9/11/09

Full stop

It may have become apparent to some readers that I have run out of steam, blogwise. I've begun to feel that this blog, though it has proven exceptionally handy with respect to the workshops I teach, has outlived its usefulness to me; I find that I would prefer to direct my efforts elsewhere. I come to that conclusion with with no small amount of regret, as I know that many of you have found these posts helpful. I thank you all for taking the time to say so, as it means that what I've written has done its job.

It sounds gloomy, but to my mind it's not so bad. Blogs are impermanent and unpredictable, just like the people who write them. Blogging isn't like writing a book, or keeping an archive. Despite the amount of text just sitting on it, bad and good, the internet has always been, foremost, about conversation. Conversations change. Conversations evolve. And they also stop.

I like the idea that if I stop, the door's always open for me to start again, if I want. I like that there's always a place for one more voice.* One day, maybe, I'll chime in again.

This blog won't disappear, though I'll likely yoink anything which doesn't fall into the "instructive" category. But don't expect to see new posts any time soon.

Thanks for reading. I'll be around. Most of you know where to find me, I expect.

Good wishes,

Jess



____________

*Unless it's a whacko one, of course, but that's a thought for some other place and time, and possibly someone else.

7/17/09

Because I am-- shall we say-- "helpful" like that

You know what I love about this blog? Reference mileage. Oh, sure, it may be long, dull, and yellow. It may only have seven regular readers. It may be updated only as frequently as I get oil changes (every 5000 miles with the new car). But when people want to diagram sentences, find out how long Rumpelstiltskin slept*, learn what's further than the moon, or get advice on how to remove foreign objects from their ears, man, they come straight here. Some visitors will stay for up to twenty-four minutes at a stretch, searching, searching. I can only conclude that the dull yellow look implies immediate, direct answers to the questions at hand.** And who am I to withhold pertinent information? I'm feeling magnanimous, and it's nearly time for an oil change.

My stat tools turn up a lot of search hits on grammar and punctuation. Today I found this one:

"shall we say" how to punctuate

Shall we, indeed! Allow me to educate you.†

Now obviously, "shall we say" on its own is actually a question—though you'd have to specify what you're suggesting we say; the question's intent depends on how you end the sentence. Shall we say how to punctuate a sentence? offers a topic for discussion. Shall we say the moon is made of glue and old socks?, on the other hand, is a rhetorical question—used perhaps to illustrate a point, or call attention to a logical inconsistency in someone else's line of argument.

Used within a sentence, however, a phrase like "shall we say" is what they call a parenthetic expression, meaning that it interrupts the train of thought. Parenthetic expressions are sort of asides to the reader: they're used to comment upon the subject of the sentence in some way, or add related information. For example, I might say something like this:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe, God forbid, I'll wear the hazard suit.
In that sentence, "God forbid" is my parenthetic expression—an addendum which implies that, actually, I never want to have to clean the sewage pipe again. How I punctuate a sentence like that depends on my intent: do I mean to be humourous? Alarmist? Or am I simply stating a fact?

In the original version of the sentence, we can probably take it as read that I'm merely stating fact: what happened this time, and what will happen next time (though I hope a next time won't come at all). Changing the punctuation around "God forbid" will change the tone of the sentence, however, and thereby its intent. If I punctuate the clause with em dashes, for example, I slow the reader's eye a bit, creating deliberate pauses in the rhythm of the sentence:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe—God forbid—I'll wear the hazard suit.
The meaning of the sentence is essentially the same, but there's a definite change in its emphasis: "God forbid" suddenly carries a lot more weight. What happened, or what I'll do in the future, becomes a lot less important than the fact that I never want to have to do it again. It becomes my main point.

Similarly, if I put parentheses around "God forbid," the clause almost slips past the eye, and reads like a mutter:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe (God forbid) I'll wear the hazard suit.
Again, my meaning hasn't necessarily changed, but in this case my tone has: "I'll wear a hazard suit" takes on a different flavour with that little hint of a grumble in the preceding clause. There's a sarcasm in the sentence now which wasn't there before; the situation it describes seems a little funnier, too.

In that sense, a parenthetic expression can be useful. Used wisely, such interruptions allow you to do more with a sentence than make statements: they're little rhetorical flourishes by which you can turn and wink at your reader. The question, really, is what you intend.

Which brings us neatly back to the phrase "shall we say"—more precisely, the point of it. Or, to be perfectly blunt, its lack of one. Used as a parenthetic statement, "shall we say" is meaningless. At best it's junk, unnecessary filler to dress up a weak statement. At worst, it's an empty affectation meant to introduce a euphemism and imply, by its tone, disdain for the subject under discussion. To wit:
Everyone knows that your girlfriend is—shall we say—a woman in sensible shoes.

I'm afraid we just aren't satisfied with your level of, shall we say, "experience".
Which isn't to say that you can't ever use "shall we say" as a parenthetic expression. Certainly, you can, any time you like—if you don't mind, shall we say, coming off an absolute prat.

Tone and intent. There's your answer, boyo. What's your intent?

Next time: Who is it that keeps doing Google searches on my name, and what on earth for? It's freaking me out.

