Category Archives: Setting

Been There, Done That

The Prompt:

Today, page 48 of Room to Write asks us to write 101 places we’ve been or 101 ways to dance. The goal is to list them as quickly as possible, ideally within 15 minutes. I’m choosing to run with Places I’ve Been:

Response:

1 London
2 York
3 Edinburgh
4 Inverness
5 Bath
6 Dover
7 Calais
8 Paris
9 Nice
10 Cannes
11 Monaco
12 Vernazza
13 Corniglia
14 Riomaggiore
15 Monterosso
16 La Spezia
17 Parma
18 Rome
19 Venice
20 Florence
21 Salzburg
22 Munich
23 Dachau
24 Interlaken
25 Zurich
26 Barcelona
27 Berlin
28 Oberammergau
29 Dusseldorf
30 Amsterdam
31 Stockholm
32 Pula
33 Rimini
34 Budapest
35 Saalbach
36 Vienna
37 Besse
38 Les Deux Alpes
39 L’Alpe d’Huez
40 Geneva
41 Courmayeur
42 Pesaro
43 Anzio
44 Sermoneta
45 Mougins
46 Juan-les-Pins
47 Sevilla
48 Grenada
49 Malaga
50 La Mancha
51 Madrid
52 Southampton
53 Chipping Camden
54 Tywardreath
55 Fowey
56 Falmouth
57 Flushing
58 Devon
59 Woebley
60 Bristol
61 Manchester
62 Wolverhampton
63 Ashby St. Ledgers
64 St. Albans
65 Brighton
66 Canterbury
67 Cambridge
68 Oxford
69 Windsor
70 Portsmouth
71 Isle of Wight
72 Lewes
73 South Downs
74 Greenwich
75 Blackheath
76 Bibury
77 Stratford-upon-Avon
78 Chawton
79 Chicago
80 Disneyworld!
81 LA
82 San Simeon
83 Monterey
84 San Francisco
85 Carmel
86 Paso Robles
87 San Luis Obispo
88 Los Osos
89 Santa Barbara
90 Tamarindo
91 Buenos Aires
92 Torres del Paine
93 El Calafate
94 Rotorua
95 Queenstown
96 Auckland
97 Christchurch
98 Marrakech
99 Istanbul
100 Mumbai
101 Delhi

Reflection:

Wish I could say I got this one in under the wire, but it took me closer to 20 minutes–mostly because I kept checking Google Maps to verify spellings or remember names of places caught in my head–in which case, I should’ve just powered through with a description or best-guess spelling (as I’m sure I still managed to botch plenty!). I clearly ran with cities, as that seemed the easiest way to start out and made for some fun (albeit quick) reminiscing about past travels.

The point of the exercise is to stretch ourselves into our well of memory. Just when we feel frustrated because we can’t find inspiration from either imagination or experience, an activity like this can remind us of all we truly have to draw upon. Maybe it’ll dislodge an idea for a story setting. Maybe it’s an experience you had, or people you met, in that location that can figure into the plot or characters, or simply lend rich description for visualization and texture.

Who knows, but by the end, I actually felt disappointed that I’d already hit 101. I feel like I “wasted” spaces on places I’ve might’ve just made a train connection, not leaving room for more of those where I had proper experiences–but that’s how free association of thought works, I guess! When I delved into my memory well, I suddenly relived the sequence of certain travels, connections and all (which is some of the logistical nitty-gritty that could figure into stories, to add a layer of reality). I barely scratched the surface of my home country and state, for cryin’ out loud! ūüôā

Here’s my actual travel map:

Screenshot 2016-03-08 19.26.29

Actually, it would be fun to try this sometime and only focus in and around my hometown so that I’d have to branch out beyond cities and list things like schools and grocery stores and playgrounds. Or try the “Ways to Dance” option as a more imaginative exercise, as I figure at some point you just have to start making up moves. Um, which sounds amazing.

Well then, I’ve made my journey round the world in 20 minutes. Tag, you’re IT!

 


Writing What You Know ‚Äď My Date with Daphne, Part IV

Alas, today we shall conclude our long walks on the beach with our gal Daphne.¬†If you joined me for Parts¬†I,¬†II, and III¬†of this series, I hope it’s been worth your while and that you’ll indulge me for one last post full of odds-n-ends on du Maurier’s corner of Cornwall. We’ve covered some key real-life settings of her novels Rebecca, The King’s General, The House on the Strand, and My Cousin Rachel, as well her novella The Birds,¬†and today a few more tales have a chance to make their appearance, along with other sites significant to the area’s notable inhabitants.

