Friday, May 31, 2013

Words, Words, Words!

Not only is this a line from Hamlet, a one act play by David Ives, and a comedy routine with subsequent album by a fellow named Bo Burham (I heaven't seen nor heart the Ives nor the Burham works, so I can't vouch for or against them), but it's also a proper invocation for the many words Shakespeare added and or retooled within the English language (his restyling of weird being one of my favorites) and one of the greatest tools and challenges of any writer.  Those darn blame squiggly lines that make letters, then words, then sentences, if only they could emerge from our conscious fully formed into the very work of art we're imagining--our work would be so much easier and quite frankly--boring, vapid, and a word I just learned while writing this sentence-bromidic which comes from bromide--a cliche and a sedative--ha!  Now there's a good comparison--cliche as sedative.

We often talk about the importance of unique language- inventive turn of phrase--lyrical imagery--all of which require a firm and expanding command of language.  Not to mention spelling.  At least, that's what my English teachers always told me in grade school, high school, college, graduate school and at the water cooler at the college where I work (it's in the same room where we host our department gatherings).  So why am I such a blasted lousy speller? I blame it on dyslexia--which took me a devil of a long time to learn how to spell, so did restaurant and I still frequently need help with soldier.  This is my way of saying, do your best with spelling grammar and don't hide behind any excuses like dyslexia, my spell check is broke, learn as many words as you can, inside and out.

I love the opening of "Almost a Whole Trickster" where the narrator (who is never identified by gender nor is the character's gender revealed within the story) pinches Ashinabe words with a dying relative--alluding to the power of words.  Not just how they sound, what they mean according to a dictionary or the connotations we ascribe to them culturally,but also because what they mean to us emotionally.  Those two family members rode to the hospital in the dead of winter pinching summer words.  The very idea is beautiful, poetic, and emotional all in one.

For this reason, we need to understand all of the layers of language and use them in our writing.  To do that, we have to love language, look at words from every possible angle--for instance, is there a reason angle and angel are but flipped letters apart? Did anyone else notice that "lousy" looks like someone's name. Or is that just to me? The girl who loves words like pifflesquat, sluiced, and onomatopoeia (even if she does have to look it up to know how to spell it).  We need to understand their sound, their rhythm, their meaning, their emotional resonance, their cultural significance in various cultures.  For instance-- to be smart here in the US, you need to be intelligent, to be smart in the UK only requires a sense of fashion--or to use another of mine--to be natty.  Play is also a necessity-- throw your words around a bit-- see how they can play off each other-- sarcasm, irony, and no it isn't ironic that John Crapper invented the toilet, after all that's why it's called the Crapper-- he invented it.  And low and behold that Otto fellow and his French rival made into quite a song in the film Beaches are both fictional and the real inventor of the modern female undergarment was Mary Phelps Jacob who did so circa 1913.  By the way, she was also  a poet.  She and her husband were also the first publishers of folks like James Joyce and Ezra Pound.  

In other words, don't be afraid to go where the words lead you--to learning new ones, figuring out how to spell old ones, urban legends, inventors, and the first publishers of writers.  You never know what you might discover by looking at words in all their splendor.

Please do share a bit about words--what new words have you learned lately? Any urban legends you've debunked? New meanings? Pronunciations that have changed how you view a word.  For instance, check out how you're supposed to say cupola.  Is it said the way you thought it was? If so, where do you live? Why should that matter?

Write on, write on...


Friday, May 17, 2013

Dream the Impossible Dream

Writers these days are supposed to Tweet (I believe I can whistle), blog regularly to develop a following (I pretty much have breathing down, except when my asthma flares up, but beyond that I don't do anything on a schedule), update their website (egad, how am I going to afford that?) and so on and so on and SO... I'm going to dream the impossible dream and try the say less, post more often approach. Ha!

I know anyone who knows me is laughing in a yeah-right-kind-of-way at the moment and I don't blame them.  After all, my attempts at writing regularly have usually ended the way most diets do (I don't advocate diets or forcing yourself to write).   I have never even made it one stinking week of writing every day unless I'm coasting to the end of a book--okay, so that usually only takes me three days--but still.

