Category Archives: Descriptive Language

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 1


I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…

Market Appeal:  Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?

JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”

ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”

Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.

In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.

Prose Style:  Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

JP – “Yes”

ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”

Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.

Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂

There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?



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

As a new year is about making resolutions, I realized there are still a couple promises from my November I.O.U. that I haven’t yet fulfilled. So let’s tie up those loose ends!

To start, I owe Milo from In Media Res 10 random things about myself, which can be found at this link (’cause you know he’d send a guy to break my legs if I didn’t make good on that).

I’d also meant to share some of my editing notes on a manuscript that shall remain anonymous, so to the extent that I can do so without giving any specifics of the story away…

On a word level, I provided a list of frequently-recurring verbs/adjectives and noted:

Would be worthwhile to scan and determine how you might replace them with synonyms here and there for variety, or possibly eliminate altogether in the event the characters’ actions and/or dialogue already convey the same idea (thereby making description redundant). They’re great words that make description vivid, but because they stand out, their repetition is less invisible.

Try to reduce use of dialogue tags to when it’s necessary for identifying the speaker. Especially avoid overly descriptive ones – show tone instead through the dialogue itself or the character’s actions. In most cases, “said” is best, as it’s invisible to the reader.

I likewise advised on minimizing adverbs and “to be” verbs—the former “tell” more than “show,” and the latter slow down pace and sound a bit more passive. Where description was concerned, the issues that stood out most were telling-versus-showing, redundancy, and certain physical descriptions that ran too specific and frequent:

While you have an effective way of threading description through dialogue, sometimes that description can be condensed together rather interrupting the flow of the dialogue multiple times. Seeking opportunities for this will enhance the pacing and snappiness of your characters’ great dialogue rather than bog it down.

Just to interject another comment on adverbs and other description accompanying dialogue – think of how certain messages/attitudes/etc. might be conveyed through the characters’ dialogue or actions for the reader to figure out rather than be told outright. [Sometimes] it can make the reader feel like a detached third-party rather than in on the action. I definitely feel pulled into this story, but teeny moments like this can sometimes remind me that I’m reading something rather than “living” it—almost like little road bumps that interrupt an otherwise smooth experience.

And it’s not always about replacing description with description—it can be taking some description away altogether.  Your characters share such witty, snappy banter, that it may at times feel appropriate to just let them talk with minimal interruption. For example, if this first sentence of the paragraph was taken away, I would still catch on to [Secondary Character]’s displeasure and coolness by virtue of his brief first sentence and shift [in dialect].

Reduce level of description for secondary characters that do not recur. This draws attention to [Secondary Character] and makes me think I should know her well, yet she never reappears later.

Sometimes these color and make/model details seem superfluous. We see [Main Character]’s truck play an important role later, but [Secondary Character] and anyone else’s vehicles don’t really matter to the story.

Then there were structural considerations on sentence, page, and chapter levels:

Consider breaking down some paragraphs with embedded dialogue […]. It creates more white space to quicken the conversation’s pace and allows the reader’s eyes to “breathe.”

[T]he description of one character embedded with another’s dialogue sometimes makes it confusing who the speaker is. Sometimes, perhaps, a description like this could skip to the next line, provided the continuing speaker is tagged.

To enhance flow, perhaps join these two [simple] sentences using a semicolon or conjunction.

Section break to accentuate passage of time and shift of focus to [another character].

Basically, I proposed many paragraph breaks to not only help break up clunkier sections, but also separate dialogue from descriptions that didn’t correspond with it. My suggested section breaks not only helped to denote shifts, but also provide a breathable white space and prevent a chapter from becoming the structural equivalent of a run-on sentence. And in a couple cases, I recommended converting a section break to a chapter break—in the case of the very first chapter, doing such preserved the opening momentum as the second section was rather lengthy.

Such are just a few examples, but what all the edits peppering that manuscript boil down to is clarity and consistency.

This has gotten long, so I’ll save my two pence on the more developmental edits I made for tomorrow. Ta!


Looking Back & Flying Forward

Happy 2011! The past year has added another ring to the trunk of my tree, and as I trace a finger around the circumference of bark, I’m elated to be looking back on a year of frolicking, friendship, and focus, an enchanting year of feeling more at home overseas and in my new freelancing capacities, while still basking in the joy of home-home periodically—this last visit being an especially candy-coated one of icicles and white Christmas lights glowing from beneath inches of snow, of attending Nativity plays, marveling over how a bee could have stung my niece inside the house in December, hearing an older nephew’s voice deepen, and initiating a younger one into our Finer Things Club on the basis of his Harry Potter knowledge…of laughing with siblings, savoring parents, celebrating with in-laws, toasting with friends, and sharing chocolate fondue with several former students at the quaint café where I used to grade their essays :).

