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Writing as Matrix

matrix deepWriting fiction isn’t easy.
Short stories, novels, plays, or screenplays all call for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered effort on the part of the writer. The endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves stumbled through. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost in its parts. Therefore, diving into the complex world of a story often leaves writers confused and frustrated.

Understanding the elements of craft is only one part of navigating the terrain. Learning how to mesh the elements of craft together, the actual “process” of writing, is the larger challenge. My goal is to suggest a route through the writing matrix. To do this, we need to use visualization

Open bookBegin with a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, its spine, its back and front covers, the thickness of its pages. Now think of yourself opening that book to chapter one, laying it flat on a table in front of you. Stand up and look down at it. You see words lined up on the right-hand page. Sentences and paragraphs, subject+verb+ prepositional  phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated. In the physical world the page is a flat, two-dimensional object, but this impression is deceiving. The creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional. It is the process of “layering” tasks onto the same concept in order to shape it into one cohesive piece of work. Here’s a step-by-step look at process via our imaginary book.


open book no writing copy-2

1. Visualize that book again and erase the words from its pages. In your mind, place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book. Breathing space. Can you see the clean white pages through a clear sheet of glass.
open book wit pane 1 with content copy
2.Now imagine filling that pane of glass with your own words, an idea, a feeling, a character, a scene, a sequence of events, the who, what, where, why, when, and how of the story you want to tell. It won’t all fit, but suspend your disbelief, pretend. This is layer one of the matrix.
open book wit pane 1 with structure copy-2
3. Add a second sheet of glasssome breathing space again—and notice you can still see the plain white paper and the glut of content you put one that first piece of glass. Your words don’t look anything like that published book we started with. Who’d want to read this? So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane. Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second? Which paragraph is irrelevant? What content will move your reader? What won’t? That’s layer two.
4. You’re still standing over the book, but what you see is a jumble of content on glass one and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass two. An even bigger mess than before. You want to quit!
5. So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to only one pane: panes one and two have fused into one.
6. Place another glass down. You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas. These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing, and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass three, what this story means.
open book wit pane 1 with meaning copy-27. These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass one. You look for key words. If your content and structure are about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass three: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane three fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.
8. Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.
9. A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.
10. Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.
11. After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.
12. If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be twenty or thirty layers in a novel, maybe only four or five in a flash.
13. Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again.
It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.


We often only think of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three pages or a hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers. We shake our heads and groan and mumble, I don’t even know where to start leading to I’m going to fail.”

We want to give up because we don’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure, the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading. Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.


I found this essay when I looked myself up on Google.  Yes, I’m blushing. However, I forgot about this and think I wrote some helpful words here. Check it out.IMG_9542

An old draft, dusty and gray, looks hopefully at its creator, knowing there must have been a kernel of an idea, a set of pictures, a deep emotional tug, that needed to be woven together, but something went wrong, an outward interference or a failure–it it does happen–to bloom.  But what an old draft knows is that time creates distance, and distance brings with it a new perspective.

The draft stares into a mirror unadorned, the author standing behind it.  She turns it around.  Takes inventory.  Begins to ask questions.  The old draft straightens under this scrutiny while the author wonders, “Who is the character here?”

What’s her name?  Where is she and what is her current state of mind? What does she want?  What stands in her way?  What is her key strength?  Her weakness?

The old draft yields up the  information it possesses and hopes the author with see the bits that are strong and fresh, but not gloss over the parts that are missing or weak.  The old draft knows it is flawed, and only wants to get better.

The old draft reminds the author that while characters are important, so is the story itself.  Does the story have a spine and does that spine reflect what the main character wants and/or needs?  How does the story test her, and how does it bring out her strength?  What about who she is bumping up against?  Is he or she a worthy opponent?  Is there real doubt created in the mind of the reader as to who will win?  The old draft knows that in order to propel the reader through the story, there must be suspense, and it is created by the uncertainty of outcome.

The old draft wants the author to know there are many beautiful words contained within its pages, but do they all work?  Do they all serve the story?  The old draft understands that in order to be the best it can be, some things will have to go.  That it must be put on a fat-free diet.  Must spend time moving and flexing.  It must go to boot camp. The old draft doesn’t like it, but knows this is the only way to build muscle and strength.

The old draft is beginning to feel young again, relishes the author’s rekindled enthusiasm, and urges the work to continue and for the author to invite a few readers to check the progress and give honest and constructive criticism.  The old draft consoles the author when some of the readers feel this or that needs an adjustment and tells the author to consider what might work and what won’t, and then to trust her gut.

