Thursday, November 27, 2008

Writing Prompt

In 500-1,000 words write a story with the title "The Waiting Room."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Have Fun With Character Perspective

The last two weeks we talked about point-of-view. This week let's delve into a related topic: character perspective. Equally important, this can be a challenging but also fun choice to make.

Let's say you write a story about a teenage girl who attempts suicide. Your first inclination may be to write it from the girl's perspective. But who else is involved/affected? Potentially several people: parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts/uncles, friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, doctors/nurses, police offers, EMTs. That's just a start.

Who are these people and why do they care? What could they bring to the story? Good questions. Let's take the mother, a sibling, and a nurse and see what they bring to the table.

The mother: What might the perspective of the mother do for the story? For starters, she's intimately connected and has an emotional stake in the matter. This is her baby. Imagine how she would feel realizing that her daughter is suffering enough to go this far. The mother can also offer a larger family portrait, including insights into the father and the parents' relationship and their relationship with the children. She may give us vital clues as to why things came to this point.

A sibling: Siblings may be closer than parents and children. Or they may be equally distant. However, it's likely he or she would know things about the sister that the parents would not. And there is the affect on them whether good or bad. If you have a sibling, just imagine if they attempted suicide, especially as a teenager. How would you feel?

A nurse: Despite possibly seeing a lot of terrible things, could this case make more of an impression? Absolutely. Such a character could add a lot of objectivity, seeing the family and others associated with the girl from an emotional distance. And such objectivity could add a special meaning and depth to the story, revealing things that might remain hidden with a character closer to the circumstance.

Do you see the possibilities blossoming? Before you decide on character perspective, do some searching. Make a list of the people who are involved or who could be. What is their involvement? What do they know or not know that could serve the story well?

Don't just think about the possibilities, write them. There's no harm in writing a story from more than one perspective. Regardless of who you go with, you've learned a lot more about your characters and the situation. And such knowledge is invaluable to writing a complete story.

So as I am fond of encouraging, explore your options. Don't settle because it's the first idea or the easy idea or the comfortable idea. Give other characters a chance. And give your story a chance to be more.

Get Writing!
Let's go with the scenario above. A teenage girl has attempted suicide. It's been discovered and she needs to go to a hospital. In 500 words, write this scene three times from the perspective of

The father
A neighbor
A police officer

Feel free to try it with any of the other possibilities as well. And don't hesitate to come up with your own. Your goal: See how a basic plot might be taken to new heights with different characters.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Visiting the Homes of Famous Authors

Do you live near or are you visiting a place where a famous author lived? A little off-track, I know. But visiting the homes of famous authors can be a fun and enlightening experience. You may learn a lot of fun things about their habits and hear anecdotes about how they worked. And it can motivate you to get home and write!

I've had the chance to visit a few authors' homes in my region and one abroad. I've toured two houses associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne - the House of Seven Gables in Salem, MA, which Hawthorne based his book on of the same name, and the Old Manse in Concord, MA. According to the guide at the Old Manse, Hawthorne's wife kept him in tow, yelling for him to get back to work if she heard the floorboards creaking above stairs. Even master novelists need a kick in the pants sometimes!

Also in Concord, MA is Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. There you can see the original desk she wrote at (sometimes for 14 hour stretches!) and original drawings on some of the walls done by her sister May.

In Connecticut, the houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe sit side-by-side. They're quite a contrast. Twain's home is a fusion of Victorian and Gothic styling. Can't say I loved his taste but I found the bookshelves that hugged every inch of the inside delightful. And there is a beautiful sun room on one side of the house. The Stowe house is a fairly plain 19th century home but our guide was fantastic.

Out in western Massachusetts I got to see Edith Wharton's estate, the Mount. She personally oversaw the design of the classical revival house and was very particular about it. It was quite the removal from her New York life. That entire region is beautiful but her estate is quite romantic. Between the airy design of the house and the gardens and lawns it overlooks, I understood why she loved it so.

I also had the chance to visit Charles Dickens' London residence several years ago. While it's primarily Victorian, I remember part of the interior was surprisingly modern. But I'm a sucker for black and white tile.