_________

*Answer: he didn't. He ate babies. Rip Van Winkle took the 100-year power nap.

**My favourite instance: one visitor searching for "poetry exercises" felt compelled to rate this post "unhelpful" (this was back when I was using the post-rating widget) after two or three pageviews. Well, yes, my disappointed reader, I'll give you that. The post contains no poetry exercises, no matter how many times you hit F5.

†Stand back. I have a degree.

5/23/09

In which we make a scene

So last Wednesday, when the story revisions for the spring writing workshop started coming in, I had one of those uh oh moments as I realised, too late, that over the last six weeks' teaching I'd missed out something fundamental: scenes. I never really explained what a scene is, or how you go about writing one-- not directly, anyway. In my experience, beginning writers produce better material more quickly when they're set specific parameters, and encouraged to focus on small moments rather than big ones. So when I talk about scenes, it's in terms of choosing specific moments upon which to focus, then sequencing those moments in fine detail; I say, think small, take your time, stay in the narrative present. It's a movie, you're the camera. Take it frame by frame: write exactly what you see and hear as it happens, in as much concrete detail as you can.

The idea is that it's much simpler, not to mention much less daunting, to imagine your way through small moments and to string them together than it is to sit down and Write a Scene-- though in either case we're really talking about the same thing. The former approach breaks things into manageable elements; you trick your brain into paying attention to what's actually happening on the page as opposed to what you would like to be on the page. The latter suggests an unfocused attack, throwing words on the page in an attempt to hammer one's "vision" onto it. That approach can certainly result in something which looks like a scene, and which may even adhere to that vague formula for scene structure you sometimes find in fiction writing how-tos (to grossly oversimplify it, it goes something like 1) setting/conflict establishment, 2) event, and 3) outcome). When I teach scene writing, though, I prefer that workshoppers avoid being sidetracked by formulas or vision. My goal is to get everyone to step back a bit, lighten their grip on the story, and focus on the page itself-- word by word, moment by moment.

Sometimes it works. This time it didn't, and I think it may be down to the fact that I never really gave the group a definition for scene in the first place. I mean, heck, I take scenes for granted. I know what they are, I know how they go. I'm pathologically obsessed with causes and consequences; they play out in my head in eye-watering bullet time. As far as I'm concerned, scenes happen all around us, at every moment. They're like Lego bricks. Pick them up, stick them together: voilà, it's a miniature Fallingwater. Easy, yeah?

Well, no. Scene writing isn't intuitive, until you learn to think frame-by-frame. That's something a writer develops a feel for over time. Even in a guided environment like a workshop, it takes most people a while to mentally shift gears; once they do, they frequently don't even realise what's happened, and seem unable see through their own expectations to what they've actually accomplished. (I can't tell you how many times I've praised a writer's in-class efforts only to have that writer give me a look like I'm nuts.)

You've got to start with some kind of definition. That's the point. You'll indulge me, won't you, if I attempt to make one? Hell, you've read this far. May as well commit.

So what on earth is a scene?

1. A scene is a series of actions, reactions, causes, and consequences which leads inexorably to the thing that happens next.

Scenes aren't just puppet shows, with characters moving around and saying stuff until some grand revelation occurs, or the next scene starts. Every scene in a story, no matter how small, is linked to what's come before, and what follows-- genesis and fallout. That doesn't necessarily mean every scene in a story has to contain some moment of high drama or excitement, but it does mean that every scene needs to be about something, and that each one drives the story along in some way. A scene needs a focal point, and every element of the scene must gravitate toward it.

Many beginning writers have a tendency, at first, to chuck every last morsel of information they can think of into a scene rather than finding a focal point. Usually it's the result of consciously trying to satisfy general conventions of fiction writing-- be descriptive, be consistent, hook your reader, pace the action, etc.-- rather than thinking about the causes and consequences which drive the scene. In the effort to make it all seem like sense, the writer may turn her attention to the chronology of events, rather than the whys and hows, and you'll end up with something like this:
Bob and Moira found a parking space, a precious commodity all over Big City but particularly in the bustling, ethnic neighborhood of Northwest Easterville, with its popular nightclubs, tapas bars, and rustic open-air markets. They walked two blocks to the Phat Eats diner, the neighborhood's newest eatery which featured hearty fare made with local ingredients, and entered the establishment. The place was very busy inside, but promised good times and adventurous eating, if the crowded counter, the delicious smells coming from the open kitchen, and the laughter from other diners was anything to judge by.

Bob and Moira took off their coats and waited. After standing by the cash register for several minutes they finally caught the eye of one of the waitresses, a slim, blond woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a name tag that said Maggie. Maggie led them to a booth at the rear of the building, near the restrooms, and gave each of them a menu. "Can I get you something to drink?" Maggie asked. Bob ordered a Coke, and Moira said she'd be fine with water. "Okay, I'll be right back," Maggie said, and went behind the counter to the soda fountain. As she filled their glasses, Bob and Moira looked over their menus in silence.

"Are the hamburgers good here?" Moira asked.

"The Big Beef Special is the best burger in town. I should know. I've been coming here since I was a kid," Bob replied. "But what they're really famous for is their shrimp remoulade. No other diner in town serves it."

