voice in the back of my head, that one with an Upstate New York accent that tells me, “You can’t get theah from heah.”  For example, when I get off the bus at the stop in front of the college where I teach, there is a gate and a building right in front of the stop. But the gate, with its guardhouse empty, is closed, impassable.  And even if it were open, the front doors to the lab building are locked with bicycle chains.  There is no way to get to the teaching building right behind it.   I have to walk to the main gate a block down the road, and cross campus to get that building.  And the teaching building, which has a perfectly adequate number of doors at each end of the T-shaped building, has only one real entrance, because all those doors except the main entrance are locked with bicycle chains too.  God help us if there’s ever an emergency that requires a quick egress.

Plus, there are the guards.  These are the guys at the gate whose job it is to make sure that only the right kind of people get on campus.  Or if there happens to be an epidemic, they make sure only the right people get out.  During the H1N1 virus scare several years ago, they had thermometers and were supposedly checking everyone’s temperature before they left campus.  If you had a fever, you weren’t allowed off campus.  But they never checked the foreign teacher’s temperatures.  I actually had a bad cold with a fever at the time.  But I  later found out that I didn’t need to worry about that.  Their thermometers didn’t even work.

The guards also watch the main entrance to the teaching building.  That’s all they do, watch it.  Quite the sweet job, if you ask me.  And every housing compound, commercial building and public facility has a handy guard to sit and watch the door.  Do they know anything about the location of it’s occupants?  No.  That’s not their job.  Do they know how to find any particular office?  No. Hm.

My novel has been limping along recently because of hindrances like these.  I had no way to really enter a part of the story because of my ignorance.  A significant part of my story is about a legal proceeding that, until today, I knew little to nothing about.  I know where my main character is, I know where I want her to get to, but “You can’t get theah from heah.”

I found out how true that is today.  I interviewed an attorney about the legal procedures of this particular area of property law. I found out that the timing I had planned was all wrong! But something else happened.  That part of my story completely came alive for me.  There are elements of the process that are fraught with intrigue.  And the timelines for the procedures create some intense suspense.  It is a much faster process than I ever dreamed. I also gained a huge insight into the nature of this kind of law.  All this, courtesy of my dear source, an attorney who gave me his time and resources.  Yes, a lawyer gave me time.  For FREE!  And he’s willing to give me even more!  I love my job.

Research can do that for our writing, bring it alive, and get our story moving to where it needs to go.  We may start out thinking our characters need to go straight from point A to point B.  But through our research, we find the twists and turns that enrich and liven the plot, and make it more real and meaningful.

I need to be more grateful to those guards sitting at the gate, and to the restrictions that prevent me from going directly from point A to point B.  It’s hard.  It seems so stupid to me.  It adds almost ten minutes to my commute.  But I could look at it as extra time to exercise and to contemplate the intricacies of and contradictions in Chinese culture.  I could use those extra ten minutes of podcast Chinese lessons.  Or, hey, I could use the time think about how to get my main character to win her court case!

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Crime Scene Chalk Line

Writer commits Murder in Fictional Oak Hills: Beloved character will be missed

I had to kill someone last week.  I dreaded it as much as I looked forward to it.  I wasn’t sure how to do it.  I only had vague ideas…with a candle-stick in the library?  I pondered the options.  Whatever I did, what was more important was the reason I had to kill her.  She had become too important, but not important enough.  Oh, the contradictions we  create when we write!  I knew the only way for this person to become important enough was for her to die.  So in the end she got it with a heart attack beneath the wisteria.

