The first exercise borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Penguin’s Academic Series. We called this exercise, “Undoing a Cliché” where we listed as many clichés and over-used trite sayings as we could think of. Then we switched up the beginnings and endings, so we could take risks in our voice and startle our readers.
The students came up with startling images such as:
my feet are sicker than a dog
busy as a dog
busy as cats and dogs
Finally we ended with the an original prompt:
The Ant Who Wants to See the Moon Exercise #2
If you were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would you be?
1.ice cream flavor: ____________________________________________
2. furniture: ____________________________________________
3. time of day: ____________________________________________
4. animal: ____________________________________________
5. sea creature: ____________________________________________
6. article of clothing: ____________________________________________
7. plant or tree: ____________________________________________
8. kitchen item: ____________________________________________
9. body of water: ____________________________________________
10. architectural structure: ____________________________________________
11. fruit or vegetable: ____________________________________________
12. book: ____________________________________________
13. game: ____________________________________________
Now choose one, circle it, and anthropomorphize or personify it. For example, if you chose a book, think of your book title as a real paperback copy and write from the point of view of that book: where has it been? Where did it come from, library, bookstore, or Amazon, etc? Who’s hands has it been in? What kind of reader does the book like? What kind of reader is the book afraid of and why? Describe a day in the life of that paperback book? Where does it live? Who does it see? What would it like to do that it can’t? What is the book’s one heart’s desire? What is the book’s greatest fear and why? Put your book in a scenario where the greatest fear or desire is at stake. Be sure to use all seven senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, balance, time) and to depict time, place, setting, other characters, appearance, weather, year, day of the week, hour, etc. In essence, tell a story about your chosen subject!
Tell me about the last person you kissed; or getting to know your characters, every hurt, flaw, and mistake
Found on Tumblr by heroineoftheperipheral, these questions seem like excellent ways to know your characters better. Perhaps the responses could be the perfect introduction to your story, or a segue into the scene where protagonist meets antagonist. The possibilities are limitless. Have a go at this exercise and see what you come up with:
Who makes up your literary ancestry? Which authors stand as your lettered godparents, your artistic aunts and uncles, who have passed down, whether you asked for it or not, their characteristic genes with all their faults and strengths? Just as we have a biological genealogy, we must also recognize and come to terms with our literary heritage. Brainpickings‘ Maria Popova and Michelle Legro recently covered Circles of Creative Influence illustrated by Wendy McNaughton who visualized for us an artistic dynasty wherein poets Rachelle Cruz and Barbara Jane Reyes followed suit by mapping out their own creative family trees.
Part of understanding one’s influences is also seeing the cracks. Every idol has them, and we’re not talking about personal defects such as womanizing or man-hating, or being a class snob, but artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself. At the salon, we’ve been discussing the downfall of a former champion, E.M. Forster, (see Part I: “How E.M. Forster Jinxed My Writing”). I’ve had to come to grips with the negative influences he might have had on me such as his lack of spinning real, bone-breaking conflict. Anyone who’s every lived by Forster’s decree “only connect” may find it difficult to sever and destroy. Perhaps our inclination is because we don’t like conflict in real life. We’re always trying to avoid conflict. But on the page, conflict is what keeps the reader going.
Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature. As Flannery O’Connor argues in her book Mystery and Manners, from the talk “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:
Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put a finger on in any exact critical sense, so it always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. (43)
O’Connor essentially indicts the very strength that pulled me to Forster as a youth. I loved his novels because they were filled with compassion, but compassion was merely Forster’s way of playing the novel safe.
In a Saint Mary’s Fiction Craft class, dated around 2006, novelist Julie Orringer stated something like the following:
Good fiction is when characters are forced to make decisions, forced to do scary things as they get deeper and deeper into the situation. Characters need to be thrown off balance where they want to regain some sense of equilibrium–whether its good or bad. Disrupt the normal pattern of motivation. Natural motivation vs. momentary motivation. Plot and characterization have to be working in a problematic disharmony.
Writing novels is not for the weak of heart. Thomas Hardy commits a horrible plot act toward the end of Jude the Obscure, absolutely horrific. Critics lambasted him for his supposed obscene treatment of marriage, but they missed the true obscenity, which won’t be revealed in this post. If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for. And, if you want to know how to effectively spill blood, you may want to take a look at Hardy’s Jude. He explodes his characters from the inside out and effectively punches the reader in the gut.
