Category Archives: the writing process

Learning a new language can add magic to your writing

 

Trying to learn a new language in your 60’s is a bit like beating your head against a brick wall—in an entertaining kind of way. It’s hard. Much harder than I imagined. First I had to stop comparing my 60-something brain to my 20-something brain.

In my twenties if I’d studied Spanish for five years, I’d have been fluent. Now, after five years of study I’m hovering in the doorway of intermediate, but not fully in the room. I had to learn early in the process to define progress as simply knowing more this week than I did last week. It had to be as simple as that or I would have been utterly discouraged.

So why do it? Why learn a brand new language?

Really, it was to change myself. To feel that even in my sixties and older I could become new. Instead of looking back and wishing that I could speak a foreign language, I realized that I could become someone who did.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but then once in awhile I get a reward like a talk with a taxi driver in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a pretty simplistic conversation, but we easily chatted for 20 minutes and my husband was wonderfully impressed.

I feel less helpless when I travel, even to a non-Spanish speaking country. So many people around the world speak more than one language. It always rather embarrassed me to not be able to do anything but English (and a few phrases from long-ago French classes.)

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed how my own language has become richer by learning a different one. I can see more clearly how English is a combination of Romance languages (tracing back to Latin, of course) and Anglo-Saxon.

Take the Spanish word “dormir” meaning ”to sleep” derived from the Latin “dormire” which goes even further back into a common root language known as Proto-Indo-European which connects a whole range of languages from Hindu to Russian.

From it we get words like dormer, dormitory, dormant.  But I love how our own English verb for the actual activity is “sleep” coming to us by way of Old English by way of Proto-Germanic. It gives English a wonderful facility for humor and irony because we get to play with two-dollar words like mausoleum from Latin mausoleum. And two-bit words like grave from Old English græf. In English, you can be a scurrilous buffoon or an oafish clod.

Although I knew all those English “dormir” words, even the French dormir, it wasn’t until I was studying Spanish that it dawned on me that the sleepy Dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” wasn’t just as random choice by Lewis Carroll.

He undoubtedly knew that “dormouse” is rooted in “dormir.” But when I first read it, I didn’t consciously make the connection, but I suspect my subconscious did. And this subconscious connection made this sleepy character feel all the more right.

Learning Spanish has reinforced just how powerful it is as a writer to know more than one language or to, at least, seek out the roots of words. If an author gets names and terms right, it can do half the work of creating a world. JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at this. Rowling, in particular, really milks the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of English which give the Harry Potter books that entertaining mix of the grand and the mundane.

Rowling does this over and over again with her names. Albus Dumbledore, a mix of the Latin albus meaning “white” and the very homey, English-y Dumbledore. Or consider Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (lots of earthy Anglo-Saxon roots here) in contrast to Beauxbatons Academy of Magic (Latin and Greek here.)

It certainly didn’t hurt her as an author that she speaks excellent French. She also studied German and got some exposure to Greek and Latin through majoring in Classic Studies in college.

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, especially Germanic languages, and even developed several languages of his own. He, too, played with linguistic contrasts, but more seriously and consistently than Rowling. Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn Elessar, the Shire and Lothlorien, Frodo and Galadriel. Obviously both he and Rowling knew the Latin-rooted mortalis. Mordor and Voldemort don’t both sound ominous just by chance.

I don’t expect studying Spanish will turn me into JK Rowling or Tolkien, but maybe it will help me improve my names. After all Mouse and Bear are about as basic as you can get!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

META BOOKS

A wonderful side benefit of judging the 2018 Margaret Wise Brown prize has been the opportunity to develop a sense of the state of picture books in 2018, based on the 200+ books that publishers entered.

One group that caught my eye are meta books – those that use the object of a book as part of the story. If you are familiar with Grover’s There’s a Monster at the End of This Book or, more recently, Herve Tullet’s Press Here, you know what I’m talking about.

The 2018 crop that I read had at least four that fit this interactive category. I think the most effective is Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Dial). The premise is that a brick wall divides the left and right hand pages.


Text tells us the wall protects the safe left side from the right. On each spread, there is one story on the left: initially about a little knight raising a ladder, and another on the right: a stack of fearsome animals and an ogre.

