Guiding Your Characters Through Their Therapy Sessions

IMG_0631by Jean Foster Akin

I was reading an article the other day entitled “Write Yourself Well.” It was written by John F. Evans, Ed.D and the reason I clicked the link for it was because I was intrigued to know how psychologist see writing as a means to therapy and wellness.

In the article, I learned of Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, who is the discoverer of the connection between wellness and expressive writing.

Writing, for me, has been an entertaining pursuit, true, but it’s also been therapy more than once in my life. Perhaps I need to be more honest: it’s been therapy so often in my life, I can hardly think of a time when it wasn’t. Even if what I’m writing about has absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand, there is a mesmerizing, calming, positive effect to writing for me. And apparently there’s more to it than the emotion of getting thoughts or stories on paper—there’s physiology involved too. You see, yesterday I was talking to a very intelligent lady who told me that there are nerves that run along the fingers we use to hold our pencils and pens when we’re writing, and that these nerves travel right up our arms to the back of our noggins, and apparently (I’m paraphrasing here), the act of writing stimulates these nerves which stimulate the brain, and the brain gets all jazzed about the writing, and before you know it, you’ve got a lot of jazz going on…including very long sentences with lots of commas in them. Please forgive the clinical nature of that description, folks.

Unlike novel writing,  letter writing, or sky writing, in  expressive writing you focus more on feelings than on “the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative”, says Dr. Evans. “Like narrative writing, expressive writing may have the arc of a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes expressive writing behaves like a story that swells to a crest and resolves itself on firm ground. But often [it’s] turbulent and unpredictable, and that is OK. Expressive writing is not so much about what happened as it is about how you feel about what happened…”

What Dr. Evans says sounds okay to me. But it also sounds scary. I’m not talking about the scariness of other people seeing what I would write during an expressive writing session, or the scariness of worrying if the person reading would judge what came out of my soul. I’m talking about the terror of knowing what I’m thinking myself. The terror of writing down things I would never say…even to myself. The terror of finding out how dark things probably are down there. The terror of remembering those things that I have carefully covered in layers and layers of camouflaging branches and vines and moss over the years. Those painful things I have buried so meticulously, and yet with an air of disinterest…”Nothing to see here.”

Oh, but there is something to see. So I asked myself, would expressive writing help me unearth what’s hidden? Would I want to unearth it? Do I have the courage? And while I was thinking as a human being with a past of hurts (like so many others), the writer in me asked: would expressive writing, applied to one of my novel characters, help me write that character better?

I know! What a twist on things. Why would I even think such a thing? Could using a healing exercise on a totally fictitious person, weird as that sounds, help me create complex characters that would grab the interest of readers and make them care enough to turn to the next page?

We write histories for our characters–at least I know I do, and so do a lot of writers out there. We don’t need to tell readers everything about a character’s history, we may only wish to hint at a character’s past in a novel (depending on genre, we’ll play off those histories or we’ll play them down), but if we know about those histories ourselves, we can build characters with unique habits and fears,  talents, interests, and quirks that feel real to readers.

So, what if we have a character in our minds percolating away, one with at least some of a history, but one we have yet to bring to life on paper? And what if we have that character “sit down” and do an expressive writing exercise?

If you were to use expressive writing yourself, you would sit down in a quiet place and write continuously about a devastating trauma for twenty minutes, four days in a row. You would not allow your pencil to come off the page for those four twenty-minute sessions. You would not allow anyone to see what you’re writing, and, in fact would have already planned to destroy the results of each session so as to free yourself from attempting to edit your feelings or change your wording in order to make your feelings less “ugly.”   So, why not sit your main character down and allow her to dictate her feelings to you—the completely understanding, non-judgmental Entity that you are?

As the creator of the character, you have developed her history, but have you “allowed” her to tell you what she feels about what has happened to her in her life, to tell you why she has acted as she has in the NOW of your story? You might find, if you do, that her actions  will seem contrived to your readers, based on your character’s past and emotional upheavals–in which case you’ll know your character needs work. But then, you might find you’ve developed your character well, based on her past and emotional upheavals, and that you’ve found your story’s sweet spot. Then you can move forward with your tale.

Words Commonly Confused and Misused

DSC06830Naturally, we don’t want to use words that make no sense in our writing, not unless we’re deliberately writing nonsense, that is, or unless a character frequently confuses words for some reason. In THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, by Anne Tyler, we see writer Macon Leary talking with Dog Trainer/Personal/ Shopper/Survivor of All Life Throws at Her, Muriel Pritchett. She’s telling him about her one-time job working at a business which offered copy services to its customers.

“I’ve never been so disinterested.”

Macon stirred and said, “Don’t you mean uninterested?”

“Exactly. Wouldn’t you be? Copies of letters, copies of exams, copies of articles on how to shop for a mortgage…”

Muriel doesn’t get it, and that’s okay—she isn’t a writer, she is a flawed character (like all of us), and a life giver (which all of us should strive to be). We should also strive, as writers, not to feel the need to correct every mispronounced word or wrongly used word that is uttered by non-writers. It’s not nice to make other people feel stupid just because they used the wrong word in a sentence. Eventually people will stop talking to us altogether..I mean all together…I mean…Well, you know what I mean. We wouldn’t want non-writers to make us feel stupid because we don’t understand pi, or because we can’t change a tire, or because we have no idea where to start when it comes to making a really good loaf of bread. Parents, teachers, and editors are exempt from this dictum as long as they can correct nicely. All that said, and for our own reference as writers, let’s look at…

