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


spacedlaw said...

Hey, I'm with J.K. on the adverb. I even make my own...

Jess said...

Gotta put my foot down on that issue: don't side with Jo on adverbs. You are a far better writer than that!

EmilyLady said...

As much as I love "Harry Potter", I can't help but cluck like a hungry chicken at her little adverb problem ...


Jess said...

Hi, Emily! It's nice to see you here-- thanks for dropping by. :)

I did find the adverb issue rather distracting in the reading. She misses many opportunities for vividness and liveliness of narration by falling back on adverbs, rather than finding some other means of expression.