And, of course, it was a whooping, whirring, sometimes wilting, but always whimsical year of writing, but one that has now gotten me prepped for the humbling undertaking of querying and thrilled to start up new projects. Time to get warmed up, then…time for this monkey to fly.

The Prompt:

Today, page 44 of Room to Write asks us to write about flying—how it makes us feel, where it takes us. As an alternative, we can perform a free-writing by starting with the word “flying” or “wings.”

Response:

Flying these days inevitably makes me think of airports and how such places that used to represent adventure and freedom have now come to mean “goodbye.” There’s still anticipation in it, still excitement in it, yet somehow I also worry that with every new flight I take, the world becomes less unknown and more trodden. Nevertheless, flying is still my gateway to other perspectives, other features, other values, and flying is what will bring me to my 6th continent next weekend and allow my greying UK-ified skin to gulp up some Vitamin D. Flying is soaring, feeling the air rushing against my face as my heart rises into my throat and my stomach sinks to my bladder or clenches at my spine, it’s loop-de-loops and spinning spirals, then having to peel the cape off my face. It’s Peter Pan, it’s Superman, it’s the birds that escape the pavement and the predators and sing me out of slumber. Flying is icy pressure beneath my fingernails as they pierce the air and a tickling tug at my toes as their wake sucks a vacuum into being. It’s hearing the crackle of joints as my wings finally unfurl and spread out in a stretch that luxuriously takes my breath away before expanding my lungs with cool purity. Flying is connecting, an efficient means of traversing the distance between A to B or of ascending from thoughts to ideas, information to knowledge, sense to sensibility, for even when not stepping onto a plane, it is only opening a book or reading an email from Mom or closing my eyes atop a pillow that yet makes me fly. Flying is high-speed, forward-moving levitation, or it’s the freedom of imagination I enjoy while never feeling more grounded.

Reflection:

BeezArtist.com

I didn’t do a full-on free-write without stopping, but I did let my thoughts meander wherever they fancied sentence by sentence. No surprise that, being between a recent and upcoming plane trip, the word first took me to modern air transport, though it still didn’t take long to get to the actual action at hand, physically and metaphorically. Not my most creative effort, but a productive enough burst before bedtime to motivate me to wake to a day of more fruitful word-weaving tomorrow. I think when I found my mind wasn’t fully taking flight by writing tonight, it started yearning for a book—someone else‘s writing :). Fair enough. We become better writers by reading as well, so time for me to check-in (i.e., get in my PJs), get my boarding pass (grab my novel), check my bags (ditch any emotional baggage at the bedroom door), board my aircraft (climb into bed), switch on my reading light (uh, that’s really the same thing in both scenarios), and get ready for take-off!


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


Schoolhouse Crock

In the wake of my previous post on “taboo” words, I came to a horrifying realization: writers are going to put Lolly’s, Inc. from Schoolhouse Rock out of business!!!

A three-generation family business…I just don’t know if I can live with the guilt!

I therefore reemphasize what I said last time about still using the supposed no-no words like adverbs—just do so within reason—and I think dialogue or 1st-person narration deserves some leeway as well if it’s authentic to how a person would really speak.  So I guess I’ll still be unpacking my adjectives, too, but with discretion.

Working through this experience has introduced me to writer rules that *gasp!* I wasn’t necessarily teaching my high school students…when it came to dialogue tags, I confess I’d tell them that “said” is boring, so their characters should “exclaim” or “sneer” or even “smirk” something—I gave them a worksheet, in fact, that listed up to 50 different tags!  Gah!  And in looking at said worksheet, go figure the examples I used for dialogue punctuation:

I asked, “Did you see the monkey fall out of tree?”
Did you just say, “The monkey fell out of the tree”?
I screamed, “The monkey is going to fall out of the tree!”
He had the nerve to ask me, “Why didn’t you catch the monkey when it fell?”!

I will say this in my defense (not of subjecting my students to endless monkeys in their grammar examples ;), but of how I taught descriptive language):

– First of all, children and adults alike who are not naturally expressive in their writing do benefit a great deal from first learning what vast options their language provides them so they can later practice restraint when making more sophisticated stylistic decisions.

– Second, I certainly wasn’t teaching them that more words are better, merely that each of the words they are using should pack a punch.  It’s not about being redundant, it’s—for example—saying that someone “saunters” rather than “walks” or that the fish in the garbage smells “putrid” rather than “bad.”  These one-to-one swaps are sufficient in themselves to strengthen a sentence.

Thus, in their revision workshops, I’d ask them to comb through their writing and seek out any general nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs and replace them with more specific ones.  They were also to identify which senses their descriptions appealed to and strive to address all five at some point.

