May 28, 2011

Word repetition can either work for or against a writer.  Seeing a name, noun, or verb (especially a passive word like “was”) can suck the life out of otherwise compelling prose.  So under what circumstances, does repetition enhance a story?  Consider the following passage from Richard Wright’s Native Son:

“He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was standing up strongly with contrite heart, holding his life in his hands, staring at it with a wondering question. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was pushing forward with his puny strength against a world too big and too strong for him. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was groping forward with fierce zeal into a welter of circumstances which he felt contained a water of mercy for the thirst of his heart and brain.”

Here Wright is essentially punctuating the complex feelings of Bigger through repetition of his physical state.  The rhythm of the words is in perfect harmony with the dire situation in which Bigger has found himself.   

Repetition can also be used to give voice to a character. Throughout Native Son, Bigger has to make some difficult and important decisions.  In these moments Wright often starts out Bigger’s internal thoughts with either “And yes” or “And no.”  It works because Wright uses the device consistently and the reader believes that this is how Bigger reasons through problems.  In essence, the repetition is consistent Bigger’s voice and enhances the characterization of the narrator’s personality.

From Agents and Editors – Top Reason for Rejection

May 22, 2011

I heard it yesterday, I’ve heard it before and I have no doubt I’ll hear it again.  I’ve been to dozens of presentations by agents and editors over the last decade.  Invariably, they will discuss, or will be asked, what they are looking for in a manuscript.  Many reasons have been offered as to why a manuscript will get rejected by an editor or agent, but the most common reason is that they do not think the characters are developed enough.  My own experience as a reader is that a lot of literary fiction you find on the shelves are character-driven novels. 

Abigail Samoun, former editor of Tricycle Press, gave a talk to the winners of the Mount Diablo Branch of CWC’s Young Writers Contest.  She took us through the stages (a 5 year process), Paul Llewellyn, author of “The Tilting House ( went through on his journey to publication.  One of the issues Llewellyn had to deal with was developing his main character so that he felt real.  I, too, have gotten rejections where the agent’s biggest concern was that he or she did not like (or did not care enough about) my main character. 

Character development is not one of my strengths as a writer.  I am very much a plot driven storyteller.  It should also be no surprise that, as a reader, I am also drawn to page turners with lots of twists and turns to the plot.   I really don’t need to know the entire life history of the main character, give me action, surprise me, and I will be a satisfied reader.   

My book club recently read a thriller novel plot (Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) that I loved because of the plot.  One of our members described it as a “Brain Twinkie.”   The book is fast-paced, something that is needed for the thriller genre, but I wonder if she was also reacting to the main character – a smart, but not very likeable person.   

As a plot-driven writer, I have found character development exercises useful.  Here are a few websites that provide a list of questions or exercises to bring depth into your characters:

The more a writer knows about their characters, the better.  A writer must know what makes their characters tick before they can bring them to life on the page.

Connecticut in May, 2011

May 16, 2011

Connecticut in May, 2011

Connecticut is spectacular in May. Nature bursts forth  in an explosion of color in high contrast to dormant color-less winter.  As spring arrives, hills blanketed in trees turn vibrant green in a matter of days, right before your eyes. The bright blue sky, interrupted by billowing clouds, sparkles.   Mounds of flowering white dogwoods displace the mounds of cold white snow, almost impossible to imagine now.  Plum and cherry trees and forsythia bushes erupt in fresh pinks, reds and yellows.  Gardens team with tulips and lilies in every hue. 

Connecticut weather is oh so benign in May, so mild.  People emerge with caution from the experience of winter. They shake off the shock of it, and still a little  stunned, realize that it is finally over; it is safe to walk outside now.  This year they speak of it with new terms never heard here before, “ice dams”and “roof rakes”.  The talk recounts the storms of 2011:  the mountains of snow,  the cycle of melting and freezing that created thick, heavy layers of ice–ice that crushed barns and buckled buildings like tin cans, trapping and sometimes killing the inhabitants, horses and livestock.  There are descriptions of enormous hanging ice-cycles.  Then the floods when ice dams formed on roofs, trapping melting water and forcing it inside homes, impossible to stop; and the roads and bridges that disappeared under torrents of water when melting began in earnest. 

