Category Archives: Conflict

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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Pacing Your Pages – Part I

Whoa there, horsie! Slow-n-steady does NOT always win the race...

Ah yes, welcome back to the Animal Kingdom, where if I’m not a monkey, I’m evidently a horse…let’s just say my husband and I are big fans of the Grand National and cheer the horses on the best way we know how from the pub. Now the Grand National is a looong-lasting steeplechase, so, just as in the London marathon two days ago, the runners have to pace themselves strategically so they have enough energy to race through the climactic finish. But that doesn’t mean they start walking, and, of course, it’s crucial they stay on track. Likewise, the workshop I attended, “Pacing: Or, How To Keep ‘Em Turning Pages,” at the York Festival of Writing instructed on how to keep the pace of your novel moving without meandering off course.

To start, as you can see on the right side of the screen, I’ve just started reading the novel Getting Away With It. I’m doing so for entertainment, yes, but also as a lesson in pacing—it so happens that its author, Julie Cohen, led the above-mentioned workshop, so I thought I’d check ‘er out.

Cohen started out by noting “novel time” and recommended using a blank calendar to map out the story’s timeframe (bearing in mind “reader time,” the timeframe during which the readers actually read it…you want to keep a novel moving, but you also want to work in enough time for your readers to catch their breath). And while a longer novel versus a shorter one can allow more breathing room for character introspection (which are necessary moments), she recommends against over-using it.

As for conflict, Cohen calls us the “Time Lords” over reading time. 🙂 What she means is that reader time is subjective; it’s the writer who manipulates it. And she advocates doing so by including as much conflict as possible in each page, which I’m sure we’ve all heard before:

A lot of well-handled conflict will go quickly, no matter how many pages.”
Julie Cohen

She’s not talking car-chase, high-drama conflict at all turns but, rather, varying types of conflict—this could be any of the usual types: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature. A blend of these conflicts are likely occurring in your novel, and Cohen suggests tracking them via a color-coding system to map out how they coincide chronologically. This can help you visualize the interplay of conflict as well as an approximation of your story’s shape.

Next up is function. A pacey book is efficient in its storytelling. Among the functions its chapters/scenes serve is moving the plot/subplot forward, developing character, creating emotion/atmosphere/conflict, and imparting information. But if you find you have several scenes serving the same function, either condense them or add in additional functions. A good way to determine this is to make a “scene function” list.

Also essential to pacing is starting and ending each scene with a hook, as well as giving your reader variety in mood, topic, theme, and style. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, Cohen had us do a simple exercise with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (it took a teacher to identify another teacher right off the bat, by the way—her presentation style was straight out of the trenches of keeping teenagers engaged, complete with energy, worksheets, and jigsaw activity. Everyone loved her! :)). Anyway, she’d provided a list of consecutive events from Act 1 Scene 1 to Act 2 Scene 2, and we were to label each with symbols denoting different tones, emotions, characters, and dramatic points of the story. The result is…*drum-roll*…That’s right, variety. You see an interplay of different elements without formulaic repetition.

Putting your readers on a rollercoaster is going to make them think and feel like they’re going faster.
Julie Cohen

So in an attempt to pace myself and allow time to digest the above, I’ll quit here and resume with the rest in Part II. But to practice my lessons, I’ll end on a hook. While I haven’t yet shared the punch-line to my “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” joke, I’ll leave you with this one, in keeping with today’s theme:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says


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?


The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

The-Breakfast-Club-movies-21223076-1558-800

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?


Here’s Mud in Yer Eye!

My first Nanoism is out:  #194


Are YOU Talkin’ to ME?

We all have them.  Those heated exchanges (or ones that are on their way to becoming heated) when we bite our tongues rather than spew what we’d really like to say.  Well, I must say I’ve gotten much, much better at speaking my mind over the last decade, so it’s hard to think of any recent times I’ve muzzled myself (quite unfortunate for my husband)…but still, there are times when we’ll do it for whatever reason:  to be tactful, to spare feelings, or maybe just to save time until we can regroup and come back with a better debate strategy.

