Category Archives: Writing Craft

Getting Inside a Character’s Skin

How is it that sometimes words on a page can make us feel as though we are experiencing what the character experiences? We feel the danger, loss, grief, whatever as though it’s happening to us.

Writers often achieve this by minimizing “psychic distance.” We have John Gardner to thank for spelling it out in The Art of Fiction. There are degrees of psychic distance that range from viewing a character as an observer to inhabiting the character’s skin. Gardner illustrates how a narrator’s description of a character can be more or less objective or intimate:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

There’s more on the subject of psychic distance on the blog of Emma Darwin, “The Itch of Writing.” (Thanks to Sharon Scarborough for that.)

As for my own writing, I only achieve intimate psychic distance on revision. First of all, in early drafts I’m just getting the story on paper. I don’t outline, so I’m busy figuring it out as I go. Second, getting inside a character often requires diving into emotional depths that don’t necessarily want to be explored.

Quotable

A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent,or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

–Junot Diaz

Tell, Don’t Show

 When should a writer break the commandment “Show, don’t tell?” Frequently. I’m turning to Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer to support what I believe. In the book she uses an excerpt from “Dulse,” by Alice Munro, a story about Lydia, a middle-aged, divorced poet and editor.

Excerpt: She had noticed something about herself on this trip to the Maritimes. It was that people were no longer so interested in getting to know her. It wasn’t that she had created such a stir before, but something had been there that she could rely on. She was forty-five and had been divorced for nine years. Her two children had started on their own lives, though there were still retreats and confusions. She hadn’t gotten fatter or thinner, her looks had not deteriorated in any alarming way, but nevertheless she had stopped being one sort of woman and had become another, and she had noticed it on this trip.

My Take-away: Prose uses this example (along with a preceding paragraph I didn’t cite) to illustrate that writers often need to tell, not show. She notes that much time would have been wasted had Munro shown Lydia working as an editor, writing poetry, breaking up with her lover, dealing with her children, growing older, before the story actually begins.

I agree that well-written narrative can accomplish much, and the last sentence of the excerpt resonates with me–and probably many readers. It’s the dope slap of awareness that I’ve “stopped being one sort of woman and become another.”

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.

–Joyce Carol Oates

Boost Writing’s Impact With Timing

Writers, want to make a good characterization or scene memorable? OK, not everything you write can be memorable, but you can heighten your writing’s impact if you’ll consider timing. I’m using “timing” here in the broadest sense: time of day, season, occasion, etc. Here are a few examples:

A young woman gets a much-anticipated phone call from the prominent researcher who’s offering her a job as his assistant. She’s happy. We’re bored. What if this call came at 3 a.m.? Same message, different time of day. That raises questions: is he drunk? Can she trust him? Is calling people at 3 a.m. just a quirk?

A woman holding a glass in one hand spills vodka while loading clothes into the washer. Suggests she has a drinking problem, right? What if she’s home alone while the family is attending church on Sunday morning?

An aspiring golfer spends three hours making nine-iron shots to a practice green.  Obviously dedicated. But really determined to improve his short game if it’s January and there’s snow on the ground.

A young single mom who marries the man of her dreams is warned by her divorced mother-in-law that the groom’s father is a convicted child molester.  Sobering. What if this communication takes place at the young woman’s wedding reception? Wow. (I didn’t make this one up.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

–Anton Chekhov

Intimidate With Names

 In one life I toiled in the trenches as a substitute teacher, mostly at the high school level. One of the first things I’d do upon entering the classroom was to surreptitiously scan the seating chart and learn four or five names. Then in the first few minutes of addressing the class, I would look at a student and call him by name. I could feel everyone flinch. If she knows his name, she might know mine.

After citing a few more names, I felt pretty confident that things would go smoothly. There’s nothing like hearing your name and thus having your veil of anonymity lifted to make a person feel vulnerable, as in a student who doesn’t want to get written up, or special, as in being called up out of an expectant crowd for having won a drawing for a new Toyota Prius.

It’s even possible to break someone’s anonymity without using their name. That’s why the guy stocking the grocery store’s shelves is taught to greet the customers.  He’s not being friendly. He’s making it psychologically difficult for customers to shoplift. But I digress.

