Friday, January 30, 2015

Overheard #304

"Thanks to your organization and professionalism, this was easy-peasy."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Amaryllis Time

I took these pictures in the morning on an overcast day when the flowers were slightly backlit. 

These were taken at noon after the sun came out. 

This variety of amaryllis is called Stardust. Here's Hoagy.

One of my favorite online plant companies has a sale on amaryllis after Christmas. I decided to order a second plant. After much deliberation, I chose Aphrodite. When the bulb arrived, there was a note on the receipt telling me Aphrodite sold out and they'd replaced my choice with ...
Dancing Queen.
Fair warning. You know what's coming. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unique Characters

Expressing character emotion is a balance between universality and uniqueness. Emotions must be familiar enough to produce empathy in the reader, yet the expression of the emotion must be unusual so that the reader is intrigued. Some of the most powerful expressions of emotion are the ones that inform about character.

In Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s In Me, sixteen-year-old Judith has been ostracized from her conservative, religious, colonial community. She’s no longer eligible to marry Lucas, the boy she’s loved her entire life. Judith cannot speak, and she has limited ability to read and write. The novel is written in second person as Judith addresses Lucas in her mind. 

“There’s nothing so bright as the stream by day, nothing so black on a moonless night.

I bent and drank straight from it. It was all I had to fill my belly. And maybe, I thought, you’d be thirsty, too, after a scratchy day of haying, and before retiring to bed you’d dip down into the same stream and drink the water I had kissed. You’ve cooled off here most summer nights since you were a boy.”

This expression of longing, love and the desire to communicate are unique to Judith because she is resigned to her solitude. She wishes that Lucas would “drink the water [she] had kissed.” Judith’s wish for this small thing and huge impossibility causes the reader to yearn with her. 

In a recent workshop, Donald Maass said, “When characters feel what we expect them to feel, the reader doesn’t feel it.” Maass suggests choosing any scene and writing the emotion the character is experiencing. Then he suggests listing the second emotion the character feels, and the third and the fourth. Maass asks writers to rewrite the scene based on the fourth emotion. The other three magically find their way into the passage as well. The scene is deeper, more profound and more likely to touch the reader.

Obviously I cannot know other writers’ thought processes or if they examined several emotions before settling on the one they used in the following passages. I chose the quotes because they resonated with me. Perhaps the reason I found them moving was they didn’t express the most obvious emotion. 

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson’s parents had a troubled marriage and eventually separated. In this scene, Woodson doesn’t show the parents fighting, she doesn’t tell the reader that her mother was homesick, and she doesn’t even show her mother’s dislike of Ohio. She presents the bond between her mother and her paternal grandmother who were both from the South. 
“Both know the southern way of talking
without words, remember when
the heat of summer
could melt the mouth,
so southerners stayed quiet
looked out over the land,
nodded at what seemed like nothing
but that silent nod said everything
anyone needed to hear.

Here in Ohio, my mother and Grace
aren’t afraid
of too much air between words, are happy
just for another familiar body in the room.”

Woodson captures a fundamental difference between her mother’s Southern upbringing and her new life in Ohio. Any reader who has been homesick, lonely, or felt out of place relates to this passage and admires the fresh expression of these emotions.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a young adult novel about twins, Noah and Jude. Early in the book, Noah, then thirteen, describes his relationship with Jude. He doesn’t tell the reader that he loves his sister, or brag about the extraordinarily close relationship they have. Noah almost inadvertently admits that he is dependent on Jude.
“She scoots over so we’re shoulder to shoulder. This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom and how I had us in the picture Fry ripped up yesterday. Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together; we came here together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once in thirteen years have we chosen differently. It’s always: two rocks, two papers, two scissors. When I don’t draw us like this, I draw us as half-people.”

Any reader who has loved another person can identify with the close relationship between these siblings. The unique voice appears in the way Noah concedes that he doesn’t feel whole without Jude.

I’ll end this long series with another quote from Donald Maass. “More than plot, we crave meaning and emotion. We want to experience something, not just be entertained.”

Expressing character emotion posts:
Unique characters (here)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions – Body Language and Gestures

In The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi write, “PHYSICAL SIGNALS are how our bodies outwardly respond when we experience emotion. The stronger the feeling, the more the body reacts and the less conscious control we have over movement. Because characters are unique, they will express themselves in a specific way.”

A writer who knows his or her characters well, understands how they move. When I volunteered at Taekwondo tournaments, I could pick out the masters by the way they walked, smooth as a jungle cat with no wasted motions. Contrast that with an adolescent boy who has just had a growth spurt. Now compare the masters and the gawky boys to a self-conscious, insecure middle school student who has to stand in front of the room and give a book report.

Character gestures include habits and mannerisms. Does your character make a specific motion when he’s nervous or scared, or better yet, when he’s bluffing? What does your character do when she remembers a painful incident from the past?