Then – oh no! – the water rises on the left side.

Luckily the scary ogre reaches over the wall and saves the little knight from drowning. “I’m actually a nice ogre,” he says. “And this side of the book is fantastic.” Meanwhile, on the now ocean-filled left side of the book, bigger fish eat big fish.

The great satisfaction is that expectations are flipped. Things are not as they seemed. And we get to watch the stories on each side of the wall as this change is accomplished. It says so much about walls.

Beware the Monster! by Michael Escoffier, art by Amandine Piu, (annick press), begins with a warning: “This book contains a monster with a great big appetite!”

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The colorful monster proceeds to eat all the apples, then leaves, then trees, then cows.

Next spread: “Yikes. I think he’s spotted you. You’ve got to get away!” (Many of these books use the second person directive to draw in the child reader and escalate the drama. It’s kind of the picture book equivalent of theatre’s breaking the fourth wall.)

Next spread: “Here he comes! Close the book!” (This is a line used in many of these meta books. Of course the readers plunge onward, despite warnings.)

The monster moves in closer and closer as spreads whiz by. Luckily just when he’s about to eat the child reader he burps instead. Everything flies out of his mouth and he decides to take a nap, saying “I’ll take care of you later.”

Also written in second person is Nothing Happens in this Book by Judy Ann Sadler, art by Vigg, (Kids Can Press). This accumulative story is meta in its voice; the little guy on the cover has an ongoing one-sided discussion with the reader about what is going to happen in the book. Eventually he gathers up a bunch of stuff and distributes it to a wild assortment of beings.

As they march away in a fold-out page parade, he exclaims, “Everything happens in this book!” Another nice flip of expectations.

A red grosgrain ribbon bookmark is key to the story in Hungry Bunny by Claudia Reuda, (Chronicle Books). This one gives a nod to Press Here. For instance, it asks the reader to shake the book so some apples will fall off the tree, then blow away the leaves when the apples don’t fall.

The reader helps the bunny use his red “scarf” to climb up and get the apples. Bunny’s ride home in the wagon is helped by various physical movements of the book. Then the reader is asked to give Bunny a push through a die-cut hole so he can return to the burrow where his mom bakes apple pie. Of course the reader is offered a piece.

Makes sense that the dedication acknowledges the participatory nature of this book: “Bunny would like to dedicate this book to you, for all your help with the harvest. Also dedicated to children’s play.”

Every one of these examples uses the object of the book to boost interaction with the story. All of them engage the reader and listener in movement and response. I think it’s an interesting niche in our children’s book world, another tool we could add to our toolbelts.

Have you seen the meta mechanism used to good effect? Please chime in with other titles that use the object of the book to tell stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s to Fall and Feasting

Abundance by Julie Paschkis

One fall day many years ago, when the wind was gusting and leaves, golden and red, cartwheeled across the street, I suddenly felt inspired to write an ode to the season. I was thinking of the kind of fulsome, simple poem that my father sometimes read to us. (When he wasn’t baffling us with things like The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock.)  I went home and wrote The Harvest in Our Hearts and it’s been part of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition ever since.

I’d like to share it with you along with a new painting that Julie Paschkis generously gave me permission to use. It’s a piece for a two-person show at the Seattle Art Museum’s café, TASTE, in May. Keep your eyes open for it!

Thanks to my fellow bloggers Julie Paschkis, Julie Larios, Margaret Chodos-Irvine and Laura Kvasnosky, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all who read our blog. You are all part of the harvest in my own heart.

The Harvest in Our Hearts

by Bonny Becker

It was the dawn of winter
and the table was set for feasting.
The silver was polished, the fire ablaze.
The turkey at last done with roasting.

We had just then raised a glass to toast
the harvest and the day,
when there came a knock at the door,
and a stranger blew in and seated himself saying,
“Room for one more?”

He wasn’t the kind to argue with. He was wide and tall and brawny.
His robes were worked in the richest threads
of brown and red and tawny.
His head was wreathed with an herbal crown;
He smelled of smoke and cold, and it seemed when he sat
that leaves fell down in a whirl of red and gold.