"Oh, I'll try that, then," said Moira, brightening. "I haven't eaten shellfish since that diving accident ten years ago."

"Good choice!" Bob exclaimed. "The shrimp are extra chewy. You can give your new jaw a real test-drive!" And they continued making small talk until Maggie came back with their drinks.

"One Coke and one water," said Maggie, coming back to the table. "Now, what would you like?"

"I'll have the shrimp," Moira blurted. "Make it a double order of shrimp. And extra sauce on the side. Let's push out the boat!"

Bob smiled. "Make that two orders of shrimp," he said, and, winking, added, "leave the legs on mine."

Obviously, this scene isn't all that engaging, or vivid. Nothing's really happening to advance the story, or to reveal anything about the characters and their relationship to each other-- even in spite of the fact that I've managed to crowbar some overt exposition into the dialogue. It's certainly possible that there's some sort of story going on, somewhere off the page. But it's not happening here. The scene lacks focus, and a purpose; it wanders aimlessly, relying heavily on the setting and the dialogue to make something, anything, happen (which, of course, neither does).

If I want to improve my scene, the first thing I need to do is find a focal point-- in other words, I need to identify the most significant development in the scene, and write toward it, weeding out all the stuff which has nothing to do with that event as I go. I'm going to say the significant event in this scene is probably Moira ordering shrimp for the first time in ten years; it seems like a big step for her, what with the diving accident and all; it's the point at which events may at last turn interesting. Part of my task, then, will be to establish some conflict which can plausibly result in that event. Causes, consequences; actions, reactions.
The Phat Eats diner was very busy inside, but looked promising, if the crowded counter, the delicious smells coming from the open kitchen, and the laughter from other diners was anything to judge by. Bob and Moira took off their coats and waited by the cash register until one of the waitresses-- a slim, blond woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a name tag that said Maggie-- led them to a booth at the rear of the building, near the restrooms. They looked over the menu in silence. There was a lot of seafood on it. Moira frowned.

"Are the hamburgers good here?" she ventured.

"The Big Beef Special is good," Bob replied. "But what they're really famous for is the shrimp remoulade. No other diner in town serves it."

Moira hesitated. "You know I haven't eaten shellfish since that diving accident ten years ago."

"Yeah, I know," Bob said. "Don't you think it's time to give that new jaw a real test-drive? The shrimp are extra chewy."

Moira stared at Bob.

"One Coke and one water," said Maggie, returning to their table and setting their drinks in front of them. "Now, what would you like?"

"She'll have the shrimp," Bob blurted, before Moira could speak. "Make it a double order of shrimp. And extra sauce on the side. Let's push out the boat! And," he added, winking, "leave the legs on 'em."

That's a little better: my scene now has a purpose and makes a beeline for it. Additionally, there's a conflict: we learn by implication that Bob and Moira's relationship may not be in good shape-- Bob's kind of pushy, isn't he? Note that I chose to drop the tone of adventuresome cheer from the original version: the accident, whatever it was, and its repercussions weigh too heavily on the scene to be ignored. Otherwise it's just silly.

Even so, the scene needs work; it's still not as vivid as it might be. Moira and Bob and pretty much talking heads at this point; they don't do much in response to each other, and despite my attempts to set the scene in the first paragraph, the setting as it exists in my head still isn't on the page. (Did you realise, for example. that the booths in the diner are wooden, with seats made from old, cut-down church pews? No? You mean to say you're not telepathic?)

Which brings us to definition two:

2. A scene is an immediate moment of specific action, not a generalized accounting of the action.

The amount of information written into a scene isn't as crucial as the amount of specific detail it provides. That means named objects, colors, sounds, movements; all the things a reader could see, feel, touch and hear if they were actually there. It's common for beginning writers to mistake writing like that in the first version of my scene for vivid, detailed prose, because it contains an abundance of general information. The first version of the scene mentions things like "rustic open-air markets" and "delicious smells"; each phrase is suggestive in its way, perhaps, but each is also general, and vague, rather than specific, and concrete. Most of us can guess at what an open-air market is, but what exactly makes one "rustic"? What does a rustic market sell, compared to a regular one? What does it look like? What are the sellers like? Similarly, each of us has a different idea about what makes a smell "delicious". What's so delicious about the smells in the diner? What are the smells? Are those smells somehow different from the regular grease smells that go with diners, or is it just that Moira and Bob are hungry? And so on.

Overwhelming the reader with lots of non-specific information is not the same thing as writing vivid, descriptive prose. A lack of specific detail doesn't just force the reader to fill in the gaps, but assumes that the reader's knowledge and attitudes mirror the writer's precisely-- that everyone will draw the same conclusions, laughing or crying as the writer laughs or cries, sighing with pleasure or cringing in revulsion when the writer does. As Ursula Le Guin remarks in Steering the Craft (and a point with which I wholly agree), that's a very childish assumption to make, not to mention a lazy way to write. It's like painting a canvas a uniform blue, then claiming it's meant to be the Pacific Ocean. Sure, the Pacific Ocean's probably that shade of blue, somewhere, but where? How far down? Is it an empty place, or teeming with life? Is there danger there? Am I drowning? Swimming? And can I reasonably say that one portion of the picture represents the water, and another the sky? Because that would change the focus of the work.*