Some words commonly confused with each other* and misused:

assent ([noun]. agreement or approval)

and

ascent ([verb]. the act of rising, climbing up)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

censure pronounced: sen-shur ([v]. to criticize strongly)

and

censor pronounced: sen-sor /sen-sur ([v]. to ban, as in banning books or films, etc, or, [n]. a person who bans)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

disinterested ([adj]. impartial)

and

uninterested ([adj]. not interested)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

tortuous ([adj]. full of twists and turns; complex)

and

torturous ([adj]. full of pain and suffering)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

story ([n]. a tale or an account)

and

storey ([n]. level of building or floor of building, ex. Phyllis lived on the fourth storey of the Broadbent Apartments.) NOTE: many spell-checkers will correct your spelling if you write the word “storey” to mean “floor of building.” Don’t pay attention. They’re wrong. Or, at least, you are not wrong. Language does change. At one point, recipe books gave you the method on how to make this or that flavor of “cooky.” Now we write “cookie.” Everyone knows what you mean regardless of the way you spell it, but your spell-checker will attempt a scholastic slap-down on you if you use “cooky” these days. The word “storey” causes the same still acceptable. So, if you want to write “she lived on the fourth storey” instead of “she lived on the fourth floor,” write it with confidence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

stationary ([adj]. not moving)

and

stationery ([n]. writing paper, greeting cards, on which people used pens or pencils to write letters to their friends, family, and business associates before email came on the scene).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

all together (all in one place, as in “We’re going to the movies all together.”)

and

altogether (on the whole, as in “No, Sylvia, that’s not a little bit wrong, that’s wrong altogether.”)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And a big one now in these days of the Cyber World:

 

sight (the ability to see)

and

site ([n]. a location, as in “Bradley can’t come to the phone. He’s at the building site, looking over the architect’s plans.” This word is also the one you use to designate “pages” on the Internet, as in, “Please go to my web site and you will be able to look up my store inventory and place your order online.”)

For more words that we commonly mistake for each other, go to OxfordDictionaries.com or perform your own web search.

*http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/commonly-confused-words

posted by Jean Foster Akin

Johnny Belching Loudly

scan-141770004 (2)You, the writer, the creator of worlds, the person who paints with words, probably aren’t interested in taking a little crash course on the subject of adverbs. I get it: the word adverb doesn’t sound like it was created by some lovely Muse in a diaphanous gown, stepping elegantly through the soft grasses of Mount Parnassus. The word adverb probably drags up images, sounds, and aromas far less exalted: school bells hectoring young sleepers to class at 7 A.M., the sharp crack of Sister Mary Loretta’s ruler on your knuckles as you stammer over the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and the unmistakable effluvium of Billy Smith’s  brown-bagged bologna and mayonnaise sandwich, fermenting somewhere in the depths of his school desk.

But if you want to know how you can use adverbs to infuse life into your writing and understanding into your readers as they become acquainted with your characters, you’ll stick around—I promise I will NOT smack your knuckles with my wooden ruler  if you need to take a minute to remember some of the rules.

First of all, what is an adverb? Here’s a very basic answer: an adverb frequently ends in “ly,” modifies a verb, and answers one of these questions: When? How? Where? To what extent? And just to make things clear with repetition: adverbs often, BUT DO NOT ALWAYS, end in “ly.” Let’s look at an example below:

An example of an adverb modifying a verb…

The man danced gracefully.

The man (noun) /danced (verb)/ gracefully (adverb). The adverb gracefully describes for us the quality of the dancing, and answers the question HOW? How did the man dance? Why, he danced gracefully, of course (as you can plainly see above)!

An adverb can also modify an adjective…

An adjective is a word which modifies a noun.The words bumpy and red are both adjectives. If we want an adverb to modify an adjective we could write:

The road was fairly bumpy.

The word bumpy is the adjective in this sentence and fairly is the adverb; in this case the adverb tells us TO WHAT EXTENT the road was bumpy.

An adverb can also modify a clause…

A clause is a word grouping consisting of a subject and a predicate—or noun and verb—such as:

Johnny belched.

Johnny is the subject and belched is the predicate, and if we want to modify belched with an adverb we can write loudly after belched as in, Johnny belched loudly (which is really the only way I have ever heard people of Johnny’s gender belch).Scan 141770010

An adverb can ALSO modify another adverb!

Did you know that an adverb can also modify another adverb? Find the adverb in the following sentence:

Gertrude slipped her coat on fast.

Scan 141770009All right, I know that was a little tricky! The adverb is fast (I just wanted to demonstrate to you what I said before, that all adverbs do not end in “ly”). HOW does Gertrude get into her coat? She slips into it fast. Now, how could we use an adverb to modify the adverb fast? This way: Gertrude slipped her coat on quite fast. Or, Gertrude slipped her coat on so fast. Or, using an “ly” adverb, Gertrude slipped her coat on extremely fast. The adverb here answers the question TO WHAT EXTENT?

Adverbs/adverb phrases are used to answer

  • WHEN: tonight, yesterday, on a sunny day…
  • HOW: with a can opener, with a key, carefully…
  • WHERE: there, here, outside…
  • TO WHAT EXTENT: quite, almost, very, a good deal, sort of…

Avoiding a Ruler to the Knuckles

Improper Use of Adverbs When Modifying Verbs

Let’s talk about modifying verbs. We use adverbs to enrich the meaning of verbs, so we need to make sure that the adverbs we select do just that. If the adverb you choose doesn’t enhance your verb, don’t bother using that particular adverb. Let’s look at an example:

1). Harris screamed loudly.

Harris is screaming. Screaming, by its very nature, is loud. Have you ever heard someone scream softly? No, the whole idea of the scream is to be heard “loud and clear,” as they say. So adding the word loudly to this sentence does nothing to enhance it. How about “Harris screamed angrily,” or “Harris screamed suddenly” or “Harris screamed hysterically“? Don’t these adverbs say a lot more about Harris and his feelings (or his emotional stability perhaps) than “loudly”?