“Who are you?”  I dared to ask, but he merely smiled
and demanded a glass of his own.

He surveyed our board and seemed to judge, weighing its merit,
assessing the richness of each dish, the quality of the claret.
Beneath his gaze it was odd to note our table grew more rich.
The silver gleamed more deep; the candles burned more bright.
Our fire stood more securely against the winter night.

He nodded. This god approved.

“Be warm, eat well, be gay.
Each season has its moment;
Each moment slips away.”

Thus saying, he, too, began to fade like smoke in the autumn wind,
but his words still lingered as we raised our glasses again.

“Here’s to friends and harvest
 to winter days and rain.
Here’s to those who are with us
and to those we’ll not see again.
Here’s to fall and feasting,
to good wine and good cheer.
Here’s to the harvest in our hearts
in the winter of the year.”

Runaway Reading

The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.

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I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.

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My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.

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The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro

 

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Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis

Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.

This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)

I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.

I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.

 

When the Work Becomes a Slog

 

Do you know the feeling? The dread of sitting down at the computer or going to the drawing board? Bored of your own story? It’s pulling teeth! It’s torture! Creating is hell!

I’ve felt it, especially with my most recent work, a middle-grade novel that I’ve been struggling with for a number of years. So I was intrigued by Eliza Wheeler’s talk at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference this August. Wheeler is an author-illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. She’s illustrated many other picture books, was a Sendak Fellowship Recipient in 2017 and won the SCBWI National Grand Prize Award for best portfolio in 2011.

Somewhere in there Eliza realized she wasn’t always enjoying her work and she eventually figured out what to do about it.  Lisa outlined a 7 1/2 step process for keeping herself inspired and energized. It makes sense to me. (I like the 1/2 step best of all.)

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Dorothy Parker

1. First you dig. Go to that well that we pull ideas and inspiration from. Childhood passions, current interests, life experiences. Explore that inner landscape to feel what you connect with on a deep level and let that be the source of your next project.

2. Inspire yourself. Gather similar works. Study the masters of what you want to do. And create a bulletin board of inspiration and interests. When research starts to feel like a slog move on.

3. Collage. Wheeler is a big believer in hands-on inspiration. She creates literal collages of bits of inspiration, sketches and ideas shuffling things about to see what might connect. This is the stage to feel safe to openly fail. To not be afraid of laying out what turns out to be a false start or an idea that goes no where. There is no editor at this point. Just lay it out. Turn off the analyzing brain, instead give yourself free reign. You’re playing. Don’t judge, don’t think and, most importantly, don’t skip this phase thinking you need to get to the actual work.

Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur

4. Simmer. Now step back. Take a break, put down your work and let your subconscious take over. This is the stage where I often take a walk, run errands, dither around on social media. The thing is you’ve fed your mind the fuel it needs—ideas, models, research—now let the subconscious do its thing.

5. Ignite. Be ready for those flashes of inspiration, be ready to capture a few moments or a few hours of inspired work.

Create with the heart; build with the mind. Criss Jami

6. Refine. Finally, it’s time to bring out the analytical mind, to organize, hone and edit. Wheeler biggest caution here: don’t refine too soon. Don’t shortchange the process where the fire and fun comes from.

7. Assess what you’ve done. You have a “finished” product, so step back and take a clear look at it. Be objective. Get feedback. Now it’s time for your critique groups and your internal editor to join in. We all know it’s going to take many drafts to finally get there.

1/2. What’s the half step? It’s a step you take at every stage of the process. Ask yourself how are you feeling? If the process is feeling sloggy, if you feel you’re pushing to do the work, you are trying to refine too soon. Are you bored? Then you’re judging too soon.

Wheeler say to take time every day to ask yourself what’s your level of enjoyment and inspiration. If it’s low, if boredom and dread are slipping in, then slow down. Let things simmer more, do more writing, do more sketching, mull, muse. Go back to the well.

The truth is on most days we’re probably doing versions of all these steps–maybe some research, trolling the web for an image that sparks something, jotting down an idea, writing something, letting things simmer. But even so, it’s easy to cut short the musing, stewing, noodling, “I’m just wasting time!” phase all throughout the process.