Fiction serves the same purpose as nightmares, allowing us a chance to explore the darkest, most dire possibilities without risking too much in the flesh. Risk is what makes or breaks a writer. We constantly take risks, from setting aside hours of our day to pen words and wasting countless sheaves of dead trees and postage in the hopes for some redemption for the time spent hammering at the keyboard. Writers must take risks both on page and off, which means moving beyond compassion, beyond safety, and beyond what feels comfortable. We must practice employing IEDs in our story-lines. If we care about our work, we will use guerilla force. We won’t stop at inserting shrapnel into explosive plot lines, so we can spread conflict. Otherwise, why write stories? Everything has to be at stake or its not worth it.
So how do we put lives on the literary line?
Firstly, when drafting, don’t worry about piecing everything together by leading through a step-by-step narration. Jump and jump often. Build through clues, pent up emotions, and disjunctive actions that remain true to the character but don’t exactly add up for the reader. It’s not necessary to explain every step. Withhold plot points but never motivation. We need to see why characters do what they do, but we don’t always need to know how.
We needn’t concern ourselves about answering all the questions. Life is comprised of endless loose ends. Think of Charlotte Brontë’s “suspended revelation” where she emphasizes the importance of concealing information to keep the reader in suspense. Nothing is ever neatly tied, so we just need hone our vision and see how many strings are necessary to hold the story together. The fewer the better. Some ties can remain slack, others may need to be extremely tight. It’s all about lifting the work up, getting as much height as possible to capture the reader’s imagination.
A lot of times we’ll put all our cards on the table, which is the last thing we want to do as writers. The game is to keep readers guessing up to the very last word. We do need to have the whole story straight in our heads, only straight enough to create a universe. Whether its a microcosm or macrocosm, the story must encompass a network of lives. When drafting and revising, trust in yourself that you’ll fill in the necessary gaps as you move back and forth through the story, combing through it until its impeccably polished.
As you revise, drop explosive hints at critical junctures. Find the hot spots and train readers to leap with the story. Train them to be athletes in the obstacle course you’ve created. You want readers to leap to conclusions whether right or wrong. So, how do we keep readers leaping and guessing?
- Figure out the reversal of situations with each character. Simply flip the plot around from where they started. It’s simple, really. Hamlet wants to kill father. He can’t kill father, so he ends up being killed himself.
- Make a running list of verbs for each character and track their evolution or devolution of verbs to ensure you have maximum explosive action.
- As salon member Virginia Jones says, “the climax is the point at which a character can’t go back. There’s no return, each character has to keep to the decisions they’ve made,” so we, as writers, have to make each decision count. Each choice has to be a stab at the body.
J.J. Abrams gave a recent TED Talk on the mystery box, his personal method of suspended revelation, which can help give insight on how to explode the teapot.
We like to believe that perfection sprouts effortlessly from our mind like the great goddess and warrior Athena, but her story is the quintessential myth. We are more like Icarus, struggling to keep to the middle path lest we get swallowed by the churning waters below or singed by the searing sun above. We’re always fighting turbulence, which does its best to ensure our flight remains precarious. Yet, its this very precariousness that propels us forward and keeps us incited.
No work of art emerges perfect and whole. Revision is the monster we wrestle with. We stumble through the process like tunneling inside a mountain trying to find our way out the other end. Structure is the lifeline. Writer Emily Breunig stated that there are two kinds of writers, those who start with structure and plan and plot the whole project out and those who throw everything they have onto the canvas to see what sticks. No matter what type of writer we are, at some point, we have to sit down and do the painstaking work of organization. In Natalie Angier’s New York Times article“Bringing New Understanding to the Director’s Cut” published March 1, 2010, she writes:
According to the new report, the basic shot structure of the movies, the way film segments of different lengths are bundled together from scene to scene, act to act, has evolved over the years to resemble a rough but recognizably wave-like pattern called 1/f, or one over frequency — or the more Hollywood-friendly metaphor, pink noise. Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it…
…So, too, for many features of our natural and artifactual surroundings. Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink…
The shape and body of a work is determined by its heartbeat, and Angier taps into the essence of rhythm, which is all around us. As we divvy up chunks of narrative and cut and paste exposition, we need to maintain the balance between random and rigid, sustaining the mystery of our project to keep our readers engaged and invested in the story. Angier goes on to explain:
…Why our attention flits about in a pulsatile fashion that resembles heart beats and star beats and the fluctuating pitches of speech, nobody can say. “It depends on whether you think it’s telling you something very deep about the general organizational principles of natural systems, or not,” said David L. Gilden, a professor of psychology at of the University of Texas. As he sees it, complex systems are characterized by something called self-organized criticality. “They tend to migrate to the point where they are partially ordered, partially disordered,” he said. “They’re at the melting point between order and disorder.”