2). The postman sprinted quickly away from the growling dog. Scan 141770006

How else can someone sprint but quickly? It doesn’t matter whether a child of eight is sprinting or an elderly gentleman of eighty is sprinting; the child will naturally sprint faster than the elderly gentleman, but, in both cases, each individual is moving at a higher rate of speed than is normal to them. That’s what sprinting is all about. If you really want to enhance the sentence, how about “The postman sprinted gracefully away from the growling dog,” or “The postman sprinted awkwardly away from the growling dog”?

Scan 1417700073). Barry clenched his jaw tightly.

Clenching is a tightening of something: maybe your jaw, maybe your fist. There is no reason to add the word tightly to the above sentence. But you may want to clue us in to WHY Barry clenched his jaw, right? Or what he was feeling when he did it? So, in order to help your readers understand his feelings at the time, you might write: Barry clenched his jaw nervously, or Barry clenched his jaw indignantly. The words nervously and indignantly actually tell us something about Barry’s state of mind or how he feels about the situation in which he finds himself. The word tightly tells us nothing we don’t already know.

If you would like help making your manuscript as polished as possible before submitting it to agents or before self publishing, please feel free to contact me. I’ve been working with writers and editing their manuscripts since the year 2000, and I have never once struck a writer on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Click here or at the top of this page for my submission guidelines, rates, and to read articles pertinent to your writing life.

Jean Foster Akin

 

[All Images Copyright Free]

Use This Trick To Avoid Looking Addlepated

Scan 141700003If there is one thing you don’t want to appear in life, it’s addlepated. And that’s why this week’s installment is about the proper way to use a thesaurus in order to choose the right words for your story. Is it better to use the word addlepated or is it better to use the word foolish? Or, as Professor Larry Donner asks in Throw Mama From the Train, was the night moist, hot and wet, humid, or sultry? It depends. What is the context? If you’re writing dialogue, the words you choose depend on the character speaking. What kind of character is he? Is he educated, in the military, a doctor, a dog-walker, a thief? And what are you writing? Do you write for children or a general adult audience? Is your writing considered literature? The right word depends on a lot of things.

Sometimes writers think that the Right Word is the most literate sounding word, or the one word they have never heard before, or the word with the most letters (younger writers tend to do this), or the one that sounds the most “intellectual.” They want to change “The brown bear ate Astrid” to read “The brown bear consumed Astrid,” just ’cause. This works okay, but there are pros and cons: there’s really nothing wrong with the word ate in this sentence, and, frankly, the word consumed tends to sound a bit clinical (just a bit though—the word masticated would sound worse). But either ate or consumed work, depending on the genre of the work or on the personality of your character (if you have her talking about Astrid).

But are all the synonyms offered under headwords in a thesaurus substitutable for the words they’re meant to replace? No. Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not make it an appropriate substitution. Let’s look at an example.

In The American Century Thesaurus, synonyms for the word LOUD (adj.) are as follows: (1). deafening, ear-splitting, booming, blaring, stentorian, thundering, thunderous, sonorous, noisy, clamorous, piercing, fortissimo (2). tawdry, garish, flashy, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, showy, ostentatious, Colloq splashy, snazzy, jazzy.

Which of those words would you use in the following sentence?

Astrid spoke in a(n) ___ voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.

Some of you would play it safe and choose noisy. Others, wanting to add something a bit more interesting, might choose stentorian. And some of you, wanting to be totally different, wanting to fulfill that future agent’s request that you send her work with “a fresh voice,” might choose the word FORTISSIMO! That works, right? The word fortissimo is listed under the “first sense” grouping (indicated by the number “1” in parenthesis in the entry above), so it must be similar to the words noisy and stentorian, and therefore must be substitutable, yes? Let’s try it:

Astrid spoke in a fortissimo voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.

Merriam-Webster defines fortissimo as “very loud” and states it is a word used “in the direction of music.” Does it sound right in the sentence above? I think it works if you’re writing comedy. If you’re being serious, though, the word fortissimo sounds silly at best. It is not the proper word given the context of the sentence.

Of course, you could do worse, you could choose a word from the “second sense” grouping (indicated by the number 2 in parenthesis in the entry above), and make a terrible mess altogether:

Astrid spoke in an gaudy voice and startled the sleeping brown bear.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gaudy as “ostentatiously or tastelessly ornamented.”

So, gaudy doesn’t work at all in the sentence, and it’s no wonder the brown bear consumed Astrid.

Let’s try another:

Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent ____ to tickle the sleeping brown bear.

You could use the words: desire, longing, craving, appetite, taste, stomach, sympathy, predilection, penchant, fancy, eagerness, enthusiasm, zeal, furor, or ardor according to The American Century Thesaurus. Under the headword INCLINATION, these words are all listed in the same “sense” grouping. Because of this, many writers will at first believe they can all be substituted for inclination without an issue. But allow me to insert just two of those words and insert them into the sentence below, and you will see the problem.

Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent (stomach)/(sympathy) to tickle the sleeping brown bear.

Even though both words entered in the sentence above are considered in the same sense grouping as longing and desire, they don’t work, do they? Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not mean the word must, in some way, be substitutable. So what word would you select? Personally, I’d choose the word “fancy” in this sentence; it hints at the child-like shenanigans for which the late Astrid obviously had a predilection, but you could use desire or longing without looking silly at all.

The thesaurus is a wonderful tool, and playing with words, using different, fun words, is all a part of enjoying the writing life. But you must be careful. Every word in a thesaurus that’s been listed as a synonym for the word you’re trying to replace is not necessarily a good replacement, and can make you look addlepated foolish if you’re not punctilious careful.