The main job of a scene is not to be evocative; it is to be present. To improve upon something I said in another post: think of the reader standing in the middle of a blank white room. You could hang a picture on the wall in front of him, but that wouldn't put him in the picture. You could, however, paint the picture all around him-- on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling. You might even say that

3. A scene is a three-dimensional space which the reader inhabits, via the narrator.

In the final version of my scene, then, I need to work at making the scene a real place and time-- and not just in terms of physical description. This is one of those points where it becomes important to consider the point of view from which I narrate. Currently, I'm using an anonymous narrator, and a very straightforward, reportorial style. That's really not the best perspective from which to tell the story; it would help to be able to slip inside one character or the other, preferably the one who seems most important in the scene.

That leaves Maggie out; she's more set dressing than anything. Bob's a possibility, but he might not be the best choice for a point of view character, either. Part of the conflict in the scene comes from the fact that Bob's callousness (or seeming callousness-- hard to say which) is unexpected; if we could see into his thoughts, we'd know it was coming. That would make him a difficult protagonist to relate to, and it would take some of the bite out of what he says. Bob's actions in this scene should come as much of a surprise to the reader as they do to Moira. Maybe, then, Moira's perspective is the best to choose-- and since the main event has to do with a decision she'll have to make, it's fair to say that it's really her scene anyway. So Moira it is.

St. Anne's still looked like a church on the inside, even though they'd gutted the place to build the cafe. It still had its vaulted wooden ceiling, and it looked like several of the old oak pews had been reclaimed and cut down to make seats. The party of middle-aged women crammed into the booth nearest the door cackled over their margaritas and nachos but sat ramrod straight, three a side, like good Catholics, against the high backs of their benches. Moira couldn't see whether the kneelers were still attached.

"Bob, I don't know," Moira said. "Can we get tapas instead?"

"Come on Moira." He raised his arm over his head and-- Moira winced-- snapped his fingers. Click, click, click-click. A waitress at the other end of the long diner counter looked up, nodded. "Two, please," Bob shouted, and the waitress held up a finger.

"This place is great," Bob said, grinning. He pointed to the line cook working at a fat, marble-topped table behind the counter, with his back to the room. "Look at that guy."

Moira felt certain the table must be the very altar she remembered. It was about the same size, and the same creamy white streaked through with grey; the veins shone silver, a little, under the halogen lights hanging from the ceiling. The cook slapped a whole, raw mackerel onto the marble and sliced its head off.

"Fuck," said Moira.

"Think the Lord accepted it?"

"Bob!"

The waitress led them to a booth near the doorway which used to lead to the vestry. The door had been bolted, and there was a sign on it that said No Admittance. Bob grinned at the sign. Moira stared at the menu. A cartoon lobster wearing a backward collar and a rosary stared back at her, its many legs spread wide and generously above the seafood dishes on offer. She didn't like the way it was looking at her.

"Maybe I'll just have a burger," Moira said.

"You've got to try the shrimp remoulade," said Bob. "It's the best thing going on the menu. Four stars in the Trib review."

"Bob, you know I can't eat shellfish any more."

"Yeah, I know it's fashionable to be allergic to all kinds of crap these days. Next week it'll be wheat. After that you'll be living on yoghurt shakes till you decide you're lactose intolerant. How about you lighten up?" Bob snatched at Moira's menu, but Moira didn't let go; they each gripped a corner, pulled. She couldn't stare him down.

"Oh, Bob, this is stupid. Let go."

Bob tugged the menu so hard that Moira had to lean forward. He hissed across the table. "It's a date, all right? It's a date. Push out the boat, eat the fucking shrimp. All right?"

He sagged, dropped the menu on the table between them. Moira stared at the lobster and said nothing. Nearby, a woman cleared her throat. Moira looked up.

"So, um, shrimp for both of you?" said the waitress.

"Yes," Moira said.

So now I've got all my elements in place: I have a purpose for the scene, a reason for the conflict, a three-dimensional space that's much more vivid than before, and a suggestion of what might follow. Even now there are additions and alterations I could make that would make the writing more lively, and more vivid-- and of course there's no reason that the scene has to end where it does. (Actually, it ends weakly; that's really not the strongest moment to cut away and I'm not sure the scene is finished.) But it mostly does the job it's supposed to, given the space it has, and I'm on my way to a better story.

Phew, that was long. Congratulations for getting this far. Please enjoy this picture of a penguin, taken on my trip to Boston last year.



Coming up: a post about close reading. Or maybe just pictures of my prize azaleas.

_____________

* It might be tempting to argue, here, that the answers to questions of meaning or intent are entirely up to the individual, because all art is a collaboration between artist and viewer. Fair point, but it does beg the question as to why, if the artist means to sit back and leave all the work up to his audience, he bothers to paint the picture at all. If an artist can't commit to the full scope of his own vision, surely viewers would be better served to go off and make their own art instead.