Writers are everywhere. So are their abodes. See who lived in your region and plan a field trip. Or if you're going away, do a search to see if any writers lived there. It can be quite the experience, taking you into the past and into the heads of some of the most renowned writers. And don't forget many historic homes need support. By visiting, you make it possible for their homes and legacies to stay open for everyone.

Authors' Homes
Here's a short list of some famous writers whose homes are now museums.

Edith Wharton
The Mount, Lenox, MA

Mark Twain
Hartford, CT

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Hartford, CT

Louisa May Alcott
Orchard House, Concord, MA

Nathaniel Hawthorne
House of Seven Gables, Salem, MA

The Old Manse, Concord, MA

Charles Dickens

Herman Melville
Arrowhead, Pittsfield, MA

Ernest Hemingway
Key West, FL

Henry David Thoreau
Walden Pond, Concord, MA

Birthplace and other homes associated with him, Stratford-upon-Avon

Anton Chekov

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Choosing the Best POV

As discussed last week, point-of-view (POV) offers quite a few options and even options within the options. You may not know what's best for your story or you may tend to default to a certain POV. So let's review some ways to get around these issues.

Go With Your Gut
A lot of writing decisions seem to be made instinctively. There is no calculation. Things come about because they feel right and a lot of times we don't question it. Sometimes instinct knows better than we do and the first choice is the best choice. So if the POV feels right, then you may already have your answer.

But what if the first choice is really just the safe choice? It might be instinct because it's what we're comfortable doing. If so, let's see how we can spice things up.

Test the options. Go ahead and start the story with your gut POV. But don't necessarily settle for it. Rewrite it (or part of it) in a different POV. In fact, go a little nuts and try more than one by using variations on the different points-of-view. For example, if you initially wrote it in first person try third person limited omniscient. Have fun with it. See where things go. While you may be more comfortable writing in one POV you may discover opportunities exploring a different one.

Making a Choice
So you've gone with your gut and you've pushed personal boundaries and experimented with POV. Now what? Stand back from your writing for a second and ask these questions: How does the POV help the characters? As a reader, are they easier or harder to get involved with? Do you feel what they feel? Are their personalities more or less distinct? How does the POV affect the storytelling? Is it flexible enough? Can you show what you need to or are you too limited? Or maybe you're not limited enough?

Ultimately, think about what's best for the story. Don't limit your options because of fear. Experiment. Enjoy the process of finding your POV. Something may happen in the middle that changes everything. And isn't that one of the joys of writing?

Get Writing!
Take a story you've already written or are working on writing. What POV are you using? Pick the opposite POV and write at least one page. What happens to the story? Do you see things emerging that didn't with the original POV? Are your characters showing sides you've never seen? Your goal: Go outside your comfort zone and see what the alternatives have to offer. Even if you stick with the original, you may learn some things that will serve you well later. Plus, you may find a new POV to use for another piece.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Read to Learn to Write

We often learn best by example so as writers what better way to learn how to write than by reading?

Choosing well-written novels and stories and analyzing as you go can help you to improve your own writing. Pay attention to the point-of-view and how the writer developes it; to the setting and the effect it has on the story; to the use of imagery and description; to how dialogue is written and what information is revealed through it; to how emotion is portrayed; to how background information is woven into the story; and to what method the writer uses to tell the story.

Keep track, even in writing, of things that stand out. It's especially easy to jot down images and descriptions. I saved this line from "The Bride from the Village of Deaf-Mute" by Brigid Pasulka: "He took Sasha's hand in his, and it shook like a baby bird fallen from a nest." I read that story for the first time a few years ago and it still randomly comes to mind. That is a writer I can learn from.

Are you working on a certain aspect of your writing? Seek out literature that does it well. Do you write in a specific genre? Find the masters in that genre and learn from what they've written. Then, go to work practicing what you've figured out.

For example, in historical fiction it's challenging to weave in details about real people or events without it turning into an exposition fest. So while reading Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, I'm paying attention to how she does it. This story involves some complex political situations so I'm getting a lot of tips on how to handle it.

Most importantly, read as much as possible. Expose yourself to the many ways writers interpret their craft. Learn the rules of writing and see how they're broken effectively. Mimic the masters to get a grip on how to apply certain techniques. In the end, you'll see your own writing improve just by imitating some good examples.

