curious dino

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

–Samuel Johnson

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a morning playing with my two grandsons. The oldest is three.  He loves dinosaurs and Play-doh and is full of questions:

“Grammy, do you think Velociraptors can live in space?”

“Grammy, do you know how snow is made?”

“Grammy, do sharks have to brush their teeth?”

And from his little brother who just turned one a few months ago and is awfully proud he’s finally mastered the art of walking on his own: “What’s that?  What’s that?” as he drops toy after toy in my lap.

I love watching the wonder come over the boys’ faces as I try my best to answer their questions, which often prompts more questions, until finally they are satisfied and go off to nibble on a cracker.

Sometimes I find it disheartening that as we grow older, we seem to forget what it’s like to follow our curiosity.  We get bogged down by rules, of how it is we need approach that big ol’ monster we call the ‘real world’ and keep it locked in its cage.  One could say the same when it comes to writing.

Often writers, especially new writers, go for the safety net. They may read a craft article or be encouraged by a writing instructor to write what they know.  Sure, on the surface it sounds like it makes sense.  Each time we sit down at the desk or computer we bring with us everything that has attached itself to us, like lint on a sock.  Flannery O’Connor even said if one survived childhood one had enough material to last a lifetime.

The question is, though, how much do we really know?  Do we know enough to sustain a novel or short story?  Will what we know be as interesting to our readers as it is to us—or worse, what if what we know isn’t even interesting at all?  I know how to make a pretty mean chicken noodle stir-fry, but I’m pretty sure nobody wants to read about it.

Back in February I came across an article in LitHub written by Emily Temple, which complied a list of thirty-one famous authors who gave their take on these very questions.  Of course, the answers varied, but all seemed wise.  The response given by Ken Kesey, which was taken from his article,Remember This: Write What You Don’t Know,” published by The New York Times back in 1989, gave a new perspective to this idea of writing only what you know:

“One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull.  Remember when you first wanted to be a writer?  Eight or 10 years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viny jungles toward untold wonders?  That’s what you wanted to write about, about what you didn’t know.  So.  What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”

The last time I spoke with my daughter on the phone she said my grandsons had decided to build themselves a spaceship constructed out of their mini Paw Patrol couch and a few living room pillows. The oldest manned the controls from his brother’s electronic learning table, while the youngest sat in the back asking “What’s that?  What’s that?” I wonder if they found any Velociraptors.

Where will your curiosity take you this week?

 


Photo credit: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

POV

How do I know which point-of-view (POV) to use when writing my story?  It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again in workshops and/or critique groups I’ve participated in.  And yes, I’ve raised my hand alongside everyone else in hopes that someday a profound, no-fail formula will sprout up to demystify it for us all.  Sad to say, I haven’t come across one yet.  In the meantime, here a few things to consider when making the choice of who can best tell your story:

Point-of-View centers around two decisions one must make up-front:

  1. Whose story is this? From whose perspective will the story be told?
  2. How much distance will the POV character/reader have from the events of the story?

Point-of-View can be broken down into four categories:

First-Person

Seems pretty obvious, but in first-person the main character is referred to as “I.”  The character can either be the protagonist, a participant, or if it suits your fancy, a disinterested observer.

Most times the first-person POV is written in the past tense, simply because the narrator must know how the story will end, which means he/she can never die in the story—that is, unless the narrator is a ghost or some other-worldly being.

The main advantage to writing in first-person is the intimacy it provides the reader.  The story unfolds simultaneously for both character and reader, thus allowing the reader to personally invest in the story.

This, however, can also be considered a disadvantage, since the reader is then restricted to only the knowledge and/or information the POV already possesses and makes the character unreliable at best.

There are a few other things to consider when you choose first-person. The POV character must be in every scene; otherwise, there’s no story.  Also, the POV character can never physically describe him/herself from the outside. Everything must rely on introspection—that is, unless there’s a mirror or shiny surface nearby.

Still, if you ask me, the intimacy and the degree of emotional resonance the first-person can create for the reader–well, it might be worth giving it a try.

Second-Person

In second-person, the POV character is referred to as “you” or “your.”

The one main advantage to the second-person POV is that it allows the reader to totally immerse and become a participant in the story.  This works well for shorter pieces, such as flash fiction, but can be difficult to maintain over, say, 300-pages.