Okay, enough talk.  Now do it.  So, today, I'm blogging about dreams--your dreams, your kid's dreams, your characters' dreams.  I have dreams of many varieties, the one's I don't remember (their good entertainment for my subconscious, but not much help to me), the one's where I'm trying to solve an insolvable problems using something ridiculous like a rubber penguin (my advice if this happens to you: GET UP!  Fix something you've left undone, stretch, and go back to bed), the what did I eat before I go to bed weird dreams that make no sense, and the hurry up and write already dreams. These are the ones where I have an entire night of television of my own television shows designed by the creative team in my subconscious.  That happens when I haven't written in a long time and need to do it.  All dreams are useful--write them down--turn them into a poem, whatever you need to do to make use of the creative juices dripping out of your subconscious.  Some folks keep a journal by their bed--i-pad notes or notes on your phone work too.  Me, I try to keep them in my subconscious by reworking them into a story I tell myself as I fall back asleep.

Speaking of stories and sleep--I learn so much about what my daughters are coping with by the dreams they have because they tend to talk in their sleep. I only bring this up for the parents out there who might not have noticed the gold mine resting in what their children say in their sleep or about their pretend friends (the personification of the subconscious--walking, talking versions of dreams).  My oldest daughter is always going on about what her pretend friends are up to these days.  First it was her grandson whose name was Abis Anderson for a bit, then it changed regularly.  Now it's Kay-Kay--Big Kay-Kay (her alter ego) and Little Kay-Kay (her little sister's alter-ego). What those two girls get up to tells me what my daughter is struggling with herself. It also gives me some insight into what she's thinking about her sister. So, if Big Kay-Kay is digging up flowers in the garden and feeding them to the squirrels while Little Kay-Kay has fallen down a well-- things are going to get ugly unless we have a little mommy and me time--sibling rivalry is so much fun, isn't it?  Then again, my oldest routinely thinks of her sister even when they're not together. For instance, if someone offers her a treat, she says, "Can I have one for my little sister?"  Sound like a ploy to get seconds to you?  Me too.  But the kid actually delivers the candy to her sister-- way to go girl!

Okay, okay, so what does all of this have to do with writing? Well, the more you know kids and dreams, the better you get a writing characters and not just child characters, but big kids too. The dreams we had as kids, shape who we become as adults, the more you know about the dreams of our characters --nightmares and grand hopes--the better able you are to create complex characters, but please, please, please, don't fall into the pitfall of using dreams to convey character identity unless you use it in inventive ways that go well beyond the plot device.  The horror story that ends with the realization that it's all a dream--PLOT DEVICE.  The horror story that ends in a dream, the character wakes up is all relieved, then realizes the horror they faced in the dream has crossed over to their real life--Plot Device. The angst ridden character who reveals inner torment through dreams--you guessed it--device!

So, how do you use dreams in fiction?  Use them in ways that defy the devices--let the horror story be about someone who can't tell dream from reality and discovers they ARE someone else's nightmare and not real at all.  Use dreams in flashbacks, let a character see something in real life and realize they've dreamed about it--use it as psychological symbolism.  A character has been trying to cope with an absentee parent who is there every day on the physical level, but not the emotional level--the child keeps dreaming of that parent without a  face.  You don't show the dream itself.  You show the kid getting up and walking into the kitchen blurry eyed and sleepy (they've been having nightmares, after all).  When the kid looks up, Mom is all blurry--an shazam!  --the dream is a flashback--you're in the dream, you're out, and the reader sees the power of dreams and knows more about both the kid and the mom.

