Writer Uses Child To Echo Parents

I like the way Flannery O’Connor makes use of a child in this passage from her short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,”  in Major American Short Stories

The grandmother who lives with her son’s family is trying to persuade them to visit east Tennessee instead of Florida and tells them The Misfit escaped from federal prison in Florida.

Excerpt: . . .the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day,” said June Star without raising her yellow head.
“Yes, and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”

My Take-away: What a great slice of family dynamics. While John Wesley gives typical “boy” responses,” it’s apparent that June Star is echoing what one or both parents say about her grandmother. (It’s never clear to me which parent.) A lesser writer wouldn’t trust the reader to get the subtext but would have indicated that June Star was parroting Mom or Dad. Also, I like the way June Star sticks to her subject rather than answering grandmother’s question.

O’Connor’s technique can be used effectively with other relationships as well: an employee who echoes a boss, a student who echoes a professor, etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

 

Quotable

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

–Groucho Marx

Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff

As self-appointed Name Sheriff In my writing critique group, Novel in Progress Austin, I recently cited Robbie Shapard for giving a key character in his very fine submission a name whose pronunciation was ambiguous. The name was “Strachan.” Every time my eye encountered the name, my ear balked: is it “STRAY-chan” or “STRAY-can?” Turned out to be neither. Robbie said it’s a Scottish name pronounced “Strawn.” Hmm. Don’t know if this ambiguity is a problem for other readers, but it seems to me the way to clear up confusion is to let the reader know the name rhymes with “drawn.” It could be handled seamlessly the first time Strachan corrects someone who mispronounces his name.

Robbie’s infraction was minor compared to one I encountered several years ago.  In a submission to the group, a writer whose story was set in Viet Nam had named his main character Phuc. Given my unsophisticated ear, this name stopped me every time I saw it. Turned out it’s pronounced “Fook,” I cited the author for choosing a name that would be a major speed bump for many readers.

Ambiguous pronunciation is just one way names can cause problems. Here are several others:

Names that sound too similar: Writers fixate on a single beginning letter. This is most problematical with first names for characters of the same gender, such as Joyce and Joan, and the confusion is compounded because both are one-syllable names.

Too many names for one character: I make a distinction here between major and minor characters. People generally have two names; some have nicknames. I would almost rule arbitrarily that minor characters be referred to throughout the novel by one name.  I say “almost,” because you can get away with more in a novel that has only a few characters.

All characters given Anglo-Saxon names: John Brown, Mary Crawford, Bill O’Brian, etc. Today’s novelists tend to me more sensitive to diversity. Unless your novel is set in Great Britain, there’s no excuse for not throwing in a Marta Letovsky or Zhang Wei.

Picky-picky: I’m not crazy about unixex names like Pat or Chris. I will most certainly arrest an author who fails to make the character’s gender clear upon first reference. I hate to have to adjust my perception of a character later on.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

 

Writing That Keeps It Real

Human beings are rational creatures, right? Well, to a point. So what’s wrong with the following description:

“When Tonya stood before her boss’ cluttered desk and heard him say, ‘You’re fired,’ she thought about what she would do and said, ‘I’m entitled to three months’ compensation, and I have sick leave and vacation coming.’ Feeling her blood pressure skyrocket, she swept her hand across his desk, sending papers and coffee mugs flying.”

OK, there’s a lot wrong with it, but here’s what I’m getting at. The way Tonya is wired as a human being is such that her first response would be her rising blood pressure, followed by her impassioned reflex, and then rational thought and dialogue. Sometimes these reactions happen so fast that they seem simultaneous, but when a writer presents them out of sequence, the reader senses that something is “off.”

I’m borrowing today’s post topic from “Writing the Perfect Scene,” by Randy Ingermanson, who borrowed it from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I recommend both. They call the structure I’ve described “Motivation-Reaction Units” or “MRUs.” Ingermanson presents this example:

Motivation: The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.