The Prompt:

Page 24 of Room to Write asks us to think back to an argument when we’ve held back.  Let it all out now, considering what you censored or reworded at the time.  Develop it as a dialogue in which you likewise speculate how the other person may have responded.

Response:

I’m going to cheat on this one.  I’ve been trying to dig up some great conflict from my youth, but it isn’t coming to me right now.  The first hot topic that does come to mind, however, is one that I addressed three years ago by writing a letter that I knew I would never end up sending.  The file name I’d saved it under was, “If I Ever Have the Nerve to Send it,” so I could at least have it at the ready if need be.  The act of writing it out was in itself therapeutic and, as of this year, perhaps financially rewarding.  I’m still waiting to hear the latest update, but as of March I signed a release to have the letter included in an anthology entitled Best of Unsent Letters (I’m doubting the intended recipients would discover it under my pen name). We’ll see.  Maybe publication is delayed.  Maybe they forgot about me.  At any rate, until I know, I can’t share it here, but if it gets posted on their corresponding blog, I’ll retroactively add the link so you can see what spiteful things I have to say when someone crosses my family. “NOBODY puts Baby in the corner!

To make up for lack of creativity this fine, lazy Sunday, I’ll throw this out there.  When I do have a bone to pick but not the commensurate nerve to say it to the applicable person, I have a habit of carrying out the exchange in the mirror.  Of course, this could mean that I’m senile.  Regardless, I ended up incorporating this into one of my character’s list of quirks to rationalize why she (me) does it. Here is the draft excerpt of such a scene:

She really did spend inordinate amounts of time standing [at the bathroom mirror].  Not cleaning it, Heaven forbid, nor was it time reserved for inspecting pores or removing blackheads from her small, upturned nose; most of the time, she spoke in whispers.  Whenever her brain felt the size of a walnut or, conversely, enlarged to the point of bursting with thought, she just vomited out the swirling words and conversations verbally, wishing she [could] deposit them in a physical, external reservoir where they could be left behind and visited when desired, rather than confronted involuntarily and often when unprepared.

Eyes locked on her own, the visual reminded that her identity did lie in something more than just her own awareness.  Her presence meant something.  Her absence meant something.  She was here, in your face, and she mattered.

And so, she resumed—partially whispered, partially mouthed—the conversation she’d recently begun in her mind, a monologue finally telling John how she felt about their relationship and threatening him with how much her absence would absolutely matter to him.

“I’d feed you the ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ line, but it’s not not you, and it surely isn’t just me.  It’s both of us and our mutual inability to ‘get’ each other.”

The figure opposite her served as an acting coach, giving Margaret feedback on her body language as she fine-tuned the script to perform later.  Satisfied after thirty minutes that she’d thoroughly convinced her reflection with her eloquent articulation, she was too exhausted and bored with the effort to even consider repeating the words to John anytime soon.  Such was the way with all the actual face-offs that never actually happened, especially because she’d lose her nerve without her reflected self as guide.

Reflection:

So…for whatever that was worth.  I’ll try to get my mind back in gear next time to churn out something new.  How about you?  What have you left unsaid?


Mad Me?

* * SPOILER ALERT * * – Ye be warned if you haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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I was watching Mad Men last night and marveling over how much I continue to sympathize with the character of Don Draper.  Am I mad?  The guy has cheated on his wife for the first three seasons, even after she bears his third child, and still those dramatic shots of Don sitting in isolation as the camera gradually zooms out still pluck out a melancholy little banjo tune on a heartstring or two.

This brings to mind a post I recently read on Milo James Fowler’s In Media Res blog that discusses how the villains in books, TV, or film tend to fascinate us, to the point where we might find ourselves cheering for them.  When I read this, I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and how the director’s genius for creating suspense through cinematography and Anthony Perkins’s stutteringly shy Norman Bates always leaves me biting my fingernails each time Norman is close to getting caught.  The part directly following the infamous shower scene, for example, shows Norman pushing a car (with Marion’s  dead body inside) into a swamp.  As slowly as if the water was molasses, the car glub-glubs down until, suddenly, it just stops.  Norman swallows in anxiety, and after several looong seconds, the car continues to gurgle down into the swamp’s depths, now fully concealed.  There is something about the shot-reaction-shot sequence here that makes the viewer (I know it can’t just be me) tense on Norman’s behalf and want the car to keep sinking just as much as he does.  Why is that?!