When the old draft see the author wander away with a gleam in her eye, it knows she’ll be back to put on the finishing touches and the draft  feels fresh and alive once more. ♦


This piece by me was published by D. J. Adamson at LE COEUR DE L’ARTISTE on 8/28/2016. D. J. Adamson is the author of the Lillian Dove Mystery series.

Coach Your Story Like Your Name is … Erik Spoelstra

Last night Tim and I ate at the Austria Hof Bar (excellent food) in Mammoth Lakes and watched the Toronto Raptors defeat the champion Golden State Warriors.  I rooted for the home team to come back for one more game against the odds with players limping to the locker room, but it didn’t happen, and I’m happy for Toronto. We watched them throughout the series and rooted for Kawhi and the team. Both  should be proud of their efforts.

What this reminded me of was an essay I published in the now defunct Flash Fiction Chronicles blog about writing and basketball in 2012. The players have changed, but the premise still works1478e-chroniclebutton2. Coaches are to basketball as writers are to stories. Hopefully the names of past players will ring a welcome bell, and the analogy will work for you today. Here’s the piece:

Jun 20 2012

Well, dang. It’s Wednesday and something needed to show up in this spot and I forgot to double-check last night. Blame it on the Heat and the Thunder!

What a terrific game. I just hope the Thunder can come back so the series goes to seven. Nothing like great basketball to get me thinking about teamwork and how it applies to writing. The writer is the coach. The team: each member is a story element and they must work together to WIN.  (Indulge me here. Everything seems like a metaphor for writing to me!)

Think about it. The coach is the one who teaches, guides, plans, shapes, and has a heart attack when all the teaching, guiding, planning, shaping doesn’t work. The team has potential, it may even have talent, but if left to their own devices, the members might play well, might even be brilliant, but going all the way, winning that trophy? Not so easy.

The big man might not let the others play because he never gives up the ball. The point guard might try to get everyone to pay attention, to work the ball around to the player with the best “look,” but maybe there’s a bumping battle for position in the key and the player misses the pass.  You’ve heard it before from the master himself, Michael Jordan, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” And whose job is it to bring teamwork and intelligence to the court? The coach.

So how does that apply to writing? You guessed it, the author is the coach. He or she is the person in charge, the one who makes the tough decisions, who inspires, motivates, and keeps everything on track. The starting team includes structure, language, content, theme, and characters with dialogue, setting, clarity, metaphor, and imagery coming off the bench.

The coach puts his first team on the court. The best players, but he has to switch them out when something isn’t working, and he has a strong bench to do so. Maybe for one story, language is the focus–the element that never lets the author down. For another, structure is the inspiration, but no matter what strategy the coach decides will work, he has to count on all the elements to do their part.

I love Blake Griffin. Watched him in the NCAA championships and there was something about him that stood out (damn good basketball) and I remembered him, so when he ended up on the Clippers, I was excited. We went to a couple games and the Clippers suddenly had enough talent that we dared to hope they would be contenders, but they didn’t always play as a team. Whoever had the ball tended to shoot. There was little working around the floor and while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin might be two of the most talented players in basketball, they could not bring it in the end without the rest of the team.

The same is true in putting together a story. An author might be brilliant with words, stringing them together like easy lay-ups, but a story needs more than pretty words. It has to have meaning. It has to stir something in the reader. Occasionally, of course, an imagery-rich story might be enough, something there beneath the lines that works for many readers, but we’re talking about the long haul here, making it to the finals, to the championship. Sharp original language is like having a superb big man. You might win over fans for a few stories, but at some point, the author needs to send in the rest of the team.

Language, structure, and content need to work together and still have room for the other elements to play their part in order for a writer to produce championship work. Writing is like coaching. You can’t just put your best two players in the game and hope they can bring home the NBA Trophy while you cheer them on.  You need to coach everyone on the team. You need to get each one to contribute the best version of their skills to the play.

If you saw the game last night, important plays were made by bench-warmers Nick Collison for the Thunder and Norris Cole for the Heat. And what about Mario Chalmers? We expect to be cheering Dwyane Wade and LeBron, but Bosh? And while Russell Westbrook scored a valiant 32 points, the Thunder lost because yes, late in the game, his team ran out of gas.

So enough of this. You get the point. We writers need to consider how all the elements of a story can contribute to the overall story and while one or the other may dominate, it is the contributions from the bench that will often carry the day.

“Acadia Lost” at Fictive Dream

I have a story up at Fictive Dream, “Acadia Lost.” Thank you, Laura Black. Find it here.

