Category Archives: Character

The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

I’ve been wearing my editor hat again the last couple weeks, working with someone’s raw manuscript that is pending rewrite for resubmission. For confidentiality reasons, I apologize that I can’t be more specific than I am. What follows below are merely some overarching concerns that a rookie can easily overlook (hey, I’m one, too!) and sometimes get the Monkey’s head beating against the trunk of its tree:

1. Research – They say, “Write what you know,” but one doesn’t have to live in a place or serve in a certain profession, for example, to be able to research authentic details relating to such. Writing fiction doesn’t give the liberty to entirely fabricate a place or occupation if it’s one that actually exists. The internet is a beautiful place for research, as are books, site visits, and interviews with people in the applicable locations/fields. Be knowledgeable of your story’s setting and subjects and use common sense to discern what claims need to be fact-checked, then verify them accordingly. (see also “Settingcategory)

2. Narrative – Do NOT “tell” versus “show”! That is Writing 101. Your story shouldn’t read like an extended synopsis that lists events rather than describes them in such a way that immerses the reader. Don’t say that your character is making a facial expression that looks angry, show that his brows are furrowed and lips screwed into a menacing sneer. Don’t say that the room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, show that it’s cluttered with ornately carved oak chairs upholstered in embroidered silk astride side-tables trimmed in gold leaf (I don’t know if that’s “expensive” or just tacky…). And don’t say something in dialogue that you then paraphrase in narrative—communicate the info/insight one way or the other; to do both is redundant.

Also, avoid an abundance of character introspection. Readers really don’t need to know every single thought and motivation of your character. Make them privy, yes, if it’s from a certain character’s POV, but it’s also more interesting and vivid to visualize if you concisely show their body language and actions and let the reader reasonably infer some of what they’re thinking or feeling. Telling all on characters and the labyrinth of questioning they’re wondering their way through is tedious and doesn’t let readers form questions of their own that’ll make them keep reading in search of answers. Leaving something to the imagination not only indulges one of the joys of reading but can heighten a story’s sense of conflict and climax when the reader isn’t already in the know of everything. (see alsoDescriptive LanguageandSensory Detailscategories)

3. Dialogue. In keeping with the above, character conversation can come across as unnatural when too much information is shared by this means. Be subtle when doling out back-story or insight via dialogue, otherwise it’s blunt and awkward: your manipulations of story become too transparent, and the characters don’t sound like real people. (see alsoDialoguecategory)

4. Characterization. The above narration/dialogue factors are just as important to building a strong sense of character. Do your characters sound believable? Are you showing enough description of features, mannerisms, and personality such that your reader can visualize your characters (yet not so much that you’re telling readers everything about them and leaving nothing to the imagination)? And are you giving your reader reason to remotely care about them and whether or not they reach their goals? Without any of this, characters aren’t even two dimensional; they’re stick-straight lines. Boring. Flesh ’em out and make them more interesting with flaws if they seem too goodie-goodie or benign—or with redeeming qualities if they’re otherwise the Devil incarnate. No one likes a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. (see alsoCharactercategory)

5. Story Arc. Tensions need to rise as the story progresses. Not overly telling and giving everything away (as discussed above) will help contribute to this as readers speculate character motivations and future actions and reactions; scan and replace lengthy sections of introspection with concise, external descriptions of character body language/expression and leave readers to their own interpretations. Add complexity by interweaving relevant back-story and subplot(s). Foreshadowing is also a useful device for enhancing curiosity along the way as readers form predictions, but it will blow up in your face if the seeds you plant are too obvious! Don’t lead up to your big reveal only for your reader to go, “Uh, derr!” That reeks of anticlimax.

It’s not to say everything should be a surprise for the reader—it can be just as suspenseful when the reader already knows something the character doesn’t (like in horror movies when you know the killer is lurking right around the corner from the innocent victim), but only when it’s deliberately played to this effect. There’s a craft in pulling that off, so don’t think simply telling your reader everything and leaving your character in the dark is an easy shortcut—be discerning in what you share and withhold.

Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see alsoStory Arccategory and, more specifically, Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II)

6. Other: Plot Elements (in general). Map out all the major and minor elements of your plot and subplot(s) alike and make sure every piece of them flows/connects logically. Ensure not a single important question they could raise is left unanswered if it’s vital to understanding and believing in the story. Loose ends that leave something to the imagination or tease for a sequel are one thing, but overlooking major gaps in how a character got from Point A to Point B (just because you want them to get there for the sake of driving the story forward in other ways) undermines a story’s entire credibility. Don’t just say something happened if it’s not entirely logical for it to have happened and assume your readers won’t notice, that they’ll just take your word for it. If something is complicated whether you like it or not, do the work to figure it out; stop writing and start reasoning through it (via outline or time-line, perhaps). Do more research if it’s necessary. And if it’s not working, accept it and change it to something that will.

Readers’ disbelief can only be suspended so far; you have to earn their trust if they’re going to follow the journey you want to take them on. Even the most fantastical of story-worlds need plausibility (working within the rules/parameters the author so designs for those worlds if it’s not the one we actually live in), so the reader must understand how plot events feasibly come to happen and tie together for the story to be realistic and identifiable.

Speaking of “Uh, durr!” and “Oh,” that’s probably your reader-response to all of the above. But you’d be surprised what we writers can’t see in our own writing that we so clearly do in others. As the author, the mental full-picture we see tends to automatically fill the gaps of the written story that our readers otherwise trip into. With that in mind, never underestimate a pair of fresh eyes; it really does pay to have others read your work. So toughen that skin and git ‘er done! Constructive criticism has groomed the Monkey’s own fur into a nice thick and glossy coat. 🙂

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What Characters Looove to Do…


Characters love to—

* sigh *
and take deep breaths
when they’re not
catching their breath at the back of their throats
or gasping!
They like taking sidelong glances as they
look out the corner of their eyes,
and they’re fond of
muttering,
mumbling,
murmuring,
and growling
through clenched teeth.
They’ll pinch the bridge of their noses
or roll their eyes in frustration
or furrow/cock their brows in confusion.
And their mouths drop open in shock.
In good moods, they’re wild about
smirking
and
winking
and
blushing
as they
chuckle or snicker or giggle
with smug grins.
In tender moments, they’ll
whisper
and do everything
softly and gently.
And they absolutely get off on
beginning to do some things
while starting to do others.

These are just some of the things I see characters loving to do all over the place when I edit manuscripts. (I catch ’em with the naked eye, but a tool like “Wordle” might also help authors divide and conquer those tendencies)

What penchants do YOUR characters have?

*


Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2

* SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Sure Thing *

Ah, a little inspiration in one’s life can go a long way in one’s writing…love, love, love that movie.

But to pick up where I left off Monday, here are the last two items covered during my one-on-one sessions at the Festival of Writing with agent Juliet Pickering and author Emma Darwin—

Opening Chapter:  Does your opening chapter compel further reading?

JP – “I don’t have a strong sense of [main character’s] age or experience. She seems fairly calm in this alien place – has she travelled a lot before? Surprised that no wariness when accepting drinks etc.”

ED – “Yes, to some extent. Want to know about the mysteries in the past, and how the prologue fits. Can’t say I care much yet, about [main character] because we haven’t had much insight into what makes her tick, what drives her, why she’s come to [this setting], etc.”

Me: Let me just preface with some context –  as you can probably tell, my first chapter starts out with my protagonist traveling in a foreign country. During our session, Juliet had seemed mildly interested in the chapter, but her lack of feel for the character prevented her wanting to read more. Emma, however, told me she definitely did want to read more, if for any reason because she was intrigued by my prologue in the voice of the historical thread’s main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting for the bulk of the story, but the historical one pops up now and then to gradually reveal its influence on the former. Emma was engaged by the historical voice and the mystery of its cryptic words, but it was unfortunately my modern protagonist that fell flat for her as with Juliet.