Not that Don Draper exudes the villainy of a murderer with a curling black mustache and a damsel in distress bound in rope underfoot…but that’s precisely my point.  For me, if a villain is in the least bit complicated with a sense of vulnerability, I will sympathize.  The Don Draper character mesmerizes me because I can’t quite slide him into a specific slot; he is complicated by a darker past and an inner struggle between being a good person that does right by others and a psychopath that acts in complete disregard of them.  Norman Bates is a mentally unstable young man whose psychosis is likewise triggered by a difficult childhood; in his conversations with Marion before her death, we see the friendly, likable side of him that is tormented by the wicked personality of his mother that he’s invented in his mind.

It’s the classic struggle of the good versus evil within each of us, after all, and a great many fascinating stories have been written around this internal conflict, the most engaging of which (for me) tending to be when the protagonists and antagonists of the plot at times blur into each other.  (As you can see in the photos above, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of many films utilizing the imagery of duality—here, both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s faces are half in light and half in shadow—as who is the “hero” and who is the “villain” is called into question.) As it stands, Don is a flawed protagonist just as much as Norman is a well-intentioned antagonist.

So, in the end, what I think makes me want to pat someone like Don on the back and console him with a glass of Scotch along with a Lucky Strike cigarette is the fact that, while I cannot directly empathize with his choices/actions, I can sympathize (to small degree) with where he’s coming from.  Just something to ponder as we craft our own “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” in our stories, those complex characters that we willingly invite  to ride the carousel of our minds…


The Art of Lying

Okay, then.  Getting me arse back into gear with my writing prompts now that I’ve concluded my grand U.S. tour.  I had a productive writing/revising day yesterday, though, so hopefully this will help me accomplish even more later today.

I was just watching the film The Invention of Lying last night, and, funny enough, the next prompt in Room to Write is about lies.  The movie is about a world in which no one lies until one man discovers the possibilities of doing so, and it’s hilarious the utterly dull impact the inability to lie has on advertising, literature, and film—fiction basically can’t exist!  The fact is, everyone at some point tells a lie.  Our motivations for doing so can vastly vary—it might be out of kindness to spare someone’s feelings, or it might spring from more ill intentions like self-gain or pridefully covering up that we are not as all that and a bag-o-chips as we’d like to think we are.

The Prompt:

In light of the different reasons why a person might choose to tell a “good” or a “bad” lie, our characters’ motivations in doing so can be very telling about them, even more so than the actual lie that they speak.  Bonni Goldberg tells us that we can more convincingly portray our characters’ lies by considering our own motivations for lying.  So, page 20 asks us to write only lies.  We have these options:

1.  Write silly lies, like you’re confirmed to pilot the next shuttle to the moon;

2.  Write more realistic lies that you have told or would actually tell to yourself and those you know;

3.  Write lies you have told and reflect on why you chose not to tell the truth in that instance; and/or,

4.  Write a scene in which one of your characters considers telling a lie.

This is one opportunity we have to tell lies without judgment…well, I guess I’m setting myself up for more judgment than if I were privately scrawling these in a journal vs. publishing it in cyberspace.  As I’m concerned this might hold me back from revealing certain truths through lies (odd how that does make sense), I’ll do a variation on #4 and share a scene in which my protagonist tells a string of little white  lies, and reflect on her motivations thereafter.  As in my earlier post, “Dialogues of Destiny“, I’ll call her “Margaret” and likewise alter my other characters’ names.  I will also highlight her lies in red font (that’s red, right?  Or is it orange?  I will not tell a lie and confess that I’m color weak.  Not proud of that fact).