While donating blood the other day, I got into a conversation about names with my phlebotomist, Will, and told him about this post. He said in Catholic demonology, if someone calls the demon by name it will make the exorcism go easier. Now that’s some  powerful intimidation. So I googled the subject and found a site called Religious Demonology.  Its author is Adam C. Blai, Peritus, M.S., a clinical psychologist who, among other things, trains priests in exorcism.

He answers this question: “Knowing or saying a demon’s name gives me power over it, right?” by saying “No. Only God has power over demons.” Later he says, “People not called to spiritual warfare who know a demon’s name have no more ‘power over’ that demon than a high school student has power over a professional boxer in the ring just because he knows that boxer’s name.” I suggest you read the post as it’s more nuanced than I’ve presented it here.

Does any of this matter to a writer? Maybe peripherally. A character who is dealing with a rude customer service rep or nurse or flight attendant asks, “What’s your name?” Or, in a thriller, a woman is approached by a creepy stranger who addresses her by name.

Another random thought about names. In real-life conversations, people rarely use one another’s name. Woe to the writer whose dialogue sounds like this:

“Did you pick up the dry cleaning, Brad?”

“No, Malinda. I didn’t have time.”

“So, Brad, what do you plan to wear tonight?
Etc.

Quotable

Why do they call it Vers-otchi? I don’t put an Otchi bandage on my ankle.

–Steve Skarnulis

 

 

 

 

Word Choice: Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon Words

Think of a suitable instrument for playing a romantic tune like “If I Loved You.” Unless you wanted a comic effect, you wouldn’t choose a tuba.

Words are like that. Word choice is one way to set the tone of your writing, and writers can choose from a plethora of synonyms in the English language in large part due to derivatives from Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots. In general, words from Latin have a loftier or more formal tone compared to the more down-to-earth, sometimes streetwise sound of their Anglo-Saxon cousins. Often, but not always, the Latin derivatives are more likely than the Anglo-Saxon derivatives to have multiple syllables.

Some examples:

  • prohibit vs. ban
  • beneficial vs. good
  • conflagration vs. fire
  • altercation vs. fight
  • intoxicated vs. drunk
  • juvenile vs. young or child
  • copulate vs. screw
  • explosion vs. blast
  • vigilant vs. wary
  • multiple vs. many
  • estimate vs. guess
  • smart vs. erudite

In practical terms, analyze your writing in terms of word choice. Chances are too many Latin derivatives will drag down an action scene, while they might improve the tone of a romantic scene.

Consider how you might differentiate characters by their word choice in dialogue. The stuffed-shirt will speak formally whereas the pandering politician will use informal language or slang.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

–Nicolas Chamfort *

*According to Quote Investigator, the origin of this quote is often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain.

 

 

 

Playing at Writing

Working on the first draft of my new novel last night, I was stumbling over a bunch of self-imposed hurdles.

  • I need a better sense of what my protagonist wants.
  • How will this book end, anyway?
  • Does my dialogue ring true?

Fighting the urge to stop and play a game of “Bejeweled,” I told myself  I just needed to write my way through this. As it happened, I was writing a scene in which Irina interrupts her twin sister, Christina, who’s holding scraps of paper on which their mother has written poems. I hadn’t thought much about the poems themselves, other than they’d make your eyes roll. My thinking had been limited to the mother’s futile attempts to sell them to magazines like Atlantic Monthly.

Irina has come to her sister’s room for a confrontation, but an amused Christina greets her with, “Listen to this.” At this point I needed a bit of awful poetry and came up with a line: “Lies oozing from languid lips linger . . .”

Wow. That was so much fun to write. Then I thought of another line: “Applesauce, butter, flour, sugar, a pinch of salt and a pound of sorrow.”

I could get carried away with this, but it wouldn’t serve my novel very well. What I’m left with is, what is it about intentionally sucking at writing that is so freeing? Is it just about muzzling the inner critic?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

 

Quotable

When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.

–Erasmus

 

 

 

 

Readers Crave Intimacy

As a writer grounded in journalistic style for way too many years, I struggle to create the sense of intimacy that readers of fiction crave. My instinct is to report what’s happening, and it’s only after multiple revisions that I’m able to let the reader experience what’s happening.