To start, if we backtrack a bit from Menabilly and Gribbin Head to look out on St. Austell Bay, we’re amidst the stretch of coast where Daphne du Maurier walked her dogs daily:

This last one I have to throw in as my beloved “Goonies shot.” Tell me it doesn’t totally look like the end of the movie! Sing it, Cyndi: “Good enough…for me, it’s…good enough…for you…it’s good, good enough…”

The views over the bay from these cliffs are described in The House on the Strand and Rule Britannia.

Retracing our steps along the coastal path toward Polridmouth beach and beyond, we wind our way through more farmland (and might have to dodge some horned cattle like it’s Pamplona) until the town of Polruan comes into view on the hilltop as we approach the Fowey estuary. Before descending all the way into Fowey, though, let’s cut over to where St. Catherine’s Castle keeps watch over the sea:

This fortress was commissioned by King Henry VIII as part of his south coast defenses, and it was utilized yet again during Victorian times and WWII. It is here that Janet Coombe frequently climbs in du Maurier’s debut novel,¬†The Loving Spirit,¬†to look out to sea, watching the ships and seeking freedom—for it’s here that she feels “Nearer to something for which there was no name, escaping from the world and losing herself, mingling with things that have no reckoning of time, where there is no today and no tomorrow“…

*sigh* I confess that I myself tucked into a hidden, grassy spot here to sit and rest my weary feet as I, too, felt the freedom of seeing nothing but the water’s expanse, hearing nothing but the wind and waves.¬†Ahhh…but it’s time to hit the trail again, so join me as I return to the path and descend into Fowey. At this point, it leads us right into Readymoney Cove—from the looks of the homes here, you might assume the name has something to do with the seeming affluence of this joint. But, actually, “readymoney” derives from a Cornish word meaning “pebbly ford”:

The cove was historically a landing place for goods shipped to Fowey and is where Lady Dona flees in Frenchman’s Creek. Directly¬†inland from the cove is the Readymoney cottage where du Maurier lived with her children in the early 1940s prior to moving into the Rashleigh family’s Menabilly estate:

Isn’t it so cute? It was here that du Maurier wrote Hungry Hill. And if we venture into Fowey along the Esplanade that begins here, we’ll ultimately pass the lovely Fowey Hotel (a favorite of du Maurier’s with a stunning view from its tea garden) with the house of¬†Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (a Cambridge professor of English Literature known as “Q”) just across the street:

It was here that du Maurier established a good friendship with Q after Sunday tea, and, when Q passed away in 1944 having left his novel Castle Dor unfinished, his daughter asked du Maurier to complete it. The real Castle Dor is also located in this area around the River Fowey.

Before I conclude this literary journey of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall, I would be remiss not acknowledge, with the utmost of reverence, two special sites also to be found in the vicinity of the coastal path we’ve followed. The first is located not too far from where we’re standing in Fowey—if you’ll kindly backtrack with me to Readymoney cove, up the hill toward St. Catherine’s Castle, and just up a little further, I’ll show you a little, easily-overlooked trail heading steeply uphill into the thick of the trees and brush here…bringing us to the quiet, rather hidden resting place of the Rashleigh family who once owned all¬†this land and each house that du Maurier occupied here:

And if we walk further back along the coastal path, it’s not too far inland from the inlet of Polkerris (which we explored in Part II) where, behind a rusted gate and along a short wooded trail, we’ll chance upon Tregaminion Church. This was the Rashleigh family chapel (originally part of the Menabilly estate) and where Daphne du Maurier’s family held a private memorial to mark her passing in 1989:

As seems so fitting in light of how much we’ve seen this area meant to the author and her life’s work, du Maurier’s ashes were scattered on the cliffs near her Kilmarth home.

If you’re a writer, I hope that this series has inspired you to look around your own¬†stomping grounds more closely in case you’ve taken them for granted as a valid setting for your stories. Your local environment has perhaps not struck you as enthralling or inspiring, but try digging into its history more deeply, looking at it through a different lens as you evaluate what about it makes it home in your heart (or what could make it a heaven or hell for someone else). You never know what story-worlds could be built upon the foundations of your real one.

