A photo break

Well, that about wraps it up for the Le Guin text-- though having worked through it, I think Steering the Craft is one of those books a writer can easily revisit regardless of ability or experience. It's not a manual of one-time, one-lesson exercises, where if you've done them, you've done them, and a return wouldn't pose much challenge. Steering the Craft wears well. You need it the way you need a cheese grater, or a can opener, or a big wooden spoon-- there'll always be a use for it.

Here's another exercise I've been thinking about, which the instructor of a poetry workshop I took earlier this summer used during the first session:

You take two nouns, and two verbs. Ideally you draw these blind out of a hat, though picking them randomly out of a dictionary will do. You write down all four words, consider them for a bit, and then pair them off in different combinations-- write them down, or connect them by drawing a line between them.

Once you've done that, try writing a sentence, using your favorite combinations; try to use all four words in your sentence. Then rewrite the sentence: elevate the language, be poetic, be gorgeous, be rhythmic.

If you're writing poetry, the final step of the exercise is to then write a short poem, eight to twelve lines, using the rewritten sentence; I'm thinking the exercise might work equally well for narrative prose. In that case, the final step would connect up with the very first Le Guin exercise, where you write a paragraph that's meant to be read aloud: make a gorgeous sentence, then follow the sentence into another, and then another, for a paragraph or so. Follow the line: wherever the thought takes you, or the language rhythm takes you.

I've been considering this exercise specifically in terms of a collaborative art project I've been drawn into (read: thrust myself upon, like some enraged squirrel after an unattended bagel), but I've been using pictures instead of nouns and verbs; the theme is night garden.

I like to riff off photos when writing poems, especially those I go out with my own camera to find. Poems are all about ideas married to images, anyway, which I think is why the trick works so well; it's how I came up with the poem about Mothra, and another one about watching birds*. Paintings work, too-- one of the last poems I wrote for the workshop was a response to John Singer-Sargent's Venetian Interior. (The woman at the center of the painting is fascinating, isn't she? What's she saying?)

I've had a lot of different, vagueish ideas and images flitting around in my head about night garden, but nothing really came together till I started taking pictures and thinking about them. I've been really intrigued by tree bark lately, thanks to Nathalie's wicked 'fluence-- particularly sycamore bark. There are a lot of huge, old sycamores around here, which have been shedding their stiff, paperlike bark for months and look sort of naked and vulnerable underneath.

I like the busy ant on this one, carrying off his little piece of bark like some ant-nest contractor. I had to resist the temptation to photoshop a little hard hat on him. I don't have time to put hats on ants. Bees and spiders, and even crabs, are one thing, but I won't do ants. That way madness lies.

There are also a lot of big, and very old, silver maples lining the streets around here. It's hard to capture in a photo what it's actually like to stand under the tree below: how the leaves rustle, and the way the sunlight filters through, and the hush that falls-- there's a quiet space under the tree, even with cars driving up and down the hill, not two feet away. If you ever want to feel like an especially small hobbit, stand right under one of these guys and look straight up.

If you've never met a silver maple, the leaves really are silvery underneath-- though it's not a shiny silver. This photo probably shows it best of all those I took yesterday, as well as what the leaves do to the light when you're standing under them. At least, I'm pretty sure this is another silver maple-- this is from a different tree, and as we have oaks around here, too, I'm bound to confuse them. In most cases I'm pretty certain that the silvery underside is the giveaway.

I also found a lucky nickel while I was out. I'd like to say that I only took a picture, and left the coin to benefit someone else's luck. But I'm not that nice. I pocketed it.

Lots more from my neighborhood photo safari here.


*Which I can't re-post, unfortunately, as I'm still waiting to hear back from Coal Hill Review about it.


The bit that hurts

My hub-man tells me I'm an editor at heart, and he is not wrong. I love revision. It's the easy bit, or so I tells myself. I don't have to make anything new happen, I don't have to fill any more space; instead I get to go back and mess with sentence rhythms (love that crazy rhythm), clear up anything that wants clarity, and cut anything that just doesn't work. I'm a little too good at it, actually. I've killed a lot of stories by going back and revising them before I make it to The End-- chiseling away at this detail, that sentence, whenever I get stuck, as opposed to pressing on ahead.

I've spent hours doing that sort of thing, and called it writing. You'd think the ball might have dropped for me at some point, that writing isn't like sculpting, or painting, or metalwork or knitting or anything else. You aren't supposed to chisel. Writers don't chip, pare, or hone. They don't craft, they don't forge. There's no dabbing or smudging involved, or any making of brushstrokes-- and any writer who says that's what she's doing is kidding herself. A writer has paper, and a pen-- or a computer screen and a keyboard. Those are the writer's tools, and they're for putting one word in front of the next, till what needs to be told or said is told, and said. That's it, bub. That's all.

Revision doesn't really mean making niggling changes, corrections, polishings till a piece satisfies some pre-established standard of perfection. It's about going back into the work and taking a deeper plunge: you look more deeply, you try new things, you look for possibilities and places to add richness and interest. That's more fun than niggling, but it takes some doing-- and it's one of those walls I always seem to run up against in workshops. A lot students really seem to resent the idea of having to go back to something and write again, or write more. After one draft they might say, Why should I rewrite this when I think it's perfect? And my best friend likes it? And I don't have time? And I'm only writing for myself anyway?

I suppose it's true that if you're really only writing for one reader, and that single reader's personal gratification is all that matters, then there really is no work left. You're done. In that situation I don't really know how to answer the question of why it's worth it to keep going-- to go as far and as deeply as you can, till you find where the story you're trying to tell really lives, and what truths may be found there. For me, that's where the real satisfaction comes from; it's not simply the dreaming, or the gorgeous rhythms, or the opportunity to Get Published or have someone pat me on the back. It's knowing that I've looked as far and as deeply as I could, and come back having said something true.

So anyway, I've recently finished reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and now she and Ursula K. Le Guin are having an argument in my head. Well, not really. It's more that they're arguing the same thing, at the same time, and I'm arguing with them both because I'm being asked to edit in a way I've never edited before. Goldberg calls it being a Samurai:

So when you're in Samurai space, you have to be tough. Not mean, but with the toughness of truth. And the truth is that the truth can never ultimately hurt. It makes the world clearer and the poems* much more brilliant...You can have the courage to be honest. "There's some good stuff in here, but it doesn't make it." And go on.**

So the idea is not to perfect each paragraph you have, but to go back and start slicing through what's there with your katana-- with clarity, without attachment or emotion, because you must cut through to the truth. You look for places where the writing is most alive, and cut anything that isn't. Sometimes you even find yourself forced to make careful incisions in order to remove stuff that, while alive and positively clanging with truth, doesn't really belong in the story you're trying to tell. You're allowed to save those bits for another time.

Likewise, in chapter ten of Steering the Craft, our buddy Ursula asks us to to get out the machete and make with the hack-'n'-slash.

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote, perhaps Exercise Seven, Part Four-- and one that went over 400 words-- and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn't mean cutting a little bit here and there, snipping and pruning-- though that's part of it. It means counting the words and reducing them to half that many, while keeping the narrative clear and the sensory impact vivid, not replacing specifics with generalities, and never using the word "somehow."

If there's dialogue in your piece, cut any long speech or conversation in half just as implacably. (Le Guin, 147)***

The great thing about this exercise is that it fools the writer into Being Implacable by setting an arbitrary goal: check the original word count, divide that number by two, and meet the new word count. You keep checking the new word count as you work: 1000 words to go, 700, now 300, now 80. For this exercise I actually pulled a chapter, at random, out of my graduate thesis, a draft of a novel I've pretty much ignored ever since I got that piece of paper that says MFA on it. I found myself whacking out whole paragraphs I thought I loved, and needed, because there was a number to reach. You might think that kind of treatment would ruin a piece, but it didn't; at some point I'd cleared enough of the extraneous stuff-- and some of that was really, really good, like Nobel material, honestly-- to see what it was that the story really needed to be whole.