Writing the death scene was much simpler than I thought it would be.  I did my research, and learned the symptoms of a female heart attack (which can be significantly different from typical male symptoms).  I re-read what I had written about my character’s situation in the preceding scenes and was surprised to find the warning signs already there, before I had even decided on how to kill her.  This tells me I should trust my subconscious.  Long ago, I thought perhaps she would need to die in the story, but changed my mind.  Apparently, this bug never let go.  It became obvious that she needed to die.  She was a crutch, making life too easy for my main character, Suzanne. When I finally started to imagine this character dead, I began to see how her death would propel Suzanne, and the story, forward.  Indeed, writing the following scene, where she learns of the death of this person, my writing came alive like it hadn’t in a long time.  Suzanne did things I never expected, but it was fresh and alive and real.

A few other things surprised me, and taught me how to write the scene, and Suzanne’s reaction to it:

1.  From the beginning of the piece, write as if this character is going to live to the end.  Develop the character well, and make sure the relationship between her and the main character is strong and clear.

2.   If you have developed the character and her relationship to the MC well, details from the character’s life should come out more than the details of the death. Draw out the emotional reaction of the characters to those details.

3.  Avoid cheesy exposition.  Death often comes as a surprise.  Keep the description of the death spare, and let yourself be surprised by what happens as you write.

4. The reason for the death is usually more important than the death itself.  Focusing on build up (when the character’s death is expected) and/or follow-up (when it is unexpected) will help readers connect with that reason.  The reactions of the other characters to the death should be catalysts for moving the story forward.  For excellent examples of this, see J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which is replete with unexpected deaths followed with brilliant reaction and plot movement.

5.  Write to good “death” music.  Choose a playlist or a long piece that gets you into the right emotional space of the scene for that character.  The suicide death of a teenager in angst (think Everybody Hurts by REM) needs decidedly different music than a mother who is loosing a long fight with cancer (think Albinoni’s Adagio in G).  But really, use whatever works to get you feeling while you write.  I used music from the American Beauty soundtrack.  That story has nothing to do with my story, but the music was perfect for my scene – quiet, somewhat sleepy, private, with a definite tension.

It is ironic that I found so much life in my writing and my process while working on this death scene and its follow-up.  Perhaps that is another lesson.  Writing is often about touching the center of life, plugging into that electric Source that feeds us, creates us, and helps us create.  Death is one of the most profound ways we discover and interact with that Source.  I absolutely loved writing this stuff.  Maybe that’s why J.K. Rowling wrote so much death in her books.  She mentioned in an interview with Oprah that the writing of the series  helped her process her mother’s death.  And though my characters’ experiences and reactions are not similar to my reactions to loss, the writing of it has given me a new way to consider those losses. It has been cathartic!  I laughed.  I cried.  I’m sure my colleagues with whom I share an office think I’m nuts!

This is the first “murder” I’ve ever committed.  I sure hope it isn’t the last!  I love being a writer.

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Chinese Phoenix (Feng)

What beauty can rise from the ashes?

I am working on the re-write of my second novel.  Yes.  The first novel sits on the floor of my closet, waiting for its re-write.  But for now, let’s focus on the second one.  The main character, Suzanne, is an attorney.  She has worked in publishing for about three years, since she finished her law degree from NYU.  She took a job in Chicago so she could get away from the reminders that lingered in New York.   She was there during 9/11,  and lost her fiance, Evan, who was a consultant working for a small subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan, on the 95th floor of the North Tower.  She was in lower Manhattan when it collapsed.  A portion of the novel deals with the issues Suzanne has surrounding that experience, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

At least 10,000 people have met the criteria for treatment for 9/11-related PTSD.  Estimates for the number of people who may actually suffer from the disorder are as high as the hundreds of thousands.  Whether or not it the phenomenon is that wide-spread, it is, without a doubt, one of the most traumatic experiences our nation has had as a whole.  But it is only so because each of us has some kind of relationship to the events of that Tuesday morning ten years ago, whether it is watching the television in horror, being an eye-witness or first responder, or having a personal relationship with those who lost their lives.