Second-person can also be used to step in for a first-person narrator who feels alienated from him/herself.  Many of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self-Help fall into this category.  Check them out and see how they make you feel as a reader.  What do you notice?

Third-Person Limited

The third-person limited character is referred to as “he” or “she.”

Third-person limited allows the reader to focus more on the story at hand rather than on the specific worldview of the narrator.  You also have the ability to withhold information to maintain suspense.

One disadvantage, of course, is the perceived distance between the narrator and reader.  Yet, there are different lens at the author’s disposal:

  1. Close Third-Person, which resembles first-person in that the events are narrated from a point closely related to that of one character but told in plain English instead of in the character’s own diction. To read an example of close third-person, try Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny Smiling Daddy.
  2. Third-person Objective, which uses a cinematic approach, describing the events from a camera-like perspective where the reader is limited to what can be seen and/or heard without going into the consciousness of any of the characters. A good example of third-person objective is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

You’ll find that most contemporary literature is written in third-person.  It could be because it’s the most forgiving.

Third-Person Omniscient

The third-person omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, but simply the all-knowing presence telling the story as it plays out. The reader has the ability to observe the story from many angles and perspectives at once.  There are zero restrictions.

This POV is probably most associated with classic literature. Think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There aren’t too many writers who use this today, even though it sounds fabulous to have the ability to know and see everything taking place.  Who doesn’t want to be a god, right?


So, there you go—point-of-view in a nutshell.  Still, unsure which is the best fit for your story?  As an exercise, try taking a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in a different viewpoint.  How does it change the story?  How does it relate to your reader?  After doing this a few times, one will begin to grow on you.  Trust me.

reflection

Backstory can become an unwieldy beast if one doesn’t keep it in check. Just imagine editor Maxwell Perkins sitting at his desk, whittling away 69,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s behemoth Look Homeward, Angel. The final manuscript still weighed in at a lofty 544-pages.  Now there’s a writer who–well, just maybe–got a little carried away with backstory.

At the same time, not enough backstory can leave a reader confused and frustrated, especially if one is trying to puzzle out the motivation behind the character’s actions.  For instance, Jay Gatsby’s obsession, and later love, for Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wouldn’t nearly be as tragic if we hadn’t known the little tidbit about Gatsby and Daisy briefly meeting before he was sent off to Europe to fight in the Great War.

[If you haven’t had the opportunity to read these novels, I suggest giving them a chance, if for no other reason than to see how backstory can either help or hinder.]


There are a few things to consider when it comes to deciding how much backstory is appropriate:

Does the backstory tie directly into the scene at hand?

If you find you’re spending more time explaining what has happened, instead of what is happening in the scene, you may want to dial it back.  You don’t want to stifle the story’s forward momentum, or leave your reader stifling a yawn.

Does the backstory help provide a deeper understanding of what’s at stake for the main character?

Backstory needs to have purpose.  As was pointed out with the Gatsby example above, knowing Gatsby met Daisy before going to war helps us understand where the origin of Gatsby’s obsession took root.  In fact, it explains why he’s gone to such great lengths to impress her with his lavish parties that just happen to be directly across the bay from the Buchanan estate.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Now if we were told Gatsby enjoyed sailing and he spent his Saturday afternoons sailing the West Egg Bay—well, so what?

Is there an opportunity to dramatize the character’s past in some way, instead of dumping an information load on the reader?

The surest way to stop a story in its tracks is to interrupt the scene to explain why something is going on.  Could one show the reader how the past affects the character by inserting a clue into the dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist? Could the main character have a moment of internal thought while driving to his father’s house?  Could the character wake from a dream about the last time he went to a bar with his now deceased buddy? The main goal is to keep your characters active in the story so that the reader stays intrigued by what lies ahead.


Overall, you could say adding backstory is like adding a pinch of salt to a pot of chicken noodle soup.  A little goes a long way.  Give your readers the information they need to immerse themselves fully into your story, but don’t force their interest.  Always, always keep them wanting to read more.

 

handshake

Getting to know your character is sort of like going on a blind date.  You’ve heard great things, but until you meet, it’s pretty difficult to know just what you’re getting.  If you’re lucky, the two of you will hit it off right away.  But more often than not, it takes a while longer to develop a sense of trust between you and your character.