Chapters and scenes help us walk the fine line between order and disorder, and the clearer vision we have of how many scenes we need, how many chapters necessary to give the bulk of our word count a structure, the stronger are writing will move with agility. Word counts instead of page counts force writers to think about conciseness at the atomic level. In revision, we should be scrutinizing, balancing, and weighing each word against one another. We can do guesstimates on the pace of our story, with some really rough rules of thumb:
- 4,000-5,000 words is about 8 pages.
- 8,000 words is 15 pages.
- Reading aloud, and often, will always give you the best sense of how fast or slow your writing moves.
As we plot the pace of word counts in each chapter and scene, we also need to constantly decide between narration versus exposition. Part of the decision depends on who is telling the story and what they’re capable of seeing, thinking, and relaying, or not relaying and thinking, to the reader. Answering these questions can help inform your choices:
- How long does each scene need to be? How fast do you want the scene to unfold?
- Does it need space for philosophical musing or background explanation? Can any of this be dramatized?
- Should a scene or chapter run quick, leaving the reader breathless for more? Or would you rather linger for affect?
- What kind of mood do you want to evoke?
- How much information do you need to get across?
- The bottom line in deciding the above is how do you keep the reader hungry?
We must remember that we always have options. There’s no one way to tell a story. Linearity is the surest way to make a reader yawn. Though we may start with structure, the architecture of the work can always be remodeled and renovated. Visualize constantly, the pace, the scope, the physical makeup of the piece. Draw diagrams and be flexible and brave enough to let those diagrams morph.
Some of the options we have for structure to avoid linearity are:
- Backtracking- introduce a character in chapter two, have her disappear only to pick up her up again five chapters later.
- Toward the end of the novel, only then fill in the reader about how the mystery introduced at the beginning. Think of Sophie Mol’s death in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or Myrtle Wilson’s brutal murder in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- Read other writers and follow closely their narrative structure. Take note and try it yourself.
- Have strong concrete images in mind for each chapter and scene. Ground readers with these objects and images, giving them a fixed point they can steady themselves on as the character’s and their unpredictable actions upset all expectations. These images may work best at the beginning or end of a chapter or scene though not always.
- In every scene and chapter you have to know instinctively what each character desires. They should be angling for something in each and every scene and chapter. Their desire doesn’t have to be on the page, but we need to know as the author, and that desire is like a cog running as one part to the whole engine of the plot. Individual desire is the DNA to each character, and every character has their own sequence to be unlocked. Every scene, chapter, and paragraph should have some block of the DNA depending on who the lens is aimed at for the moment. Something always has to be at stake. The story must be tipping over, ready to crash onto itself at all times.
- Think of the story lines in fragments, and drop threads liberally, picking them up five maybe seven chapters later. No need to string along every single plot line, readers will remember as long as you give clues and a heads up. Make readers leap and stretch with the story-lines.
- Check your maps and revise routes as you move along, meaning keep a chart that diagram of your outline handy with an eraser in hand.
Finding patterns, mapping structure, this is what inherently makes us human. Dancing the line between order and disorder, we prefer to play hide and seek with chaos. Structure may keep us grounded but structure is also a fiction, there to guide us only when we have the faith to trust in it. That faith can always be lost, so we must let chance and mystery rule as well. Revision is when structure matters most. The more physical we can envision the structure to our project the easier we’ll find our way through the process.
For some examples of visual diagrams, check out The Period Table of Storytelling by ComputerSherpa, The History of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley and, finally, Franco Morreti at the Stanford Lit Lab is practicing “distant reading,” which is described by New York Times writer Kathryn Schulz, in her article “The Mechanic Muse” published June 24, 2011, as “hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis… by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
In Little Debauches on July 29, 2010 at 8:48 am
Objects + Conflicts = Story
Think of chapters as a chain reaction. The first mover doesn’t have to be revealed until the very last paragraph of the book, but writers should know who or what set the initial action in motion. Each chapter is a response to a preceding quake, which sets off more tremors in the chapters that follow. Pinpoint the epicenter, understand the magnitude of the shaking that ensues, follow the internal and external reactions, staying mindful of the ripple effects that rock each character and subplot. Make use of key object(s), which reveal characters. Highlight setting to drive narrative and make meaning. Know the instigators of each storyline, and exploit them as elemental building blocks to further the narrative.