The first thing I realized-- which I'd suspected for some time but never admitted to myself-- was that it never really belonged in the novel in the first place. The second thing was that my viewpoint character had to do a Terrible Thing at the end, rather than simply wander off with an "Oh well" and a dramatic Lump-in-the-Throat. I mention these realizations because I thought both were written in stone: it had to be in the novel because I'd written it, and my heroine had to wander away crying because that was how it came out of me initially. I could only see the story one way-- till I set myself the task of cutting it down to half its original length.

I lost myself a chapter, of course, and I didn't quite make the word count I was shooting for (it was about 150 words off in the end, thanks to writing a new ending), but I got a story-- one that worked. It was an odd feeling, to know I had something completely itself on my hands. I sent it off to a magazine yesterday, quicky-like, before I could chicken out. That was nice. It's worth it to keep going.

The whole thing is too long to post here-- and I've submitted it now, so I really can't. But I'll include two versions of the following passage, just as an illustration of the actual severity of cutting we're talking about-- never mind the content, take a look at the difference in length. The scene is actually a flashback to a conversation which took place prior to the main narrative, during the previous evening; the viewpoint character is driving out to see her mother as she remembers the conversation. Part of the revision I did not only involved cutting the scene down, but moving it to the beginning of the piece, where it made a little more sense.†

Original Version

They'd all had a fight on the phone last night, she and her sister, about Uncle Eugene. It was stupid, an accident, something that shouldn't have come up at all, especially not now, when her mother was dying. Her mother got caught up in it, too, even though she barely understood what was going on; she shouldn't have been involved at all, but of course there she was, right in the middle of it, trying to absorb the barbs that her daughters flung back and forth, down the receiver, taking it all very personally. Marcia had tried to prepare Josie, God knows, before their mother even got on the line. She'd sounded worried, whispering into the receiver; her voice was muffled, and she exhaled directly down the line, which made Josie think her sister must have a hand cupped around the mouthpiece.

"Oh, Josie, it's not looking good. She's getting worse-- she's not very coherent any more, and she can't get out of bed. You'd better come out here."

"I'll be there tomorrow morning. But--"

And Josie's mother was suddenly on the other end, ranting, slipping in and out of lucidity as always but determined, insistent that they both hear what she had to say. Josie couldn't make sense of any of it.

"I'm perfectly coherent. Your Aunt Blanche pisses me off, that's all. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom." Josie was already rubbing her forehead with one hand.


"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marcia began, but Josie cut her off.

"I noticed that. What's wrong, Mom?"

"Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. Embarrassing me like that when I'm practically dead. Josie's mother choked back a sob, and Josie rolled her eyes before she could stop herself-- a dirty, underhanded thing to do at a time like this, she scolded herself.

"You're not practically dead, Mom."

"What do you know about it? You're not here."

Josie rubbed her forehead a little harder. "I don't understand, Mom."

Marcia broke in, quietly; it was that same wavering, barely patient tone Josie could remember her mother using. "Aunt Blanche and Red were here this afternoon, and they were talking about Uncle Eugene's funeral.

Josie started to say something, stopped. She drummed the kitchen table with her fingers. She didn't know about Uncle Eugene's funeral, hadn't seen Uncle Eugene in years. "About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at his wake," Marcia sighed. "When that piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and accidentally hit Red in the chest. They were laughing about it. And now Mom's mad."

"Don't you start," Josie's mother said. "We don't need to hear it all again."

"They just thought it was funny. Mom's angry because they laughed."

"And why shouldn't I be?" their mother rasped. "She's always trying to make me look bad any more, whenever that Red's around. Laughing at me like that. Even when she told me she'd never say anything about it again, and then she and that damn girl--"

"Auntie Red and Aunt B. were laughing at the story," Marcia said. "Not at you."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, staring at her reflection in the window, while they argued on the other end of the line. She couldn't even imagine what it would look like, how such a thing could be possible-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. If she thought hard about it, Josie could see Marcia standing in their mother's kitchen, taking magnets off the fridge while she talked-- putting them on and taking them off, on and off, on and off, pausing to tap the freezer door with her fingernails. Marcia certainly had way of dumping things on Josie; not necessarily out of neediness, or because Josie was the eldest, but because she could never keep her mouth shut. Marcia couldn't stop talking, constantly, about everything. Josie got the feeling that she'd never been jaded. Every new experience seemed to retain a certain intensity, a special significance, a kind of rawness for her; there was always something so new and important and right then that she couldn't help telling everyone she knew about it, as though learning a thing on her own, keeping it for herself, would be too much. It was catching. Josie remembered the look on Marcia's face when she slipped and fell one winter on the cinder path that ran behind the house; she didn't cry, but sat there in the middle of the path frowning at the gash on her knee, poking a reddening handful of snow gingerly at it to clean out the cinders. Boy, look at that big hunk of skin, Marcia said, pointing to it; she could just as easily have been examining a dissected grasshopper. Huh. Look how thick it is. Who knew skin was so thick? Ow. Look, there's still more under that. If I lift it up. Ow, ow. Eesh, that hurts. It's spongy, did you see? There's a bruise, too. Ow. Josie had squatted close and peered at the rounded flap of skin that protruded slightly from Marcia's kneecap, watched blood seep up around it and dribble around the side of her leg. Marcia swabbed the area with her snowball, and together they watched the wound seep and dribble all over again. It was as though they'd just discovered their own hands for the first time.

When Josie finally spoke, her voice was quiet, papery; it surprised her. "Uncle Eugene died?" she said.

There was a brief pause. "Yes?" Marcia said.


The pause was longer this time. Josie could picture her sister pushing her hand through the hair on top of her head, nibbling the edge of her pinky nail, in the silence.

"What do you mean, when?" her mother snapped. "You were there."

"No," Josie said.

"Two years ago?" said Marcia.

Josie lowered the phone, shook her head, lifted the phone to her ear again. "Well, this is news to me. No one told me this."

"Aunt B. told everybody," said Marcia. "We thought Aunt B. took care of everything."

"You were there," Josie's mother insisted.

"Obviously I wasn't there. You sure as hell never said anything to me."

Her mother inhaled, paused, inhaled. "Don't you yell at me."

"I'm not yelling. I'm not even talking to you, Mom." Josie heard her mother choke back another sob, but ignored it. "Why didn't anyone say anything?"

"Come on, don't take it out on Mom," Marcia said. "I don't know. I never thought about it. We probably thought you couldn't make it, what with all the snow you guys get. I never heard from you. I would have heard from you if you were coming."

"You would have heard from me either way," Josie snapped.

"Well, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"You're sorry? That's it? You don't bother to tell me for two years and now all you can say is 'Oops, sorry'?"

"How can you yell at me like that?" Josie's mother sputtered. "How can you say things like that when I'm like this?"

"I haven't yelled at anyone," said Josie.

"Look, I told you that we didn't know Aunt B. didn't tell you," Marcia said. "We thought she did. We never asked."

"Jesus, Mar, it's only one state away. Why wouldn't I come? I'm coming now, aren't I?"

"Well, you usually can't."

"Well, thank you very much," Josie said, and hung up on the both of them.


They all had a fight on the phone the night before: Josie, her sister, and their eighty-year-old mother, who was dying. It was stupid, an accident, and Josie's mother got caught up in it even though she barely understood what was happening. She sobbed down the line at Josie. "Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom."

"Embarrassing me like that when I'm nearly dead!"