I place a lot of the blame on the fact that this first chapter used to be my third one. I’d hacked out a duller, wordier opening and likely didn’t thoroughly think through what necessary elements of character were thrown right out with it. I’ve therefore been working to reincorporate that into the opening chapter; it isn’t all as simple as adding an age reference in there, but showing more characterization (and consistency in that characterization) through thoughts, dialogue, and actions. Bearing in mind the critique of my writing style from last time, I’ve also worked to simplify sentences and present it in a *hopefully* snappier, more engaging way that will make the reader more interested in my gal by virtue of better understanding her personality, background, and motivations.

Next Steps:  Recommendations for the way forward.

JP – “Perhaps add a little more emotion into [main character’s] thoughts/feelings?”

Me: Juliet’s primary recommendation related to the issue above – characterization needs to be strengthened from the get-go. Emma hadn’t written anything down for this, but, in person, she reemphasized to me the importance of my two narrative threads having an impact on each other. She liked my writing (was hooked by the first sentence of Chapter 1—score!)—and just warned against the over-writing that confuses what I’m trying to say.

One sigh of relief was Emma’s validation with the way I shift POV between the two threads – the indie publisher I referenced Monday had an issue with that, but Emma said it was perfectly fine. There is an abundance of stigmas against first-time writers and what we are and are not able to do expertly enough; not that I’m saying I’m handling this case in point “expertly,” but I have a list of reasons why I’m doing it the way that I am that I’m choosing to stand by, no matter what. I can see it making a difference if a newbie tries something just for the sake of doing it, to be stylistic and experimental, but when there’s actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll see.

So once again, I ask you, readers, what feedback have you received on your manuscript’s opening that you’ve found helpful? How did you address it? 


The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part II

Hello again! Just accommodating the overspill from yesterday’s post, as I yet wanted to address developmental edits on my first manuscript assignment in this capacity. Again, I can’t share any comments that would give away plot/character specifics, and I’m obviously not including the little microediting minutiae here (like reworking sentence structures), but what I am doing is grabbing the meatier highlights of what I found to be the most prevalent issues in the hope it helps reinforce what to check for in your own manuscript as it did for mine.

So to speak on a macroediting level today, this author’s main focus now as she makes her edits (due back to me later this month) needs to be on her ending. We’ve talked story arc before, and a scene after a critical moment of rising action in a later chapter seemed to drag out too long as the reader nears the story’s climax, for which I noted:

[…] I’m not suggesting cutting these parts out, as they serve a purpose in the story and provide important information. Yet perhaps if they’re condensed a bit the pacing could keep flowing toward that climax. What’s key is to determine what you perceive as this story’s pinnacle and make sure everything is building up and up to that, keeping the reader compelled and not bogged down in too much talk or description that tends to flatten out the story’s trajectory when it should be climbing. Dialogue can be [tightened], limiting it to what keeps moving [the characters] and the reader forward.

And whereas that section seemed to drag on too long, the last chapter forced too much into too short a space in seeking a complete resolution. This is a romance novel, so that resolution naturally involves the two main characters attaining closure on where their relationship stands:

Hm, this sounds like a lot to load onto [him] all of a sudden […] when they’re only just working out whether they’ll stay together. I know in assessing that they may as well get all the big deal-breaker topics out of the way, but it still seems like a lot at once. Could she possibly just reference [her wants] in such a way that’s meant to show [him] she’s in for the long-haul with [him], too, in the spirit of taking it one step at a time?