I have a friend.  I’ll call her Sally.  When I met her, this tough woman truck-driver with bright hazel eyes and curly hair was suffering from a number physical ailments, but the thing she struggled with most was anger and guilt.  She came to my house with her fiance and a friend of hers.  They wanted to investigate having a Baha’i wedding, which consists of a simple vow, with no clergy required.  She and her fiance wanted to avoid the inevitable conflicts that came from the various religious options available from their families’ backgrounds, which included Lutheran, Catholic and Mormon.  But they wanted a spiritual, rather than secular, service.  I told them about the basics of the ceremony, but I wanted them to have  brief overview of the Faith,  so they could understand the wedding’s basic context.  I started with some of the basic teachings, and then moved into a brief history of the life of Baha’u’llah, the Faith’s Founder.  During the explanation of the teachings, she was very interested, and eagerly asked questions.  But when I started talking about the history, she became reticent and agitated. Finally, she said, “Wait a minute.  Are you telling me all these beautiful teachings of peace and justice are from over there?”  I asked what she meant, and she indicated, with some difficulty and emotion, the Middle East.  I told her that, yes, the Baha’i Faith originated in Iran. She then told me this story:

Several years before, she got involved in an online community with a friend.  In this community, a group of 20 to 30 people became very close to each other.  They even planned several gatherings in real space, and had a great time, both in small groups, and all together.  Then one of them had a great idea, to see both coasts of this great country of ours.  The plan was simple.  They would all meet in LA to see the sights, then fly to New York the next day for a night on the town.  Sally was psyched.  She coordinated the plan.  She helped people make their travel arrangements.

The day she was to leave on the trip, all hell broke loose with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend.  He had become extremely possessive and jealous, and told her that she couldn’t go on the trip.  She, being the tigress she is, told him where he could go.  He then proceeded to take her keys, drivers license and credit cards, and vanished.  Though she did go to the authorities to report the problem, there was no way she could meet the group in time.  She had planned to drive up the coast and meet a group of them traveling from Boston to LA to start the party.  She missed that flight.  Her friends did not.  They got on the plane, American Airlines Flight 11, that Tuesday morning.   A friend they were going to meet in LA called Sally that morning, panicked because she had just seen the news, and woke Sally from a sound sleep.  The friend couldn’t believe she had reached her.  Sally didn’t understand. She hadn’t seen the news.  When she found out what happened, something broke deep inside her.

“I used to not care who you were, black, white, purple, green.  You were a human being.  But after 9/11, everything from over there,” she said, choked up, “everything, became evil to me.  I can’t believe that something as beautiful as what you’re telling me is from there.”

She sat on my couch and cried, this gentle soul, so completely and personally hurt by what some mad men did to make their mark on the world.

But Sally couldn’t let go of those beautiful teachings.  Over the next few months, she asked question after question. There were times when she would rage, not understanding why people do such horrible things to each other.  Then she would watch her child show compassion to my three-year-old son, reading a book to him, or showing him how to be gentle with a kitty, and she would say, “We learn it, don’t we?”

I watched this angry and hurt woman transform into a beacon of tolerance.  Two months after I met her, we went to an inter-faith prayer gathering for peace organized by the local university.  Several priests and ministers from various congregations prayed.  A Baha’i prayer for peace was read. The mullah from the local mosque said a moving prayer for peace and inter-faith cooperation and healing.  Afterwards, Sally approached the man.  With tears in her eyes, she said, “Two months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to face you without a gun in my hand.  Today, you showed me how powerful love is.  Thank you for your prayer.”  Those were not just words to this woman.  It was absolute truth.  I don’t know if that mullah realized the miracle he had participated in, but I know what I witnessed.

There is a so much hatred in the world.  It is darkness, and it causes terrible injuries to our hearts and souls.  But there is also healing, and greater love, and light.  If you have story that shows the kind of transformation I saw in Sally, share it.  I’d love to hear it.  I also want to help my character, Suzanne, learn from your wisdom, so don’t hold back.  Show us how the phoenix rises from the ashes that still smolder in the hearts of so many broken hearts.

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