Sparked by Words

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Show Me How

 

 

If you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.

Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Wallace Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to ride shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.

Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master. It fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first. The second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.

Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.

T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)

S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)

Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.

T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)

S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)

Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail

(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)

T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)

S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)

Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.

T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)

S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)

Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.

T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)

S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard, but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the frig and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the frig. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)

What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the fifteen-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)

Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.

 

Image courtesy: Google public domain image, a Cossack horse in a landscape

 

Happy 3rd Birthday, Ink Flare

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Birthday cake image courtesy: publicdomainpictures.net

 

Talk Talk

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Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk.

Rant, whisper, inform.

Stutter, harangue, order.

Insult, complain, gossip.

Coo.

Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night.

Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, the way I say it. “So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know?” Oof, a terrible take. That sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

Take two. “I happened to have encountered both of Nancy’s college children while Sam and I were negotiating the purchase of a new automobile.” Whew, not much better. Other than the queen, who talks like that? Not her either.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like someone who can’t grab a mouthful of articulate thoughts out of a spoon or it sounds formal, as if pretentious phrasing had been a college class aced by my characters. No one understands anything said by Spoon Girl while College Pretender talks about everything without saying a word. The delete button was invented for prevention of dialogue meltdowns and failures.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop on people around me, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can export to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses, the little white lies gather, and motive becomes apparent.

Read great literature to discover brilliant conversation. A character pulls the mask over his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.

 

[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

 

[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]

 

The dialogue is simply stated, but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know academically about dialogue demands a moon’s orbit of time, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck hauled to the scrap heap. In my second novel, two teenage girls park on a hill and wring their hearts out in a chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. Each girl learns that words can only tell part of their stories, given that the meaning of words assumed to be mutually clear is stymied by naiveté or enriched by experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up sobbing. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s spoken but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires a writer to trust readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent, but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can usefully describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience intuits her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue. It’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A great deal of the story involves dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or nonsensical, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior – pointing, wandering, laughing. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by scenes where the dialogue is muddled but the intentions transparent. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth.

Talk talk, just say something worth reading.

 

Conversation image courtesy: comicbookplus.com, public domain images

All Night Long

The light of day shows best in the middle of the night. At least that’s when I get in my best edits, insights, and revisions. It’s an extension of parenting young children decades ago with no time to write except in the middle of the night when they were finally asleep. When I should have been asleep. It’s the reality of now working full time, which we all know encompasses far more than the requisite eight hours on work tasks, but also includes two to three or four hours of getting oneself ready, getting to work, getting to lunch, and then getting home. Eleven is the new eight hour day, and only if it isn’t actually 12 that’s the new eight hour day, because there’s always some extra work from the real (meaning paid) job thrown in, just in case you have time.

 

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The point of this rant is that my writing is not done even when it’s done, and then it never happens until it begins – in the middle of the night. Stealth – a surreptitious movement while unobserved, to grab loot – becomes the modus operandi for this writer not gifted with attendance at writing conferences, writer’s residencies, or university writing workshops. The luxury of writing does not exist for me at a secluded location with a farfetched title (think Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury College in the forests of Vermont – I mean, really, Bread Loaf?) but here in the suburban faux eucalyptus woods of Orange County. The trees are real enough but the woods idea is no more genuine than the straight-row planting done by some guy with the wrong idea about what kind of trees would provide great lumber for railroads. Yes, I’m off topic, a not unusual aspect of writing on a catch as catch can basis. Sigh, the way life interrupts my work – tut tut. I steal more time to write.

Insight strikes me much the same way. Harum scarum. I struggle with a chapter if it meanders without advancing the plot, or if a character is tediously authentic. A lizard scurries across the outside deck and I flinch at the distraction. It dashes into our staghorn fern, and I catch a glimpse of the scene I need to write. Scratch the mundane descriptions, allow the hero to dash unexpectedly, cause my reader to flinch but not toss the book. Revision begins with those kinds of epiphanies, equations of unlikely elegance. I suspect because I am willing to be up late at night to the detriment of a good night’s sleep, I also remain open to suggestion at moonlit hours. (It is now 11:14 PM and my alarm plays Bach at 5:00 AM. Ridiculous, aren’t I?) Maybe when I’m sleep deprived, my muse finds me vulnerable and easy to seduce. Um, don’t spread that around.