“Summer evenings, while the grown-ups smoked Kents and shuffled cards in the kitchen, Denny Dale and I played Superman and Supergirl in his mama’s front room. With old pillowcases tied around our necks, we leapt in single bounds from skyscraper to skyscraper.”


Photo by Gabriel

“Seven Ways…” at Bending Genres

I have a story up at Bending Genres. Thank you! Find it here:

“The over-ruling concept in public disease prevention is to never go into a wet, dirty, graffiti-ridden toilet stall. Common sense demands you search for the cleanest cubicle. However, if none is available, do not hesitate to comb the nearby neighborhood for a decent restroom rather than risking the dangers of using one exhibiting undue negligence or sexual activity.”


Photo by Hafidz Alifuddin on

“Mono Lake”- The Airgonaut

My story, Mono Lake, is now up at Sheldon Compton’s “The Airgonaut.” Find it here.

“They waded in the lake’s warm salty water, chasing away black clouds of alkali flies. They felt as if they’d landed on long lost planet and he’d missed it.”


Photo of Mono Lake was taken by Ashley Webb from Los Angeles, USA and found at Creative Commons.


From the Archives: You, Hot Guy

Fantasy published in 10 Flash Quarterly, January 2010

You, Hot Guy by Gay Degani

from The Portland Chronicle Personals: 

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 1.25.49 PMSPOTTED & SOUGHT / Sunday, January 3

You: man. Hot guy in scruffy beard & flannel shirt, a forty in one hand, a pack of Marlborough’s in the other. W&W: Friday night at the Mobil station. You grinned and said someone with a chassis like mine deserved a better ride. Then you climbed into a 1969 VW bug. But STILL I liked your chassis just fine.

Me: woman. Pumping unleaded into my mama’s rusty Olds Cutlass. Wanna meet? When: Monday at 10 P.M. Where: Mobil station. You: Man. Me: Woman.


from The Portland Chronicle Personals:

SPOTTED & SOUGHT / Wednesday, January 6

You: Mister scruffy & flannel, former hot guy at Mobil station on Friday night, were a no-show.

Me: hot girl with a nice chassis in Oldsmobile.

I waited outside the gas station in the Cutlass for an hour. Two forties and a carton of cigs. WTF, BUG-MAN. I was hoping you’d show up and we could put on some Keith Urban and you could rock my world.

But maybe you don’t read the personals or maybe you didn’t read them on Sunday morning. Maybe you had one helluva hangover and couldn’t crawl out of bed. Or maybe you got sidetracked by some other chick with a nice chassis.

Irregardless, I’m willing to give you another chance because you gave me such a promising smile and your eyes have that little sparkle I like. When: Wednesday at 10 P.M. Where: Mobil station. You: Man. Me: Woman.


from The Portland Chronicle Personals:

SPOTTED & SOUGHT / Friday, January 8

How the hell was I supposed to know you have a girlfriend?

You: hot guy from the Mobil Station.

Me: girl with 4 slit tires on her mom’s Olds.

You could’ve taken out a personal and told me you were spoken for. You didn’t have to send your Amazon girlfriend after me. She is NOT an attractive woman, hot guy. Built like a fucking bear. And she’s strong.

There I was sitting up in the front seat, flipping through People Magazine, when suddenly I thought there was a giant earthquake going on.

I thought she’d roll my mom’s car right into the ditch. Thank goodness I locked my doors, because she pounded and smacked at the glass and I was so scared I peed my pants, thinking she’d pick up a rock and smash my windows.

Guess she isn’t that bright.

She got tired of watching me panic and took off in your VW. I wanted to get the hell out of there, too, but that’s when I realized she’d slit my tires. I was not happy about spending the night out there, a Mobil station being devoid of magic of any kind, but I’m willing to forgive you.

I know you wouldn’t be with that awful woman if you weren’t scared to death, so here’s the plan. When: Saturday night at 12 A.M. Where: At the crossroads rest stop on I-13. You: Man who needs help. Me: Woman willing to give it.

Don’t let the bitch read this!


from  The Portland Chronicle Personals:

SPOTTED & SOUGHT / Sunday, January 10

I gave you plenty of chances, didn’t I?

You: scruffy guy from the Mobil Station. Me: girl with no regrets.

I suppose I should’d been a little more up FRONT with you from the beginning, but sometimes I get a yearning to be like normal girls, who hang out at Curly’s on Saturday night, pick up hot guys, and hook up in the cabs of their trucks.