"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marion said. "She and Red were here this afternoon, and they were laughing about Uncle Eugie's funeral."

"Hang on. About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at the wake," Marion sighed. "You remember. That piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and hit Red in the chest."

"We don't need to hear it again!"

"Oh, Mom, they were laughing at the story. Not at you."

"She's always trying to make me look bad when Red's around."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, her mouth hanging a little open, while they argued; a vague reflection which might have been hers shifted in the window opposite. She hadn't seen Uncle Eugie in years. She didn't know about the wake; she hadn't been to a funeral. When Josie finally spoke, her voice sounded papery. It surprised her. "Uncle Eugie died?"

"Yes?" Marion said, as though Josie had been stupid to forget.

Now Josie felt lost, though she'd only been driving for an hour, and it was impossible to lose her way just following I-70 to the state line. She could still hear her mother wailing: How could you forget? It's been two years. You were there. You were. She drove slowly-- the speedometer needle sat steady at fifty-five, it felt like standing still-- and she squinted through the glare of sunlight splaying on the windshield. The defogger seemed to have given up for good. As she flipped the defroster control on, then off, the fan whined, grinding against its gears, and fell silent. Josie smeared a clear patch into the steamy windshield with her hand and hunched to look through it at the road. It was too much: her mother dying, Uncle Eugie dead, a piece of flying broccoli that everyone witnessed but her. She couldn't even begin to imagine what it had looked like-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. Where had everyone been sitting? How far did the broccoli go before it hit Red? How hard? Did they laugh about it then? What was so funny? Josie wished she knew. It felt like they'd all pushed her into another room, then shut the door.

The first version was written at the end of 2000, or the beginning of 2001. I don't remember which. I'm a little startled by all the unnecessary dialogue tags, redundancies, overexplanations, and needless description. Copious use of adverbs and adjectives, too. And they gave me the degree anyway? How on earth did I get away with it?


*Goldberg often references poetry writing rather than prose in Writing Down the Bones because she is a poet first, but the concept applies equally to prose.

** Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986, 2005. p. 170.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 147.

†It was way too long for a flashback-- real flashes of memory take only seconds, and in narrative they really can't sustain themselves for much longer than that without becoming the narrative, and that can quickly become tiresome. This is why everyone skips that Council of Elrond chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring.


Fearing the albatross

My fellow workshoppers and I-- back when I was taking graduate writing workshops-- spent a lot of time telling each other what not to write, often without really meaning to. I remember one friend whose big beef was cliché. She was an extremely gifted writer and a sensitive, intelligent reader-- one of the people I enjoyed working with most, and to whom I'd go first when I needed advice. But clichéd language bothered her; it worried her to the point that she'd mark not only the real clichés she found in a piece, but any combination of words which seemed at all familiar. I still have drafts of stories of mine with cliché scrawled down the margins, almost every other line, in her friendly, sprawling script. Whenever I revised, I would dutifully remove the passages she'd marked. I knew I could trust her judgement.

Those revisions, more often than not, really would result in cleaner prose, or more vivid imagery, or clearer narration. It took me a long time, though, to understand that I didn't have to feel ashamed whenever I caught myself using some phrase or image which seemed a cliché. It took me a longer time to understand that familiar images and phrases, and even certain clichés, aren't always a bad thing-- so long as you realize what it is that makes them clichés in the first place. Even now, I still haven't quite got my head around the fact that every cliché, at some point in the past, seemed a fresh insight to those who first encountered it: to them it would have been something startling, bold, and new. A cliché becomes a cliché through overuse-- and oversimplification, perhaps, as it's used and then used again. Like a game of telephone, the original message degrades; things get lost in translation. That doesn't mean the original idea no longer has any worth, or that we shouldn't revisit the idea when we write.

Sometimes writers fear to write certain kinds of stories because they don't want to risk Being Hokey. I think it's one reason so many academics, and writers who have been through MFA programs, feel inclined to shun fantasy and science fiction-- or at most approach it warily, like some strangely compelling insect, and prod at it with a long stick. It's where terms like "magical realism" come from; they're ideas which appear to explain why on earth any self-respecting writer would venture down some odd imaginative path that others might not. I'm reminded of one professor of mine, who taught a seminar on satire. She'd studied Pope and Swift for years, she told us, but just couldn't understand what satire was, or why it worked. How could great literature be so silly, and still be great? Can you really have a character wee all over a miniature village to save the tiny people who live there from a fire? Can you have tiny people? Can you really do that-- and still be writing literature? For adults? How?

Sometimes the joke is a deep one, and worth probing. And sometimes it's funny because it tickles. That's an important idea for a writer to remember-- and can be equally difficult to accept. We fear to Be Hokey, to make jokes in poor taste, to tell stories about things that can't possibly be-- and sometimes we're right to listen to the voice that would reign us in. But sometimes that voice is more about ego than with writing or "crafting" stories thoughtfully. Sometimes there's truth to be found in a Hokey, if you can shine the right sort of light on it.

Chapter nine of
Steering the Craft offers an optional exercise called "The Expository Lump"; it's essentially an exercise in working extraneous-yet-necessary background information into a narrative. Here, Le Guin provides a couple of alternatives: to write a narrative around a specific fantasy scenario she provides, or to write a scene which involves some complicated, detailed activity the writer knows how to do (say knitting a sweater, or baking a cake, something like that).

I chose the fantasy option, because it scared me more. You may have gathered by now that while I certainly enjoy reading fantasy, writing it really isn't my bag.

Option One: The Fantastic Lump

Study this piece of false history and invented information till you're quite familiar with it. Then use it as the foundation of a story or scene. As you write the scene, "compost" the information, break it up, spread it out, slip it into conversation or action-narration or anywhere you can make it go so it doesn't feel Lumpy. Tell it by implication, by passing reference, by hint, by any means you like. Tell it so that the reader doesn't realize they're learning anything. Include enough of it that the reader can fully understand the situation the queen is in. This will take, I think, two or three pages, possibly more. (Le Guin 134-5)

The kingdom of Harath has not had a ruler for twenty years, since young King Pell disappeared in a battle on the border of the kingdom with the Ennedi, who are magicians. (The people of Harath have never practiced magic, as their religion declares it to be against the will of the Nine Goddesses.) What became of the king is not known. He left no known heir. (Harath used to be ruled by queens, but since Pell's grandfather's time, men have ruled and women are not permitted to.) Succession to Pell's throne was disputed by various members of the royal line and by a powerful minister, Jussa, who declared himself the Queen's Guardian. Battles between these factions have left the kingdom impoverished and demoralized.

At the time of our story, the Ennedi are again threatening to invade on the eastern border. Jussa is keeping the queen, a woman of forty, imprisoned in a remote tower under the pretext of keeping her safe. In fact he is afraid of her, and alarmed by rumors of a mysterious person who managed to visit her secretly while she was in the palace. This person might be the leader of a rebel faction who is said to be the Queen's illegitimate child, or it might be King Pell, or it might be an Ennedi magician, or.... (135)*

When Areth Met the Albatross for the Last Time

"But what is it you want?" asked the albatross, shifting to one side of the sill. "More than anything?"

It took Areth a moment to answer him. She sat with her mouth hanging open, and stared at the bird. He preened idly at a wing, then stared unsteadily back, bobbing his head a little this way, then that, never sitting quite still, and frowning in an odd way-- if indeed an albatross could frown.

"Well-- I. I. What sort of question is that?" she said.

"An important one. They used to ask queens what they wanted." The great bird hopped beside her onto the window seat, and cocked his head. "They used to give it to them."