And here we've stumbled onto one of my favorite pet peeves: that idea that meaning in fiction is ultimately up to reader interpretation, while the writer's only job is to be pretty, witty, and clever, in order to make others "feel" and "think." Bullshit. You're the storyteller: so commit to your story in the fullest possible sense. It's your job to see, feel, and think, and to convey to the reader all you have seen, felt, and thought. Readers may draw their own conclusions, but that doesn't excuse you from the task yourself. Do not leave all the heavy lifting to your reader. No one will thank you for it.

12/4/08

Week six: All she wrote

Last night we held the last of the six workshops. Well, not the last forever workshop, as the group wants to keep meeting semi-regularly, so that they don't stop writing. This pleases me. It tells me I've done my job.

It's like shelter cats: you can't save all of them. But if you can do something for one of them, or two or three-- and you do it-- then you've given something back. If I can give something back, then I have a reason to keep doing what I do-- even if I'm never as successful in my own work as I might hope to become. For now, I've passed on a little of what I know, and helped someone else to feel more confident in their own ability. I'm content with that.


What tells

It's easy for a writer to get hung up on that old dictum to show, not tell; some writers will end up summarizing, or rushing through, much detail which would enrich a story for fear of telling too much. The trick is not so much to avoid lingering upon certain details or moments, but to make the details count; to be specific. You can pack a lot of information into a story that way, and the story will be richer for it.

Exercise: "Implication," Le Guin 132-133. There are two parts to this exercise: first, in a paragraph or two, describe a character you've been working with by describing in detail any place that character inhabits, or visits regularly: we should infer from the details you provide what sort of person that character is.

Next, foreshadow some event, or give us a glimpse of the nature of some past event, by describing the place where it will happen, or did happen. Focus on specific details, almost as though you were a camera. Do not describe the event itself: we should get a sense of it only from what the place feels like through your description.


How do I know when I'm done?

To answer this question we could spend a lot of time thinking about things like plot structure and conflict-- i.e., what is the main problem or obstacle, do events surrounding the problem come to a climax, and how are things resolved? This way of looking at a story is often accompanied by a little diagram:


That's one way of looking at it. But sometimes a story is more complex than a series of actions or events.

Step back for a moment and think about the story you've been working on over the last few weeks. Can you summarize, in a sentence or two, what the story is about?

It's all right if you can't, exactly. Sometimes a story's central focus isn't something immediately identifiable, and only becomes apparent as you write-- or when someone else points it out. But it's always there; the story is about something. So, too, does each story move along a narrative path: something happens, something changes. If you like the diagram, you could say that exposition is the underlying reason or reasons for the rising action; those reasons spark the action, which in turn causes the climax. The climax is the thing that happens, or the change.

Personally I find it easier to think in terms of focus and change. A story doesn't have to follow a rigid pattern like in the diagram above. It does, however, need a focus, and something needs to happen.

Part of your job, as you write, is to become aware of both the focus and the change, and to aim all the elements of your story at them. This may mean adding details, or removing them, as you write and rewrite. Which you do depends on how relevant each detail is to what the story's about, and where it's going. (Le Guin calls this process crowding and leaping.)

A story is told when you can say no more about it: whatever was meant to change has changed, and narrative path ends up in a different place than it began. A story is finished when you're satisfied with the way individual story elements bring the reader to that place. Figuring out whether or not the story's actually there can take a while. You may need feedback. It will rarely happen in a single draft.

Exercise: "A Terrible Thing To Do," Le Guin p. 147.

First, finish your first draft. Don't do this before.

When you come to the end of your first story draft, open up a new document and paste the story into it. Check the word count. Now reduce the word count by half. Do whatever you must to reach it.

You may find yourself having to cut out things you're in love with to reach the new word count, which is why we open up a new document to do it. It makes the process a bit less painful: you can always go back to the original. The point is to step back and really look at what you have on the page. Be honest with yourself: does that scene, that paragraph, that section of dialogue, that sentence, that word, really need to be there to move the story along its narrative path, or to maintain its focus?

Once you've done that, look a second time. What's missing, now, which really ought to be there? Is there really no more you can say about the story which would help it maintain its focus?

Your ongoing assignment:

  • Pick up a short story collection by an author you've never heard of. Read it. Report back with your impressions.
  • Push ahead with your short story. When you get stuck, try re-visiting some of the exercises in Le Guin. Take a scene you've written already and turn it on its head. Invent a new character. Throw two of your characters into a new situation and run with it. See where it takes you. Be open always to new possibilities.

11/20/08

Week five: In which Time fails to stretch, and monkeys wear Rolexes

I find myself down to three workshoppers, with one session to go. I'd hoped the others might come back. I don't think they will. So that's the paragraphing exercise right out. Never doing that again.

It kills me to lose people. As a teacher, you love working with those students of ample ability who cheerfully stick it out long enough to fly, because then you get to watch them fly; you hope those people discover something new in the process, and feel that you've challenged their intelligence and ability in a worthy fashion. But the people you really want to keep are those who come to you feeling uncertain about their skill, who feel like they're struggling, or even feel unconvinced, on some level, that writing is something worth doing. Not all of those students fly-- but when they do, however briefly, it's something to see.