So use your dreams to expand your creativity, use your kid's dreams to learn more about them and character development, and use your characters' dreams in creative ways that expand their complexity and deepens the psychological realism of our writing.  Or share other ways to use dreams in your writing by posting a comment on this blog.  Dream on!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re-Envisioning as Revision

Revision--bane or boundary bender?  Sounds about right to me.  When you embark upon revision whether it's a reread and polish of the paragraph you've just written or a revamp of the full draft of a novel, you approach it with trepidation and frustration--right? Well, most people do.  If you dive in eager to see what new things take shape, then you're probably in the minority.  And since I've never been one to fit into the "in-crowd," let me take this opportunity to invite you all to go on a bender.  No, not the Hemingway route to inspiration (Sorry, Ernie!), but the boundary testing bender that allows you to treat revision as an opportunity to discover what might be dwelling in the cracks of your unconscious and waiting to come out. 

Attitude is everything--we've heard this adage applied to sales pitches, athletic performance, and nearly every other human endeavor, why should revision be any different?  The way you see revision directly effects how you will experience the process.  If you treat revision as an artistic re-envisioning of your work that allows you to explore new territory and expand on what you've already written and/or learned, then it came be a much more fulfilling and exhilarating experience.  If you look at the process as drudgery or the correction of mistakes, then it will be just that-- a bit like the writer's version of self-flagellation ((Need a definition for that implied metaphor? click here).

I know of a writer who worked for years on a novel, then rewrote it a short story and got it published.  Another writer and friend of mine writes a first draft, puts it in a drawer, then starts over.  Most of my writer friends labor over revision, fervently trying to get it right.  I love Janet Wong's response to that idea. I'm paraphrasing her here, but she says, "Revision isn't about getting it right.  It's about finding other ways to do it."  Want to know more about Janet? Check out her website.

For me, I like to think of revision as the mental equivalent of doing an archaeological dig in your subconscious.  When an archeologist sifts through a dig, s/he is uncovering the story of a former life/culture one artifact at a time.  Over time, the dig will reveal new pieces of evidence that completely changes the way we interpret the culture/people who lived there.  It's these discoveries in fiction that can really cause us to see our own work in new ways.

Let me offer a few examples from my own work.  When I wrote The Keening, a supernatural historical novel set in Maine during the influenza pandemic, I created a loner protagonist who discovers that she shares a secret ability with her father that she learns about after her mother dies and her uncles try to have her eccentric father committed to an asylum so they can sell their family home and buy another fishing boat to add to the family business.  (How's that for a run-on sentence?  Perhaps I should revise it?  Nah.).  In the original version, Lyza (the loner) had no friends because she was shunned by people who misjudged her dad and she meets a boy on the road at the end of the story  who is a part of the big reveal.  The responses I kept getting from editors about the story was that it was too moody and remote-- it needed more immediacy.  I figured a friendship would make Lyza's situation more immediate and accessible to readers by offering a foil for Lyza, so I went back into the story and made that young boy on the side of the road into her best friend.  In so doing, I had to weave him into the story in a way that made him seem as if he was there from the very beginning.  As I moved through the novel chapter by chapter, I found places for him to just walk right in.  In fact, until the conclusion of the novel, I didn't have to restructure the plot to bring him in-- it was as if he was meant to be there all along.  In fact, he seemed to fill voids I'd seen, but didn't know how to address until he came along.  I call these "expansion joints"-- places in a story that appear like Diagon Alley.  You think to yourself--where did that come from?  But once you enter them, they feel as natural as if they've always been there.

Expansion joints are just one of the many possibilities for discovery.  Exploring these areas of a manuscript can also lead you to discover new things about your work that turns you in a whole new direction.  In addition to being an outsider in her own community, Lyza fears travel and never wants to leave her family home on the ocean.  Originally, the novel ended with her embracing the idea of venturing beyond her home, but the exploration of this new friendship and his fascination with urban life leads Lyza to venture to "the big city."   This change made her a far more active part of the resolution of the story.  As a result, revising the story to include this friendship lead to a whole new ending organically.  I was as surprised by the turn of events as I hope my readers were.  It's this type of experimentation and discovery that can make revision quite a bit of fun.