It was uncomfortable, sitting that near the bird; Areth could smell warmth, and seawater, and fish. She leaned out over the sill and looked down. It was impossible to make out the bottom of the tower in the dark. "They used to let queens do magic, too," she said, "but they were wrong, and it was a long time ago. I don't want anything from anyone." She peeled a long flake of soggy, mouldering paint from the window frame and turned it over in her fingers, holding it up to the light-- it was drab white on one side, damp black on the other, with little slivers of wood sticking to it. The thing curled in on itself as it dried. "Mind you," she said, and smiled a little, "I'd like to get out of this tower."

"More than anything else?"

"For heaven's sake," said the queen. "How should I know what I 'want more than anything'? How do you want anything at all? Yes, all right, I'd like lots of things. Who doesn't? Getting out of the tower would be high on my list. I'd like to walk in the gardens again. I'd like to find Pell. He can't be dead. I won't believe it." She twisted the strip of paint round her fingertip, first one way, then the other, till it split. "But it's not about what I want, or what anyone wants. Some things happen, others don't. Sometimes you're pleased when they happen or don't happen, other times you're not. That's all."

"Would you have him come back?"

"Of course I would! He's my husband. Why wouldn't I want him back?"

"And what would you do then?"

"Tell him to get rid of that Jussa, for a start. 'Queen's Protector' my-missing-foot," she grumbled. The bird clacked its beak; it wobbled its head. If Areth hadn't known better, she'd have sworn the albatross was laughing. "You wouldn't think it was so funny if you'd lost your foot," she said.

"Can't shackle the leg that hasn't got one," said the bird. He bobbed his head toward the open window, at the horizon. "Here they come."

Areth squinted at the little lights that began to appear, one after another, far across the harbor, out in the open sea. They grew, skipping and dancing toward them on the waves. At that speed, the Ennedi would be upon them within the hour. She hoped they wouldn't use firebombs. They'd be sure to hit the tower first.

"Do you think Pell's with them?" she whispered.

"Hard to say," said the albatross, and nibbled at a stray feather with his beak. "I'm afraid this is where I'll have to leave you." He hopped onto the sill, flapping his wings a bit to feel the wind.

"No, don't." Areth put out a hand to grasp the bird by the tail. His feathers felt like silk, not like real feathers at all; the bird shifted a little to free himself. He twisted his head and fixed her with one big, beady, frowning eye.

"There isn't anything I can do for you now," he said. "But there's something you might. If you want it badly enough."

"You're cruel, that's what." Areth spat at the bird in spite of the lump in her throat. "You're an insult to albatrosses," she blurted. "Jussa thinks you're a man."

"Well. Everyone knows that birds can't talk," said the albatross. "Now can they?" He opened his wings and dropped off the sill. In a moment she saw him rise again, climbing into the sky, soaring out over the harbor like a shadow; Areth wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to leap over the windowsill herself, fling herself into the air and follow him, fast as she could, into the dark.

For some reason I had a hard time narrating that sequence in a way that satisfied me-- i.e., with what seemed to me enough sensory description, not to mention that meandering interior narration of the sort I like to read in other stories. I have trouble punctuating dialogue sequences with detail; I often end up with talking heads. It's a tricky thing to get right. Of course, I'm pickier with my own stuff than with the stories other people write.

Next: slice, chop, whackity-whack.


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 134-35.


Catching up

It's taken me a while to get through the exercises in Chapter 9 of Steering the Craft, which all have to do with the different ways dialogue and narration reveal information in a story-- about a character, about something that happened in the past, about something that's to come-- anything the reader needs to know or which the story itself needs in order to be lively, and rich. The trick isn't so much in describing or telling as much as you can as it is to figure out which details are the right ones-- the ones which carry the most weight, which matter.

I think my favorite of the four exercises which follow is the first (though the others are enlightening in their own way), mainly because I found it the easiest thus far. I like it when writing's easy, and to me writing dialogue seems easier than writing anything else. I like imagining snappy banter, putting words in people's mouths-- especially when they're pretend people. Then they can't complain.

That's the danger with an easy exercise, especially a dialogue exercise: a writer might not feel inclined to really think about what the dialogue does, i.e., whether it furthers the story, or reveals anything about the characters. It can tempt a writer to show off. It's a very simple matter to put words into characters' mouths, to make them sound witty or clever or erudite. Treating dialogue that way, though, merely turns characters into mouthpieces by which an author can exhibit his or her own wit, cleverness, or erudition. Characters need to exist, and converse, separately from the author; their dialogue is never just prattle or jokes.

It's important to note, therefore (as Le Guin does) that this exercise isn't really a good way to try to write a story. Dialogue on its own only makes up part of a story, never the whole; while an imaginary conversation can certainly open up narrative possibilities, the results this activity, taken on their own, will be unlikely to sustain themselves in a satisfying way. So the task here is not simply to write a clever exchange. Rather, it's to see how much you can reveal about the characters and the situation through what they say to each other.

Part One: A&B

The goal of this exercise is to tell a story and present two characters through dialogue alone.

Write a page or two-- word count would be misleading, as dialogue leaves a lot of unfilled lines-- a page or two of pure dialogue.

Write it like a play, with A and B as the characters' names. No stage directions. No description of the characters. Nothing but what A says and what B says. Everything the reader knows about who they are, where they are, and what's going on, comes through what they say.

If you want a suggestion for this topic, put two people into some kind of crisis situation: the car just ran out of gas; the space ship is about to crash; the doctor has just realized that the old man she's treating for a heart attack is her father.... (Le Guin, 119-20)*

Part One

"But haven't you got a screwdriver?"

"I said don't have a screwdriver."

"How can you not have a screwdriver?"

"I don't have lots of things. I don't have a bread maker. I don't have a 401K. I don't have a girlfriend. Or a screwdriver."

"But you need those things. Well, maybe not the bread maker. Or, in your case, the girlfriend I suppose."

"Thank you, Mother."

"All I'm saying is, I don't see how you can get along without something like a screwdriver. It's one of the most basic, obvious-- I mean, I don't know, what if you needed to tighten something? Put up shelves?"

"What on earth are you talking about? I don't know how to put up a shelf. Why would I put up a shelf?"

"Everyone needs shelves!"

"I've already got shelves. Look, all over the house: shelves. Why do I need more shelves?"

"You're not listening."

"I'm listening, Ma. I'm listening."

"You should have a toolkit. All men need tool kits. For-- fixing things."

"I've got this butter knife. Can you make do with a butter knife?"

"Yes, fine, I'll use the butter knife. Give it here."

I did the next part twice; what follows is the less interesting of the two. The first one turned out to be a bit unsafe for the workplace. I'm too embarrassed to post it.

Part Two: Being the Stranger

Write a narrative of 200-600 words, a scene involving at least two people and some kind of action or event.

Use a single viewpoint character, either in first person or limited third person, who is involved in the event. Give us the character's thoughts and feelings in their own words.

The viewpoint character (real or invented) is to be somebody you dislike, or disapprove of, or hate, or feel to be extremely different from yourself.

The situation might be a quarrel between neighbors, or a relative's visit, or somebody acting weird at the checkout counter-- whatever will show the viewpoint character being who they are, doing what they do. (Le Guin 122-23)*

Part Two

It wasn't hard to talk to girls, once you got them going. Ron was amazed at the things they'd spill voluntarily, before he'd even asked for an address confirmation. It was like they sat around all day just waiting for the phone to ring. It didn't matter who was on the other end.

Ron liked to tell them he was a state trooper. He'd pretend to be collecting for charity. If he knew them a little better-- if he'd seen them in the bar, and watched them get into their cars after closing time-- he'd jot down their plate numbers and tell them that they'd been caught exceeding the posted limit by one of the new highway speed cameras. Sometimes, just sometimes, when a girl seemed dumb enough to fall for it, he'd say he was investigating a murder. An abandoned car had turned up with a body in the trunk, and her wallet had been found under the passenger seat. Something like that.