And with romance novels, there’s always the risk of confusing “romance” with “sex,” so when the latter comes up (“up,” quite literally) right at the end and after a sweet moment of sentiment, I suggested:

Hm, seems to undermine the sincerity of the emotion. Maybe [this] can just be coinciding with his revelations of love for her, helping to unleash these realizations rather than being the way he chooses to show her his love after the fact (it’s a little caveman). Some description of her engagement with it might help as well to show this love as something they share in both the emotional and physical sense.

I expressed this merely as my reader’s POV, and not as a prude or a feminist. There’s a way sex can be written romantically, but this just wasn’t it, and I think the author agrees that the resolution can take a less easy, but higher road out.

Another item on the agenda is character development, and, in this work, I felt the two main characters were developed fully. I genuinely liked them and, from the romance aspect, really wanted them to get together—they made sense as a couple. Most importantly, I believed in them—they felt real, through their dialogue, actions, back-stories, chemistry, etc., and that’s all to the credit of this writer and her keen insights into people and engaging writing style. Where I did encounter some mixed feelings concerned the female protagonist and her ex-lover, a secondary character who is integral to the plot and the protagonist’s growth, yet himself appears very rarely in the story. Even so, his development felt too one-dimensional to me:

He is just so vile, and this makes perfect sense given his animosity toward [her revenge] and that he’s just a bad fit for her. What it leaves me wondering, though, is what it was about him that she used to care for. While I can see her insecurities leading her to choose the wrong men, [she] also has too much substance to go for someone with zero redeeming qualities beyond the materialistic.

Not that this would have to be developed in depth, but consider such opportunities where she’s [already] reflecting on him to somewhere incorporate (even just a sentence or two) the appeal he did once have for her, even if it only ended up being fake or that he changed.

In this case, the secondary character’s lack of believability could impact the protagonist’s, so this was a strongly suggested change to preserve consistency in her character—and, even better, it’s a quick, easy fix. Likewise with the following case where the protagonist still seemed to pine over her ex during the final scene with her new love:

From the way you’ve depicted him, I’m highly doubting [her ex-lover] would ever want [what she claims here], so I don’t see this as being the issue with him that would come to light at this point. I’m actually surprised that she’d be talking about him at all right now and getting choked up in residual emotion over it – [there was] sufficient enough closure [earlier]. Plus, she just [made several  grand gestures to win her new lover]—she’s all about [that guy] right now, and it doesn’t seem appropriate for her to bring up old flames in this intimate setting. […] Her not reflecting on him as anything that ever mattered would be a most convincing way of [showing her growth].

But that’s my take on it, which is why I label this as a “suggested” change, albeit a very strongly suggested one because I felt disappointed in [her] when she started saying all this.

And this last comment shows how I do try to approach my edits of another’s work delicately, keeping ultimate stylistic/plot control with the author while also trying to earn trust in my feedback. It’s very easy for all of us to get protective of our writing, but if we really want it to become its best, we need to consider reader response seriously. (Tahlia Newland addresses this fact and several other awesome tips on ms revision in her recent Lethal Inheritance post on how to know when your manuscript is ready.) And as I learned in teaching, the key with feedback is balancing the positive with the constructive so a writer isn’t feeling like there’s nothing of merit in his/her work; be honest, but preserve some pluck for carrying out those revisions effectively!

How about you? Have you ever had to edit someone else’s writing? How did it help you with your own?


The Manuscript Manicure – Part I: Macro-Editing

Hiya! I’m back to redeem that I.O.U. I gave you last week. See, my word’s good as gold ;)…

As I mentioned, I attended a writing workshop with Room to Write over the weekend that was geared toward prepping a novel manuscript for submission. The full-day conference was divided into two primary parts—Editing and Publication—the first of which I’ll address in part now and break the rest down into separate posts. But, first, I’ll start with some general notes I jotted along the way to get us in the proper mindset:

One thing they stressed is that, above all:

“Editing is a creative process.”

Yes, it involves the nitty-gritty technical stuff, but we’re not merely playing the role of English teacher grading for grammar with red pen in hand—revising our work requires every bit of imagination and innovative thought as writing our initial draft does. For as they said, when the first draft is finished:

“You’re only just beginning.”