It can also be a learning experience.  For longer than I'd care to admit, I've been tyring to write a retelling of the myth of Cassandra in a coal mining community in Virginia in 1911.  It wasn't until an inspiring conversation with a poet friend about the boundaries between a novel-in-verse and a thematic collection of narrative poetry that I fully embraced the idea that I could write this story in verse.  Once I started it, I realized the story fit the medium and it came alive on the page.  I can't say where the revision process will take me with this story because I just started the process--a literary journey that I'm personally looking forward to.  While I'm off revising-- feel free to share your insights and ideas about revising.  I'd love to hear your ideas!

Here's to the new places revision takes us!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

You Are My World: Character Development as World Building


As a historical novelist, I often get asked, "When do you know if you've done enough research?"

My apologies to the historical novelists who want to know more about doing research--that's not the topic today.  I'm actually going to talk about another aspect of my answer to this question.  I know it's time to start writing when I can see the world as my character would see it. 

It's so jarring when you start reading a historical novel and the character is more like a modern kid in a historical world than a historical figure, so it's essential that I can see the historical setting I'm writing about as if I were someone from that era which includes his/her pscyhological approach as well as his/her view of the times.  I refer to this as character's worldview. 

Character worldview is an element of character development that is quite a bit like world building from one character's perspective.  Then again,  should know the worldview of all of the characters in your story so, it would be more accurate to say it's world building one character at a time.

Let's talk about what goes into worldview.  For starters, imagine you're in an art gallery, standing with a group of folks looking at a work of art that reminds you of the days when you used to use your scissors to shave old crayons onto wax paper,* then your teacher used an iron to melt them into an elementary school version of a stain glassed window.  The guy next to you starts going on about existential expressions of color and a girl at the end is standing close enough to smell the paint, wondering if the artist mixed his own colors.  Meanwhile, a lady with three colored pencils holding her bun in place is texting a friend in Fiji to say she needs a good recipe for spiked fruit punch for a party she's hosting for a 100 close friends and one tempermental art critic.  Here, we see an example of worldview at work--each person looking (or pretending to look) at this work of art has a unique perspective on it.

It is a character's unique view of the world invoked by a work of fiction that allows us to see our own world in a new light.  For this reason, you need to develop your characters' individual view of the world which is an expression of voice, character motivation, and backstory.  We see the world the way we do because of our own life experiences-- to understand a character's perspective on the world-- we need to know how past experiences have shaped him/her, how s/he would describe things, and what motivates each character to see things in a certain way.

Take this scene from Nissa's Place (Milkweed) as an example. Look at how the differences in worldview between these two best friends shapes this scene.  Follow me to Louisiana in 1935, to go flower picking with Nissa Bergen and her best friend (maybe) Mary Carroll:


A bit later, Mary came bounding out onto the porch in a dress with her hair dangling down her back.  She even had her school shoes on.  “Hey there, Nissa!”

            “What are you wearing?”  I walked around her to take a good look.

            “Nothing fancy.”  She tried to look all modest, but she kept smiling like she’d just won a cake walk and claimed a triple decker chocolate cake with coconut frosting for her prize. 

            “You can’t go picking flowers in that.”  I pointed at her dress.  “You’ll get it all full of stickers and you could rip it.”

            “We might meet someone while we’re out picking flowers,” Mary announced.  “I don’t want to look like some crop picking boy.”  She waved at my overalls, averting her eyes like my clothes were unfit to even look at.

            “Who are we going to meet that’s going to give an owl’s hoot what we’re wearing?”

            Mary bowed her head, then did a weird kind of half turn like she’d gone soft in the hips or something. “Gary Journiette,” she whispered.

            “Gary Journiette?” I laughed.  “The boy who wears britches so full of holes you could use them as a fish net?”

            “He does no such thing.  Gary wears fine clothes.”

            “Are you blind as well as stupid?”  I shook my head.  “Just last week, I saw him walking down Quince Road wearing a shirt with the pockets flapping in the breeze like two string tied butterflies.”

            “Stop trash talking Gary!”