JFA

 

[THE AMERICAN CENTURY THESAURUS, Warner Books Paperback Edition by Lawrence Urdang, Inc. 1992, 1995 and THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTINARY, New Edition, 2004]

 

The Differences Between Main Characters and “Types”

91mDaiCSybL._SL1500_by Jean Foster Akin

Main Characters are the reason readers invest themselves in a story. Main characters have histories that the reader comes to know as the story progresses. Main characters are complex: they might not do the expected thing, or they might do the expected thing in a way it has not been done before. Main characters have depth and inner feelings which drive them in interesting and/or understandable directions. Now, when I use the word “understandable” I do not mean to say “acceptable” or “moral.” Look at the Harry Potter series. We understand that Tom Riddle had a horrific childhood and because of this, we are not surprised to find that he becomes unstable quite early on. However, Tom Riddle becomes more than just unstable, he becomes a murderer in order to gain power and immortality. While most of us cannot understand the murderer’s mind and do not relate to Tom Riddle or his alter ego, Lord Voldemort, we do not question his actions: Riddle’s/Voldemort’s actions are understandable to us because they fit his character perfectly, unacceptable though they are. He’s a very complex character.

Harry Potter is complex as well. As one of the main characters and the protagonist, he resonates with readers because he is good as well as flawed. Unlike Voldemort, Harry is loyal, sympathetic, caring, fun-loving, and deeply kind. But even though Harry is a protagonist, that does not mean he is perfect or has never had trouble. His creator makes him an orphan on the outset: Voldemort murders his parents when he is an infant and he lives with that pain all his life. Though Voldemort sought to kill Harry as well, he was unsuccessful, something that had never happened to Voldemort before that time nor does it ever happen after. Because of this, Harry becomes known as “the boy who lived,” and he is the focus of attention that he doesn’t ever get used to. Harry can be rebellious, Harry is often lonely, Harry has been known to break the rules at school, to be moody because of inner turmoil he cannot understand—but Harry also puts others ahead of himself, he sacrifices for others, and he faces danger so others won’t have to (even the people who have been unkind to him). Harry is not a goody-two-shoes, Harry is a good boy with big problems. Harry has character. Harry has pluck. Harry is complex. Harry is a Main Character.

TWO TYPES OF “TYPES”

Types are different from main characters and types should not be confused with894981b0c8a0a45d270fd110.L

secondary characters. In the novel Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Colonel Branden, and John Willoughby are main characters. Lucy Steele, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Ferrars are all secondary characters, but without them we don’t have much of a tale. For instance, if there was no Mrs. Ferrars (a cruel, arrogant woman of society who will see her son disowned before she sees him marrying below his station), then there could be no heartbreak for the gentle Edward Ferrars, the crafty Lucy Steele, or the poor Elinor Dashwood. Now, some would say Mrs Ferrars is a “type” as she is a rich socialite and snooty to those she considers below her. Okay, I’ll grant you that this is a recognizable type and that Mrs. Ferrars does what we expect her to do within the perimeters of that type. However, though she may not be as complex as, say, Marianne, Mrs. Ferrars is more complex than a type, and her place in the story makes her a secondary character.

So What Are Types?

We see that types are not secondary characters, but that secondary characters can look like types. Types are different from main and secondary characters in that [A] there is really no reason for types to have a lot of back story, if any at all, [B] types aren’t complex, [C] types are easy to write into stories because readers already have their images locked in their subconscious minds.

Types can be slipped into our stories and can have little impact on our main/secondary characters (they are just the people on the plane, for instance), or they can have a great deal of impact, depending on what you want to use them to do. The mugger on the street might have no purpose in the story other than to snatch your character’s purse and run off, never to be reintroduced in the story. The mugger could also quite believably kill your character’s husband when he attempts to stop the crime, and still never be reintroduced in the story. In either case, we don’t need to know much of anything about the mugger to believe he is capable of stealing or even murder. “The Mugger” is a type. Put him in a dark jeans jacket, pull a cap over his greasy hair with the brim shading his cold watchful eyes, and slip a knife into his pocket—he’s ready to go. Put him in leather, make him a blonde with a crew cut—he’s still “The Mugger.” His vision will rise in your readers’ minds, and it will be an accurate enough vision. Write the words TV Preacher, Used Car Salesman, Sailor on Leave, and Mob Boss and you’ll get the same reaction: people have images of these types hiding in their subconscious. All you have to do is give a brief description and your readers’ particular images are there.

MISTAKES WE MAKE WITH TYPES

Vintage-Dior1). One mistake writers can make with types is in not adding them into their stories at all. I see this a lot with newer writers and with writers who are self-publishing and who aren’t getting enough feedback about their work (or who are ignoring that feedback), so beware of this. When there are no types in a story, the main characters are operating in a vacuum. This doesn’t make for good storytelling. Types cut your character off in traffic, bustle by him in the street, sit beside him in the doctor’s waiting room—types add action and color and realism to your character’s world.

When an estranged couple, Robert and Vivian, meet each other in a restaurant to discuss their relationship, it is much more interesting and true to life if they must endure the over-talkative waitress, knowing they only have this one precious hour to get some things settled. Bring in a fussy waiter to come by their table and fiddle with their salt and pepper shakers while Robert tries to convince Vivian to return to him, and you’ve added more tension. Or, have them sit in uncomfortable silence, that’s always grand. But uncomfortable silences can be turned up a notch when a child at another table begins to tantrum over his chicken fingers (can’t we all immediately picture the bratty child type?). Or, just write perfectly pleasant types into the scene, sitting around the restaurant, enjoying their lunches…but situate their tables a little too close to Robert and Vivian’s table and allow Robert and Vivian to hear snatches of their conversations. Can you see how the intense and heartbreaking topic that Robert and Vivian are trying to discuss discretely is made more frustrating for their not wanting to be overheard? This awkwardness is brought to your main characters through the vehicle of types.