Connecticut in May is wonderfully alive.  The sight of baby squirrels and chipmunks flitting everywhere, and the chirping of birds busy building nests  belie the worst winter in recent memory.  Residents here braved the storms with little fanfare or recognition for the effort required to persevere.  Just heads down work day after day plowing roads, shoveling paths and picking at ice like chain gangs in a white, high-walled prison.  When the snow melted, the plowing switched to bailing water, with no questions asked, in a simple matter of survival. 

Connecticut in May is bright with promise.  Like new parents, the agony of the process of winter is forgotten by the citizens as their blossoming world makes demands. Gardens need prepping and planting. It needs to be done right now because a few weeks delayed might mean missing the best of the growing season.  Mangled useless gutters need replacements.   Leaking roofs marred by ice and rakes need repairs. Trees broken by the weight of ice or pushed over by well-meaning plowers need clearing.  Everyone is hard at it.  People of Connecticut are hardy and strong.  They take no rest, nor is any desired. They know with certainty summer will come soon, and it is worth working and waiting for.  

Connecticut in May is the breath of spring to be taken in deeply.   The cycle will repeat, perhaps less viciously.  The rain will come, maybe tomorrow.  But for now, people savor every luscious moment and store it in memory to be used as protective insulation against the next killing winter.  It is a life-saving gift. Or maybe it is the just reward for a job well done by a devoted loyal populous.  In either case, thank God for May.

Digging Deeper

May 14, 2011

It is not enough to say your character is uncomfortable, or that he or she fiddled with her necklace while waiting to be called into a job interview, or that their insides felt this or that way. A writer needs to dig deeper. Take, for instance, this scene from Richard Wright’s Native Son:

He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton’s face once since he’d been in the house. He stood with his knees bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that only went to the surface of things.

Notice how Wright uses a mixture of internal thought and physicality to convey the character’s (Bigger’s) discomfort. Wright shows us Bigger’s attitude, rather than telling the reader straight out. If you are struggling to reveal a character’s emotion, look around the setting and see if you can find an object or person to use. Then dig deep and overwrite. Find at least three sentences. Then take a break and review what you’ve created. You may not end up using it all, but chances are by digging deeper, you’ve found a fresh way to portray your characters emotions.

I struggle with trying to capture melancholy in words. What emotion(s) do you find hardest to capture?

Interfacing: Where Readers and the Written Word Collide

May 8, 2011

When you break it down to its core essence, reading is a strange phenomenon.  Think about it.  You take letters, form them into words, add punctuation for emphasis, and voilà, an image has formed in your brain. Your eyes track sentences across the page and you step into a world where characters live and all of a sudden a movie plays in your mind.

The only thing is the image in your (the reader’s) brain and the writer’s intent may not be the same.  Let’s take an example scenario.  You have opened a book to page one and the first word is Susie.   Your initial image of your narrator “Susie” may have at first been conjured as a schoolgirl and a red-head with shoulder-length hair (after all the girl in your sixth grade class named Susie had flaming locks the color of a vibrant sunset).  But in the next paragraph the writer has informed you that Susie is 20 years old and bald because her head was shaved during brain surgery.  A mental transition occurs and Susie’s image is forever altered in your mind as the story progresses. 

Health complications occur and Susie is bedridden.  Poor Susie.  What an awful life event to have to endure.  You root for her.  You discover her mother is an alcoholic.  Somehow Susie rallies through her illness and goes home to care for her dysfunctional mother.  You invest yourself; you want Susie to find happiness.  

You read on.  Life’s disappointments stack up for Susie.  Her boyfriend dumps her because of her bald head.  Susie’s dog gets hit by a car because her drunken mother leaves the front door open.  The reader has decided Susie must find redemption.  You don’t just like her, Susie has become your best friend.   You think about her plight while you are driving to work.  You don’t want to turn out the light at night.  You must know what happens.