Or, at the very least, hopefully I’ve inspired you to visit Cornwall. ūüėČ

I owe a¬†HUGE debt of gratitude to Encounter Cornwall for providing the self-guided walking tour that led me not only through this fascinating Cornish terrain, but the dynamic landscape of Daphne du Maurier’s imagination.

PART I

PART II

PART III


Writing What You Know ‚Äď My Date with Daphne, Part III

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Ah, the famous first line that lured me into the Hitchcock film, then to the novel it originally came from and had¬†me¬†dreaming of going to Manderley…

Well, I got pretty darn close.

As you may already know from Part I¬†and¬†Part II¬†of this series, I’m playing unofficial-cyber-tour guide through Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall this week.¬†Yesterday, we hiked through the old marshland and priory of du Maurier’s novel¬†The House on the Strand. Today, we’ll venture uphill and onward into¬†Rebecca¬†and The King’s General¬†territory.

Our tour picks up from where we left off in Tywardreath. Hoist that backpack and make sure you have plenty of drinking water and something healthy to snack on as we climb this hill to venture into those in the distance…

Once we make it out there and follow the coastal path a ways, we’ll again pass beneath du Maurier’s Kilmarth home, from which all this gorgeous rolling farmland dips down into the sea.

For a while it appears it’ll just be the grass, dirt, livestock, sweet air, and sea keeping you company, until eventually you round a bend and lo and behold: Polkerris.

Polkerris goes by “Kerrith” in Rebecca and makes for a lovely little beach spot (and bathroom break¬†because this is your last chance for a while…). The Rashleigh Inn there is named for the family that owned all this surrounding land as of the 16th century and who had originally utilized Polkerris to house old pilchard cellars and the fishing fleet.¬†In¬†The King’s General, this is the site of Richard Grenville’s escape to France on a boat, only to return ashore to be with Honor Harris.

Continuing south on the coastal path, some ups and downs and twists and turns will bring the Gribbin Head tower into site (built in 1832 for the safety of mariners). Standing below it, if you turn your back on the sea, you can take in the vast expanse of land surrounding Menabilly:

Now, what’s the big deal about Menabilly that I strained my eyes close to popping trying to find that large Elizabethan manor hiding in the trees? To start, Menabilly is the main Rashleigh family estate where du Maurier lived for about 25 years. She adored the home and raised her children there, but, alas, had only been able to lease the property, as the Rashleigh descendants never put it up for sale. I believe it wasn’t too long after du Maurier’s husband passed away that she likewise received the heart-breaking news she had to vacate Menabilly so the Rashleighs could reclaim it. It was then, in 1969, that du Maurier moved to nearby Kilmarth.

Walking from the Gribbin Head tower toward Menabilly and Polridmouth beach.

These fields and valleys between Gribbin Head and Menabilly feature in du Maurier’s¬†Rebecca, The King’s General, and My Cousin Rachel. The farmland to the left is where du Maurier was inspired to write The Birds¬†when she saw a flock of birds swarming around a farmer on his tractor. Menabilly itself inspired and featured in The King’s General as a Royalist stronghold¬†during the 17th-century English Civil War. It was centuries later in 1824 that renovations commissioned by then-owner William Rashleigh uncovered a skeleton in Cavalier clothing of the Civil War period; it was the remains of a young man who had evidently been in hiding in a chamber at the base of a buttress. This is the skeleton I mentioned yesterday that’s buried in the Tywardreath churchyard (where there’s also a memorial to the real-life¬†Honor Harris) and gave du Maurier the idea for her novel’s dramatic ending.

But also…Menabilly is Rebecca’s¬†“Manderley“! And it’s back there somewhere¬†in that cluster of trees, but I’ll be damned if I could find it; it’s just as concealed as Manderley is described in the book, though not nearly as large and extravagant as depicted in Hitchcock’s film:

What I could¬†get right up close to, however, was further along the coastal path, which leads down to Polridmouth beach. It was at the boathouse¬†here that the infamous Rebecca of the novel of same name carried on her infidelities and ultimately met her death (not a total spoiler there—you know she’s dead from the beginning). The shipwreck where Rebecca’s body was found was also in this bay:

Polridmouth beach (left) and¬†Rebecca’s boathouse (right).

View of the bay from Polridmouth, with Gribbon Head in the distance.

An actual shipwreck that can be seen at Polridmouth at low tide.