Get Reading and Writing!
Choose one thing you'd like to work on in your writing. For instance, dialogue. Search for writers (or specific pieces) that excel in this area. The dialogue in Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and Julia Glassman's "Tenses" are good places to start. Think about why the dialogue is great. Why does is flow so well? Why does it make such an impact? Why do their words convey so much emotion? Spend some time analyzing your choices, picking them apart to get to the techniques behind them.

After you've learned a little something about good dialogue, apply it. Rework an old story using the new techniques. Or start afresh with the aim of putting your newfound knowledge to work. Your goal: For one, use your reading skills to learn on your own what makes good writing. Second, turn that new understanding into a skill you possess as well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Point-of-view: Your Options

Point-of-view (POV) determines who tells the story. At its best, it can help reveal your characters and intensify emotions. At its worst, it can confuse readers and leave them detached from the story. If you read a lot of fiction writing books, you'll find many ideas about point-of-view and many in-depth explanations about the choices. In this article, we'll talk about two basic points-of-view: first and third person.

First Person
In first person, one of the character's tells the story. You know their thoughts and feelings and see things happen from their perspective. He or she may be right in the middle of the action or simply watching it. This method opens the way for an intense emotional journey. There are many good examples but one of my favorites is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Her ecstasy, despair, confusion, and obsession with Grace Pool would not be the same in another POV. The mystery and gloom that lingers throughout the book is due in part to our narrator. She's not clued in so neither are we.

The downside to first person is that you're limited to one perspective. Or are you? In Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir several characters take the stage and tell their side of things. Each chapter title reveals the narrator and Weir does a great job in creating unique voices for each. You don't even really need the titles to know who's speaking. Stevenson uses a similar approach, though more limited, in Treasure Island. This type of storytelling won't work for everything but it's certainly something to keep in mind.

Third Person
Third person uses an unnamed narrator who never enters into the story. This is where things get tricky. You can break third person down into many variations. For the sake of length, I'm boiling it down to three: limited omniscience, full omniscience, and objective.

Limited omniscience gives you the story from one character's perspective whether central to the action or not. This POV can work like first person in that you see right into the character's soul. But because they're not telling the story there is more objectivity and you can also see things that they don't, which can be very handy. "The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin uses limited omniscience. It can feel very much like first person. But Chopin could only produce such an ending with third person.

Full omniscience broadens the perspective to more than one character. This POV enables you to tell more than one side of the story. But it must be handled carefully to avoid confusion, especially when shifting between several characters. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell takes advantage of this method. Though primarily Margaret's story, it often switches to John's perspective. We see him struggling to keep his business from falling to pieces along with his longing for Margaret and his pain at her rejection. We would not have such sympathy or understanding of him if the story only relied on Margaret's perspective.

Objective third person is completely outside the characters and relies totally on dialogue and description to reveal what's going on. There is no one else interpreting the story but the reader. This obviously poses challenges and it may be difficult to remain that outside of the characters. However, masterful stories can be written this way. Carson McCullers did it with "The Jockey." There are some tense undercurrents in that story even though you never know for sure what anyone is thinking.

Now that we've tasted the options, which POV is right for your story? We'll delve into that conundrum next week.

Get Reading!
Sample the points-of-view by reading a variety of literature. You'll notice different authors favor different points-of-view and how they handle them varies. It may give you ideas for your own writing or help you use a certain POV more effectively. Here are some novels and short stories to get you started:

First Person
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Third and Final Continent" by Jhumpa Lahiri
"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
"Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night" by Thisbe Nissen
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
"Brownies" by ZZ Packer

Third Person
"Wunderkind" by Carson McCullers
"The Jockey" by Carson McCullers
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
"Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant
"Xingu" by Edith Wharton
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
"The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin

Friday, November 7, 2008

Get Specific With Object Writing

Object writing is a fun and simple way just to practice or to warm up before a writing session. This is how you do it:

Pick an object. Something around your house, outside, in your office, anything. Write it down. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and start writing. No editing and try not to stop for too long at a time.

Like freewriting, the point is to loosen things up in there and get the creative juices flowing. When I do object writing, I work at producing concrete images and zoom in on the finer details of my subject. Doing this on a regular basis will help you be more concrete in all your writing and teach you to pay attention to details.