“Writers with style never just eat breakfast.  They munch on granola, wolf down hotcakes, savor Frosted Flakes, or gorge on jelly doughnuts.” – Art Peterson, The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose

I must say it’s very fun, let alone ironic, playing the pupil and trying to follow my own and others’ lessons, and I’m grateful for the new perspective I’ll eventually bring back to the classroom.  I’m not only strengthening as a writer, but also as a teacher.


What Happens in a Meadow at Dusk?

“[L]ong before the child learns to talk properly—and long before it learns to think philosophically—the world will have become a habit.  A pity, if you ask me.”  – Sophie’s World

I’m currently reading a book that I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf for years.  I literally moved it across an ocean two years ago, and still it had sat mutely, patiently, until I finally plucked it out and cracked it open a few days ago:  Sophie’s World.  I’m only a quarter of the way through it, so will withhold offering a critique, but so far I’m enjoying the questions it raises—it’s essentially taking your own correspondence course in philosophy, without getting graded 🙂    Less than twenty pages in, I was struck by the above quotation…I hadn’t really reflected on how the world becomes a “habit” as we age:

“The world itself becomes a habit in no time at all.  It seems as if in the process of growing up we lose the ability to wonder about the world.  And in doing so, we lose something central—something philosophers try to restore.  For somewhere inside ourselves, something tells us that life is a huge mystery.  This is something we once experienced, long before we learned to think the thought.”

At this point, the “philosopher” instructing our protagonist, Sophie, has been pointing out how infants and young children look about at everything surrounding them with wonder, getting excited about even the little things we adults come to take for granted through familiarity.

I’m not going to wax philosophical on this, but what it did make me think about is how writers seem to be blessed with the ability to behold the world with that same wonder we did as children.  We have to, really, in order to continue creating our own little worlds. 

The writer is someone for whom a bus ride is not merely from Point A to Point B; rather, it’s an exercise in character study as we little voyeurs observe those in such close proximity that it almost seems weirder to pretend that they’re not there (as the masses do on the London Underground…the eye aversion is almost unbearable – and on sidewalks, too!  This Chi-town gal misses eye-contact *sigh*).  Anyways, we watch these people, speculate on where they’re going, where they’re coming from, what their whole backstory might be.  We get ideas in our noggins as to the perfect character to insert into our current tales or on which to base a whole new novel…all thanks to paying some attention to the real people right under our noses.

We notice subtleties, the body language that suggests insecurities or the butterfly that carries so many metaphors aloft the breezes of its wings.  We notice with a painter’s eye that the clouds aren’t just white and that the sofa is illuminated differently when the sun shines in from that late-afternoon angle.  We notice the people who smile to themselves when they think no one’s looking and that a tree can look sad, hopeful, or maternal.  We notice what a gust of fresh air feels like in our lungs, through our hair, and the new story ideas that the sensation can conjure.

We can describe what happens in a meadow at dusk.

We behold the world with wonder, and the beauty is that not only are we richer for it, but we have the calling that compels us to write it down so that others might experience the world through our eyes and look at it as though for the first time through their own.  There is not always beauty in this awareness; in fact, we may reveal the darker sides of humanity and tell gritty, disturbing stories without that happy ending.  But what there will always be is Truth – I’m talking the capital ‘T’ truth so long as we write, to the best of our abilities, what it is we wonder at through our genuine voices.  That is what makes a story authentic and universal, for something has told us that “life is a huge mystery,” and now that we can think the thought, we can write it.


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?


The Kitchen Culprits

"I suspect: Colonel Mustard, in the Kitchen, with the Candlestick."

The Prompt:

On page 38 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg describes the kitchen as a “symbolic place” that is “well stocked with associations, memories, and metaphors.  Today, then, we are to write about our kitchens as though we are detectives on the scene, conducting a forensic analysis of sorts as we use visual clues to deduce what may have happened there and how the kitchen reflects who we are.

Response:

With trepidation, I approach the kitchen.  Squinting as I scan the grey and black-splotched stone of the countertops, I pan my head to the kitchen island.  I crouch like a jungle cat to bring my eyes level with its flat surface and frown at the otherwise camouflaged crumbs to be spied at this angle; I straighten and peer over the infected area more closely, pressing a fingertip into the crusty debris and raising it to my tongue:  digestive biscuit…dark chocolate…Marks & Spencer.  And do I detect a hint of sesame, poppy, and pumpkin seed cracker?  Hmm…before I can analyze further, my attention is usurped by a darkened stain a mere inches away.  Blood!  No, it’s not red.  Urine!  Ewwww, no, we may leave crumbs, but we’re not that uncivilized (at least I’m not).  Tea!  Yes.  Dripped when pouring yerba mate from my iron Japanese tea pot.  Phew.  Aside from that, a benign burgundy pasta bowl rests on its wrought iron stand, bearing oranges, apples, and bananas (green-turned-yellow ones, only…the second they start to spot and infuse the room with that banana smell, they’re outta here!), standing squatly beside the coin jar and miscellaneous utility bills.