Response:

To provide some context first, Margaret (an American) is temporarily living in her British friend Ron’s London flat.  They have had a recent, inexplicable falling out while standing in the doorway of her room.  Afterwards, he goes out for the night with his girlfriend Wendy while Margaret takes a nap.  She has just woken up and been writing in her journal when he returns, and this is what happens:

Margaret started when a dull thud on the door sharpened into three knocks of increasing conviction.

“Margaret?”

She adjusted the dimmer to fill the room in starker light, bracing, and the desk chair answered on her behalf with a creak as she lifted her weight from it to open the door.  Dread permeated her heart as she stepped into the threshold with a clammy hand still on the knob.  In the silence, it took several seconds before she could raise her meek eyes to his.  The face she met was not the darkened, scowling countenance of the Byronic hero she’d imagined; Ron’s visage, perhaps shaded in uncertainty to counteract its enhanced pallor, was otherwise unaltered.

“Are you all right?”

His tone conveyed that he had not analyzed this to remotely the same extreme Margaret had, if he’d even given it more than a second thought before embarking on his planned evening.

Sure.”  Feeling short of breath and sickened by their resumed postures in the doorway, a déja-vu she could control, Margaret suggested they relocate to the living room.  Averting an instinct to go to the sofa, she sat timidly on the club chair like a child sent to the Principal’s office.  A chair for one could be safe, personal space for her.

“Wendy was here just briefly, then we went for dinner.  Pizza—seventy-five centimeters of it.  I have the leftovers here for you if you like.”

The simple act of kindness pressed her eyes from behind.

“Oh, that’s so nice of you.  I’m fine, though.”

“You did eat, then?”

No.  “Yeah.  But thanks.” Not wanting the gesture to be thought in vain, she added, “Maybe tomorrow for lunch.  Cold pizza’s always been a national favorite.”

“What were you up to tonight?”

“Oh, I just slept.  I’ve been really lethargic lately, and just taking advantage of the fact that I can.”

“You have appeared positively knackered.  I assume you’ve had some late nights studying.  That can take its toll.”

His words sound so sadly strained…forced.  “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to class in over a week now.  I never ditched class in high school or college, but, again, just finally realizing that I can, so I do.  It’s nice for a while to just be.  Whatever ‘being’ is.”

He rubbed his chin slowly between thumb and forefinger as speculation shadowed his piercing blue eyes.  “Well, you’re an adult.  I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

Not likely, but she was grateful he did not get didactic on her.  Still, she tried to salvage her studious reputation to an extent.

“Well, Ive still met with my project-mates, so they bring me up to speed.  A lot of this stuff is innate, or like something straight out of work experience, so I’m making good headway.”  This was half true; she had sporadically returned their phone calls and emailed bare-minimum contributions so at least their credits would’t be sabotaged.

“Interesting project?  Challenging?”

“Not really.”

Ron didn’t probe further, even though it was an area in which he himself had expertise; Margaret appreciated this in him, that he knew where to draw lines and let her be.  To a degree.

“What were you working on just now?”

“Huh?”

“You looked like you’d been at the desk writing.  In a notebook.  Documenting your stay here?”

Mm, sort of.  Just a blurb about something on my mind.”

“What is on your mind, may I ask?”

Shit, I handed him the perfect segue, garnished on a platter.

She was sincerely at a loss for what had come over her, remembering all the actions, but none of the motives, and she didn’t know where to even begin explaining something like that to her friend.  But she owed him a try.

“Not much.  I don’t know.”  She audibly expelled air from her lungs at the point of conceding defeat.  “Look…I’m…really, really sorry for my behavior earlier.  I don’t pretend to have an excuse.  I have reasons—I was tired and starting to feel positively nauseous.  But this doesn’t excuse me for my rudeness.  I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, you were a bit of a prat, weren’t you?  Rather unexpected.  What made you fancy laughing in hysterics like that?  Only to slam the door in my face all in a paddy the next instant?”

So he had thought about it.  Just took some classic British passive-aggressive beating around the bush to get down to it. “I’m really embarrassed; I’m not sure.  Did Wendy hear?”