My other quixotic trait is that I frequently traipse around my house spouting parts of my books, trying out phrases, testing the dialogue, or reading passages to the spider webs in the rafters. The wandering helps me grab hold of a singular word, the reading aloud lets me gauge flow and rhythm. I try out dialects and accents, puzzling how to capture them in my story, tossing them when they don’t work. It’s like fishing in my house only I don’t have to stand in a river wearing high waders, or gut the thing on the end of the line. No raging current, no wriggling fish, maybe a dynamic re-write.

I’m diligent about writing – and rewriting. First drafts are imbued with passion and creativity, but also stunted by lapses and clumsiness. I get those first drafts on paper, and then rework them to make them as perfect as possible. Reread, reconsider, rewrite, and repeat. Sometimes only the computer light keeps the night at bay, sometimes I nod over the keyboard, sometimes I pack up the book into its virtual filing cabinet and set it aside. But one night a few months later I’ll get back to my WIP and tackle it again. Dinner is over, the house is quiet, I keep company with the moon, to its nocturnal rhythms and monthly phases. And one day when the moon is sleeping off its evening watch, when I have finally and truly pronounced my book complete and final, I hope an editor will find my work compelling, and will publish my work.

I won’t care if readers prefer to read my stories by the glow of the moon or the glare of the sun, just as long as they read.

Night time, photospublicdomain.com

 

Peace and Only Peace Will Be Accepted

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We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians. We are all Parisians.

All the Colors of White

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Consider all the colors of white, all that they imply

When other colors lean against them

A palette of wan issue like cream, ivory, ecru, bisque

The bolder hues of palest yellow, peach, or pink

Even shadow tones like dove gray and taupe

Each creating a new color, a new impression, a new ground

For casting the primary chroma, blue, green, or red

Making the bold stance ever more aggressive

 

Most people are as well, white

No matter what ethnic ancestry or shade their skin –

Bronze, mahogany, coal, pink, amber, steel, parchment,

Copper, rust, porcelain, tawny – all skin is the same white

All people host the same flesh, lurid red inside

Blue veins and damp bones

Yet each of us pale as a new moon

Bleached shells, dried sticks, or wheat chaff

 

We blanch at the power of the man in black, woman in red

We quail at the flash of emerald eyes, blaze of orange hair

Colors of tyrants graven on our skin, flayed by their

Power to make us quail and cringe, beg mercy, plead for

Peace from their attacks and swords, accusations and whips.

We fear the brightness of their teeth, the sheen of their lips,

Their veins pulsing, eyes bulging, mouth frothing

And the vivid color of their skin

 

When really they are also only white and transparent at that

Peel back your skin. I’ve already peeled mine.

Beneath the rind we are the same, pared and frail

Ashen and brittle, bloody and burning, gasping for breath

For reprieve from the power stolen from me by virtue of your

Skin that is nothing more than a bold liar and damn thief

You have no more color than I

We are just one – and white

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

The Milk of Female Kindness, Book Review

The Milk of Female Kindness is an anthology from predominately Australian and British women of stories, poetry, artwork, interviews, and articles about motherhood. As such it addresses issues that everyone will recognize. This book resonated with me on many levels. As a mother and daughter, as a writer and teacher, the entries spoke to me, made me catch my breath, surprised me, forced me to think, brought up memories, and invited me to laugh. I read several stories and all the poems more than once; the art encouraged me to linger. I found myself reflected on many pages.

 

An anthology can be a tricky mix to scoop into one book. Authors are bound to have different strengths and individual ideas about the intent of the production. What I liked about this book is the sincerity evident in each entry. Every author spoke with the authority and wisdom that comes from empathy and experience, some of it in hindsight. They explore a gamut of tragic, humorous, and realistic situations, from the challenges of being a mother to those of being a child. (more…)