Writers don't do enough for each other. We can be very selfish, and too quick to dismiss those would-be writers who show little immediate promise. More than anything, when I teach, I want students-- whether they aspire to write seriously or not-- go away feeling they've done something they didn't know they had in them to do. That's everything. I don't care how good they are; I don't care whether they go on to be great and productive authors. I don't care whether or not they ever come to love language or literature as much as I do. I just want them to find out how capable they really are-- to see that the task is not beyond them, and that it's not necessary to be a certain, special kind of person to appreciate art, or to make art.

Last night we talked about point of view, and spent far too long discussing the Flannery O'Connor story from last week-- then we ran out of time. The story is fascinating for the way in which it defies firm answers. Read it if you haven't.

Point of view, and the viewpoint character

The point of view you choose will-- like narrative voice-- often be a matter of what feels right at the time, but there are advantages to testing out other points of view. The first and limited third persons occur most commonly in modern fiction, and both can be limited in that they trap you-- and your reader-- in the mind of a single viewpoint character. That closeness can be a bonus, however, in terms of narrative intimacy. Likewise, while limited third person can allow shifts to other characters' perspectives, the shifts themselves can be tricky to navigate; an omniscient or an involved narrator can allow such shifts to happen a little more easily.

Ultimately, the point of view you choose depends not just upon what feels right, but which characters' perspectives are important to the story. Presenting your character from a different point of view can shed a different sort of light on that character; experimenting with different points of view can sometimes yield surprising results.

Exercise: Take a passage from the scene you wrote, and rewrite it using a different point of view-- choose one from those suggested in chapter seven of Le Guin (p. 91-3). How does the result differ from the previous version-- how does the story change? Did you learn anything about your character by looking at him or her through a different lens?

None of that is to say that it isn't possible to make shifts from one character's perspective to the next-- only that it needs to be done with a good deal of forethought. Ask yourself: whose perspective best sheds light on the action taking place? Does Character A see things the same way as Character B? Might the contrast in their perspectives be interesting?

Exercise: "Changing Voices," Le Guin p. 109-110. Try some quick shifts in limited third: narrate a short scene involving several people, in which something happens; move from one viewpoint character to another as necessary, or as is interesting.


Dialogue

Dialogue isn't just characters chatting: it's part of what drives a scene. What characters say can tell you much about who they are. More than that, the things they say can change the course of events in a story. It's important to make every word of dialogue count.

Exercise: "Telling it Slant," Le Guin p. 119-120. Write a page or two of pure dialogue-- a conversation between two characters. Something should be happening to them; their conversation should imply what's happening. Note that in order for the dialogue to seem like real conversation, you will need to prevent your characters form simply describing their actions to one another; find ways to indicate what's happening without literally describing the action.

Assignment for next time:

Read Grace Paley's "In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All", and Le Guin Chapters 9&10.

"Being the Stranger", Le Guin p. 122-23. Write a short narrative using a viewpoint character whom you feel is alien to you in some way-- it can be someone whom you dislike or disagree with-- but it's not necessary for the character to be unlikeable; it can just as easily be someone whose experience is simply different from your own. The scene should involve at least two characters, and something that happens between them, or to them.

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Head music: Big Strides - She Drinks Whiskey
via Last.fm

11/13/08

Week four: Like a song by Howard Jones

One of my workshoppers emailed me over the weekend with a panicked question about the "Chastity" assignment: I'm stuck, she told me. Can I use clauses and phrases that function as adverbs or adjectives?

...and as I recall, the same question came up when I did the exercise myself. I think technically it is cheating, if all we're doing is following the rules set by Le Guin. However, as I said to my workshopper: does what you've done instead work? If it does, don't worry about it. There is good reason for the exercise to make the demands it makes, but Ursula Le Guin is not going to show up on your doorstep and bop you on the head with a mallet for not following her directions to the letter.

The point of the exercise is not to avoid modifying nouns and verbs entirely, but to find ways around the vaguenesses which result from the overuse of adjectives and adverbs. It is always better to name a thing than to say what it was like: concrete, specific details are what you're after, here. Not an absence of description. For example, I could say:
Nora ran quickly down the steep hill,
because it says what I mean. But the difference between saying what I mean and narration is in the detail I give my reader. It's better if I say:
Nora ran full tilt down the hill, barely in control of her feet, nearly flying as gravity pulled her inexorably toward the base of slope,
because there's a much clearer sense of the speed and danger involved in Nora's run. My reader isn't looking at a two-dimensional picture of Nora running: my reader is inside the scene, feeling what Nora feels as she runs.

For further reference, pick up a Harry Potter book and look closely at any page: J.K. Rowling never met an adverb she didn't like. This is what you want to avoid.

My workshopper asked another good question: Do you ever feel tired of a story? Is that a sign to scrap it?

My answer to the first question is Yes: oh, dear god, yes. It's happening right now, has been happening ever since the second day of NaNoWriMo. However, that brings me to the second question, which I would answer with an emphatic No. Boredom is rarely a sign that one ought to abandon a story.

Boredom could be a sign of several things: that you need to step away for a day or two (but absolutely no longer than a week); that you've been working with the same few paragraphs, or on the same scene, for too long; that you're locked into a certain paragraph order, sentence order, or order of events and need to find some way to break out of it. But more often, boredom can be a sign that the story has become more like work and less like fun-- and that you're looking for excuses to stop working. Do not allow yourself to quit because you're bored. I speak from some experience when I tell you that listening to your boredom will keep you from finishing things: and the goal is to finish things. You don't publish what you don't finish, and you won't finish if you allow yourself to follow your boredom.

