Tag Archives: appeals to the senses

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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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


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


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

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

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

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

And then she warns that:

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

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

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

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

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

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


If Truth Be Told…


Halfway through Sophie’s World, and it keeps prompting new thoughts.  Well, more accurately, the history of philosophy that it shares does.

Though dear Sophie and I have already progressed to the 18th century, Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave continues to flicker in my mind like the flame casting shadows onto the back of the cave wall.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, the basic idea is this: 

Visualize a cave with people seated with their backs to its opening.  They are therefore only able to see the back of the cave wall, which is dancing with the shadows of objects held behind the people and in front a fire.  The people are unable to turn around, thus only know the world from these vague shadows of what’s transpiring beyond them outside of the cave.  

In this myth, the actual objects (which would be seen in clearer detail if the people turned around to look at them directly) represent the world of ideas, whereas the shadows are only our perception of the material world.  Plato believed that true knowledge could not be gained through our senses, but, rather, our reason.  Thus, the enlightened ones who try to see beyond their physical world into the realm of ideas will see with clarity and truth.

So why do most of us keep our backs to the cave opening, staring into the darkness and shadows?  Is it because we choose not to see or aren’t able to?  When I think of this myth literally, I pretend that I’m the one to stand up and look around at what is creating the shadows.  My eyes having been adjusted to the dark all this time, I’d think they’d be pierced by the bright fire/daylight.  This then makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Methinks Miss Dickinson and Colonel Jessep share something in common—though Emily might agree we ordinary folk are entitled to the truth, neither believes we can handle it.  For that matter, how would everyone else in my cave respond if I suddenly told them what I saw?  Would they believe me?  Be shocked by it?  Deny it?

Me-then thinks perhaps stories are a way we writers try to help the medicine go down.  Hey, Plato’s allegory is a case in point, is it not?  Stories help us to better understand truths through visualization and creative “slant”—no, not lies, just not necessarily the facts either when it comes to fiction.  And I shouldn’t imply that it’s “sugar-coating”; indeed, stories well-told will intensify rather than dilute, expressed in engaging, vivid ways that make a reader receptive to even the grittier stuff.

Years ago, I attended a lecture  by Tim O’Brien in which he discussed his novel The Things They Carried.  Written in the first person and narrated by a character whose name was also Tim and who also fought in Vietnam, the book reads like it’s the author’s memoir.  O’Brien clarified, however, that while much of the novel is based on his real life, it is a novel.  Flip to the inside cover and see that it is denoted as a work of fiction (there are many semi-autobiographical narratives that are, which many don’t realize until Oprah exposes it mercilessly on her show…*ahem* A Million Little Pieces *cough*…Night is arguably another—and oh, hey, just look whose book club it’s in…).

Basically, O’Brien said he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.  He likened it to catching your first fish; sure, it might be scrawny, but your excitement is massive.  In order to get someone else as excited about your catch as you are, you might stretch your hands further apart from the few inches of, “It was this big,” to the two-foot length of, “It was THIS BIG!!”  Describing a tiny bluegill as a giant catfish isn’t factually true, but your friend’s commensurate reaction is the Truth of what you actually felt.  Likewise, O’Brien believed that for anyone who didn’t experience Vietnam to feel remotely the way he felt when he was there, he needed to tell it differently.

So my question for YOU is this:  what Truths do you write or read about?  Which of your stories (or those you’ve read) do you think do a particularly effective job of helping the reader “handle the truth” and why?


Mood Music Musings…

It is an eerie thing—underlying the cries of children in the garden square, a sinister melody booming from an organ is seeping out of the Victorian church beyond my window.  The only music I ever hear from there is new age Christian rock on Sundays, never an organ, never on Tuesday, never of that magnitude and fervor.  Huh.  It’s creating an odd atmosphere for me inside my old Victorian terraced home, I must say…the computer desk and bed are disintegrating from sight, along with a century and a half of paint as I start to envision the dressing table and hip bath that might have once stood in here, this room that I believe was once used as a dressing room.  The unit we live in was once only the bedrooms of an entire four-story house, you see, which makes it quite laughable for me to think that what we now occupy as both our kitchen and reception room space was only the master bedroom.  It is a place in which every petal in the ceiling’s floral moulding sends down whispers to me of all they have seen through the decades.  Trees have grown tall around brick and stone that was once exposed, new, though sooty now and crumbling and left for fanciful folk like me to point to and sigh for a bygone era.  But, my, how my feet would have pinched, my organs been crowded and lungs bereft of a deep breath of air…the dust kicked up on my hems and the humid sweat on a sunny day bleeding into the tight-woven fibers of my sleeves to cake in my dead skin and bake my scent.  No, though I used to lose myself in imagination of how much simpler, more romantic a life back then would have been, I peer through the wormhole to see it as it was and feel quite thankful I won’t be lugging tins of water up and down all those flights of stairs, past the pretty banisters, thank you very much.  Burgundy velvets, trembling fringes, clinking china, flickering flames…all these and the incantations of a seance fade to ivory.  My computer materializes back into my field of vision.  The organ music is muffled beneath the waterfall sound of speeding autos. It diminishes into a pleasant tune or subtle nuisance, depending on which I will choose it to be.