2). The second mistake I have seen with types is when writers write them in a

Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954), one of his best performances. He was not a "type" in this film, he was the main character with all the main character's complexity. But we're talking thugs here and he made a great thug...being Marlon Brando and all.
Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954), one of his best performances. He was not a “type” in this film, he was the main character with all the main character’s complexity. But we’re talking thugs here and he made a great thug…being Marlon Brando and all.

contrived way. The thugs that guard your gun runner don’t have to be always cracking their knuckles and leering at people’s kneecaps, or constantly talking about all the ways they’re going to mess up other characters. I can hear you saying to your computer screen, “Thanks for that advice, Captain Obvious!” but this advice isn’t obvious to every writer, and I’ve dealt with it more times than I can count when working with editing clients. I edited a story once where the thugs were so thuggy that they were no longer thugs at all, they were caricatures of thugs. They knocked down strangers on the street, they leaped forward to grab the gentler characters in neck-holds, and for no reason except the writer was “writing thugs” and he believed they had to be beating on people all the time. If you are writing a thug into your story and he runs around attacking other characters with no provocation, he better be doing this for a reason (for instance, he is mentally ill, he is on drugs, he’s being paid by an even bigger thug to create havoc and instill fear, etc). As long as you’ve made his actions reasonable to your readers, your thug can go around knocking hats off in the street without your readers having to suspend their disbelief. He’ll be doing what thugs in his circumstance do. That’s the great thing about types: they are so necessary for peopling your stories and, if written well, they are like little toy soldiers that your wind up and let go.

[Photos: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Amazon.com); Sense and Sensibility (Amazon.com); On the Waterfront (Amazon.com). Lady in red dress, Vintage-Dior.]

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Real and Avoiding Contrived Dialogue

DSC07229by Jean Foster Akin

I’ve edited for other writers since the year 2000, and in that time I’ve read stories in every conceivable genre about every imaginable topic. Sometimes I can get caught up in a story, forget I’m reading fiction, and believe completely that the characters are living, breathing people somewhere; I want to know what happens next. But then there are other times…well, there are other times when stories I’ve been editing really don’t ring true to life at all. And I’m not talking about genre here, because a good writer could place his protagonist in a diving bell, send him off exploring a body of water on Mars (with his faithful dog Astro) and we’d believe it. Didn’t you believe Watership Down? When you first heard who the main characters were, did you ever think you’d believe that story? Me neither. But then I read the story. And I believed it. It was written “real.”

There are any number of reasons why a story might not ring true, and contrived dialogue is a big one. Dialogue should move the story forward, teach you something about the characters, hint at things to come, reveal backstory, and so on. What is contrived dialogue? Let’s use some to reveal backstory:

“Robert, as my brother, you know that our father was a railroad man and hardly ever home. This caused our mother to be sad, and in her sadness, she took to drink. I, along with your other brothers, Tim and Edgar, have noticed that your wife Janet is also depressed because of the amount of time you spend at the office, and we…”

PROBLEMS: Stilted voice. No real emotion. Telling the reader little instead of showing the reader much. Unrealistic–both the brothers know the family history and both know the names of their family members so there is no need for one brother to remind the other of these things. And yes, I have worked with many clients who believe this kind of dialogue is a perfect substitute for actually taking the time to create a world populated with realistic characters, speaking and behaving in ways that feel genuine to the reader.

A BETTER WAY to REVEAL BACKSTORY and DEVELOP CHARACTERS AT THE SAME TIME: “Robert! Listen to me, will you?” Alfred slammed his palm on the kitchen table, and Robert turned, startled and angry. Alfred ignored the fury in his brother’s eyes and went on. “Do you want Janet to end up like Ma, in and out of rehab? Do you want to wake up one day and find she’s become an alcoholic? You’re never home anymore, you leave her for days alone with the kids, you growl at her when you are home. Just like Dad! The mother of your children is drinking herself into a stupor every night and the whole family’s worried—even if you’re too selfish to be.”

The reader learns much about the two men here: Robert is a bad husband, he’s defensive and stubborn and careless. Alfred is frustrated with his brother’s lack of concern for his family. He’s filled with anxiety over his sister-in-law, but he feels there is hope if only he can get Robert to listen. The reader can understand that the men’s mother has had a tragic life and a bad marriage without having to know every detail of it, simply because of what Albert says about the relationship between Alice and Robert. The dialogue isn’t contrived, it’s real.

One other item I must mention while on the subject of contrived dialogue. I once had a Christian client, a lovely fellow, who believed that whatever he wrote had to be an evangelistic tool. Now, this is perfectly fine, and I have no issue with this. But what I did take issue with was my client’s belief that, as Christian people, his characters had to be perfect. They were always loving, always helpful, always kind, always thoughtful, never became irritated, never said anything “gossipy,” never had even a mild argument with their wives. In other words, totally contrived. Because of this, in addition to being unrealistic, his characters were terribly boring. They were not characters that readers would ever be able to connect with or understand. The story involved mafia dons and drug lords, and these bad guys were chasing the protagonist throughout the chapters with the intention of ending his life. When he falls into the trap of the antagonist, Big Louie (a guy who was a killer at the age of 15 and who has wealth and prestige and power now in the world he’s created), our hero’s dialogue seems even more contrived.

“Look Big Louie. I know you feel you have to live a life of crime. But Jesus loves you and he wants you to lay your sins at his feet and be born again.”

I think more contrived than this line is Big Louie’s instantaneous response, spoken as he lowers his fist from the protagonist’s face. “You know kid, my pop brought me up to be tough. I thought the way to get to the top was by bulldozing over anyone who got in my way. But I’ve been moved by what you said, and well, I guess I’m ready to make some changes in my life.”

Then Big Louie doesn’t snicker, as you’d think he might, and fit our hero with cement galoshes before tossing him into the East River. He actually gives up the life of a kingpin, just like that, and joins forces with the protagonist that minute.

My point here is not “don’t write Christian fiction.” My point here is “write Christian fiction well.” Develop characters from the people you’ve met in your life. Don’t make every bit of dialogue a sermon. You aren’t maligning the faith by writing characters who have doubts, who struggle with selfishness or bitterness, who have done wrong. You’re being real. And when your hero sees the error of his ways, give him time to work it out like real people work things out. Your story will have much more impact and will touch many more lives when you write real.