Body language is useful for describing the emotions of secondary characters. Unless the writer is using an omniscient point-of-view, the feelings of secondary characters can be expressed only through their dialog, deeds and gestures. The main character cannot know their thoughts. J.K. Rowling is a master of character gestures. Dobbie pulls his ears, Vernon Dursley’s mustache bristles, and Minerva McGonagall turns her back on Dolores Umbridge. These motions are concise and effective. The emotion is expressed without drawing the reader’s attention away from the feelings of the protagonist – which is what the scene is about.

Perhaps the most exquisite use of gestures is when the character cannot express the emotion in words. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, two teens with terminal cancer fall in love. Hazel Grace describes kissing Gus a few days before he dies. 

“When I got his face nose-touchingly close so that I could only see his eyes, I couldn’t tell he was sick. We kissed for a while then lay together listening to The Hectic Glow’s eponymous album, and eventually we fell asleep like that, a quantum entanglement of tubes and bodies.”

This is not a typical make-out scene from a young adult novel. Hazel Grace gets so close she “couldn’t tell he was sick.” The reader pretends with them for a moment that a happy ending is possible before returning to the “quantum entanglement of tubes and bodies.”

In Road to Tater Hill, Edith Hemmingway captures grief with a single gesture. When eleven-year-old Annie’s baby sister is stillborn, her mother sinks into depression. Her father is overseas, and her grandparents try to cope. Annie describes a rock she found near the river.
“It was about the size of one of Grandma’s loaves of homemade bread, only heavier – just the right weight for a newborn baby. I nestled it into the corner of my arm, the way I would have cradled Mary Kate. Not like a doll; I was too old for dolls. But when I closed my eyes and imagined that the rock was a baby, there was something about the weight and feel of it that filled the empty hole inside me. I held it close for a long time while the water rushed past, birds chattered in the branches above and a bee buzzed its way around the clusters of touch-me-nots.”

Annie can’t describe how sad and lonely she is. She can’t express how much she misses the baby sister she never knew. So she cradles a rock, and for an instant, the reader imagines with her that the baby was healthy.

Sometimes character gestures speak louder than words.

Expressing character emotion posts:
Body language and gestures (here)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions – Characters’ Thoughts

A character’s thoughts are referred to as internal monologue or interiority. They provide a direct window into the character’s mind. Many editors prefer internal monologue to physical reactions. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says, “Writers try to ‘show’ with a character’s body all the time, but it often starts to read like a medical chart that details the status of her internal organs, or a dance number that chronicles what her limbs are doing. I don’t care about your character’s oddly detached body parts.” By showing a character’s thoughts, writers can avoid clich├ęd butterflies in the stomach, blushes and meaningful gazes.

On the downside, interior monologue can read like an info dump when the writer tries to convey extra material to the reader. At a writing workshop, Carolyn Coman reminded us to “remember who we’re talking to.” In most cases, the character is talking to himself, not the reader. Interior monologue is not a place to stash backstory.

On the upside, internal monologue is an excellent opportunity to develop a character’s voice. Consider the word choices a character uses when thinking. They may be different from the way he talks to his friends, relatives or teachers. Internal monologue may reveal the character’s most secret desires, or show how the character deceives herself. By expressing a character’s thoughts, the writer has an opportunity to convince the reader that the character is unique and interesting.

Leslie Connor writes about the difficult life of twelve-year-old Addie in Waiting for Normal. Addie and her erratic mother live in poverty in a tiny trailer. Addie is given a respite from her worries and responsibilities when she joins her mother's exboyfriend and half-sisters for a brief vacation. She’s old enough to know that the fun cannot last.
“… it wasn’t anything in particular that happened while I was there, but while I was at the inn, I started feeling like a Tootsie Roll Pop. On the outside I was having a shiny-good colorful time. But I could feel my chewy, gooey center squishing and squashing inside me.”

This simile veers close to the physical reactions Mary Kole warned against, except it works – extremely well. Conner exquisitely contrasts “a shiny-good colorful time” with “my chewy, gooey center squishing and squashing inside me.” Her perfect depiction of Addie’s voice brings the character to life. Readers relate to the shared experience of good times ending.

In Kathi Appelt’s brilliant midgrade novel, The Underneath, she describes the developing friendship between the calico cat and Ranger, the old hound dog.
“Cats are famous for purring. And this is what the calico cat did as she curled up next to Ranger’s massive chest, safe and soft. Until he heard it, Ranger had not realized how much he needed this sweet, friendly sound. How much he needed someone to settle in next to him. He didn’t know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn’t. So many needs in one old dog.”

I cannot imagine a more moving depiction of companionship. Appelt’s word choices exude coziness: “curled up,” “safe and soft”, “sweet, friendly sound,” and “settle in next to him.” She pulls the reader into this moment of security and love. The last seven words break the reader’s heart and carry the rhythms and flavors of the Deep South where this novel takes place.