Reaction:

  1. Feeling: A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins.
  2. Reflex: He jerked the rifle to his shoulder.
  3. Rational Action and Speech: He sighted on the tiger’s heart and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard.”

Ingermanson says the Motivation is always external and objective, something any observer could see, hear, or feel if they were there, but I can imagine a scenario in which a character might be motivated by something like a heart attack or a dream.

He makes the point that not every Reaction will include all the above components of feeling, reflex, rational action and speech. But remember that the emotional/physical response must always precede rational action and speech.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Quotable

The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.

–Madeleine L’Engle

Reading Like a Writer

You can take a course or read a book purporting to teach you to “read like a writer.” I’m not sure why you’d want to unless you’re a writer.

I say this because sometimes I let my critical leanings get in the way of enjoyment. I might even stop reading and rewrite a passage. (I even do this with the newspaper on occasion.)

Here’s a passage from Summerlost, a novel for fifth to eighth grade readers, by Ally Condie. Cedar is a girl whose grief resurfaces long after her little brother’s death.

Excerpt: (My grandparents) knew that Ben’s favorite kind of ice cream wasn’t ice cream at all, it was rainbow sherbet, and he always ate the green first, and so when I saw it in my grandma’s freezer once and I started crying they didn’t even ask why and I think I saw my uncle Nick, my mom’s brother, crying too.

My Take-away: I applaud the author for creating a scene that evokes an experience of grief the reader can feel. Seeing the sherbet is an excellent trigger for this poignant moment. If I were to rewrite this passage, I think it could engage the reader more intimately if it hadn’t required so much explanation. Let the reader know long before that Ben loved sherbet and ate the green first. Then all Cedar (and the reader) has to do is see the sherbet still sitting in the freezer long after Ben’s death to have an emotional response. And don’t say again that it was Ben’s favorite ice cream as that would suggest the reader doesn’t have an intimate relationship with the story. I’d also lose “My grandparents knew . . .” as over-explaining. Finally, the reader should know before this that uncle Nick is her mother’s brother.

Celebrating Chuck Berry’s Words

When Voyager went into space in 1977, its cargo included a gold 33 1/3 record with 27 songs. Curated by a committee under Carl Sagan, the representative music included Mozart, Stravinsky, a Navajo chant, and “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. At the time, Saturday Night Live and Steve Martin played with the idea of aliens’ response to this musical treasury.

Chuck Berry, who died March 18th at the age of 90, lived long enough to see his music leave our solar system and enter interstellar space, a fact NASA confirmed in 2014. Wow.

To bring this blog post back to earth and somewhat consistent with the mission of NovelWords Cafe, I’d like to look at Berry’s lyrics. He’s been called the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll. For example, here are the last lines of “Memphis”:

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

There are several YouTube videos of “Memphis,” the most unusual being one featuring Berry and John Lennon.

Berry also wrote and recorded poetry. You can listen to “My Dream,” recorded in 1971.

Contests for Indie Authors

Is it worth your effort and/or money to enter your novel in a contest or submit it for an award?

Among the many departments of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors (I’m a member) is its Watchdog Desk, which monitors the self-publishing industry. Check out its Award and Contest Ratings.

You’ll find ratings (Recommended, Mixed, Caution) for a whole host of awards and contests. Hint: not many earn “Recommended” ratings.

Any experience with awards or contests? Leave a comment.

Can’t Put That Book Down?

OK, readers, I know some of you get so caught up in a novel that you can’t put it down.  It would be fun to hear your real-life examples.  How would you complete  this sentence: “I was so riveted by (name of novel) that I (blank.)”

I thought of this recently when one of the writing blogs I follow (sorry, I’d link to it if I could remember which one) featured an article that encouraged writers by asking them to imagine how they’d like to have their book reviewed.

Well that got the old adjective factory spinning our of control. “Gripping, mesmerizing, shocking, sensational . . .” I could go on.