NEXT TIME: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MAIN CHARACTERS AND “TYPES” and HOW TYPES ARE ESSENTIAL TO YOUR STORY!

 

photo by JFA

 

Writing and Revision: Two Happy Peas in a Pod

Scan 141430000There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. Sometimes criticism feels bad because of how it is delivered, sometimes it feels bad because it has been delivered at all. Sometimes it needs to be heard, regardless.

People—people who love to write like I love to write—pay me to edit what they’ve written. They pay me to look for mistakes in grammar, they pay me to edit for context, they pay me to warn them when their dialogue sounds contrived, they pay me to note when their characters come out of character—many of them pay me to “do whatever needs to be done,” and, in that case, I catch all those things I just mentioned above without ever being asked to do so. This is fine with me because I can’t leave those things alone anyway.

Some of my clients asks me not only to notice mistakes and inconsistencies and to fix them, but also to open a comment field and write a short lesson on why what they wrote doesn’t work. Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do: help them make their poor writing good, and their good writing better.

Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do…

A friend of mine, a professional illustrator by the name of Violet Lemay, wrote an article recently about how much she’s enjoying teaching illustration to students online, and how thoughtful these talented student-artists so often are. She had to admit, though, that some of their reactions to the subject of revisions makes her want to snicker. Knowing her, I believe that if she does feel the need to snicker, she snickers in only the nicest of ways; but if you work with student-artists or writing clients, sometimes you can’t help but give at least a good-natured shake of the head when they gasp at the idea of revision. For some of my writing clients, the idea of being asked to make revisions is one of the most insulting requests they feel they can ever receive. It says to them that what they have created isn’t wonderful, fantastic, and utterly perfect. You can see how this might make someone else giggle a bit, right? If you can’t see this, make a…

NOTE TO SELF: “I’m human; perfection isn’t my strong suit. That’s okay.”

It isn’t hard for those of us with some mileage on us to accept the fact that we are not perfect, but for others, it can be a very distressing concept. It isn’t always a bad thing to want to get as close to perfection as we can, but if we are writers, getting close to perfection is accomplished through revision. And not only through subjective writer-birthed revision (or subjective artist-birthed revision if you’re an illustrator like my friend Violet, or a future-illustrator like one of her students), but also through objective revision suggestions made by qualified individuals outside your Self.  When a writer has spent years on a novel, or days on a blog post, she often re-reads passages seeing what she intended to write and not what is really there. It’s a trick of the mind that seasoned writers know well. Extra eyes are the writer’s FRIEND, and we can get closer to perfection when we can accept good, solid critique from someone who wants to see us succeed. AND (stay calm because I have to tell you) sometimes you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it. Allow me to repeat that with a slight variation on the theme:

As a writer, as an artist, as a human being, you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it.

The VERY thing that makes those words you’ve penned the “perfect” words, is revision. If you take a look at the concept illustrations Violet Lemay did in preparation for cover art in a section of The Baltimore Sun, you’ll see how the limits placed upon her by others involved in the project forced her to think harder, to stretch herself, to work in stages towards the “perfect” cover. Here’s a woman who knows her stuff, she’s proven herself over and over again to all the right people (just take a gander at all the publications where her art has appeared over the years). Violet never lacks for work—I think she knows what she’s talking about when she says revision isn’t bad, revision is the key to exceptional work. This goes not only for artists, but for writers as well.

So, for all my writing brothers and sisters, listen to constructive criticism. Don’t be offended by it. If it doesn’t seem like it’s “right,” that’s fine, put it aside. But don’t just dismiss it out of hand. When an editor shows you ways to improve your writing, understand that she isn’t saying you can’t write, she is saying you can write better. We all can.

 

by Jean Foster Akin

That Old Man Looks Like a Soup Chicken!

semicolonWhat a cheap trick! To lure you in with a post title like this one. But stick with me, the old man will come into play a little later.

Today I want to talk to you about The Semi-Colon! See now? You wouldn’t have come here if the title of this post had been: “The Semi-Colon.” You wouldn’t have come here even if the title of this post had been: “The Amazing Semi-Colon!”  Yet, I am not too sure you actually know how to use a semi-colon and that’s why you really need to be here. I mean, what is the purpose of the semi-colon, after all? Does it have a purpose other than drawing out the red pen of thousands of English composition teachers every year, and causing millions of English composition students to break out in stress-related hives? Flies have more purpose than semi-colons, you say? Well, I think we’re all very well aware of that fact. Flies pollinate the cocoa flower, and without flies there would be no chocolate–so yes, of course, flies have more purpose than semi-colons! But semi-colons have a place in this world, too, and particularly in the world of writing. So let’s stop being nervous about them to the point of never using them, and let’s (please!) stop being so unafraid of them that we pepper every sentence with three or four of them at a clip! As a freelance editor, I’ve seen both ends of this bell curve, and I’d like to see you all move a lot closer to center. Let’s get started toward that end, shall we?  😀

IF YOU WANT YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO RESPECT YOU, YOU WILL LEARN HOW TO USE SEMI-COLONS CORRECTLY!

All right. I lied. Your friends and family will not respect you more than they do right now if you learn to use semi-colons correctly. They may even begin to respect you less. They may stop inviting you to parties. Or, they might simply ignore you completely, thereby giving you far less respect than a person of your intellectual sensitivity deserves. You might want to save a kitten from a tree, help a little old lady across the street, return your shopping cart to the cart corral once in a while– something–in order to hedge your bets on the respect thing. But you’re a writer, so learn how to use semi-colons regardless of how your family and friends feel about it, okay?  🙂

Let’s begin understanding the semi-colon by discussing what it is NOT.