And that’s where I was going when you showed up on my radar with your scraggly beard and Bud Lights. I thought, there he is, right there, that one.

After the incident at the Mobil station—the one with your gorilla girlfriend—I decided I needed to tap into a little bit of magic I have by way of my mom, she of the Oldsmobile Cutlass. And my father too. Between the two of them, it’s quite a gene pool.

I was hoping none of it would matter. You would read my note and see what a forgiving heart I have and remembering my sweet little chassis, you’d come alone and we could shake things up. But you didn’t.  I stopped dead cent in the crossroads. Both of you were too stupid to run like rabbits.

Instead, you clowns climbed out of that VW, and stood mocking me, grubby hands on hips. Neither of you had a clue and strode toward me like swaggering ass-holes. You were, I could see, not a prisoner of this bitch. You were not the dude to rock my world.

The minute you stepped inside my magic circle, the black asphalt split open and only for a moment did your skank look at me with anything other than scorn. But then, plain, old-fashioned horror distorted your faces, eyes melting, mouths ripping, skin curling, as you slithered into the earth. Sorry about that. You: Man gone to hell with Amazon bride. Me: Woman still looking.


from The Chronicle Personals: 

SPOTTED & SOUGHT / Wednesday January 13

You: Man. Cute redhead spotted jogging north in sweats at dusk on Monday in front of Curly’s Bar and Grill. You waved and said, “How you doing?”

Me: Woman. Climbing out of my mom’s Olds Cutlass, four brand new tires.


copyright January 2010 by Gay Degani

From the Archives: When you think you’re done, are you?

When we are new at something, sometimes all we can think about is that first goal.  Learning to skate doesn’t look that hard.  If  we can stay upright, feet on the sidewalk (or ice), body vertical, we’ll soon be doing figure eights and sailing backwards. The same goes for writing.  When we sit down at the keyboard to write a story, we figure if  we can get enough words on the screen, we’ll have a tale worth telling.

In some ways, we need this attitude to get started.  If we knew we’d fall on our asses for the first twelve times we skated over a twig, a crack, our sister’s Barbie doll, we probably wouldn’t try.  We need that initial belief in ourselves to put the skates on in the first place.  The same is true for writing.  We picture ourselves  clacking away at the computer keys with lines of type building and building.  It is the only way to deal with our initial fear.
However, how we handle the results of those first attempts can dictate success or failure.  For many, a bruised butt and bloodied knees spell defeat.  “I don’t want to do this!  This is too hard” and they head inside to watch Saturday morning cartoons.  Others wear their scabs like badges of honor and take a moment to reassess their goals.  They realize they can’t jump from standing upright on skates to skimming down Devil Hill, carving eights in the liqour store parking lot, floating backward to the awe of the younger kids without blood and guts.
The same is true with writing.  Although there are those who have a natural talent for the written word can sit down and write it without too much angst.  But these are rare cases.  Most of us may write a story that has many strong elements, but as a whole it doesn’t work.  Not yet.  And we need to reassess and learn the craft.
This is the make-or-break moment for most writers, the moment of looking at a piece of writing as it might be read by others, readers who do not live in the head of that writer.  The ability to look at one’s own work with a critical eye does not come easily.  It is a skill that is learned with practice, patience, and awareness of what works and what doesn’t.  An expertise that evolves over time.
Just as a young roller skater learns the sidewalk is smoother than asphalt, a writer learns clarity is more important that an obscure turn of phrase, but to do this, both must be willing to see beyond their first goals.  They must accept the reality that becoming good at something requires the understanding that learning is a process, that the large goal must be broken down into smaller goals because everything is more complex than we first perceive.
There is a difference in skating and writing.  We teach different muscles to work harmoniously together.  In skating we train our bodies and our brain too, but most it’s about legs and balance and reaction.  In writing we train our brains–and our hearts.
How do we train our brains to write?  We set up mini-goals, lots of them, beyond our first goal.  Here are a few I believe in, though sometimes I find it hard to actually do them all!
Mini-Goals for Each Story
  • Create content by taking notes, brain-storming, writing a “shit” draft
  • Write a draft
  • Do research to understand the world you’ve created or the personalities
  • Think about story structure
  • Make certain everything in a story serves a purpose (especially in flash)
  • Be willing to delete that which doesn’t fit into the structure
  • Go through the story to improve the language
  • Make certain everything that needs to be clear is clear
  • Make certain that verbs are active, that nouns are specific
  • Proof-read carefully
  • Set it aside (this is one of the hardest mini-goals because usually at this stage we are sooooooo excited about what we’ve created, we can’t wait to send it out)
  • Reread and make changes after it’s been set aside
  • Ask a trusted reader to read it (trusted: gentle, supportive, yet honest, honest, honest)
  • Decide what notes you agree with and what you don’t and make edits
  • Set aside again, at least an hour or two so that when you proof-read for the final time, you have enough distance to find now what your eye skipped over before
  • Send out and cross fingers
Mini-Goals for Personal Growth
  • Read widely and deeply
  • Talk to others about writing
  • Be open-minded
  • Try new genres
  • Be a mentor
 None of this is necessary if a writer is writing only for himself.   Just as skating up and down the block might make one child happy, putting together a story for fun can work for the “Sunday author.”  But if your goal is roller-derby, you’d better to be willing to work.  And if you want to be published?  Guess what…
Republished here from an article by Gay Degani at Flash Fiction Chronicles, published Nov 22, 2009 