            “All right.”  I leaned in close so I could see the sweat on Mary’s nose well enough to count each bead.  “But in that thing your thighs will be sweating like a boiler tender in no time.  I’m not listening to you complain about prickly heat for the next three weeks.”  As I gave Mary a piece of my mind, I noticed a smell.  Not a stench really, but a nose biting odor that struck me as a cross between pine sap and baking soda.  “What is that smell?”

            “Perfume.”

            “Per-what?”  My ears felt like they’d been turned inside out.  “Do you want every wing flapping bug in Tucumsett Parish to be swarming around us while we’re flower picking?”

            “It’s pretty.”

            “It stinks!  And I’m not going anywhere with anybody wearing no perfume!”

            “Fine then.  I won’t go picking with you, Nissa Bergen!  I’ll go all by myself.”

            “You do that.”  I turned and walked off.

            Stomping down Quince Road with my bucket knocking me in the knees, I thought, God, what now?  Do I have to give up my best friend too?  First Mama, now Mary Carroll.  Everybody was leaving me in one way or the other.  At the open field on the far side of Sutton’s Creek, I realized I’d cursed at God.  Shaking my head, I tried to clear out all my anger.  Just let out into the air so it could fly off somewhere.

            Dropping to the ground, I stared up into the sky.  Why do people have to be so dumb?  It was a question to God, really.  My way of apologizing for accusing Him of taking my best friend away.  He did no such thing.  It was Mary who was leaving me of her own accord.  Just like Mama.  What I didn’t understand was why Mary would be such a fool on account of Gary Journiette.  No man’s worth prickly heat and more bug bites than a toad’s got warts.  Why can’t she just be the same old Mary and do her courting with Gary?  Mary and Gary, I said their names over in my head, then rolled over to bury my face in the grass.  Their stupid names rhymed.   Darn if they weren’t doomed to be married off some day.  I hated man-to-woman love - - all that silly flirting, courting, kissing, and swapping insides.  Not to mention the fighting, leaving, and divorcing part of it all.  People called it romantic love like it was something spectacular, but for me romance was a kind of insanity you never recovered from.  I prayed right then that I’d never look at a boy and think of courting for my entire life.  Assured that I was safe from future insanity due to courting, I stood up, then set off to pick flowers all by myself.

Here, you can see how the different worldviews on romance between these two girls provides a lot of the humor and angst in this particular scene-- and many scenes to come between them. Let's look at the elements of worldview here. First, backstory. Because of her parents' divorce, Nissa no longer believes in the concept of true love. In Mary's case, she idolizes her older sister April who has a literal string of promise rings-- well, actually they're strung on a necklace she left with Mary after she got married herself. Mary has an idealized view of marriage based on her sister and her parents who have been married for over a quarter of a century.

Next, we come to voice-- "Who's going to give an owl's hoot" is a distinctly Nissa saying.  I know because I made it up just for her.  Using unique turns of phrase that sound natural to the person, time period, and place is a great way to evoke dialect, era, and establish character voice simultaneously.  Likewise, Mary's more formal work choice and use of diction (until she's angry enough to tell Nissa to stop trashtalking Gary) shows a difference in her voice and within it becuase very few people use just one voice throughout their lives--we all code switch when moving from one sphere of our life to another or from one emotion to the other.

An additional aspect of voice to consider is the use of descriptive and figurative language--Nissa says Mary "kept smiling like she’d just won a cake walk and claimed a triple decker chocolate cake with coconut frosting for her prize" and Mary says she doesn't wan to look like some "crop picking boy" which distinguishes their voices and builds their world at the same time becuase we know they live in an agrarian society that still has cake walks (think musical chairs with cakes as a prize).  

Speaking of revealing things-- when characters share their worldview they also unveil something of their psychological motivation.  Mary never comes straight out and says she is wearing a dress because she wants to attract the romantic attentions of one Gary Journiette, but we know this because of what she says and does, so we infer it from the slant of her dialogue and behavior. We also know a lot about Nissa's psychological reaction to Mary's courting tendencies because of how she views romance as "an insanity you never recover from." 