  • A semi-colon is NOT a period (also known as a “full stop”). Bartholomew had an irritating habit of picking his nose. (STOP!)
  • A semi-colon is NOT a comma (used to show a reader when to pause). Gretchen was so slovenly, (PAUSE…how slovenly was she?) she had a turnip garden growing in her ears! 

What the Semi-Colon IS: 

The semi-colon is a punctuation mark which signals that two independent clauses are being linked together, and that they share a common theme. Oh now, don’t run away just because I used the word clauses!! A CLAUSE is SIMPLY a SENTENCE! Sit back down and pay attention, because you’re going to get this. Just let me phrase it another way: a semi-colon links two independent sentences (clauses) together that are “talking” about the same thing (in other words, they share a common theme). Nothing scary about that. “Uh-huh,” you say, “but what are these terrifying independent sentences of which you speak??” Glad you asked. Independent sentences are sentences that can stand on their own, just as the term implies. That’s all. Not so scary, right?  Think of it this way: we can place a semi-colon between two sentences that could stand on their own, but which are so related that we want one to follow closely on the heels of the other (so that the latter sentence backs up the former). Watch this:

  • Eleanor hates spiders; she was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

This one sentence uses two independent clauses (sentences). The first clause tells us something about Eleanor (that she hates spiders). The second clause offers a reason for her fear (she was bitten by a spider as a child). These clauses are so closely related that a semi-colon is doing nothing wrong by hanging out between them. However, because the clauses are independent, they could also stand on their own and make perfect sense too:

Eleanor hates spiders. 

Eleanor was bitten by a large spider when she was a child.

 WHERE SEMI-COLONS ARE NOT APPROPRIATE

(1.) Semi-colons are not appropriate when placed where periods should be.

INCORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day; he left work and drove home in the rain. True, the two clauses which make up the sentence are independent clauses, and they are both about Bruce, but they are not terribly related. Bruce’s lack of supper has nothing to do with him leaving work and driving home in the rain. No semi-colon should be used between these clauses–just a plain old period between them is perfectly fine.

CORRECT: Bruce had no chance to eat dinner all day. He left work and drove home in the rain.

(2.)  Semi colons are not appropriate when placed where commas should be. Read the next sentence, pretending it’s dialogue in your novel. One of my clients used a semi-colon in a sentence of dialogue very much like this one, except his sentence wasn’t so rude and didn’t involve fowl of any kind.

INCORRECT: “That old man looks like a soup chicken; I tell ya!” The first part of this sentence is made up of an independent clause. The second part doesn’t come close to being independent. Just look into a mirror and say boldly, “I tell ya!” See? No good. There’s nothing independent about that clause. A comma is the obvious choice here.

CORRECT: “That old man looks like soup chicken, I tell ya!”

The semi-colon is a useful punctuation mark. It alerts us to the fact that (A.) two clauses are being joined in one sentence, and, (B.) they are independent clauses, and, (C.) they are so closely related they could be the same sentence if they really wanted to be.  

 

written by Jean Foster Akin

You Don’t Have to Obey the Machines

Head-artificial-intelPerhaps you’ve seen the film I, Robot, with Will Smith.  In the highly technophilic future (the year 2035 in this case), almost everyone has a robot companion. The robots make meals for humans, do the laundry, run out to the market for groceries, and protect human homes and human families–and if you forget your asthma medication at home in your purse, don’t worry! Your robot will run and get it for you. The quicker U.S. Robotics can develop the next generation of sleeker, shinier, anthropomorphic robots, the better.

The film appeals to us because we love convenience, we love technology, and even though our technology in the year 2013 isn’t what people hope it will be in 2035, we are still doing pretty well. We are rabid collectors of high-tech toys designed to make life easier, to make our talents more noticeable, to make our work more effective, and to make our leisure time more fun. And each month it seems like there’s some new technological wonder for us to covet or collect.

Many of my editing clients are newbies when it comes to writing and some have admitted to buying some pretty expensive writing software for their computers, software that they believe will help them become great writers. They have wondered why these programs have failed to help them achieve the status of Exceptional Writer though (with the accompanying mile-long line of literary agents banging at their doors, hoping to snatch up an exceptional manuscript). But robots and computer programs can’t write exceptional novels, only people can. Only people with the gift to write—who also have a handle on the mechanics of writing—can write exceptional novels. Even if your grasp is more instinctive than academic, you can write some very fine prose. But, remember, your computer cannot.

I wrote: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry them on her shirt.” The electronic grammar checker I used corrected the sentence to read: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry those on her shirt.” Though most writers would know this is incorrect, many of the less experienced among them would think that there had to have been something wrong with their original sentence to make the grammar checker suggest a change at all. This is the point where insecure writers will make changes where none are needed.

Will Smith’s character in I, Robot is a detective named Spooner. Spooner holds a violent hatred for technology, especially robots, because when Spooner’s car and a car carrying a young girl are involved in an accident which pushes them both into a river, a robot saves Spooner’s life while allowing the girl to die. The robot can check blood oxygen levels, detect heart rate and blood pressure. The robot can detect human life functions and use that information to calculate chances of survival. The robot makes a pragmatic choice: Spooner has a greater chance of surviving than the girl, therefore Spooner must be saved.  But what the robot cannot do is grasp the humanity which would make most of us reach for the drowning child first. It does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love which made Spooner demand it save the drowning child. And a grammar checker does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love that you have which can make your prose sing.

The writer must understand grammar, and she must be confident about what she means to say. She should say what she means, regardless of the demands made by the artificial intelligence which surrounds her.

