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 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.


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


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?


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.


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


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.)

  • 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.

*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.