He hadn't been able to figure how you get a girl to tell you her bust size. Not yet. Best he'd managed to get out of one woman, before she got suspicious, was size ten; but that had been his fault, for breathing a little too quick. His voice lost that cop's edge, and she'd known. She was blonde, she said-- a platinum blonde. He liked blondes. The model in the poster on his living room wall was a blonde, and tall; she was probably-- he surmised-- a size ten. It hadn't been as difficult to picture the girl on the phone as some of the others.

He tried to ignore the poster. He concentrated on the ringing at the other end of the line. A woman with a soft, low voice picked it up on the third ring.

"Yes, ma'am, this is Officer Sheehan, State Patrol. I'm trying to reach a Ms. L. Carmine," he said.

"Mrs. Mrs. Carmine. Yes?"

"Ma'am, I'm currently running a credit scam investigation; we've got you on a list of people who may have been victims of credit fraud. I'd just like to ask you a few questions."

"Credit fraud? Oh, my God," Mrs. Carmine said. She sounded like an older woman. He'd never had an older woman-- and already they'd got to Oh my God? He couldn't help the little rushing feeling in his chest as he listened to her breath catch, and quiver, down the line.

These last two exercises got me playing a bit with omniscient or involved narration, which felt a bit strange. Le Guin stresses that, for the last two parts in particular, the writer isn't to refer to characters at all, or narrate from their perspective; I found it very difficult not to cheat, or to avoid sounding a bit (maybe) like Thomas Hardy.

Part Three: Implication

Each part of this should involve 200-600 words of descriptive prose. In both, the voice is either involved author or detached author. No viewpoint character.

Character by indirection: Describe a character by describing any place inhabited or frequented by that character-- a room, house, garden, office, studio, bed, whatever. (The character isn't present at the time.)

The untold event: Give us a glimpse of the mood and nature of some event or deed by describing the place -- room, rooftop, street, park, landscape, whatever-- where it happened or is about to happen. (The event or deed doesn't happen in your piece.) (Le Guin 132)*

Character by Indirection

There wasn't a single object in the room which wasn't curved in some way: the bookshelves, the the coffee table top, the rug. All the corners were rounded smooth, turning in on themselves; even the north wall had a curve in it (likely a problem with the foundation), and a slightly convex window set into a reading nook overlooking the street. Outside, cars rumbled ceaselessly up and down the brick cobbles, stirring the air so that the geraniums in the the window box seemed constantly to move, shuddering atop their stems. The flowers clearly had not been watered in some time, but the leaves hung limp and yellow from their stalks as though they'd had too much rain; perhaps there was a channel, or a dish, beneath the planter which had become blocked, and prevented the soil from draining properly, so that even as the last whiff of moisture vanished into the warm July breeze, the flowers continued to drown.

Sunlight spread gradually over the room till it filled the whole of it, spreading over the books and used coffee mugs-- some still half-filled with cold, murky liquid-- that lay abandoned as though the professor had just been called from the room by a visitor, or hurried away on some errand he'd forgotten he needed to do. A clock ticked at odd intervals on the mantelpiece, an antique clock with horses rearing on either side of an oddly squareish face. The thing didn't look like it belonged in the room; it might have belonged to some other house. Dust motes filtered slowly along a beam of sunlight to settle briefly upon the clock, then spin away again as Hetty breathed upon it; it was not yet noon. She moved a stack of papers from a chair and settled down to wait.

The Untold Event

A low brick wall bounded the roof on three sides, and coarse gravel blanketed the whole expanse in a single layer, as yet undisturbed but for one shallow mound of pebbles at the base of a rusting vent stack, into which a nighthawk-- nearly invisible against the grey flints of the roof-- snuggled itself, dozing in the hazy sunshine. By mid-afternoon the roof surface would scald at a touch; already heat shimmered off the stones, and they glowed white in the sun. Toward the rear of the building the flat roof pitched suddenly, giving onto a narrow alley twelve stories below. Nothing moved there, but a faint smell of grime and rot from the dumpsters wafted upward on a current to the level of the roof; the smell hung in the air. Far across the city, beyond the flat rooftops spreading in all directions, block after tidy block, the muddy river crawled, and toy barges piled high with garbage worked their way up and down its murky length. The roof of building directly across the alley ended at a similar pitch; a sturdy gutter pipe hung below its edge. The gap itself was far too wide to jump, even at a run. It would be a long drop in the dark.

I'd like to write a poem today. This week's prompt over at One Single Impression is "homecoming"; I'm not sure what to make of that. I find one-word prompts awfully difficult to work from. I'm always stunned at the variety and richness of subject matter that other people always seem to come up with.

Still coming: Fairy Land is nearly finished!


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 119-20, 122-23, 132.


Shifty characters

I have a lot of trouble making point-of-view shifts in fiction; it's often the thing that can bring whatever I'm working on to a screaming halt. My instincts tell me to shift like I'm driving a Jag convertible at a hundred miles an hour along a clifftop, with the sea crashing on jagged rocks below. Reason reminds me that I never learned to drive a stick in the first place: and for that matter, the cliffs are awfully high, aren't they, oh dear, and if the car ends up in the ocean, you'll be sucked right to the bottom, won't you? You'll drown, and you'll die, and the sharks will rend and tear and gnaw at your salty, bloated corpse for the rest of forever.*

Ursula Le Guin, on the other hand, would have the writer live dangerously:

Version One: Quick Shifts in Limited Third

A short narrative, 300-600 words. You can use one of the sketches from Exercise Seven, or make up a new scene of the same kind: several people involved in the same activity or event.

Tell the story, using several different viewpoint characters (narrators) in limited third person, changing from one to another as the narrative proceeds.

Mark the changes with line breaks, with the narrator's name in parentheses at the head of that section, or with any device you like... (Le Guin, 109)***

I went ahead and used the narrative from yesterday's exercise for this bit. I'm not sure how well the passage works; it was something of a struggle to string the different perspectives together, especially in so short a space, and to signal each shift well enough in advance to keep a reader afloat. It feels a little clunky to me, yet. But the point isn't to make great literature, here-- just to play, and to notice how the narrative changes. What's fantastic about this exercise is that I'm beginning to understand the characters in a way I didn't before. It's interesting how so simple an exercise can reveal gaps you might need to fill.

Version One

Josie wound an arm about Rich's neck as she pushed the sticky fingerful of cake and frosting between his lips; he turned his back to the crowd, turning her gently with him, sucking at her thumb and forefinger for just a little too long. Josie giggled. "Oh my God." He grinned, took her face in both hands and gave her a big, wet, cakey kiss; she could feel a wad of frosting smear across her temple, into her hair. Everyone laughed and clapped and cheered, and Josie peeped around Rich's shoulder to wave to her aunt and uncle, who stood in front of the crowd at opposite ends of the dais. She flapped her fingers open and shut like a toddler, beaming first one way, then the other.

Aunt Blanche laughed, waving back, then pressed her fingers to her lips to stop them trembling. Josie looked like a marshmallow, Blanche decided, in that dress-- perhaps two marshmallows, one stacked atop the other. The thought made her want both to laugh and to cry; and yet Josie had never looked more beautiful, or more grown up. It really was a lovely, lovely wedding. Blanche's eyes began to well up, she couldn't stop them; she edged into the crowd, gently nudging her way to the back of the hall, and Eugene-- hooting, clapping, pumping his fist in the air with a big thumbs up for Josie-- couldn't take his eyes off her. She melted into the crowd, vanished. He raised himself for a moment to his toes and searched, but there was no sign of Blanche; she was gone. He turned to see Cookie frowning at him from her seat at the head table. The flowers on her headpiece had begun to wilt.