Jean Foster Akin

Photo by JFA

Is it “Cat’s whiskers” or “Cats’ whiskers”? Plurals and Possessives

Something I notice a lot in my editing work is how often my clients have problems with possessives, especially when plurals are involved. You know, like, how do you tell if you’re supposed to write: “the cat’s whiskers” or “the cats’ whiskers”? Many of my clients feel intimidated by English grammar texts, thinking they’re too complicated to be understood, and so when they need to write about a gaggle of old ladies having tea in the garden, they don’t look in a grammar text before they write: “All the lady’s tea was served with crumpets.” When they need to write about the many chickens being fed by the women in Bolivia, they write: “The women scattered the chicken’s feed on the dusty earth.” And they look like amateurs.

You don’t want to look like an amateur, do you? I didn’t think so.

I am going to explain this subject using examples and no real technical jargon, so don’t be nervous. You CAN understand this!  🙂

THE SINGULAR NOUN

Let’s start with something SIMPLE: the singular noun. A noun is described as “a person, place, or thing.” The word “cat” is a singular noun because it represents one thing, a single creature. When we read: “The cat’s water bowl is empty,” we know we are reading about one creature (a cat) which possesses something (a bowl). How do we know that the bowl belongs to the cat? Because the singular noun (cat) has an apostrophe at the end, followed by an “s” (cat‘s). The word we see BEFORE that apostrophe tells us that we are dealing with a single cat, and the apostrophe and “s” at the end of the word tell us he owns something–in this case, a water bowl that just happens to be empty. The “bowl” is also a singular noun, but it is not important to our discussion of grammar. It would be important in a discussion of animal husbandry and morality (as some human has thoughtlessly allowed his cat’s water bowl to go dry), but for now we are only concerned with the nouns in this sentence that “possess” something, okay? Okay.

How about this: “The boy’s nose is runny.” There is only one boy with one disgusting little nose. The word “boy” is a singular noun, and to indicate the boy owns (or possesses) this particularly wet little nose, the writer adds an apostrophe after the singular noun (boy), and then adds an “s” after the apostrophe (boy‘s) to show the boy owns that nose. The word that we see BEFORE the apostrophe is a singular noun–one boy. One boy who needs a tissue quick, before he uses his shirt sleeve.

WHAT ABOUT MAKING PLURAL NOUNS POSSESSIVE?

This is where my clients have the most trouble. They almost never get this right, but it’s actually very simple to do this correctly. Take the word “girls,”for instance. The word “girls” means “more than one girl.” The word “girls” is a plural noun. It is a word that is made plural by adding an “s” to the end of its singular form (girl). Other words that are made plural by adding an “s” to the end of their singular form are: gardeners, pilots, brains, pimples, and toes. We all understand that. But how do we make plural words indicate possession? By adding an apostrophe AFTER the very “s” which has made those words plural. So, we write, “The girls‘ shoes were arranged neatly in the front hallway.” Many girls have taken off their shoes and those shoes have been arranged neatly in the front hallway. You can also write, “The girls‘ mother placed their shoes in the front hallway” if you are talking about more than one girl, and those girls happen to be sisters and so have one mother. The word BEFORE the apostrophe is a plural noun: girls. That’s what you MUST remember! If all the girls own something, whether it be the same thing (“The girls’ mother…”) or different things that are similar (“The girls’ shoes…”) then the writer writes out the plural noun (girls) and adds an apostrophe after that last “s” there, the “s” which has made the word plural (girls‘) and he has signaled us that there is more than one girl being referred to in the sentence.

Let’s try this with other nouns, both singular and plural.

One pig: “The pig‘s feet are muddy.”

More than one pig:  “The pigs‘ feet are muddy.”

One boy: “The boy‘s baseball cap is white.”

More than one boy: “The boys‘ baseball caps are blue.”

Many girls possessing many dresses? “The girls‘ dresses dried on the clothes line.”

One dog possessing one bone: “The dog‘s bone had been kicked under the couch.”

More than one dog possessing one bone: “The dogs‘ bone was nowhere to be found.”

Many cats possessing many kittens? “The cats‘ kittens mewled for their mothers‘ attention.” Gotcha twice there!

Do you see?

What if there are several individuals who own one thing together? How does one make the plural noun possessive then? Simple. The word following the plural possessive noun does not need to be plural. If many cats use the same water bowl, you can write, “The cats’ water bowl is empty.”  You can also write of more than one old lady, of more than one chicken, of more than one soccer player, all of them possessing one thing together:

  • “The old ladies’ house needs repair.”
  • “The chickens’ coop is delapidated.”
  • “The soccer players’ dressing room smells like zoo.”

You need not worry about what word follows the plural noun when you are making it possessive. All you need to think about is this: are there more than one “persons, places, or things” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the word you use for the plural noun indicates “more than one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe (captains‘ crews, football players‘ sweat socks, girls‘ dollhouse…). Is there only one “person, place, or thing” possessing this thing or those things? Then make sure the singular noun indicates “one” BEFORE adding the apostrophe and the “s” (the little girl‘s puppy, my mother‘s apron, the farmer‘s cows).

WHAT ABOUT WORDS WHICH DO NOT REQUIRE AN “S” AT THE END TO BECOME PLURAL?

Many nouns, like the the words “pickle,” “bird,” “hypocrite,” and “boat,” require an “s” be added at the end to make them plural. But some words do NOT require an “s” to be added at the end to make them plural. Think of words like “woman” (singular) which becomes “women” when plural. “Man” is singular, and “men” is plural. “Child” is singular, and “children” is plural. To make these words possessive in their singular form, just do what you would do with singular words like trident and turtle–add an apostrophe followed by an “s.” For instance:

  • The man’s car…
  • The child’s toy…

To make these words possessive in their plural form, DO THE SAME THING. Simply add an apostrophe followed by an “s” as in:

  • The men’s sister
  • The children’s toys

The words “women,” “men,” and “children” are ALREADY plural, so add an apostrophe and an “s” to make them possessive.

With a little practice, and a little extra study (as well as a desire to take your writing seriously by investing in tried-and-true grammar texts), you can improve your writing and not only look professional, but become a professional too!

written by Jean Foster Akin