Polridmouth is also the beach at which the Roundhead foot soldiers amass and await rescue in The King’s General. Alas, they are left at the mercy of locals, including those from the Cornish town of Fowey, where we’ll travel onward to in my next post.

In the meantime, sit for a spell at the beach, perhaps fix yourself a lovely picnic, forget the darkness of our dear Daphne’s tales, and just enjoy the breezes and waves. Ahhh…

PART I

PART II

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part II

If you were so kind as to join me yesterday for Part I of this “My Date with Daphne” series, lace up those hiking boots¬†for a literal and literary¬†journey through Daphne du Maurier’s old stomping grounds in Cornwall.¬†Today we’re hitting the trail for her novel¬†The House on the Strand.

Our tour begins in Tywardreath. Tywardreath—pronounced¬†tower-dreth—derives from a Celtic word that originally meant “house on the¬†sand”:

The Benedictine Priory of St. Andrew was founded in Tywardreath in the 12th century, and the parish church (pictured below) was dedicated in the 14th century. The church/priory accounts for much of The House on the Strand’s early description and is the stopping point for one of protagonist Dick Young’s drug-induced travels in time. While his consciousness is exploring the old priory back in the 14th century, his body is physically wandering the 20th-century churchyard, where the Vicar taps Dick on the shoulder and wakes him to the present.

This church also figures into du Maurier’s novel The King’s General—in the book, its graveyard serves as a cache for weapons during the Cornish revolt against Parliament, and it’s the actual burial site of a skeleton discovered in du Maurier’s Menabilly home, which in turn inspired The King’s General’s¬†ending.

For those of you who haven’t read The House on the Strand, its main character Dick and his friend Professor Lane frequently take an experimental drug that causes the mind to time-travel, if not the body. It consistently takes the men about 600 years back in time, and their 14th-century wanderings lead them into awkward if not dangerous circumstances in 20th-century places. In addition to the churchyard, below are a couple more such locations:

The house on Polpey Lane where Dick (soaking wet from wandering through the marshes in his drug-induced state) awakes to a very confused modern-day postman.

Treesmill Farm, where Dick frequently returns trying to find the lovely 14th-century Isolda where she lives in the House on the Strand. Once an old ford when the original southern Cornish coastline extended much further inland, Dick crosses the water only to wake up in the middle of a modern-day road, where he’s almost hit by a car.

The train tracks just down the road from Treesmill where Professor Lane’s “time traveling” inadvertently leads him into the path of an approaching train.

The changing coastline and landscape over the centuries was a fascination for du Maurier, so The House on the Strand gave her ideal opportunity to research this and play up the contrast as her main character travels between two time periods. The locations below are examples of areas that were once underwater:

The old marshland has left behind a residual creek, which you cross when following the Saint’s Way path north out of Tywardreath.

Following the creek-side trail west toward Par leads you to the vicinity of the 14th-century shoreline where Dick Young witnesses Oliver Carminowe’s ambush and murder of Otto, Isolda’s love interest.

Par Beach, located just below Tywardreath and which was once part of a broad estuary. It since clogged up with silt from mining waste to create this barrier against the sea that helped reclaim much land from the seabed.

From Par Beach, we continue south along the coastal path to pass below Kilmarth, where Daphne du Maurier and her character Dick Young lived at the top of the hill. Dating back to the 14th century, the house’s original owner (Roger Kylmerth) and the occupant just prior to du Maurier (a scientist, who left behind a basement full of odd jars containing things like embryos) provided key inspiration for The House on the Strand. Roger is fictionalized as Dick’s “guide” through the past, and Professor Lane is the fictional present-day owner of house who allows his friend Dick to holiday there and¬†whose experiments in the basement include the time-travel drug in question.

Kilmarth, as viewed from the road high above the coastal path.

Time to depart The House on the Strand¬†and continue along the coastal path to the real-life influences of Daphne du Maurier’s other works…if you’ve stuck with me this far and are keen for more, see ya tomorrow!

PART I

PART III

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part I

Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930) –†—É—Ā—Ā–ļ–ł–Ļ: ...

Daphne du Maurier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s April, and the Monkey has climbed back up its tree. The branches up here are budding, and I’m likewise hoping to turn a new leaf and make this spring a productive one of blogging and creative writing. Until now, travels, hosting, and craploads of editing have derailed me; I recently finished my first freelance edit and am presently juggling two simultaneous manuscripts for the publisher. Having to donate my eyes and brain to others’ work makes it difficult to write my own stuff, but it’s always a learning process and always satisfying to at least be working on¬†something¬†that’s getting published.