Kiss-and-Tell


The Prompt:

* blush * Today Room to Write, that saucy minx, is asking us to write about kissing (p.34).  As Bonni Goldberg says, “Besides being fun, it is an especially good practice for writing scenes between two people.”

All right then, I suppose I can share a snippet from a scene that I previously wrote while under the influence of wine (when I feel my most floozy) and the very next day yanked from the story.  It really wasn’t the suitable direction for the characters, but I’ve kept it within reach under the file name, “The Gratuitous.”  At any rate, this picks up from when a couple of friends have fallen asleep on the sofa together.

Response:

A couple stirrings later, she felt within a tighter squeeze and then a light brushing of lips atop her hair.  She thought she’d been mistaken, but no; the puckering sound of a fully carried-out kiss had sounded against her scalp, then her forehead, and was now moving in slow succession down the bridge of her nose until—

Their lips met.  Both of their eyes closed.  Soft at first, then hardening and spreading with each contact, more slippery each time.  Their tongues met, and together they began to swell and ebb with one another, pressing and pulling away only to heave again toward each other once more as their tongues now spiraled and lunged against their mutual provocation.

Reflection:

Oh, there was more involved, but I’ve restricted it to only the kissing part.  I have no desire (“desire” being the operative word) to become the next Danielle Steel, though kudos to her for, you know, targeting a market well.  Granted, I cut the scene because I felt it wasn’t right for these two characters to hook up, but I do tend to be prudish on stuff like this and wonder why.  I have no qualms thinking it or feeling it or even writing it down, but when it comes to my finished product, I censor.  Is it because there is so much of the gratuitous out there when, by definition, it’s unnecessary in furthering plot or character?  This point makes me recall the film, The Player, with Tim Robbins, who plays the character Griffin Mill:

Griffin Mill:  It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.
June:  What elements?
Griffin Mill:  Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings…
June:  What about reality?

The film itself includes the formulaic “hope, heart, nudity, sex” elements, just not where you’d conventionally expect them to be, thereby turning the formula on its head as a means of satire.

That being said, there must be a reason why the formula does exist.  Human passions prevail for the masses.  And what about the story line that has a real message to put forth that necessarily requires a bit of physical relations?  My sister, who writes under the pen name Nicki Elson, addresses this in her blog post, “Should I Have Faded to Black?” with regard to her recently published debut novel, Three Daves.  Set during the 1980’s on a central Illinois college campus, its protagonist (Jennifer) is one of the last American virgins  who seeks compromise between coming of age sexually while still holding out for the elusive “one.”  Jen’s solution to this moral predicament is both a practical and hilarious journey for her as she navigates through three boyfriends who share the same name but entirely different personalities—namely, David, Dave, and Big “D.”  To tell a tale like this, it is appropriate for the details to be explicit:

“She tentatively licked at his lips with the tip of her tongue to try and coax him in.  He teasingly flicked his tongue at hers but refused to take the plunge.  Jen whimpered in frustration, and he ended his torture, finally pushing his way into her mouth.  Jen sucked him in gratefully and clutched his head to hers to make sure he didn’t get away.” (p.67)

Whatever other sexual techniques we might learn during such scenes, it’s in the simple kiss when Jennifer genuinely loses herself in emotion.  The kiss, though only “first base,” can truly be the most sensual, intimate, and affectionate act.  And let’s not forget that kisses can also merely be pecks on the cheek or an innocent idea blown off the palm of a hand.

I’ve spun the bottle and now it’s pointing at YOU.  How about parting your lips and saying what you think on this topic?  What are your thoughts on kissing as an expressive act between people and its role in literature?  Have you ever read/written an effective portrayal of two characters kissing that you’d care to share?


Slippery When Wet

Just returned from a long bank holiday weekend camping in Devon with some pleasant drives and strolls through Somerset and the Cotswolds as well.  The English countryside with its rolling patchwork of greens and yellows and occasional puffs of white sheep and dairy cows—all accessorized in dense hedges or stony walls and cottages—is certainly an isle of inspiration for a writer.  Be they grasses or cobbles underfoot, the paths one treads here are a return to the natural state and the fundamentals on which we build our lives and stories.

The last writing prompt I followed involved fire; today’s regards that other element that seemed to so dominate my camping trip, whether it surged onto the coastal sands or pattered against our tent in the night.  I speak, of course, of water.