What are you doing here, she mouthed.

I'm on my way out, he mouthed back.

He tapped at his watch, jerking a thumb over his shoulder toward the big double doors at the back of the hall. Cookie gave him a curt nod; as he turned to go and find his coat, she watched him, drumming her fingers quietly, impatiently, against her knee. Rat-a-tat-a-tum-ba-doom. She had seen Blanche totter into the coatroom with her hand over her face, and knew it was best to leave her alone. Cookie drummed and stared into her lap. There wouldn't be much she could do to comfort her mother anyway.

Josie squeezed her shoulder. "Where's your dad going? He isn't leaving, is he?"

"He's got a long drive," Cookie began, then wriggled from Josie's grip, out of her chair. She saw her father walk into the coatroom. "Oh no," she breathed, and hurried after him. She suspected it was already to late.

"He only just got here," Josie called after her. "He has to dance with me! Tell him he has to dance first!"


Her father's arms were locked firmly around her mother; they were kissing. Cookie froze in the doorway, then lurched forward, one hand outstretched. "What on earth are you doing?" Her parents started and backed from her, still clinging to each other, like a step in a dance. "What on earth are you doing?" said her father. He sounded a little out of breath.

The second part of this exercise is much more difficult. Virginia Woolf is an unparalleled master of the quick POV shift; she uses the technique far more successfully (particularly in To the Lighthouse) and effortlessly than I ever will.

...Version Two: Thin Ice

In 300-1000 words. Tell the same or a new story of the same kind, deliberately shifting POV from character to character several times without any obvious signal to the reader that you're doing so.

You can of course do Version Two merely by removing the "signals" from Version One, but you won't learn much by doing so. "Thin Ice" calls for a different narrative technique, and possibly a different narrative. I think it is likely to end up being written by the involved author, even though you are apparently using only limited third-person viewpoint. This ice really is thin, and the waters are deep. (Le Guin, 109-10)

The passage which follows is actually the final two draft paragraphs of That Story-- a short story about a woman who gets herself stranded in London which I've been struggling with for several years. I've been wrangling with this ending for some time, but have never managed to get it quite right. The second paragraph attempts to bring together-- very, very clumsily-- the narrative perspectives of four different characters: the main viewpoint character, her sister, the man she ends up with in London, and his downstairs neighbour.**

Version Two

The door clicked softly closed as Ronnie trudged back down the path, back to the end of the road; she took a random turn, following the next street to wherever it might lead. Even if she could find the station now, where was there to go? She could ride the Underground all week till her first ticket ran out, she supposed, then buy another one and ride on that till it ran out, and on and on till all the money she had ran out and she had to walk, round and round London, one face in a million faces; up and down the Mall, Nelson’s Column shrinking and Buckingham Palace getting bigger; back again, the column rising; then down the Strand, to turn off along some cobbled side street; from there into a grimy alleyway, then a smaller, grimier one. Pressing sideways between ancient row houses and warehouses nestled up against each other, she could make her way like that, all over London, squeezing round corners and along pathways so narrow she’d have to hold her breath to get through.

Watch Ronnie. She hikes all the way to the end of the street, heat shimmering off the pavement ahead, off telephone booths and high windows and the hoods of parked carslike New York in mid-August. Traffic rumbles somewhere in the near distance, rumbling along the eleven miles separating her from the restaurant in which Graham now sits, thinking of her. He can barely taste the unnaturally rectangular slice of pork terrine nestled on the plate in front of him amidst the radicchio; he idly pushes one leaf into the wine-tinted drizzle at the plate’s edge, coats it, puts it in his mouth. The memory-tingle of her lips is still on his, and a faint, sour taste of morning mouth, as though he only just kissed her, but watch: she turns a corner and emerges into an explosion of commotion and noise on the high street. People walk rapidly this way and that, in and out of shops, darting out of each others’ way, or sometimes into the street, forcing the traffic to a crawl and a frenzy of honking horns (she'll never hear the frowning girl sing now). She pauses only briefly before falling into step with the crowd, her quick, staccato footsteps inaudible amidst the hammer-tread of a hundred other feet, her shaggy blond haircut no more distinguishable than that worn by any of the countless other girls crowding the street with their fat leather handbags. Miles away and only a moment ago, Helen started at a reflection she saw coming at her in the window, rising sharply as she crossed the room; it was only her own after all, but keep your eye on Ronnie: her head bobs just above the level of the crowd. Soon she will disappear completely, though the minute Ronnie calls back—what else can possibly happen?—her sister will be ready to run, and Ronnie walks, walks into nothing and no where, her heart wide open (And how does she feel, Graham wonders, now she has a sugar daddy?). Now you see her. Now you don't.

I'm rather distracted today: for those who don't know, I've been dragooned into filling twelve minutes of a poetry reading tomorrow evening; I still haven't chosen the poems. Probably the one about the moth. I have a couple others in mind. I'll need to sit down with a stopwatch at some point, and try to figure out how to read without my voice cracking. I do not read very well.

Are my nerves showing?


*There: that's that metaphor pummeled soundly to death.

** The passage may well be of most interest to Jen, who's seen several versions of the story and knows just how far I've overwritten the thing. Jen is a very wise and patient reader. It's a lucky thing to have a friend like that at one's disposal.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 109.


POV shenanigans

This next exercise from Steering the Craft is rather long; as such, I've only posted my results from Part One. It's similar to yesterday's exercise, in that Le Guin suggests that the reader write several versions of the same scene using many different points of view: first using limited third person, then a detached narrator*, next an observer-narrator**, and finally using the involved-author point of view (that is, "omniscient" narration). Each scene should run from 200 to 350 words, or thereabouts, and should involve more than two people doing something. Le Guin notes that the event or activity involved doesn't have to be elaborate or hugely significant, but something should happen. She also notes that it's important, for this exercise, to keep dialogue to a minimum, as dialogue can obscure the POV-- and the point of the exercise is to be aware of the sorts of voices that result from using each type of narration.

Part One: Two Voices

First: Tell your little story from a single POV-- that of a participant in the event-- an old man, a child, a cat, whatever you like. Use limited third person.

Second: Retell the same story from the POV of one of the other people involved in it. Again, use limited third person. (Le Guin, 92)***

The scene I ended up writing, then rewriting, is one that I've had in my head for years but which never made it into the first draft of That Unfinished Novel I mentioned yesterday. It really should have done. I should note that Eugene and Blanche are divorced (Eugene has actually remarried), and that Cookie is their daughter. The scene takes place something like ten or fifteen years after they've split up.

I find myself thinking more and more about That Novel as I work through the exercises in Le Guin; maybe it's time to pull it out of that dark drawer and get back to work on it, eh what?


Josie really did look like a marshmallow in that dress, Blanche decided-- even two marshmallows, one stacked atop the other. But her face shone, she was happy, she beamed; Blanche had never seen Josie looking more beautiful, or more grown up. Blanche covered her lips with her fingertips, to stop them quivering. It really was a lovely, lovely wedding. Everyone laughed and clapped and cheered as Josie and Rich poked dainty bits of cake into each other's mouths, then kissed, haltingly, like kids.

Blanche excused herself and edged to the back of the hall, into the coatroom; she fumbled open her compact and dabbed at the mascara smudges beneath her eyes with a kleenex, peering this way and that into the little mirror.

"It's a great party," Eugene said.

Blanche turned. She couldn't help smiling at him-- he looked so small in that awful, rumpled jacket, his hands stuffed into his trouser pockets-- "Yes, it's a lovely party," she said, and they stood smiling at one another, shifting their feet. Blanche sniffed, and squeezed the wadded handkerchief in her hand; the other fumbled with the compact, till it snapped shut.