In any case, last August when I’d found myself in a similar predicament, I’d whisked myself away to Cornwall for a solitary writer’s retreat (“A Cage of One’s Own“). I found myself doing more hiking there than writing, but even that activity was steeped with literary inspiration. I was walking in the footsteps of British author¬†Daphne du Maurier¬†and her characters, you see, and learning a great deal about how a writer’s environment can effectively influence the settings of his/her stories. I’d promised way-back-when to blog about this and totally flaked out, but now I really have no excuse considering I just returned from an Easter holiday weekend spent at the very same location in the very same¬†room-with-a-view!¬†I brought my husband this time so he could also hike the trails and find much-needed respite after completing one hell of an intense graduate program. Thus, ’twas a time of needed togetherness, not for me to go all reclusive-artsy-fartsy and climb into my turret to write.

Yet the breezes off that dynamic coastal landscape still carried the sweet inspiration of Daphne, so, starting this week, I’ll finally share with you my summer photo-journey of the real-life settings featuring in so much of her work. du Maurier lived in three homes between Par and Fowey (Menabilly, Kilmarth, and Readymoney) that were not only the places where she wrote, but also where she wrote¬†about. Menabilly and Kilmarth housed her characters as well, which¬†I find really validating considering my own two manuscripts are set in actual apartments I’ve lived in. I at first viewed that as a rookie comfort-zone, writing-what-you-know in the extreme, but the fact is, my stories are set in these places because these places—their distinctive features and histories—are what initially inspired my stories. So, why not? Daphne did it.

I’ve admittedly only read three of du Maurier’s novels, but her writing resonates with me. Weaving dark tales with beautifully crafted language, she managed to write commercially appealing plots with literary merit—which, in my opinion, is the ideal to aim for. Of the novels I’ve read, my hands-down favorite is¬†Rebecca, which I first experienced through Alfred Hitchcock’s faithful screen adaptation of same name (du Maurier’s novella¬†The Birds¬†was likewise adapted into another not-as-faithful Hitchcock film of same name). A few years ago, a random stroll through Daunt Books in London resulted in¬†leaving with¬†Jamaica Inn¬†in my hands (which takes place at the actual inn in England’s Bodmin Moor), and my return to Daunt soon after for¬†The House on the Strand¬†is what ultimately led me to choose the wee village of Tywardreath (the book’s setting) for my Cornish holiday.

And Tywardreath is where we’ll begin tomorrow as we travel a bit of southern Cornwall to view the inspiration behind du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. Dress warm, pack light, and wear some comfortable walking shoes. ūüôā

PART II

PART III

PART IV


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. ūüôā


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


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‚Äôs scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it‚Äôs character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that‚Äôs a harder brief, and that‚Äôs why I‚Äôm not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I‚Äôve been working on to date falls in that¬†[same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it‚Äôs 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 ūüôā

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… ūüôā


In the Year 2030

So, folks, this week we’ve found ourselves the victims of an Internet hoax that claimed yesterday, 6 July 2010, was the very day that Marty McFly and Doc flew into the future from 1985 in Back to the Future‘s sequel. ¬†The evidence of this was compelling: ¬†a photograph of the time-traveling DeLorean’s dashboard (above). ¬†Uh, well…see here’s the thing about living in the “futuristic” society that we do today: ¬†computer technology has brought us a little something called “Photoshop.” ¬†The actual date? ¬†21 October 2015.

Do you realize what this means???!!! We still have five more years to invent the hoverboard.  Wicked.

In any case, I found this “news” of transcending time and space to be quite timely with regard to the next writing prompt…

The Prompt:

On page 36, Room to Write asks us to choose a fantasy of what our lives will be like in 20 years. ¬†We’re supposed to “develop a reasonable plot that would make the fantasy work out.” ¬†Otherwise, we can try the same exercise using a beloved character from either our own writing or a treasured story.

Response:

Well, I don’t know how “reasonable” this is, but in my fantasy future life, I’ll have published a few novels, earning not enough for a sustainable living on my own, but enough to supplement our¬†travel budget—or, wait a minute, if this is my fantasy, I’ll up it and say that it’s also making the mortgage payments on that stone cottage in the English countryside that we’ll maintain so we can still get our UK fix after having returned to the States (eighteen years earlier) to start a family.