Knowing the worldviews of each character in a given scene, story, or novel allows you to add layers of tension, irony, and meaning within the text.  It also provides you with a way to add complexity and depth to your secondary and tertiary characters to up the ante in terms of the realism of your worldbuilding whether you're writing a mystery, fantasy, or historical story. 

Overall, worldview not only allows readers to see the world in a new light, but it allows them to emerse themsleves in the lives of other people without being accused of eavesdropping.  Please let me know if you have any questions-- I love questions, especially if they cause me to learn new things becuase the more we know, the more we can imagine, the more we can imagine, the more we can create!

Please share your own insights on worldview.  I'd love to hear them!


*Recently, I learned that one way to get an old fashioned metal slide to be really zinging fast, is to slide down on wax paper first. It's the land sharks version of waxing your board (a sliding board in this case). You never know when you might be able to use such info in building a character's. Thanks, Marty!


Monday, June 18, 2012

If anyone's interested in the story behind the story with my novel Water Steps, please check out my contribution to CLN's Bookscope  The Literary Ripple Effect. If you don't know CLN, feel free to browse their site and check it out. I highly recommend the organization and applaud all they do to celebrate and honor children's literature.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A friend of mine, Veda Boyd Jones, asked me for advice on how to bounce back from rejection. She's writing an article on the subject.  I'll share what I sent to her, but I'd love to hear what other folks have to share about their own approach to dealing with rejection.


Whether it’s being picked last for the team or being told your plot is too confusing to follow, rejection is always an arrow to the heart.  And with such injuries, you can respond by donning armor and attitude.  First, feel free to say, ouch!  Who wouldn’t with a proverbial arrow sticking out of your chest?  Once you’ve acknowledged the sting, arm yourself with the fact that any rejection is part opinion, part market analysis, and part literary response.  It’s your job to figure out how much of each is at the base of it.  If the comments reflect a reader based response like, “I’m not that fond of …,” then you can surmise that that portion of the rejection is personal.  Some editors aren’t fond of certain genres or even certain things. I had an editor reject a book of mine because one of the characters was elderly and she wasn’t that fond of old people!  If the editor talks about having a tough time selling marketing on the idea or calls it a “quiet” book or mentions its  lack of broad appeal, then you know the issue is marketing.  On the other hand, if the editor critiques the craft – the development of the characters, the plot, etc, then you know the issue was the level of development.  It also helps to get a variety of opinions—do you see a pattern in the types of responses editors are giving you?  Then follow the pattern where it leads you. 

 In response, find an editor who loves what you’re writing based on other books s/he has worked on; seek a publisher who markets the type of book you’re writing (different publishers have different target audiences); and/or hone the craft of your manuscript.    

Above all, remember that what you are is a writer, it’s a part of you—what you write is a product and when an editor critiques your work—it’s not you that’s being critiqued, it’s just one thing you’ve written and that story may or may not merge into something new over its lifetime. You certainly have plenty more to say in the many stories you’ll write over your lifetime, so don’t take it personally—publishing is part of the profession of being an author, writing is our passion.  Focus on the passion and leave the book selling to the professionals.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Well, we can all tell that A. LaFaye is not with it.  She can't keep up with slang-- she's still hung up on the impressive fact that "twit" has meant the same thing for nearly 900 years. That a lot to say for any word.  I mean look at "weird" and how many times it's changed its meaning-- well, actually we changed it-- us talking and writing folks. Well, most people blame Shakespeare, but I'm not one for bandwagons, so I'll just blame Fancis Bacon. Seriously, though, I'm sorry I haven't been blogging on my blog, but I've never been one for that either.  I won't offer any empty promises of intending to write more often--afterall, I can't even remember my New Year's resolution at this point, so how can I, in good conscience, say I'll remember my blog site password and actually post regularly to this thing. Let's just say my words aren't the only thing to wander like my thoughts, the point of this blog, or my mind.  So, I'm off to wander about .  Hopefully, I 'llwander back soon.  I hope you're well and reading and/or writing facscinating things.  Do tell me aobut them.