There are several exercises out there to help break the ice between the two of you.  Many writers simply start by filling out a questionnaire, listing everything from the character’s hair color to his/her favorite meal.  These are good for getting down the essentials, but in order to figure out character motivation, I’ve always found it more beneficial to sit my character down and ask the “meaty” questions.

Here’s a list to get you started:

  1. The most painful thing a friend could say about me is _______.
  2. Once when I was alone in an elevator I _________.
  3. Three things I wish I’d never said are __________.
  4. I love the taste of ___________.
  5. I’m willing to fight for ________.
  6. I once caught _________.
  7. One Thanksgiving I __________.
  8. I’ve always wanted to go to _________ because _________.
  9. My father/mother always told me  ________.
  10. My idea of a boring day is ________.
  11. Three things I could never live without are __________.
  12. I want to be remembered for _________.
  13. The most embarrassing thing that ever happen to me is __________.
  14. My biggest regret is that _________.
  15. Thursday nights are good for _________.
  16. As a kid I was known for __________.
  17. When we first got married I realized _________.
  18. Five things you’ll find in my bathroom are ________.
  19. The toughest thing I’ve ever done is _________.
  20. My favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon is ________.

Try to write out as much detail as you can when answering these questions. If these questions don’t work for you, feel free to jot down your own.  The point of this exercise is to get your characters talking.  Their responses may or may not factor into your final story; however, by the end you ought to have a more well-rounded idea of what makes your characters tick.

As an added bonus, this exercise can also be helpful when you’re having trouble getting started on something new because it gives you a chance to let go of the inner critic while you sit back and listen to what your character has to say for him/herself.  You never know where the conversation might take you.

 

pens

 

The pen is the tongue of the mind. — Horace

 

This weekend I found myself on the search for pens.  Not just any ordinary pens, mind you; but, Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball, fine line, in the color black, please.  What can I say?  I love the way they balance in my hand.  And the ink—glides like a figure skater on new ice.  My writer’s journal almost groans in ecstasy when I break one out of the package.

Oh, I’ve used other pens—absolutely hate ball point pens.  They skip all over the place.  And don’t get me started on those ones that bleed ink right through the paper.  For our anniversary one year my husband gave me an elegant silver number with my name engraved on it.  It sits in a fancy leather box on my desk because I love him.  The pen, though, too heavy.

Now I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m a bit obsessive.  I know it.  But hey, I’m in good company, especially when you take a look at the quirks some of the more recognizable authors have possessed over the years.

It’s said that Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain had a thing for wearing only white, even after Labor Day.  Poe, of course, wore black.

Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf preferred to stand while they wrote.

Balzac drank at least fifty cups of Jo a day.  Faulkner went for the whiskey.  Be still my heart, Jane Austen nibbled chocolate.

Thoreau and Dickens wrote best after a long jaunt.  James Joyce had to lie flat on his stomach.

Nabokov wrote his novels out in pencil on index cards that he kept in a slim box next to his bed.  Only Bristol index cards and a sharp, but soft tipped pencil with an eraser head on top would do.

And Rudyard Kipling shared my proclivity for the blackest black ink.  I once read somewhere that he fantasized about keeping an ink-boy around to grind him the best Indian ink.  Hmm…

Yes, those quirks and idiosyncrasies make writers an interesting lot, or at least a fascinating case study for anyone in the psychology field.  Quirks or not, what one has to remember is that these writers created an environment conducive to writing and well, wrote.

How about yourself?  What do you need to be the best writer you can be?  Do you need to listen to some Soundgarden to get you started?  Read a few sonnets by your favorite poet?  How about a cup of tea?  Do you work best in your husband’s old college sweatshirt?  Don’t be embarrassed.  Whatever it is, go ahead, flaunt it for all it’s worth.  A happy writer is a productive writer, even when the ink runs dry.

 

Sources:

https://writetodone.com/20-weird-and-wonderful-habits-of-famous-writers/

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/09/23/odd-type-writers/

https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/9-weird-habits-that-famous-writers-formed-write-better.html

Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves; New World Library; Revised edition (August 24, 2010)