Trust me on this.

Keep going: even if you get fidgety, even if your eyelids droop. Keep going. Things can only get better. You know it's true, because Howard Jones sang it.


This week we talked about the narrative voice, and a little about character development.


The narrative voice

For our purposes, voice does not mean the written "authenticity" of a piece, or a writer's "style." Rather, it means the manner in which a story is told: the "voice" of the narrator. Normally, when we start writing a story we don't give a lot of conscious thought to how it's told, or to who's telling it; we use whatever perspective feels right, which is fine. But the manner of telling we choose is part of what shapes a story as a whole. My choice of perspective for telling a story-- a first person I, or a third person he, she, or they, in the past or present tense-- will alter its feeling, perhaps even its outcome. When my narrator's reasons for relating a story change, the whole story changes.

Verb tense and point of view have a lot to do with the viewpoint character-- that is, whose eyes we see through, whose story we follow, and how much we are permitted to see and hear in relation to that character. For this reason it's a good idea to ask yourself, as you write, just who is telling the story, and why. Your narrator may turn out to be your viewpoint character, or it might not. The point is not to assure that your narrator is assigned a firm identity, or a direct role in the story; think of it rather as a guide. How much the narrator sees, knows, and understands will affect the way a reader understands the story.

Exercise: "The Old Woman," Le Guin p. 76-77. Write a short scene, using very little dialogue, in which an old woman is doing something in the narrative "present" while at the same time reflecting upon something that happened to her a long time ago. Choose a person (first or third) and a tense (past or present) from which to write the scene and move back and forth between the two times. Make at least two of these time-shifts in the scene.

Next, rewrite the scene from the other person, and tense. How does your scene change? Do you learn anything new about the character, or your narrator, from the change?

Characterization

Characters are people. Let me say that again: Characters are people.

Even if your characters are fantastic in some way-- say you're writing about angels, or centaurs, or talking animals-- as far as your story is concerned, they're still sentient beings. They have inner lives. If a character's inner life isn't as real to you as the physical features you imagine for him, he won't be real to your readers. Stories are as much about as what goes on inside people as the external actions they take.

Fortunately for you, this means that half the job is done already: you know what being a person is like, and what having an inner life is like, because you are a person who does all the thinking, feeling, seeing, and experiencing that people do. All that material is, in one way or another, in your memory, and in your experience.

The job of characterization is not just to ask who, but why, and what, and how: Who is my character that she would do such a thing, or say such a thing? What kind of person does that make her? Why would such a person make that kind of decision, or take that kind of action? What might drive her to act or choose differently?

These are difficult questions, and it's not always possible to answer them fully. You still need to ask them of your characters.

Assignment: The Character Sketch, and the Screen Test

This week's assignment is twofold: you're going to introduce us to a viewpoint character you've been working with in your story, or in one of the previous exercises.

First, write a short character sketch, giving some information about that character's background. This can be a straightforward character description-- or, if you prefer, a narrative passage. Make it as detailed as possible.

Here are some questions to think about as you write: vital statistics are important, of course, but also consider some or all of the following-- even if they don't necessarily have anything to do with your story. You might even try "interviewing" your character on paper-- write the answers to each question down as your character might give them.
  • What does your character want? How far would they go to get what they want?
  • What makes your character angry? Or happy? What makes him or her cry? Can he or she cry?
  • What is your character's most vivid memory?
  • What sorts of colors does your character wear? What attracts them to those colors?
  • Who does your character hate? Who does your character love? Under what circumstances did that love or hate take root?
  • What does your character do-- does he or she work, hang around in the unemployment line, something else?
  • How does he or she eat? Sleep? Drive? Talk on the phone? Leave voice messages? Behave at parties?
  • What does your character care most about?
  • What was he or she doing up to the point that the events of your story unfold?
  • How easily startled is your character? How easily thrown off balance by unexpected turns of events? How does he or she react under stress?
  • What sorts of bad habits does your character have-- nail biting? Paint peeling? Nose picking?
...and so forth. You may draw some of these details from yourself, or some from people you know, or have met. The point is to gather as much detail as you can, to give yourself a picture of a whole person-- then bear it in mind as you thrust your character into the scene you'll write next:

Place that character in a scene: give the character a "screen test." Choose one of the POV options in exercise 7 of Le Guin (p.91-3), and then give your character something to do, and something to observe while he does it. It can be a simple, mundane action, or something complex and dramatic-- that's up to you. Don't be afraid to let that character wander around a bit, either physically, or in and out of different trains of thought. See what he does, or what you can plausibly make him do given the POV you've chosen. Find out who he is.

You may find yourself unable to answer all of the questions from the first part of the assignment until you write the scene; likewise, you may discover new traits as you write, or find better answers than the ones you initially came up with. Both are okay. Just give yourself as much detail as you think you need to move forward-- then allow the character some room to do things on his or her own.

Reading assignment for next time: Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and Le Guin Chapters 7&8.