Ah yes, it does feel that way doesn’t it…my question is, when the hell does it end???

Anyway, in order to become our own editor, we have to become a “self-conscious” one. No, not as in insecurity-ridden—I think I’ve already mastered that one just fine :). What they mean is to be conscious of the kind of writer we are and the audience we’re writing for. The better aware we are of this, the better  we’ll be able to edit our work with this focus in mind.

Macro-editing is concerned with the overall  novel as a cohesive work. It’s our opportunity to step back from our first draft and contemplate whether it has achieved what we wanted it to and is structured effectively. They encouraged us to print a hardcopy of the manuscript to initiate this stage, as reading your words on the page is truly a different experience from reading them on screen. (I wouldn’t have expected this, but wow. There’s so much more that I catch with that ms in hand.) You will also want to list your themes, summarize your entire book in three sentences, and keep these with you as you journey back through your text to ensure you aren’t straying from any critical elements.

Key aspects your self-conscious-editing self should look for (not only in the novel as a whole, but in every chapter and scene as well) are:

– A compelling beginning, a hook that makes the reader want to continue. The first chapter in particular should be compelling in an action sense, but also in a literary way—it needs to be beautifully written. Subsequent chapters likewise need their own hooks and should be varied in how they start (i.e., beginning with dialogue, beginning in the middle of action, etc.)

– Action, drama, or “trouble,” as they called it.

– Appropriate pacing.

Three-dimensional characters that are brought to life and desire something;

— Characters are “thinly veiled versions of the writer” (sound familiar?), but we must immediately establish distinction between them and from ourselves if they are to appear as separate people; if they’re all clones of us, then they’re clones of each other.
— If you can “see” the character in your mind (consider gathering clippings from magazines and such for reference), then they will come across on the page.
– Provide physical descriptions of your three main characters, enough to help visualize their traits, but not full-bodied detail. Leave something to your readers’ imagination.
— Characters should be consistent from start to finish (i.e., if you reveal or yourself learn something new about them later in the novel, are these traits present at the beginning as well? If not, try to introduce them at least subtly).
— We should see growth in the main character.

– Clear sense of when and where each scene partakes.

– Long sections of description/exposition that could be cut.

Changing up the writing between exposition, narrative, and dialogue.

– A sense of atmosphere and appeal to the senses that lends texture.

– Something in each chapter that surprises the reader.

Continuity between scenes and chapters; ensure nothing is missing.

– Evaluate the “shape” of your novel/chapter in terms of story arc. Shapes can vary, but there should in general be a rising sense of action/conflict until the climax, then a dip toward resolution (so check for any sagging in the middle).

– Evaluate the ending and ensure a sense of resolution. They advised us to look at six novels we personally enjoy and look at their endings as a guide for managing this successfully. They also admitted that, in the interest of keeping your ending brief (the resolution should just be a “flick” after the climax) as well as ensuring your reader understands what has happened, the resolution may indeed warrant more telling than showing.

Throughout your macro-editing assessment, then, you will want to sit back and assess whether this is the story you wanted to write in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if ends up morphing into something even cooler than you thought it could be, but if it seems to fall short in some way, pinpoint where it diverges and contemplate how to get it back on track. Another very important point to consider outside of yourself is if it is the story your reader will want to read—how will they experience it?

I’d better cut this off here until my next installment. Many thanks to author Avril Joy for guiding us through this session of the workshop! More to come…

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?


So, uh…Did You Bring Any Protection?

*blush*  Get your minds out of the gutter.  What kind of monkey do you think I am?!

