Category Archives: The Take-away

Write a Scene That Plants Doubt

I used to be a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Thanks to the shows’ producers and editors, there’s seldom a lack of tension.

But in one finale there was a tense moment so delicious I wished I’d written it.

Excerpt: After Deanna chose Jesse over Jason, Jason had an opportunity to confront her, with Jesse present, as to why she hadn’t chosen him. I don’t recall her answer, but he got in this parting shot: “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse and Grant.”

My Take-away: Whoa. What if Jason had said, “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse?” He would have come across as just a whiny loser Deanna and Jesse could more or less forget about. But his words planted the knowledge (or nagging suspicion) that she wanted Grant perhaps as much as she wanted Jesse. (Btw, Deanna and Jesse didn’t make it to the altar.)

OK, I know that in this reality TV world Jason’s revelation probably didn’t phase the couple. But the scene inspires me to think about how I might introduce doubt into my protagonist’s budding relationship. There’s not only the moment of revelation, but also the fallout that will bring tension to later scenes. E.g., when they’re having a romantic dinner out, it’s ruined when he accuses her of flirting with the waiter. Etc., etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

–Warren Buffet

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

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.

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.

 

Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

I recently read a novel that challenges some of the important lessons I’ve learned about writing. I wanted to dislike the book because it is so flawed. But the fact is I’ll probably read it again because the author 1) pairs two unforgettable characters in an improbable relationship, & 2) tells a darn good story.

The novel is Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, a National Book Award finalist. Here are my problems, which I’ll describe in mostly general terms so as not to include spoilers:

  • The author writes dialogue without quotation marks. Most of the time it was clear who was speaking, but there were times I had to back up and re-read a passage. In John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist, he extolls “the fictive dream,” a state that writers like me labor to achieve so that the reader gets so caught up in the story as to suspend disbelief. Writing that causes the reader to check back for clarification breaks that fictive dream.
  • More troubling for me is the jerkiness that occurs when Jiles “moves the camera,” so to speak, i.e., we’re seeing something through the eyes of the Captain & then she describes the expression on his face, something he cannot see. Even more egregious is a gunfight presumably viewed through the Captain’s eyes. His adversary is approaching from two hundred yards when the Captain fires after which we see his adversary’s forehead looking “as if his head had been suddenly printed with hyphens.” This & other occurances of improbable camera movement jerked me out of the fictive dream during one of the best scenes in the novel.
  • Another problem writers usually try to avoid is shifting point of view (POV) in a scene. In most novels, one or several characters have POV so that the reader gets to know their internal thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. As a rule, in any given scene the writer gives POV to just one character, the person who has the most at stake. This keeps the reader engaged with that character. POV shifts are to be avoided, but not in Jiles’ world. And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me much. I’ve long suspected that readers don’t care that much about shifting POV. (I’ll hear about this in my writing group.) Continue reading Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

What Do You Like or Dislike in a Book Blurb?

I’m a student of blurbs these days, those teasers that appear on the book jacket or on Amazon. I listened to a useful podcast, “How To Write Your Book Sales Description,” in which Joanna Penn interviewed Byron Cohen. (The full transcript is available on the site.) He makes the point that 99% of authors provide a synopsis in their blurbs & says, “That won’t sell.” He then puts forth the elements of a successful blurb.

I’ve started collecting blurbs from Amazon, mostly for historical novels. They range from the very lean blurb for Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, to those that virtually give away the story, as in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, & News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. I hate that. (Guess I shouldn’t click on “Read more.”)

My favorite blurb is for Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen:

Blurb: Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

My Take-away:
This description says enough to pique my interest, although to call Jacob “orphaned” is misleading because it suggests he’s a boy or teen.

I’ve struggled with the writing of a blurb for my not-yet-published novel Compromise With Sin. Here’s draft #144. OK maybe I exaggerate.

Compromise With Sin blurb: 

She stops at nothing to maintain a veneer of Victorian respectability, but the consequences of infidelity prove far worse than mere exposure. 

After straying into the arms of Doc Foster and becoming pregnant, small-town civic leader Louise Morrissey faces ruin if anyone─especially her husband─finds out. 

When infection steals the eyesight of her newborn baby, Louise knows it is punishment for her infidelity. What she doesn’t know is that the web of deceit she weaves to safeguard her marriage and reputation will eventually ensnare her husband and daughter with tragic consequences.

Guilt-ridden and seeking redemption, Louise risks revelation of her secrets as she joins Helen Keller in a grassroots movement to end the blinding scourge known as “babies’ sore eyes.”

In a confessional moment, Louise signs in Helen’s hand: “When you wrote ‘they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin,’ you were writing about me.”

A fictional version of real events, the story pits Louise, Helen, and others against society’s taboos as they champion what would become one of the greatest public health triumphs of the 20th century.

I’d welcome your feedback on my blurb or any opinion you have about blurbs. Leave a comment.

The Promise of a Strong Beginning

Tracy Chevalier has penned an intriguing opening for her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, a book whose subject—Johnny Appleseed and a family of apple growers—might seem less than compelling:

Excerpt: They were fighting over apples again. He wanted to grow more eaters, to eat. She wanted more spitters, to drink. It was an argument rehearsed so often that by now they both played their parts perfectly, their words flowing smooth and monotonous around each other since they had heard them enough times not to have to listen anymore.

What made the fight between sweet and sour different this time was not that James Goodenough was tired; he was always tired. It wore a man down, carving a life from the Black Swamp. It was not that Sadie Goodenough was hung over; she was often hung over. The difference was that John Chapman had been with them the night before. Of all the Goodenoughs, only Sadie stayed up and listened to him talk late into the night, occasionally throwing pinecones onto the fire to make it flare. The spark in his eyes and belly and God knows where else had leapt over to her like a flame finding its true path from one curled wood shaving to another. She was always happier, sassier, and surer of herself after John Chapman visited.

 My take-away: Two people in conflict from the get-go, always a good start. But what lifts this to a masterful level is the language, the metaphor of the fire, and the description of relationships headed for a blow-up.

In the first paragraph, we learn the argument is an old one and in the second what makes the argument different this time. Now jealousy enters the picture. And the last line of that paragraph is a lesson in itself: how to convey that Sadie was attracted to John without using words like “feelings” or a cliché like “she was walking on air.”

Also Chevalier sneaks in back story that manages to keep our focus on the present because her primary purpose in presenting the couple’s history is to sharpen the significance of what’s happening now.

I’ve only started reading this novel so I don’t know how well it fulfills the promise of this powerful beginning. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment.

What Oft Was Thought

“What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” is how nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pope described “true wit” in “An Essay on Criticism.” So poets & authors strive for the fresh rendering of ideas.

Nothing wads a writer’s undies faster than trying to express  the concept of “romantic love.” One of my favorites is from the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” featured in the movie The Lion King. Elton John wrote the music & Tim Rice, the lyrics.

Excerpt: It’s enough to make kings & vagabonds believe the very best.

My Take-away: I think volumes could be written about this sentence. First, consider the power in what’s left out. Rice could have preceded it with something like “Love is universal” or “Love is a feeling shared by all.” But simply making “kings & vagabonds” equals in the same sentence, wow! Second, what if he’d said, “. . . everyone from kings to vagabonds . . .?” Wouldn’t that just sap the power of the phrase?

I’m reminded, too, that we enjoy unexpected word pairings. So “cheeseburgers & champagne” tickle our imaginations while “cheeseburgers & Cokes” do not. OK, it’s not the level of “kings & vagabonds,” but you get the idea.

What’s your take-away? Leave a comment.