But wait.  What is this?  The doctor reveals that Susie didn’t have a brain aneurism as you had presumed.  You flip back to the beginning of the book.  What?  Nowhere does it mention a medical cause for the surgery.  Susie’s surgery was necessary because of blunt force trauma delivered by Susie’s mother.  A frying pan.  Susie explains as she sobs to the physician how it was an accident, that her mother was drunk and didn’t know what she was doing.  But you don’t buy it. Oh, how you hate mom.   You decide good things must come Susie’s way and you keep reading. 

But wait.  Susie has just forced her mother to take a pill.   You flip pages.  Slurred words, empty vodka bottles line the sink, but there isn’t any mention of Mother Dearest ever ingesting alcohol.   Now, Susie’s mom is screaming about how her water tastes funny.  There is truth in mom’s words.  Susie thinks back about how she purchased a case of vodka, then dumped it all down the sink.  She goes to the pharmacy and buys up a cocktail of drugs.   You are confused.  Doubt forms.  Could Susie be plotting to kill mom to collect insurance money?

You decide how this story must end, Susie must be held accountable for her actions.  Mom must be saved.   You keep reading the words, your mind keeps forming the images, until the very last page.  Sometimes you are pleased with the ending, sometimes you are disappointed. 

I once heard someone say that a writer’s job is to torture your reader.  When you break it down though, an author’s only weapon is letters which form words that translate to images.  Sure, writers can be devious and lure you along with red herrings.  But at the end of the day, the rest is up to the reader.  That is the beauty of the written word.

Finding Inspiration in Another’s Journey

May 7, 2011

Two of our WOTJ members accomplishments were honored in the May 2011 California Writer’s Club (Mt. Diablo Branch) newsletter this week.  Susan Berman’s “Bad News About Our First Maricabo Christmastook first place in the Matilda Butler’s memoir contest.  Cheryl Spanos’ “Holey Vole-y” was accepted for publication in Stories for Children.  I am blessed to be in the company of such talented writers. 

A success for one of us is a win for all of us.  

Well done Susan and Cheryl!


May 4, 2011

Growing up in the Cowboys and Indians-crazed ’50s, the name, “Geronimo” brings back vivid memories.  I used to shout that infamous American Native’s name frequently, whether I was rushing a backyard fort or jumping off a high rock into the deep part of the river.  It is sad to think that noble native’s name from now on will be linked to a global terrorist and mass-murderer.

I, along with many millions of Americans and freedom-loving people around the world rejoiced at President Obama’s news late Sunday that Osama bin Laden, killer of thousands on 9/11 and many more thousands, both Muslim and non-Muslim the following ten years, had been summarily dispatched by US Navy Seals and sent to his own version of eternal damnation.  I felt (and still do) gratitude for ridding the world of his kind of evil, and making our society safer for my 3-year-old grandson, and your own precious little ones, to grow up and thrive.

But designating this monstrous “high value target” with the code name of “Geronimo” does insult to the real Geronimo, a true believer of Native American values and one of the most courageous warriors to have walked the earth.  A code name is a code name and I should not be so picky, my fellow Writers on the Journey will remind me.  But in many ways, Geronimo’s story changed my life as a youngster.  His death, also at the hands of US troops,  brought an end to a brutal and degrading chapter of Western American history.  With all sincerity, I hope the “surgical operation” of May 1st, 2011 brings an end to the long war between the West and terrorist organizations that butcher innocent men, women and children while draping themselves in the shroud of Islamic martyrdom.

I guess there is some irony in this name association.  Whether right or wrong, as a child Cowboy I dreamed of the chance to punch out Geronimo’s lights.  I wonder if the Navy Seal who fired the bullets (he remains nameless today but will soon be known to the world), felt the same way about Osama bin Laden, just before he pulled the trigger and killed an unarmed man.

I guess human nature will not change any time in the near future.