We write fiction to tell a story. We read fiction to share characters’ experiences. A good writer addresses both these needs. As readers, we want characters who are interesting enough to take up some of our busy lives. Characters become interesting both through their uniqueness and their commonality with us. Readers relate to emotion when they find similar experiences in their own memories.

Expressing character emotion posts:
Characters’ thoughts (here)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions – Describe What the Character Experiences

Welcome to the second installment of my series of posts on expressing character emotion. This will be a five part series here, plus a summary post over at The Mitten. At the end of each post, I’ll provide links to the other entries.

One way to express emotion is to describe what the character experiences. In using this approach, the writer relies on the reader’s shared experiences and empathetic reactions to bring the scene to life.

Ann Hood, in Creating Character Emotions, warns against being non-specific in our descriptions. “Sometimes it is laziness that keeps a writer from doing what Flannery O’Connor called ‘painting a picture with words.’ But often this comes from the writer’s own insecurity about where the character should be emotionally at this point of the story.” In my view, if writers truly understand their characters, they can create scenes that the reader lives vicariously. 

In the opening of The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley fifteen-year-old Corinna describes her job as the person who appeases and feeds the dangerous beings called the Folk who inhabit the fantastical world of this novel.
    “It is a day of yellow fog, and the Folk are hungry. They ate the lamb I brought them, picking the bones clean and leaving them outside the Folk Door.
    The lamb was meant for Matron’s Sunday supper. She’ll know I took it, but she will not dare say anything. She can keep her tapestries and silks and Sunday dinners. Here in the Cellar, I control the Folk. Here, I’m queen of the world.”

The passage starts with spooky images: yellow fog, bones picked clean, yet there is no sense of fear. The reader is intrigued with the mystery. Corinna segues to scorning the Matron’s luxurious lifestyle, and ends by boldly claiming dominion over her strange world. The reader is attracted to the courageous, confident girl who claims to be queen of a cellar.

In Laura Resau’s, The Jade Notebook, seventeen-year-old Zeeta describes a sound she hears while walking alone in a Mexican jungle at night. 

“And then, a noise shatters the night. A deep, vibrating noise that seems to tear through the forest, rumble the earth. It comes from what feels like just meters away. It’s so loud it makes me jump, sends my heart racing.
    I freeze. What was that? A motorcycle engine? A chain saw? Motionless, I hold my breath and listen. The only sounds are my pounding pulse, the insects, the distant waves, a breeze through the leaves. All I see are shadows in hues of green and blue and purple. I breathe out and take a tentative step down the path.
    Then it thunders again, filling my ears, resounding through my body. The noise wakes some primal fear in me. I barely resist the urge to run away at top speed.”

Reseau doesn’t say Zeeta was frightened. She starts with a pure description and lets the reader connect through memories of being startled by an unexpected noise. Then Zeeta strives to make sense of what she has heard, relating it to modern mechanical sounds. Next comes a pause, a building of suspense. The reader worries, so finally when the sound is heard again and Zeeta acknowledges primal fear, the reader feels it too. The physical reactions serve as a drum beat for the suspense of the scene.

Both Corinna and Zeeta have compelling voices. Their final responses, however, are unexpected. How many of us wish to rule a cellar? How many people would “resist the urge” to run after hearing a roar in the jungle?

For descriptive emotional portrayals to ring true, the writer must first know how their character will react to a situation. Furthermore, the writer must be fluent in the character’s thinking patterns, so the response to the situation can be uniquely expressed. If the writer begins with a familiar shared experience, the reader can relate to the character. Once the writer has convinced the reader to enter the mind of the character, the reader is willing to supplement the text with memories and imaginings of the desired emotion.

Expressing character emotion posts:
Describe what the character experiences (here)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions - Introduction

Expressing character emotions is one of the most important and challenging aspects of writing fiction. If the reader does not experience what the character is feeling, the scene has failed. Physical reactions (pounding hearts, single tears) tend to be over-used. Interior monologue may sound like an info dump or excessive hand wringing.

While I hardly feel qualified to discuss this topic, a friend convinced me to give a short presentation on character emotions at an upcoming local SCBWI event called the Mid-Mitten Meet Up. (Times and locations of meet ups can be found at the SCBWI-MI website and on the SCBWI-MI Facebook page.) As I worked on my presentation, I decided to expand it into a blog series. Then I was recruited to do a guest post on the Mitten blog for SCBWI-MI.

My character emotion blog series will include posts on:

The posts will be primarily my opinion, but I’m getting help from:

The next post will be up on Wednesday, 1/14/15.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mystery Duck

The Loch Ness Wood Duck we'd thought we'd spied near the Red Cedar River turns out to be a Mandarin duck. They are native to Asia, so my little friend at the back of the picture is a feral duck like the two in front. He's a beauty, and I'm glad I got to see him today.

More information on Mandarin ducks can be found here.
Better pictures can be found here.