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Head music: Joe Jackson - Breaking Us in Two
via FoxyTunes

11/6/08

Week three: the terrible sound of silence

Here's the big secret about teaching writing: you don't have to be a monumentally successful writer to do it. You don't have to have a significant amount of publication experience behind you; you don't have to have been writing for twenty years. Both certainly help, of course, as does having a writing degree, if only because all three look good on a CV. But teaching is fundamentally about being able to explain stuff. If you know your subject, and you can explain that subject in a way that gets other people on the road to to knowing it just as well, you can teach.

When you enter a graduate writing program on a teaching assistantship, you begin teaching workshops without a whole lot of guidance: sometimes they'll walk you through the material first, and give you helpful tips about lecturing and fielding discussions, but it's essentially a baptism by fire. You're on your own. It's up to you to figure out what it is you know, and how to transfer that knowledge to your students. A writer who teaches is forced to figure out very quickly what it is that she believes about what she does-- why it works the way it does, how it can work better, why it's worth trying to make it better.

That's is the part I'm good at. I know how to think about writing. What I haven't learned to do so well is lead a group. Up to now I liked to think that I knew how to get people to write, that I was good at that, too. Now I'm not so sure.

Perhaps it was foolish to suggest to my current workshoppers that we operate on the honor system as far as weekly assignments go. The workshop is voluntary; I thought it might be better, as We are Not in School, to send my writers away with an assignment each week, but not insist that they hand in typewritten copies of their work. Please do the assignments, I said, and then bring in your results to share with the group if you want to. That way, those workshoppers wanting feedback could have it, but none of them would be under any obligation to expose themselves to critique earlier than they felt comfortable.

This was a mistake, and I worry that in making it, I've let my workshoppers down to a very serious degree. An enforced deadline is like a buoy at sea: when you see it, you'll swim for it. My workshoppers, on the other hand, have been left treading water. Because the short-term requirements aren't enforced the way they might be in a college class, my writers aren't writing much outside sessions. This is a problem: because they're not writing or practicing the techniques we cover in sessions on their own, they're not seeing much point in either the assignments or the session activities. You can't have one without the other in a workshop setting: you do the in-class stuff, and then you have to go away and practice. Then you come back and talk about how practice went, and you get feedback on your practice. You go away with a sense of having learned something; you apply what you learned the next time you practice. And so on. That's how it works.

Or how it ought to work, at least. As of next week, we're going to start turning things in. If over the next three weeks my workshoppers start writing, I'll know I've done something right.

This week we backed off with the sentence-level torment, and talked about details.


Points of focus

When setting a scene, it's important to remember that the quantity of detail you include isn't enough on its own to make the story powerful. Much of a story's power rests in the selection of the right details-- details that will give the reader just enough information to imagine clearly what you're describing, then make his or her own imaginative leap into a given setting, with those characters, in whatever situation they find themselves. The same holds true for the decisions you make about which events to dramatize in the course of a narrative. Details and events must not simply be present in a piece of fiction: they must seem inevitable.

But how to choose?
  • Focus on a point of action, or decision, on the part of a character. Choose a moment in which something happens.
  • Pick up in the middle of things. Pick up dialogue in the midst of a conversation; begin at a point at which several events have already taken place.
  • Focus in on something small, which is relevant to the action. A description of an object, a sound, or some other part of the setting.
Exercise: Sensory Detail

Think about the first house you can remember living in: walk through it in your mind, even sketch a quick floor plan of the house if that helps. Set a scene in the room you remember most vividly, involving a character-- any character, someone you know or someone you invent, so long as it's not you yourself-- doing something in the room, and what they see as they go about whatever action you make them do. Any action is fine: they can be waiting for someone else to arrive, they can be dusting, they can be snooping through drawers. Whatever action you choose, include as much sensory detail as possible. Are there smells? Textures? Tastes? What's the light like? What does it feel like for that character, in that room?


Making mind-movies

To determine which events and details to focus on, it can be helpful to think of your story cinematically-- each scene, each moment, as though you were watching it on a screen. If your story was a movie, what would the camera focus on, and in what order? What would appear in close-up, at what point in the scene? What sorts of sound-effects might there be, or background sounds? How would it be lit? What kind of music would you set the scene against, if it were possible to accompany it with a soundtrack?

Exercise: Sequencing Details

Imagine some household "disaster": something breaking, something leaking, a strange noise, some sort of mess. Picture it in your mind: what happens first, and then what, and then what? Describe the event in as much specific detail as you can, exactly as it occurs. (It might be interesting to come back to what you've written in a week or so, and try writing it from different perspectives: try writing it from a first-person or third-person perspective, and see if the scene turns out differently.)

Assignment:
  • Read Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon,"* and Le Guin Chapters 5&6.
  • Le Guin exercise 5, p. 62-63, "Chastity": Write a page or so of narrative description which does not use adjectives or adverbs, and does not include dialogue. You may wish to use this exercise to write the next page of the story that you're working on.
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*I haven't been able to find an online version of this story, but it appears in Calvino's short story collection Cosmicomics, published in 1965. The version I have appears in Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy's Creating Fiction: A Writer's Companion, published by Harcourt Brace.