[okay, I’m grabbing the DeLorean’s stick and shifting this into present tense—it’ll be¬†cooler, like I’m speaking to you from the future]

For we do have a family—Fate decided it for us before we managed to overcome selfishness and laziness on our own ūüôā¬† Three children, two in high school, one in middle school.¬† Ever since the offspring have been old enough to poop and wipe by themselves, we’ve been travelling with them abroad as well as domestically (so they know how to appreciate their own country as well), taking them to London to show them where Maw-n-Paw started their married life together, pointing up to the very window out which Mumsy would stare and formulate her fictional storylines in penning her first novel.

Not much has changed with the old neighborhood, essentially as little as had changed in the century-and-a-half prior to then.¬† Well, the doors are painted different colors, and the streets need some paving—we have those hoverboards as well as¬†hovercars by then, so they are no longer a priority!

“Roads?¬† Where we’re going, we won’t need roads.” – Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future

[…oh, c’mon, I’m spotting the envisioners of Back to the Future an extra fifteen years here]

Wellll…no, okay, even twenty years out, I think we’ll be lucky if we’ve even converted to 100%¬†alternative fuel automobiles, so I really don’t see the hover-anything happening.¬† Rather, every petrol station has outlets where we can plug in our¬†electric cars, or hoses for those autos that run solely on baby shampoo.

I still sit at a desk tap-tappin’ my stories, even though computer keyboards are now archaic—replaced with laser light sensors that project from a paper-thin pad. ¬†I decide to still play it old-school, vowing to use my last-generation Mac keyboard until it goes kaput, just as I had with my Jetta, dearly departed about thirteen years ago…(resto en paz, my little¬†German car manufactured in Mexico). ¬†I listen to my same old alternative rock 80s tunes, but not on the computer—I now upload my iTunes (just like the rest of my apps) by scanning the chip embedded in my wrist against my monitor whenever I order new music; the music then pipes into my inner ears through my veins, so no headphones necessary. ¬†If there’s a video, it projects inside my eyes. ¬†There is now an app for dreams.

My parents are still alive, and they are defying science with their amazing health and sharp minds. ¬†There is no question they will be able to see our children off to university (not the one where I teach literature and film studies, though, having earned my PhD a decade ago), just as they did for my nieces and nephews. ¬†Our Illinois home is a warm and velvety, pristinely preserved 19th-century house with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelved library with REAL BOOKS (they’re not obsolete yet) and a hidden door, an attic bedroom with a dusty sock monkey resting in a box, and an echoey phonograph reproduction playing my Artie Shaw—and, okay, my John Hughes movie soundtracks thanks to the vinyl records a friend gave me for my birthday way back in 2008. ¬†My siblings still live near us¬†and make me laugh as hard as they did twenty years ago, and the twenty years before that. ¬†Some things never do change.

Otherwise, when it’s life at the English cottage with its durable thatched roof, it’s Wellies and soil beneath fingernails, raking the earth to make a garden bloom and feed us. ¬†It is quiet. ¬†The few cars along the narrow roads no longer make noise. ¬†The iTune chip in my arm is muted. ¬†It is only the insect-leg violins and fluting birds that orchestrate the score of a life of expectation now fulfilled.

Reflection:

Well, I had to stop it somewhere. ¬†I look back on this and notice all the aspects of my life I inevitably left out—What job will my husband have? ¬†What about friends? ¬†In-laws? ¬†Relatives? ¬†What about the negatives? ¬†The illness? ¬†The loss? ¬†What’s going on in the world? ¬†Politics? ¬†Other technologies? ¬†Pop culture? ¬†And on and on and on…it makes me ponder why I did describe what I did, what I chose to idealize and stretch as far as fantasy would allow me…and still feeling that I didn’t play with it quite enough or feel comfortable with what extent I could. ¬†There was the temptation to write science fiction, yet the reality is that 20 years isn’t really that far out. ¬†Though technology has made tremendous strides in the last couple decades (ah, to recall a time before email and mobiles), I don’t believe the same goes for people and lifestyles in general—so this is more a study in how an individual might evolve over time, the outcomes of choosing certain paths over others.

But if I did want to tinker with creative futuristic imaginings, I’d definitely have to leap waaaay farther out than 20 years…further than Back to the Future II‘s 30 years…something more like…the Year 3000:

So consult the crystal ball and do tell—what does the future hold for YOU or your characters?


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