“The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have long neglected my little writing prompts that originally kicked off this blog, mainly because they’re aim was to get me over writer’s block, and it worked!  I’ve been cranking until I’m crossed eyes these recent days on revising my manuscript, and for the time being am keen to step away for a bit to clear my head.  So…

The Prompt:

Today page 43 of Room to Write asks us to list the protections we use in our everyday lives or, indeed, our writing.  We are to then have our main character embody this protection in a scene or simply write a new piece without using writing-protections (e.g., a different place than the usual, without a word/page limit, etc.).

Henry VIII's armour

Response:

My everyday protections include:

– smiling

– expression through writing versus speaking

– diving behind a book or in front of a computer/tv

– my giant headphones and iPod

– sarcasm

– my forked tongue, when need be

– stubbornness, which includes a common refusal to say, “sorry”

– quiet pensiveness, reclusiveness

Hm, given that codpiece on Henry's armour, perhaps he could've used this protection as well...

– over-analysis

– verbatim recall of prior conversations (one of my more superb defenses)

– cold silence or, conversely, inane babble

– hats, cardigans, and sunglasses

– take-away caffeine (somehow just holding the steaming paper cup is a fortification, regardless what’s inside)

– sleep

– my quilt

– a hybrid superiority/inferiority complex that’s a bit difficult to describe…

I’ll stop there and address the second part of this exercise by first peeling off one key writing-protection of mine:  the ability to revise.  So I’m just going to write this off the cuff and not obsess over how it comes out, leaving it raw in its first draft form.

So, that said, I have certainly infused a lot of the above protections into my protagonist, who I’ll continue to address by the pseudonym “Margaret” (whoops, there I go, still protecting…and for whatever reason protecting the fictional :)).  I could probably find one-to-one matches for almost everything on the list, but here’s just a few examples:

“Margaret beamed one of her fake smiles in maneuvering in ninety-degree angles toward her.”

“Writing was so much easier than calling; writing gave control, the ability to pause, reread, and revise.  Margaret didn’t trust herself with speaking any longer; the restraint in talking to her parents was difficult enough, and they alone embodied the innocence necessary to not pick up on vocal cues.  Her not-so innocent friends and brother, on the other hand, were risks she couldn’t take.”

“Shaking off the mundane tasks of Everyday-Land and shoving in a thumbnail to spear a dog-eared page, Margaret tiptoed into her alternate universe at the delicious creaking sound of a hardcover binding blooming into action.”

“She’d banked an increasing number of slumbering hours ever since that first day […] and she wiled away the afternoons on indulgences like prolonged soaks in the tub and otherwise luxurious daytime lounging.  The solitary nature of her days quieted her mind to her earlier paranoia, distortions in perception that she’d ascribed to stress-induced fatigue.  [It] all dissipated before her like the steam that rose off the bubbles in her lap.”

The sun shied away behind the clouds, making Margaret’s sunglasses redundant, so she reluctantly removed them.”

“She’d lately taken to […] a route of anonymity that concealed her among side streets rather than parade her before rows of shops and sidewalk cafés.  She didn’t want to be observed, though sometimes played a mental game that she was hiding from the paparazzi lusting to lavish her with attention—somehow desiring to be a Nobody while still feeling like a Somebody.”

And that kitten definitely has claws when she needs ’em to shield her inner vulnerability.

Reflection:

As much as this character isn’t supposed to be me, it’s interesting to look back on her through this lens and realize how cognizant I am of my defense-mechanisms, as reflected in this mirror.  I reveled before in the fact that writing can be a protective filter of our thoughts by virtue of its revision stage, yet it is also something that leaves us exposed, unveiling raw emotion, intellect, and imagination.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt (and continues to feel) timid about posting a blog, putting those ideas out there for anyone to read and judge.  Getting something “in writing,” after all, carries that sense of no-turning-back, as though signed in our blood or chiseled in stone.  There’s both a structured permanence and organic fluidity to it that just fascinates me, but I’ll leave that to another blog topic on another day.  For now, I suppose these blogs do allow us to go back and edit, but I’ll keep my promise and not exercise that protection ;).  In fact, I’m not even going to let myself read this over before I press “Publish.”  Ha, take that!