So it seems like a good idea to ask yourself often how inspired you are; how much fun you’re having? Sure, not every day is great, but if the project has become a slog, maybe it’s time to recognize that, slow down, go back to the well and remind yourself why you care.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. Neil Gaiman

 

 

 

 

 

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

Sometimes Telling Does the Trick

A couple blog posts ago, I talked about how important is to create an emotional experience for your reader. Donald Maass lays out some strategies for how you can do that in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass says the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond,” says Maass

There are three main paths to creating an emotional response. Outer Mode: showing. (see my earlier post on that one.) Inner Mode: telling. And something Maass calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

Let’s take a look at Inner Mode and that forbidden art of telling.

Here’s an example that Maass uses from Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. It’s about a young man named Philip Ashley who’s been raised by his older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose leaves on a trip and Philip is miserable without him. Then he gets a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to a woman named Rachel.

The letter came about half-past five, just after I had dined. Luckily, I was alone. Seecombe had brought in the post-bag, and left it with me. I put the letter in my pocket and walked out across the fields down to the sea. Seecombe’s nephew, who had the mill cottage on the beach, said good-day to me. He had his nets spread on the stone wall, drying in the last of the sun. I barely answered him, and he must have thought me curt. I climbed over the rocks to a narrow ledge, jutting into the little bay, where I used to swim in summer. Ambrose would anchor some fifty yards out in his boat, and I would swim to him. I sat down, and taking the letter from my pocket read it again. If I could have felt one spark of sympathy, of gladness, one single ray of warmth towards those two who were sharing happiness together down in Naples, it would have eased my conscience. Ashamed of myself, bitterly angry at my selfishness, I could raise no feeling in my heart at all. I sat there, numb with misery, staring at the flat calm, sea. I had just turned twenty-three, and yet I felt as lonely and as lost as I had done years before, sitting on a bench in Fourth Form, at Harrow, with no one to befriend me, and nothing before me, only a new world of strange experience that I did not want.

Du Maurier is doing several things here. First of all, she makes you, the reader, wait to learn what’s in that letter. You know the news isn’t good (Luckily, I was alone.) And, the wait builds up your own sense of dread. And, even if she isn’t showing Philip’s reaction through describing him, she is putting you through the character’s experience as he focuses on the mundane details of his walk to the beach. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re in something of emotional shock. We narrow our focus; we delay the feelings until we’re somewhere where we can deal with them.

And, as Maass notes, once we get to the place were Philip can unpack his feelings, she uses the setting, alone on a rocky shore, as a metaphor for his inner state. She also juxtaposes his earlier, trusting time with Ambrose learning to swim with this current feeling of separation.

Maass also likes that she runs the reader through the emotions that Philip believes he should be feeling versus what he actually feels. Maass calls this getting down to third level feelings. Getting past the obvious, immediate feelings that a character might be expected to have and surprising the reader with what is actually going on inside.

One of the more iconic examples of creating an analogy for a feeling. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.

He offers an exercise for how to create scenes like this in your own writing.

– Select a moment from your story when your main character feels strongly. Identify the feeling and ask your character: “What else are you feeling at this moment?” Write that down and ask again. Get to the third-level of feeling for this moment.

– Now examine that third-level feeling is four ways. 1) Create an analogy for it. 2) Make a moral judgement about it. Is it good or bad to feel this way? 3) Create an alternative: What would a better person be feeling  instead? 4) Justify this feeling. Why is it appropriate for your character to feel this way?

– Look around your scene and setting. What is your character seeing that might be unique here. Add this one detail to the list you’re making.

– Now write as new scene for this moment using the third-level emotion.

According to Maass, if you plunge right into the third-level feelings—spite, envy, bitterness—underneath something like good news for a friend, your character will be unappealing. So have your character give a nod to their own failure to be generous. And then, let them be complexly human like all the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

So, How Does that Make You Feel?

It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.

But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.

Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”

So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.

I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”

But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”

 Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.

Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.

Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.

I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.

We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.

A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.”  And a pleasure.

Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.

Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:

– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.

– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”

– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)

– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)

In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”

As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.

 

 

Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.