Eugene took a step forward and took her gently by the arm. "Everything okay?" he said. Blanche would have answered him, but he kissed her, softly upon her lips and so briefly that she wasn't certain it had happened at all. He kissed her a second time, and she let him-- it had been such a long time since she'd been kissed-- she leaned in and rested her hands, each still closed tightly about the handkerchief and compact, against his shoulders. He kissed her: it tasted as though he'd been smoking a pipe. When on earth had he taken up pipe smoking? she wondered. Her eyes drifted open; there was Cookie, standing in the doorway, jaw hanging slack, her mouth a perfect red-tinged O. Still Eugene kissed her, sliding one arm round her waist. He kissed her, and she let him kiss her, pleading silently with Cookie, her eyes wide.

"Mom! What on earth are you doing?" Cookie gasped, rushing in with a hand outstretched, to break them up.


Everyone laughed and clapped as Josie and Rich fed each other large fingerfuls of cake, but Eugene couldn't take his eyes off Blanche. She was crying. Her hand flew up to her mouth, and her mascara began to run. As the newlyweds embraced for one more smeary, cakey kiss, she edged slowly into the crowd, nudging her way through till she finally disappeared, somewhere at the back of the hall.

Eugene clapped and hooted, and gave Josie a big thumbs-up; Josie burst into laughter and waved happily from the dais, flapping her fingers open and shut. He gave her a wink, and turned to see Cookie frowning at him from her seat at the head table. He grinned, gave her a wiggle-fingered wave. What are you doing here? she mouthed.

"Don't worry. I'm on my way out," he said. He couldn't tell whether or not she understood. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, cocked his head toward the exit. It seemed to satisfy her. He headed off to find his coat.

Blanche stood in the very center of the coatroom, with her back to him. Coats hung on every side, muffling the noise and laughter of the hall, and Blanche seemed small, maybe even a little lost, amid them. Eugene rapped gently on the door frame. "It's a great party," he said.

Blanche turned, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She sniffled, then smiled-- it was a strange thing to see. She hadn't smiled at him like that in a very long time. He smiled, too, and they stood there without speaking, shuffling their feet. "Yes, it's a lovely party," she said. She turned a little compact mirror over and over in one hand; after a moment, it snapped shut. Blanche glanced in the direction of the noise, chuffed a quiet little laugh, and Eugene reached out, reached for her.

"Everything okay?" he said, and he knew as he said it that it soon wouldn't be. He kissed her anyway-- just once, just a peck-- and then again, more deeply, sliding one arm around her waist. To his surprise, she let him. She leaned in, rested her hands-- each closed stiffly about the compact and handkerchief-- against his shoulders. He held her, and he kissed her; he nearly had a heart attack when he heard Cookie gasp behind him.

"Mom! What on earth are you doing?" He turned in just enough time to avoid Cookie's hand-- reaching out, it seemed, in order to slap him.

I read a very good article in the AWP Writer's Chronicle some time ago-- I wish I could remember which issue-- which advocated bringing back the omniscient or involved-author point of view. I've often thought I'd like to try it, but I've never been able to get it to work; I like to hang around in character's heads, and an omniscient narration doesn't seem to fit that sort of thing as comfortably as limited third. At least, it doesn't for me. The idea intrigues me, though. Dickens uses omniscient narration extremely well. My favorite uses of point of view, though, are in Virginia Woolf's work-- she begins from something like limited third, but shifts from one character to the next with stunning grace and ease; by the end of a novel like To the Lighthouse, the narrative voice doesn't seem to belong to any one character or even to the author, but-- as Le Guin also notes-- to the book itself. It's incredible stuff.


* A "detached" point of view is that of a "fly on the wall"-- the narrator describes what it hears and sees, but has no access to the characters' thoughts or emotions.

** The observer-narrator is a character in the story, but is not the main character; he or she observes the action of the story from within.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 92.


No, you didn't. Yes, he did.

I was surprised, recently, when my husband told me that he doesn't like stories which use first-person narration. For some reason, he just can't bring himself to make the imaginative leap a reader needs to make, along with the writer, for that particular point of view to succeed. He just doesn't buy it. When a narrator tells him that he did this, or said that, or went there, hubby wants to say, "No, you didn't." First-person narration is a commonplace technique in fiction writing these days; you'd think it wouldn't bother readers, similar to the way that close-up shots of people on film don't bother us. We know that when we see, for example, that head-and-shoulder panning shot of Legolas near the beginning of The Two Towers-- you know, the one where he yells, "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard"-- we're still looking at a person, even though we can't see his feet. The only explanation I can come up with for my hub's discomfort with the first-person point of view is that it tends, perhaps, to call attention to itself more than other narrative perspectives: there's something more confrontational, maybe, in a narrator who talks about himself rather than about someone else.

It's issues like that which make verb tense and point of view tricky concepts to teach in a workshop-- tricky to explain and tricky to write. To work on the page, both need to be mostly invisible to the reader. Usually when I teach them, I tell students to pick a single tense and a single point of view, and stick with it. Don't fool around, I tell them. This doesn't mean, of course, that it's not possible to fool around. But you really have to know what you're doing. A change in tense or point of view halfway through a narrative is a big deal; it sets the story spinning off in a whole other direction, and the writer has to be absolutely certain that the reader can follow. I still get nervous whenever I try it. My teachers, y'see, told me not to fool around.

The next exercise in Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which deals with how tense and point of view work together, is longer and more complicated than some of the others in the book. I found that I had to write several versions of the first part of the exercise before I settled on something I liked. I think my Version One is a much stronger one than Version Two.

This should run about a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you're going to have to write the same story at least twice.

The subject is this: An old woman is washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, or...whatever you like, as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.

You're going to write this sketch by intercutting between the two times. "Now" is the kitchen, the garden, the desk, whatever, and "then" is what happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between "now" and "then." There should be at least two of these moves or time-jumps.

Version One:

Choose a PERSON:
a) first person (I)
b) third person (her name/she)

Choose a TENSE:
a) all in past tense
b) all in present tense
c) "now" in present tense, "then" in past tense
d) "now" in past tense, "then" in present tense

Write the story. Label it-- Person (a), Tenses (c)-- or whichever you chose.

Version Two: Now write the same story in the other person and a different choice of tenses (Label it.)

Don't strain to keep the wording of the two versions identical, and please don't just go through it on a computer changing the pronoun and verb endings. Write it over. Changing the person and tense will almost certainly bring about some changes in the wording, the telling; and these changes are interesting.

Within one version, the verb tense may shift, but the person of the verb can't. Stick with either "I" or "she" in Version One. Then use the other person in Version Two.

Additional Option: If you want to go on and play with all four tense options, do.

Another Additional Option: After you have done the exercise as directed, if you want to change the person of the verb within one version (using one person in "now," the other person in "then"), try it. (Le Guin 76-8)*

Version One - Person (b), Tense (a)
The cut was deep. Blanche dropped the utility knife on the carpet and marched from the room without a word, sucking at the wound on her finger. Josie had been right, of course. She should never have tried to use it; she couldn't grip the handle properly. She wished now that she had thought to bring the knife with her. In another moment Josie would find it, and come running; she couldn't bear the idea of her niece hovering, fussing, telling her to wash it well, and put some peroxide on it, and wrap this way, and put pressure on it, hold it tight and sit still, Aunt B., just wait till I find my keys; now come on, we're going to the ER...