What are your protective layers?



The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

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I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


Show Me, Show Me, Show Me How You Do That Meme

These have been busy days causing much blog-neglecting, so for now I shall finally snag the writing activity from Corra McFeydon’s A Lit Major’s Notebook blog as I told her I would.  I had also told her I had a Spotlight Award waiting for her when her blog was up and running again, which is still out there for the offering, though I know she will graciously not accept 😉

This is in keeping with some of the writing prompts I follow that allow for brevity…it’s like an ink-blot test, really, offering insight through metaphorical self-perception:

– If I were a season, I’d be autumn.
– If I were a month, I’d be October.
– If I were a day of the week, I’d be Thursday.
– If I were a time of day, I’d be 23:00.
– If I were a planet, I’d be Saturn. (I like a good accessory).
– If I were a direction, I’d be West.
– If I were a tree, I’d have the perfect branch to sit and imagine on. (and there’d be a monkey in me)
– If I were a flower, I’d be dried jasmine blooming at the bottom of a tea cup.
– If I were a fruit, I’d be a tomato.
– If I were a land animal, I’d be a cat, sleeping in a sunny window.
– If I were a sea animal, I’d be manatee, fooling sailors that I’m a mermaid.
– If I were a bird, I’d be a mockingbird.
– If I were a piece of furniture, I’d be a chaise lounge.
– If I were a liquid, I’d be red wine.
– If I were a stone, I’d be sedimentary.
– If I were a tool, I’d be a level.
– If I were a kind of weather, I’d be alternating showers and sunshine, UK-style.
– If I were a musical instrument, I’d be a piano.
– If I were a color, I’d be burnt sienna (consult your Crayola box).
– If I were a facial expression, I’d be a raised eyebrow.
– If I were an emotion, I’d be anxiety.
– If I were a sound, I’d be fingers tapping on a keyboard/piano keys in inspiration or a flat surface in impatience.
– If I were an element, I’d have an even atomic number.
– If I were a car, I’d be a Volkswagen.
– If I were a food, I’d be cheese.
– If I were a place, I’d be lined in dark wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, flickering in candlelight.
– If I were a flavor, I’d be spicy.
– If I were a scent, I’d be spicy 🙂
– If I were an object, it would be fun to be unidentified and flying, too.
– If I were a body part, I’d be the eyes.
– If I were a song, I’d be “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
– If I were a pair of shoes, I’d be black ballet flats.
– If I were transportation, I’d be my own two feet.
– If I were a fairy tale, I wouldn’t want any contemporary retellings of me to star J-Lo.
– If I were a holiday, I’d be spent traveling.

Oh yeah, and if I were a song, I’d also most certainly want you to rock out to me (men, apply that guyliner):


If The Shoe Fits

Ever see the movie Citizen Kane?  Well, there’s a montage relatively early in the film following the marriage of Charles Foster Kane.  The photos above do not capture the complete sequence (please click on any photo or here to view the full scene), but what we see from left to right is the progression of Charles and Emily’s marriage.  There are a few cinematic devices at work to show us in less than 3 minutes’ time that this couple gradually grows apart from one another emotionally:  mise-en-scene (setting/props), music, dialogueacting (body language, tone, proximity), and costume.  To focus on this last element in particular, we see the neckline of Emily’s garments climb ever higher as the cut and fabric of her gowns likewise shed their romance to become increasingly structured and rigid.  In this way, what a person wears can speak volumes for who they are and how they feel at a given moment in time.

The Prompt:

Page 35 of Room to Write asks us to write about clothes today.  We can “take a character shopping,” describe clothing we like, dislike, or has otherwise made a strong impression on us, or simply free-write beginning with the words “clothes” or “clothing.”

Response:

Oh goodie.  I’m going to take my character “Margaret” shopping, or at least raid her closet to determine what it says about her.