Writers, readers, allow me to introduce you to Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan. I expect you’ll find it mentioned here often as it ranks as one of the essential references in my library. Besides, I can get lost reading it for sheer enjoyment.

One problem that holds readers at a distance is “filters.” McClanahan quotes John Gardner, who in The Art of Fiction cites the use of “needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness.” Often this means the writer uses “she felt,” “he saw,” “she heard,” etc., when it’s already apparent that the passage is perceived by the character. McLanahan provides this example:

The boy eyed the contents of his grandmother’s room, noticing the tiny figurines arranged in tiers on the mahogany shelf. He saw the bouquet of miniature irises, the ceramic Cinderella slipper, the glass horse with the painted blue eyes. He felt a sadness sweep through him like an autumn breeze.

Then she removes the filters to create a more intimate version of the passage:

The boy eyed the contents of his grandmother’s room, noticing the tiny figurines arranged in tiers on the mahogany shelf–the bouquet of miniature irises, the ceramic Cinderella slipper,. the glass horse with the painted blue eyes. Sadness swept through him like an autumn breeze.

Feel the difference? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

–Jack London

Links for Writers v1.0 May 2017

Faced with so many blogs and web sites for writers and readers, how do you choose? I’ll try to help. From time to time I’ll give y’all links to sites and specific posts.

Sharon Scarborough introduced me to the blog Writer Unboxed where Donald Maass, one of my favorite writing gurus, is one of many regular contributors. Here’s Maass with a different look at pacing in “Getting Ahead of Yourself . . . and Your Reader.” 

Until very recently, I was stuck in terms of the role of a secondary character in my work-in-progress. What got me un-stuck was a post on the Self Publishing Advice blog of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors). The post is titled “Writing: How to Plot Better by Concentrating on Character,” by Olaf Bryan Welk. If you’re not familiar with ALLi, check it out.  I subscribed to the ALLi blog and lurked around for quite a while enjoying all the free content, but I ultimately joined because it’s arguably the best advocate for indie authors around.

Indie authors know the value of reader reviews. It’s not negative reviews that doom a book so much as a lack of reviews. How should you go about getting reviews? Here’s a comprehensive post on the subject, “How to Create a Review Campaign for Your Book Launch,” on the blog Book Marketing Tools. 

Quotable

Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.

–Neil Gaiman

Grief in Fiction

Writing about grief challenges the novelist, but when it’s done well it provides a rewarding experience for the reader. As human beings, we don’t get a manual on how to grieve, but culture sets up expectations about how we should grieve. In reality, individuals respond to loss in their own way, and reading about how someone else reacts can help us come to grips with our own responses.

Nuff said about that. In the following excerpt, Cork O’Connor, at age twelve or thirteen, has stifled his feelings since his father was killed. As he helps Sam Winter Moon put plywood over the windows of Sam’s Place, the burger stand they’re closing down for the winter, Sam talks about Cork’s father.

Excerpt from Vermillion Drift, by William Kent Krueger:

“You know,” Sam said around a nail gripped in his teeth, “that man could outfart a draft horse. Hold your side up a little higher, Cork” He took the nail from between his teeth and positioned it.

Cork thought it a little unseemly, speaking of his father that way, but he held his tongue.

“We were canoeing once up on Angle Lake. Came around a point headed for the next portage. There not five feet away was a bull moose, munching on lakeweed. We startled him as much as he startled us. That animal lowered his head and was about to do real damage to our canoe and probably to us in the bargain. Your father, he farts and it’s likie cannon fire. Echoes off the trees. Sends a tidal wave across the lake. Scares the crap out of that bull moose. The critter turns and hightails it.” Sam was laughing hard enough that he couldn’t hammer. He leaned against the Quonset hut for support and finished, breathless. “And then your father, he says, ‘I just hope we don’t run into a bear, Sam. I’m clean outta ammo’.”

Cork stood holding up his side of the plywood, watching Sam Winter Moon laugh heartily.

“It’s okay, Cork,” Sam said. “It’s okay to laugh. It was something your father loved to do.”

And Cork did laugh. He laughed so hard tears began to squeeze from his eyes, and before he knew it, he was crying. Sam Winter Moon laid his hammer down and took Cork’s hands from the plywood, wrapped his big arms around the weeping boy, and held him.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.

–Joyce Carol Oates

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.