His brows elevated. “Quite clearly, yes.  I believe that was the point, was it not?”

FuckBlame it on my hormones? “At the risk of making you uncomfortable, I think I’m approaching the end of my, you know, ‘cycle,’ so my estrogen levels are outta whack.”

“I comprehend the feminine chemical imbalance that occurs monthly, but, really now.”

This was a male attitude that never failed to royally tick off Margaret.  She lifted the tail from between her legs and automatically ignited.

“What the hell is with men being incapable of understanding that!  It would save your kind so much trouble if you’d just learn how to track a fucking calendar and know when to stay the hell away.”

Ron laughed through his teeth at the re-flaring of her incomprehensible temper.  “And what calendar is that?  How am I supposed to know your menstrual cycle, pray tell?”

“You could ask.”  Margaret realized this was an idiotic comeback.

“Oh, yes, quite right.”  He affected a Californian Valley Girl accent: “So, like, Margaret…when’s, like, your next period?  Need to borrow a sanitary towel?”

As funny as it was hearing the phrase “sanitary towel” articulated in an American accent, she was provoked.  “Well, hasn’t Wendy trained you to follow hers by now?  Or is she just bitchy all the time?”

“You’re out of line.”

Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.  And according to your own earlier statement, you don’t know Wendy.  So where do get off insulting her, offending me in the process?”

I was just making a joke.  I apologize that the humor doesn’t translate.”  The arrogant bitterness infusing her reply rendered the value of this apology null and void.

“What has come over you?”  She had never heard his voice raised before.

“This is getting all blown out of proportion.  I don’t even know where it started.  All I know is, I’m sorry for whatever misunderstanding is occurring right now.”

No, you’re not,” Ron repeated.  “Margaret, in just a matter of days, you have become a completely different person.”

Reflection:

And scene…well, to be honest in the midst of all these lies, that isn’t really the end of the scene, I just don’t want to give too much away about the plot and central conflict of the story.  In any case, beyond this point, Margaret shifts gears and becomes truthful to a fault, with more jabs below the belt.  But I will divulge what is hopefully apparent in this scene—Margaret’s emotions have become more erratic than usual, which, in all fairness to her, is just as perplexing for her as it is for us readers.  So, in her defense, when she tells Ron she isn’t sure what came over her earlier when she snapped at him, she really isn’t—nor does she understand why she’s becoming more disorganized and irresponsible.  However, she is not secure enough with herself to admit this to anyone just yet.  Rather than confront the possibility that there may be something psychologically imbalanced about her, she grasps for a commonplace explanation.

What is evident earlier in the scene is Margaret’s repetitious assurances that she’s “fine.”  Her motivations in this case also relate to her insecurity; she wants to hold up a brave face rather than show further vulnerability in front of someone she respects and in whose presence she just recently embarrassed herself.  This further explains why she half-lies about her coursework (she is taking a leave of absence to pursue summer professional development studies).  What is also going on here, though, is what I mentioned above about Margaret’s own confusion over why she’s acting the way she is lately.  In light of this, she is not only lying to Ron in this scene, but to herself.

When her temper begins to flare yet again, she spits out nasty comments (revealing her instability as well as tinge of jealousy over Wendy) and tries to backtrack by lying that she’s sorry; while he might not have noticed her dishonesty earlier, it is at this point Ron is able to call her out on it.  He knows she does not regret saying the spiteful things she does, and while it is offensive to him (and, oh boy, does it only get worse when the rest of the scene that is not posted here unfolds), his genuine concern encourages him to try to work through it with her.

One more white lie highlighted above centers on something Margaret wrote in her journal.  I’m not going to reveal what that’s all about, just that her deliberately vague response is likewise inhibited by her fear of revealing too much about herself that could be considered strange.

So that’s that for today.  I hope this dialogue comes across as natural and that the motivations underlying Margaret’s little lies do indeed say something about her character, regardless of whether it makes her sympathetic or not.  In closing, below is a tiny window into what the world might be like if nobody lied.  As it will reveal, lying is not an altogether bad thing in certain circumstances!


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