Get Writing!
Do one object writing a day during the next week for fun or to warm up. Here are five to get you started: fortune cookie, locket, paper shredder, sunglasses, kitchen cabinets. Your goal: Describe the object using concrete imagery. Flex those muscles and dig for specifics!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

About the Lack of a Tuesday Entry...

First of all, I apologize for the missing Tuesday article. I'm back online after two days without Internet service. (Yay!) So I'm publishing Tuesday's article along with today's. Also, I'm publishing a bonus entry this week to make up for it. :)


Build a Solid Vocabulary

Words are your friends. Having a word arsenal at your disposal makes writing easier, more enjoyable, and spicier. There's nothing like knowing the word that aptly describes what you want. How do you build a solid vocabulary?

The Studied Approach
You might pick a word from the dictionary or elsewhere and then make a point of using it in speech and writing. Or keep a word-a-day calendar on your desk (they also make fun calendars that feature out-of-use words). But you must make an effort to use the words to retain them.

The Casual Approach
When someone uses a word you don't know, look it up to learn the exact meaning(s) and then start using it yourself. Then there's reading. I learn most of my new words this way. When you come across something you don't know, look it up and then use it yourself.

You may even want to add words to your notebook as you go, especially words you love. Or make a note of words you want to look up later as you read or hear them in everday life. A few of my favorite words (earth shattering or not) that I draw on in life and writing are nonplussed, pontificate, hankering, expostulate, and heinous.

What are your favorites?

Get Writing!
Over the next several days while reading or listening, pay attention for words you don't know or rarely use. Look them up and conscientiously use them in your own speech and writing. Alternatively, choose interesting or descriptive words from the dictionary and make use of them. Keep a log of these new words in your notebook. You never know when it might come in handy.

How to Choose Between Several Ideas

You may have many ideas swimming around your head or your notebook. In fact, you may have so many you feel confused about which one to pursue. You may feel pulled in several directions, starting many ideas but finishing only a few. You may end up frustrated because it seems you're working an awful lot but not getting too far. Sometimes as writers we worry we'll run out of ideas. But in this case it's the opposite problem, you have too many.

Not too long ago, I wrote an entire story during a successful writing exercise. I had a significant personal breakthrough because of it, so I felt compelled to keep going with the idea. But I had already started another story that was taking me in a new direction and I was excited to see where it would go. When it came time to write, which one to pursue? I dove into the new story and played with the storytelling. Then I felt guilty for neglecting the other idea because I felt it had so much potential. In the middle of all of this indecision and guilt, I rediscovered some other gems in my notebook and felt even more torn. What's a writer to do?

I realized I had to choose one to work on first. I couldn't concentrate on anything and therefore nothing got the time and devotion it deserved. So I analyzed my candidates. I thought about the stories, the characters, how original and interesting they were, and how original it was for me. Have I written this story before? Are these characters reprised roles of others I've already explored? Am I taking any risks writing this? After thinking about it, I chose the story I'd started before the exercise. Why? A few reasons:

1) It was entirely unlike anything I'd ever written. I saw techniques I'd practiced melding in this story unlike ever before.
2) It was original. I had these unusual characters in an odd situation that stood out as different.
3) I couldn't wait to get on with it. I wanted desperately to finish that story, find where my characters were headed, and see what the end would bring.

With those three realizations, I had my winner. The story from the writing exercise served a purpose but it lacked the spark and originality of the first story. It may become something more someday but for now it is what it is.

There are many reasons you can choose to work on one idea versus another. My sister remarked that some of her ideas just had something about them "that [wanted] to be written" and she couldn't let go of them or they wouldn't let go of her. That's the way I felt about the story I chose. It wouldn't let me go.

So when you're torn ask yourself:
Do I love the idea?
Am I dying to write it?
When I put it down, does it keep coming to mind or do I let it go?
Is it original - in general or to you?

Analyze your ideas based on these suggestions and the mist will part in no time.

Get Writing!
If you're torn between ideas, spend some time analyzing them. Are they original? Or at least original for you? Are you excited by the direction it's taking or that it's taking you? Out of them all, is there one that just insists you write it? Which idea intrigues you the most? Remember, you can always return to an idea later. It will still be there.
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