During Part I of her tale, I would take her shopping at a vintage shop for accessories as well as a contemporary store selling vintage-inspired clothing such as Anthropologie.  After that, it’s shoe-shopping!

– In the first chapters, she’s seen wearing “eggshell white kid leather driving gloves,” a “cameo choker” and “kitschy rhinestone cocktail ring.”

– In the later half of Part I when she has temporarily moved, thus only packs what she would need for a few months:

“The separation from her stored goods had been achingly painful—her weakest moment being when she cradled a pair of claret suede leather stilletos before lovingly packing them away with assurances they would be okay, that Momma would be back, as though tucking children in bed and promising no monsters would prey on them in the night.”

– And though impractical, you can still at this point hear her “high heels echoing off the walls as they clacked on the wood and cobbles.”

Towards the end of Part I, however, we already see how a shift in Margaret’s lifestyle results in a shift of her wardrobe as well.  At this point, I’d probably still be taking her to vintage shops, but, instead of jewelry, it would be for clothing more in the vein of Urban Outfitters.  These shopping excursions would be infrequent, though…probably just the one time.

– Getting pensive in the shower one morning, she finds herself wondering:

“What if she fell out of the habit of nine-to-five, of suiting up in business casual and charging at the world in proactive high-heeled fury?  She had been gravitating quite naturally to the irregularity of her schedule and informality of denim and limp old cardigans thrown over graphic tees, of every-other-day unwashed hair thrown into a man’s tweed cap.”

– Though she doesn’t wear jewelry anymore, she still accessorizes her t-shirts with linen scarves (that’s an effort, anyway), yet after she compliments her friend’s appearance and doesn’t receive one in return, she “shuffle[s] one now glaringly plain denim leg over the other.”

– We frequently see her in “her cardigan—that worn, pilled one of charcoal grey that had been her uniform for some time.”

– When our dear protagonist eventually seeks counseling for an issue you’ll better understand when you read the book ;), we do see a brief return to her previous style at the first two sessions:

“Margaret sat up and, knocking over one of her classic black pumps (she’d made a decided effort to dress up to par for this professional appointment, and had only removed the shoes to protect the couch cushions), reached for her handbag.”

“Margaret self-consciously fingered the vertical ruffles and cloth-covered buttons that extended to just below her chin.  Her cap sleeves were trimmed in a dainty band of lace.”

In doing this, she admits to her psychologist:  “It’s like I’m acting the role of myself…I’d forgotten, though, how much faking enthusiasm can actually generate the real thing.  It’s like if I make myself smile long enough, I can convince myself I’m happy.”

– By the third session, however:

“Margaret whimpered as she picked at the pills on her grey cardigan.”

“She tapped her Converse All-Stars around with her striped cotton toes.”

Aside from that, Margaret really only window-browses now when we go shopping.  She’s got her comfortable, casual staples and has no qualms repeating their wear often.  This isn’t to say, though, that she doesn’t still know how to turn up the Attractive Factor in her new lower-maintenance way:

– “Before he had left, however, she did not catch directly at his sleeve just as he opened the unit door so much as produce an identical effect by the way she stood at her bedroom doorway in just an over-sized t-shirt.”

Reflection:

Now that I’m almost finished with Margaret’s story line, I can look back and reflect that I’ve certainly been making deliberate clothing choices for her to mirror her life stages and emotional states.  However, I don’t describe much more than what I have above, as I personally feel that too much physical description of a character makes me as a reader too conscious of the writer behind the story, and it inhibits my own imagination.  I want my readers to be able to flesh out characters with their own brushtrokes, guided only by occasional suggestion. Hopefully, the descriptions that are there seem appropriate and are not too cliche for what they represent.

What do you think about characterizing through clothing?  What does it reveal or conceal?  Are appearances always as they “seam”? (pun fully intended—you ought to know how corny I am by now)


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