Blanche padded into the bathroom and ran the cut under the cold water tap. The cut stung dreadfully, almost like a burn; Blanche could see the spongy layer beneath, pink and raw in the running water, welling up again with blood the moment she removed it. She plunged her hand back under the stream and clenched her teeth. She wouldn't call out. How Josie hollered, that time she skinned her knee on the sidewalk! Blanche made Josie stick her leg under the bathtub faucet, then accidentally turned on the hot water instead of the cold; Josie yelled and tried to hit her. Blanche frowned at the blood oozing from her own fingertip. The poor kid! Blanche had never really understood how much it must have hurt; she only remembered Josie's bony little fist in her shoulder, and the look she'd given Blanche, when Blanche slapped her. Something fell out of Josie, then, out of both of them. Blanche saw it in her face, and knew Josie could see it in hers. It left a blank space. What was it, that thing which wasn't there any more? She nearly called out to Josie, then, in her fright; she squeezed her lips firmly together.

Blanche shut off the water and wound a length of gauze slowly round her fingertip, listening to Josie grumbling, pushing something heavy across the carpet. She tugged at the end of the strip of gauze, pulled it tight, fastened it with tape. Any minute now. Blanche pulled the little wicker stool from beneath the vanity and sat on it. Any minute now-- but there wouldn't be anything for Josie to do. Blanche noticed a patch of blood beginning to show through her bandage. She gripped her finger with her opposite hand and squeezed to stop the flow. Any minute now. She wouldn't call out. There wasn't any need.

The muttering and the shoving-sounds ceased. "Aunt B.?" Josie called. There.

Blanche called cheerfully back. "I'm fine," she said. "There's nothing to worry about."

Version Two - Person (a), Tense (a), though with a bit of (c)

The moment the knife sliced into my fingertip, I knew I should never have tried to use it on the box. Of course Josie had been right: I really couldn't grip the thing properly. It was a stupid thing to have done. Josie still had her back to me; I dropped the box cutter and headed for the bathroom, sucking the blood from the wound as I went. It would only be a matter of time before she found the knife on the floor and came running to make a fuss, to see that I washed the cut well, and bandaged it tight, and applied pressure, and before you'd know it we'd be on our way to the ER...I couldn't be doing with all that nonsense. I ran my finger under the cold water tap. I knew well enough how to take care of a cut.

A person never really understands how much ordinary water can sting, not till they've hurt themselves badly enough. It burns. That time Josie skinned her knee running down the hill, and I cleaned the wound for her-- she didn't just yell. She tried to hit me. Poor kid. How was I to know that her father had reconnected the plumbing the wrong way around, so the hot water came out when the cold should have come instead? I shouldn't have smacked her. It was my fault that she fell-- I was the one who'd shouted Let's run, then dragged her off by the hand-- and we both knew it.

I've never been so sorry for doing a thing as I was standing there at the sink, gritting my teeth and watching the blood from my finger swirl away through the soap bubbles. I didn't yell, I didn't tell Josie, but I was sorry. All the same, I didn't call out; I bandaged up my finger, then sat down on the little vanity stool to wait. She'd turn up, before long. Then I'd smile, and Josie would see that everything was fine after all.

Blanche and Josie, by the way, are two characters from a novel I've never yet managed to finish. I think this exercise may have shed some light on an aspect of their relationship that I've been puzzling over for a while-- the lesson being that it can be useful to go back and revisit characters you've worked with before in a new context.

Coming soon: Is it ever a good idea to paint your new writing room a shade called Winsome Beige?


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 76-8.


Swell adjectives, and books that fiercely burn

I won't try to hide it: the fifth exercise-- which deals with the sparing and effective use (or avoidance) of adjectives and adverbs-- is killing me.

Write a paragraph to a page (200-350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue.

The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or action, using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc.) may be necessary, but be sparing. Be chaste.

If you're using this book in a group, I recommend that you do this exercise at home, because it may take a while.

If you're currently working on a longer piece, you might want to try writing the next paragraph or page of it as this exercise.

The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try "chastening" a passage you've already written. It can be interesting. (Le Guin, 62-3)***

This is what I've got so far--raw, unadulterated text straight from my little black college-ruled notebook from Staples.* It continues the narrative in Part Two of yesterday's exercise.

That was five years ago; now Ruth was seventeen. She never found out whose voice it had been, or whether it ever existed outside her head. She likes the idea of it, that trembling lilt almost like a little boy singing, the cracking break of it as though the man (for it had been a man's voice, of that much Ruth felt certain) were uneasy with the things he heard himself saying, even though they had to be said. Sometimes to her ear it seemed as though he hated words, hated the sound of his own voice saying them. Ruth loved it. It was a brave sort of voice, she thought, for all the weakness in it; it had authority, deep down, though the speaker himself might never know. It came as a disappointment to her that the face she painted in her mind to go with the voice always ended up with a receding chin, and glasses-- perched high on the bridge of his nose, so that his eyes (an unremarkable shade somewhere between yellow and brown) seemed to bulge and water more than they already did. He wasn't much to look at. Ruth was certainly no longer a child, but she was still young enough to believe with some firmness that a hero ought to be handsome-- that his eyes ought to glow with a fierce, outraged light, not weep endlessly with some chronic allergy. She supposed it might be ragweed, or cats.

That's not too bad, I guess. For some reason-- because it's Friday, because I haven't had enough coffee, because my cat leapt on the bed at 4:00 am and went brrt in my ear, so that I woke and stayed awake-- it's been a struggle to get down all the same. The patent leather boots don't seem quite so full, today, as they did a day ago.

I've begun reading Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit.** It's an older edition, borrowed from the library, and filled with underlinings and margin notes made by another reader, at some point in the past. It's curiously heartbreaking to read that reader's comments (Yes! and Exactly! feature heavily), and to note which passages have been underlined-- passages which reinforce the idea that the reader is uniquely talented and special. For a reader who has felt, up to the point of picking up Ueland's book, that his or her endeavours to write are unimportant and unremarkable, I don't doubt that Ueland's thesis must seem near-holy; there is almost an evangelism about Ueland's determination to persuade the reader to pick up her pen and Be, and Do, and Shine.

I mentioned before the idea of the right book coming along at the right time to the right person, and in my case this is not that book; despite the truths to be found in Ueland's assertions, I tend to rankle when confronted by texts that aim determinedly to convince me of my unique specialness, and the spiritual importance of my calling (For it is a calling of divine import! Ueland stresses), and the good it will do my soul to do it. This is not to say that I think it a bad book by any stretch, nor would I contest Ueland's primary argument. Rather, I sense that it's not a book aimed at all writers; it is a certain group of writers whose spirits Ueland wishes to buoy.

If I'm to name the thing which makes me slightly uncomfortable with the text, it's that idea of setting one group against another: The Tenderhearted, Creative Soul in search of Beauty and Truth versus The Rest of the Cold, Cruel, Critical World. I feel such a view oversimplifies the artist's position, not to mention the position of people who don't pursue art-- and it puts the tentative beginning writer in the dangerous position of believing that it's all right to see themselves, and what they do, exclusively in that light. I wonder about that reader who made such copious notes: did she ever stop underlining and go to it? Did she write something of her own? Or did she go off, instead, in search of another book filled with equally encouraging passages? Did that feeling of affront ever subside enough to allow her to be the writer she surely was capable of being-- or is there a danger that such a book may inevitably fan the young writer's flames of affront to her detriment?

I wouldn't try to suggest that there's something wrong with encouraging the budding writer in such fashion as Ueland employs, or for the budding writer to actively seek that encouragement. It's simply that the book raised a troubling question for me-- that question won't necessarily matter to every reader of that book.


*Well. Okay. Not really-- I added a bit. And polished. And fiddled. And tinkered. It wasn't to be helped. I was forced. At gunpoint. By giant pigeons. In hats. Yes: that's exactly how it went down.

**I note that the publisher is Graywolf Press, which publishes all sorts of interesting things. Their list is worth a shufty.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 62-3.