2019 Pushcart Nominees from Blink-Ink

photo of Mojave Train by Rennett Stowe 

Here’s the announcement from Blink Ink 

Awards Season is upon us and here we go first up with the Pushcarts. Congratulation to one and all.

Our 2019 Nominees are:

Claire Polders – Tabula Rose
Liam Pezzano – Dusty Angels
Gay Degani – Mojave
Steven Dunn – Shade
Nancy Stohlman – The Harpist
Francine Witte – Two years Later


Thank you Sally Reno and Doug Mathewson for this honor!



Tim Degani on Travel, Creativity, and Getting Out of Your Wheelhouse*

by Nancy Stohlman
Nancy Stohlman: I know you have done ton a lot of traveling-what have been some of your favorite destinations? Have you been to Costa Rica before?

Tim Degani: Yes, since I retired a few years ago Gay and I try to take at least one international trip a year.  One of my favorite places to visit was Peru, the food was fabulous and the vistas were unlike anything we have ever seen.  Machu Picchu is a place of stunning beauty and awe inspiring grandeur.  We were fortunate enough to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge which is the only hotel that borders the park, a place I would highly recommend.  There is a tremendous sense of tranquility and the orchids are just what one would expect in a tropical forest.  The altitude can be a challenge so take the oxygen and coca infused tea when offered upon arriving in Cusco.  The Inca craftsmanship and artistry cannot be ignored in their exquisite architecture and blanket weaving which can be found throughout the Sacred Valley.

We have not been to Costa Rica so I am looking forward to an amazing trip.
Nancy: Wow–I’m jealous! That sounds amazing. Creativity comes to people in different ways. How are you creative?
Tim: I spent my career in the aerospace industry working in various finance positions, so I am not considered a creative person and certainly not one as defined by the arts.  I am an engineer by education and my creativity, if it can be called that, is in solving problems and finding ways to accomplish projects that are functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.  I do enjoy all of the arts and am currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach California.
Nancy: I DO think solving problems is creative–I would also put the sciences into the creativity basket as well. Now you are coming to Costa Rica with your wife, Gay Degani, who is a writer. What’s it like being married to a writer?  
Tim: As long as I give her plenty of room to do her own thing, we get along great after 44 years of marriage.
Nancy: Ha! Exactly. What are you most looking forward to about your time in Playa Negra?  
Tim: I look forward to several days of relaxing in a tropical environment and partaking of some of the many outdoor activities offered.  I am thinking maybe horseback riding, snorkeling, riverboat cruise, or visiting a rain forest.
Nancy: Sounds perfect. You know that Playa Negra has some of the best surfing as well, right? Now react to this quote by the (now) late Anthony Bourdin: “Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”
Tim: I couldn’t agree more; in order to stay mentally agile you need to experience life and all it has to offer.  I don’t think I could or would go to the extremes he went to (like traveling to Iran), nor eat the more exotic foods he devoured.  I do enjoy going to and trying out new experiences that are outside of your wheel house.  It helps to put your life into perspective.
Nancy: I agree. Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Tim: Well just about everything I suppose.  I am a native of Los Angeles, Ca, attended Hollywood high school and tried out unsuccessfully for the Dodgers.
Nancy: Wow! Anything else you want to add?
Tim: By now, you probably have heard enough from me.
Nancy: Thank you for your time, Tim! I’m looking forward to meeting you soon!

Want to join in the fun and inspiration in Costa Rica? Kathy and Nancy have 1 little cabina available: Find out more!

*Tim is coming with me to Costa Rica and while I “retreat” with Kathy and Nancy and a terrific group of writers, he’s going to take in the glories of beach and rainforest.