Be sure to determine the following as you begin each chapter:
1. OBJECTS- What artifacts are key in the scene?
2. IMMEDIATE AND PHYSICAL NEED- What are the urgent needs of each character: a glass of water, a one-way ticket out of town, or a phone call to a loved one?
3. SETTING- DETAILS!!
4. PLOT CONFLICT- What is the over-arching need of each character?
5. HOW ARE EACH OF THE CHARACTERS NEEDS AND WANTS CONFLICTED IN OPPOSITION TO EACH OTHER?
As you plot each chapter, determine how many scenes and settings you need to cover in each section. Be aware of other characters who may not appear in a particular chapter but who will be affected by the actions and developments that take place. Be sure to distinctly decide on imagery for the beginning and ending of each chapter, which will can pin the skeletal frame of each scene in your chapter.
To keep your story-telling fresh, paint the first scene of each chapter with a new stroke each time:
- Historical fact
- Action by Stranger, supporting/main character
- Flashback of main/supporting character, or passerby
- Personality Trait, Tic, or Habit of main/supporting character or passerby
- Physical Trait, Mannerism, Gesture of main/supporting character or passerby
- Mishap or Accident
- History of Setting
- Preparation of Food
- Daily Ablution
- Object/Article, hated or loved by main/supporting character or passersby
- Painting or Sculpture
- Scientific Tidbit
- Psychic Connection
- Political Fact
- Cultural Background
- Feminist Perspective
- Classical Allusion
- Pop Culture Allusion
- Joke or Anecdote
- Snippet of Dialogue
- Radio, Television, Newspaper, or Magazine Ad
- Editorial Column
- Newspaper Article
- Instant Message
- Voicemail Message
- Label on Cereal Box, Pill Bottle, Cleaning Product, or another grocery item
- Novel or Book Excerpt
- Song Lyric
- Directions and Instructions
- Street Sign
- Store Front or Store Sign
- Bus Ad
- Photo Album
- On the Road
- On the Sidewalk
Exercises on Voice
In Little Debauches on November 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm
Inspired by Nicholas Delbanco’s Washington Post article, “Remembering the Reyes”, he writes about the imperative need for a dialectic, all urgent writing has, at its core contains an argument and counter-argument. So how can a writer “shape-shift at will” from one voice to another? Here are a few simple but essential exercises for staking each characters claim in the volatile landscape of conflict:
Dialogue- Write two pages of two characters arguing about the central conflict. Pay attention to the voice of each. Think of what’s left unspoken and let what’s verbally said lead to, stab at, but as Gypsy Rose Lee emphasized in her performances, the focus is on the tease.
Getting Physical- The body talks in more ways than words could ever. Pick a location that will require lots of physical action and interaction and, again, in two pages, have the flesh do and say what words can’t.
Epistles- If you’re not sure how to strip tease in dialogue, first write an epistle from each of the characters, journal entries, letters, emails, whatever kind of written confession you deem fit. Get their thoughts on paper from their perspective, 2 pages each, of course, then go back and circle what material you can use for scenes of dialogue, leaving the juicy stuff to the reader’s imagination.
From “Chasing the White Rabbit: A Writer’s Reformation on Exercises”
Sift through favorite music albums, poems, or commercial jingles and lift snatches of phrases, as a beginning, middle or ending point in a story or scene. If you start from the middle twist your way out like a spiral, revolving around the central phrase. If ending, work your way backwards as Stevie Davies suggests Charlotte Bronte must have with her seminal work, Jane Eyre. Be sure to pay attention to key themes and words from the phrase, which will be the leit motif to build your scene or story from.
Some slips of favored stories and songs:
“It could not have lasted more than two hours: many a week has seemed shorter.” -Jane Eyre
“Shyness is nice. But shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.” -”Ask Me,” The Smiths, from Louder than Bombs
“A little bit of Elfin magic goes a long way.”- Keebler Products