The Prompt:

Page 31 of Room to Write asks us to “write about water: tap water, ocean water, rain water, any water or experience or dream of water that has both wet and whetted [our] imagination.”   Well, I’ve written about my water dreams already, so I’ll try not to be too redundant here…

Response:

WATER.  It multiplies the Mogwai or signals an approaching T-Rex, melts the Wicked Witch or freezes Leonardo to Kate Winslet.  It helps kids slip-n-slide and makes T-shirt contests more interesting.  It conforms to the shape of its container and yields both its clarity and taste to the color and flavor of what enters it; yet I would not call it submissive.  No, it fills the container’s inner space to empty it of air and weigh it down, and it dilutes the efficacy of what it absorbs, dissipating it in its solvency whenever it can play this advantage.  It carves canyons and fjords in its liquid and solid states, eroding away in its slow, subtle way of feigning innocence.  Water cleanses away the toxins, rinses the filth; it quenches our thirst and hydrates our cells.  It cools or it scalds, it cleans or it floods; it can keep us afloat with its density or yank us down with its current, hold us up on a wave or crush us under a whitecap.  It ebbs, it flows, it dips, it swells.  It can flush out mortal life or baptize into one everlasting.  In its glassy calm, its surface can reflect our being and the wonder of the skies as it refracts the perceptions that penetrate deeper.  Water contains mystery in its depths, holding it beyond the reach of light, and yet what it sprays forth to glitter in the sun can somehow reveal all the answers.

Reflection:

Water has always fascinated me…as a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid, and as an adult, I found a new way of communing with it when I learned to sail (the capsizing drill in 50-degree Fahrenheit Lake Michigan being one bonding session I could have done without…it was less fun the second time around when the main sail came down on top of me and trapped me underwater—not to fear!  I was an apt pupil and remembered my survival strategy :)).

Anyways, I find I often allude to water in my writing as analogous to emotions and circumstances, playing on the ways it can be a subduing or overwhelming force, an annoyance like a leaking faucet, or perhaps a current that sweeps my characters along the tributaries that lead into their destinies.  It’s a recurring motif, for example, from the very beginning to the very last sentence of my Sixteen Candles fan-fiction to play on the unfortunate fact that the narrator is literally unable to drink from the water fountain in the movie, which parallels her deeper “thirst” as she comes of age:

“Here [Sam] had the smartest guy in my physics club falling all over himself to impress her, saturating her ego with his deluge of compliments, but she gets all haughty and tense, as though struggling to ignore the persistent drip of Chinese water torture.

Girls like her just rinse and spit. They’ll spit out a mouthful and have the nerve to complain that they’re thirsty.”

I also can’t help but think of this element at the pen-tips of the pros, such as the way Stephen Crane wields water in his short story, “The Open Boat”:

“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.”

No matter how light or heavy the content of a story, there seems to be an abyss of options for describing water or using it metaphorically, especially as it shares the complex dualities of fire that I’ve discussed previously.  In this way, it is a tap that could never run dry, so to speak.

So I’m curious—what are examples of water imagery that you have found effective, either in your own or others’ writing?


Fire Walk With Me

The Prompt:

Given the prevalent symbolism of fire across centuries of story-telling, page 30 of Room to Write asks us to share “a personal story, memory, or belief about fire.”  Or, we can conduct a freewriting beginning with the word “fire” and let it spread from there.

Response:

FIRE.  It takes life and sustains life.  It guides our sight through darkness or blinds us to what else we might find in shadow, revealing and concealing.  It illuminates our romance and dances upon the page.  Fire attracts the moth and repels the mosquito; it swallows the air and laps up the tinder that shelters us, spiriting it away in climbing smoke, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It licks our bones clean and sterilizes the needle, preens the prairie grasses and purifies the water.  It  casts menace upon our faces when lighting us from beneath, yet shrouds in angelic glow when lighting us from behind.  Fire converts raw food into nourishment for our bodies, or consumes nourishment for our souls into raw emotion.  It is an exclamation that will clear a room within seconds or signal a gathering to share stories round its warmth.  It thaws, it soothes, it burns, it chars; it can fuel our hope or ignite our dread.  It can whisper to us in crackles and snaps, promising safety and comfort in a cold, barren landscape, or it can hiss at us like wind against our eardrums or a stampede rumbling down the hillside to crush us.  Fire is an element embracing our passions, sweeping exponentially in our lust or our anger until it sizzles into dowsing foam or, when there’s nothing more upon which it can feed, coughs its smoldering death rattle as glowing cinders close their eyes on a bed of black.

Reflection:

Ah, this prompt brought me back to my teaching days, when fire was so often imagery to analyzeI’ve actually used this exact same activity in class so that students could reflect on what connotations fire held for them.  And, as I can see above, I personally muse over the dualities of fire in all its functions and figurative implications.

This dichotomy is evident in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which fire goes from being a symbol of a romantic love to that of recklessness:

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” – Romeo commenting on Juliet’s beauty

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” – The Friar commenting on R&J’s impetuous actions

In just writing about it above, I found how naturally anthropomorphism came, describing fire in terms of carrying out human/animal actions—e.g., “laps up,” “licks,” “preens,” “whisper,” “coughs,” etc.  This immediately brings to mind the figurative and descriptive language William Golding employed to depict fire in Lord of the Flies:
“Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.  As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.  Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing.  One patch touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel.  The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards.  The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.  Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea.  At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering.  The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.  They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire.  The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them.  Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame.  The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.”
The similes and anthropomorphism above create such vivid sensory detail; this is the kind of descriptive writing to aspire for.
Okay then, your turn.  Does fire bear a personal meaning for you?  What images, emotions, or beliefs does it represent?


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