Then I took it to the next level. Here’s my favorite imagined review: “This important historical novel speaks to our times and held me spellbound. When the tornado sirens sounded I stuck fast to my favorite reading chair instead of taking shelter. Talk about riveting. I’m writing this from heaven.”

Please leave a comment, even if it’s to tell me I should get back on my meds.

 

 

Emotions That Touch Readers–or Not

In Sweetwater Creek, by Anne Rivers Siddons, Buddy, Emily’s soul mate brother, has died. Her other brothers say the puppy she’s chosen is just a hound dog.

Excerpt: So she named him Elvis, and took the puppy to her room, and fell as irretrievably in love as she ever would in her life. Girl and dog were two halves of a whole, two chambers of one heart. The swirling black abyss that Buddy had left was almost filled. But only almost. 

My Take-away:  Writing about grief and love is difficult. I think this passage is simply and beautifully evocative. (It helps if you’re a dog lover.)  My friend Gaylon Greer suggested a long time ago that I read Siddons as a guide to expressing emotion. One thing I don’t care for in this passage, however, is that it reveals the future, as in the clause ‘as she ever would in her life.’ Not something I’d emulate.

Excerpt: Oh, Buddy. The words felt as if they were etched in acid on the surface of the iceberg inside her. Oh, Buddy.

 My Take-away: Yikes! Sounds like a thirteen-year-old wannabe writer straining for a poetic line.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Vonnegut’s 1952 Novel Strikes a Nerve Today

I may have to re-read Player Piano, the late Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, published in 1952. Contemplating a dystopian post-WWIiI future, he envisioned a class-divided America in which meaningful work is almost non-existent. Here’s the opening:

 

Excerpt: Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.

If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.

During the war, in thousands of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war–production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.

My Take-away: How disturbing or frightening were these words in 1952? Apparently not disturbing enough for society to reorganize itself in the face of inevitable loss of jobs and denigration of work.

I recall about three years ago visiting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream plant in Vermont. A fun tour, but what stays with me is that looking through a glass window at the production floor below, I saw just two human beings.

In a July 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Vonnegut explained the inspiration for the novel. While working for General Electric in 1949 he watched a computerized milling machine cutting out rotors for jet engines and gas turbines. “Player Piano was my response to having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

Quote du Jour

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King wrote this in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Love the thought, which I could apply to exercise, writing, reading, so many aspects of my life. Too bad it’s so long. I suppose a tattoo is out of the question. (Thanks to Brad Whittington and Darrell Bryant for this quote.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Writer Offers Glimpse Into a Soldier’s Heart

If today’s soldiers feel forgotten, it’s understandable. Most of us civilians have become conditioned to expect that if we’re really at war we’ll see it every night on TV in our home or favorite sports bar. I was reminded the other day that we are indeed at war when General Tony Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war.”

That led me to think about a great short story by Philip Roth. Set during WWII, the story is “Defender of the Faith,” which can be found in Major American Short Stories, edited by A. Walton Litz:

This excerpt appears at the end of the opening paragraph, and Grossbart, who has served in the military for two years, is leaving Germany with his Ninth Army company and expecting to be sent east to the front :
Excerpt:
. . . eastward until we’d circled the globe, marching through villages along whose twisting, cobbled streets crowds of the enemy would watch us take possession of what, up till then, they’d considered their own. I had changed enough in two years not to mind the trembling of the old people, the crying of the very young, the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the once arrogant. I had been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman’s heart, which, like his feet, first aches and swells, but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing.

My Take-away: This description feels to me like the essence of what it is to become a soldier. I can’t know this, of course, and I recognize that Roth is describing one particular soldier.

Comparing Grossbart’s heart to his feet is such an apt metaphor.  (I wish instead of “horny” he had said “calloused.”)

It’s a mark of some fine writing when you feel you’ve glimpsed how experience can alter someone’s view of the world. Makes me think about the influence of experience on my own view.

What’s your take-away? Please leave a comment.