I redirect my focus, then, on the longer, L-shaped countertop comprising the kitchen corner.  A food-stained cookbook (used at long last!  Hurrah, newly discovered inner Domestic Goddess!) reclines on its wrought iron easel next to the paper towels, obscured only by the blue Brita-filter water pitcher that hangs here due to no space in the wee London-sized fridge as well as my aversion to drinking cold water because it hurts my teeth and throat.  Adding to the clutter on this side of the sink are a couple crystal wine goblets with little puddles of deep crimson collected at the bottom.  The sink is suspiciously empty…yet the anal-retentive way in which the hand soap, lotion, washing-up liquid, and sponge are aligned behind it indicates that exposed dirty dishes are not an option in this space.  Turning my head further right, I see a retro-style chrome toaster tucked into the corner, chillin’ with its buddies the french press, tea pot, and all the tall cooking/serving utensils standing to attention atop tiny silver stones inside a clear vase.  Which brings us to the stove…hmm…more crumbs and stains, and a red tea kettle splattered with grease.  This doesn’t happen on my watch; the husband clearly was the last to cook.  Salt, pepper, knife block, and corkscrew are still present and accounted for on the stove’s other side.

But wait a minute.  Something is amiss.  I turn round in circles and rove my line of sight all about the wooden cabinetry that surrounds me.  Where are all the major appliances?!  Thief!  Whodunit?!  Inhaling and exhaling rapidly, my heart thumping against my breastbone, I slowly sink to a squat as the scene starts to flicker like a film reel, and the words Crouching Tenant, Hidden Dishwasher splay across the silver screen.  I extend my hand toward the sleek metal handle protruding horizontally from one of the cabinet doors; held in my clammy grip, it yields with creaking resistance as I draw it down like a drawbridge.  The dishwasher!  A musty, swampy smell wafts out as I pull out the lower drawer:  dishes are segregated into different quadrants by dish, small plate, large plate, and miscellaneous.  It becomes evident I was the last to load the washer, as they would otherwise be arranged haphazardly in such a way that only a third of the dishes would be able to fit, indeed if they made it into here from the sink or countertop at all…I shudder at the thought and return my gaze to the efficient logic that does, thank goodness, reside in front of me, then close the door.

I stand with fists clenched, resolved to find the rest.  In a flurry, I throw open all the cabinet doors to reveal what lays behind, and it’s as though the kitchen is a life-size Advent calendar when the hidden goodies are revealed:  a fridge, a freezer, a washer-dryer—you heard me.  Remember, it’s London.  Why not do laundry in the kitchen?  Why not risk perishing a painful death in flames when the water from the washing cycle drains out and is automatically replaced with searing heat?  Just as I think it, a vibration unbeknownst to me earlier begins to thrum with more aggression, shaking the tile at my feet.  I look to the washer-dryer and notice a spin cycle in play, remembering that what the spouse lacks in dishwasher-loading-strategy (will be commencing his virtual training soon via the Tetris game) is readily compensated for by his penchant for doing laundry.  I become more cognizant than I’d like to be of all the untoned bits hanging off my body as they shake along with the machine.  The humming rises in volume as my breasts and biceps begin to blur, and I dive to the carpeting in the adjoining living room with hands clasping my head as the drum propels our terrified clothing about like a jet engine about to send our flat airborne.

A minute later, all is calm.  Quiet.  I crack an eye open to scan the perimeter before making another move.  Turning myself about, I army-crawl back to the washer and wait for the click to signal I can open the door.  As I do so, hot steam rudely breathes in my face, and my husband’s boxer shorts look to me hopefully as they cling to the edges of the drum and leave my panties to fend for themselves when they peel off and fall to the bottom.  With a pissy sigh, I climb to my knees, then feet.  My inner Domestic Goddess has long since fallen and rolled down Mount Olympus, so she mutters under her breath as she trudges out of the kitchen to retrieve the drying racks and thinks about tending to that damn dirty countertop.  At any rate, case closed.

Reflection:

If anything, this exercise has reminded me I need to clean my kitchen 🙂

I think it would have been interesting to have tried this activity a couple years ago when I was still single and living alone to compare/contrast with how I approached it here.  It seems clear that many of my present kitchen’s connotations relate to my adjustment to cohabitation and those little domestic idiosyncrasies that occur between couples.  The dynamic of the setting is also influenced by virtue of being in a different city and country; there’s a cultural impact on physical features and layout that differs from what I had in the States.

Overall, I enjoy this sort of “investigation” based on visual clues and have used it overtly already in my current manuscript—there’s a scene I included for comic relief in which my protagonist wakes up after a night of heavy wine-drinking and follows the trail of evidence she herself left behind to figure out what she did before passing out.  Based on a true story, of course… 🙂


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