Friday, August 26, 2016

Enhancing your Fiction with Figurative Language

Ah, those figurative language devices. Those pesky English terms that I always manage to mix up. Is this a simile or a metaphor? What is onomatopoeia? I can't even pronounce that word, never mind remember what it means.

So I decided to do some research, and here are the official definitions of those language devices writers often don't even know they're using. Or not using.

A specific comparison using like, as, than. Examples: heart like a stone, thin as a rail, run like the wind. These may be excellent examples, but they are also cliches we've heard too many times. Create your own. 

An implied comparison, such as fish out of water, hard-hearted. Again, these are cliches, so create your own brand of metaphors to enhance your particular character, setting, or plot.  

This is a term for giving human characteristics to animals, abstract ideas, or nature. Mother Nature is a perfect example. Another is roots clutching the earth like a child clutching his mother. Personification is often used in magical realism to add poetic flow.

Symbols can be objects, characters, colors, or aspects of nature, among many others, to represent abstract ideas. For instance, spring water could represent purity. Friendly dog could stand for happiness. A cemetery might symbolize grief, fear, or loss. But remember, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Similar, repeated sounds such as a salmon-colored sunset settled over the sea does a great job of creating flow and mood.

The repetition of vowel sounds, often used in poetry.

The repetition of consonant sounds, also often used in poetry, but just like assonance, can be a tool in writing prose also.

This is a reference to a work of art or a cultural icon. This sometimes doesn't work because not everybody will recognize the same art or icon. But it does have its uses if the reference is a common one.

Example: "The federal debt is so high that if the US was a family, it would be homeless . . ."

Example: cold hands, warm heart. Yeah, it's a cliche, don't use it. Come up with something brilliant of your own.

Exaggeration: "I've told you a bazillion times, I hate peas." Obviously, hyperbole is common to kids.

The perfect example: I saw a political sign on a lawn that said "Vote no on libarry." Enough said.

Usually used as verbs, these literary device words mimic the sound of a thing or an action, such as pluck, blast, zoom, gallop, sizzle, whine, clatter. Thunder booms. The dog woofs.

So those are just some of the techniques and literary devices that can enhance your writing. I hope to be able to recognize the opportunity to use them in my own writing. I also hope I can remember what onomato . . . whatever . . .  is and how to pronounce it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What I Read This Week

Brad Watson's character Jane Chisolm was born with a rare physiological defect that would affect her whole life, but never her spirit.

Based on research into the life of his great-aunt, Brad Watson's new book, Miss Jane, tells the story of a character whose courageous spirit belies a debilitating condition that might leave most females bitter and angry and, eventually, fodder for the madhouse. But Miss Jane overcomes her lifelong disability with grace and dignity and courage.

Brad Watson is as courageous as his great-aunt, taking on a subject that most men would not be able to even consider, much less write about. Miss Jane is born with a rare life-altering deformity called "persistent cloaca", the condition of being born with no external genitalia and only one small orifice for waste elimination. One in 20,000 females are born afflicted with this debilitating defect.

People born with persistent cloaca are, of course, unable to be sexually intimate, and suffer lifelong incontinence.

Jane is born in rural Mississippi early in the twentieth-century when there was no hope of corrective surgery, has one sister, and two older brothers who have left home by the time she is born. Forced to wear clumsy diapers, Jane attends school only briefly, as her condition is complicated and humiliating. An avid reader and a tireless explorer of the forests and fields around the family farm, she manages to educate herself to the strangeness and mystery of nature and of life itself.

When she's fourteen, she does as any other fourteen-year-old girl does: She falls in love with the son of a neighboring farmer. Sadly, eventually, she ends the relationship because she knows there will never be any possibility of a physical coupling or children, although she never tells him why. She leaves it to those in town who have always spread the gossip about her condition to provide him with an explanation.

Throughout her life her best friend and confidant is the doctor who delivered her and who first realized her difference. A widower, he spends much of his own life trying to get help for Jane, and corresponds with many other doctors in the hope that there will someday be a surgical method to correct her horrendous birth defect. She is closer to him than to her family members, and there are hints that the two might have had a romantic relationship if Jane had been whole.

She loses her father to alcoholism, and her mother, who freezes to death in a field, to the bitterness that marks her life as the wife of a farmer who loses many acres of the farm in the crash of '29.

She loses her best friend, the doctor, when he is seventy-four and she thirty-five. He leaves her his house, surrounded by woods, and his beloved peacocks, who takes the doctor's place as Jane's best friends. When she is sixty-seven years old, she receives a letter from one of the doctors whom her friend frequently contacted to see if there was any news of a procedure to help Jane. The letter says that there is now a form of surgery that could correct her birth defect. At first she's angry, bitter, as she walks alone in the woods, listening to her friend's peacocks' eerie cries. In the end she replies to the offer, writing that she thanks him kindly, but that she sees no need to change her life, nor has she any desire to let them "fix" her.

With prose that sounds like poetry, and with great tenderness, Brad Watson has brought to life a protagonist whose life is testament to the indomitable spirit of those who refuse to give in to adversity.

 Watson is the author of a collection of short stories called The Last Days of the Dog Men, and the novel The Heaven of Mercury. The New York Times has called Brad Watson "A writer of profound emotional depths".

I agree.

He teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Importance of Setting in Your Novel

You have to put your characters somewhere, might as well use that somewhere to add to the story. And, obviously, setting needs to be appropriate to the theme and/or plot. I mean, you probably wouldn't write a romance novel set on Mars. (Wait a minute . . . Hmm, interesting.) We've all read that novel where place almost becomes another character. For instance, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Stephen King's Dark Tower series relies greatly on setting. Much of Jack London's work was based not so much on character and plot as on nature, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a perfect example of setting at work to back up plot and character.

The benefits of the right background setting are that it can anchor character, advance the plot, create tension or mood, and enhance a character's disposition or personality. Setting description can also establish an aspect of the story that might be important to the plot later in the story. You never know when you might need a root cellar. Or a crowded Greyhound bus station. 

Of course, we have to beware that "dark and stormy night". Now, that's obviously been done to death. (So has the cliche "done to death" been done to death). But if you throw in a few shadows on the staircase of that spooky old house, or an owl hooting in the woods at night, you can build a mood to match your character's state of mind. If your protagonist keeps an immaculate house where there's not one crumb on the counter or even a partial fingerprint on the refrigerator, you have matched your setting to a character who needs an orderly life. (And years of therapy.)

There are many methods for highlighting your story through setting. Lighting, time of day, weather, who or what is nearby, overall geography, furniture, architecture -- all these things and more can contribute effectively to the story. Readers are greedy for details and explanations as to why characters are who they are and do what they do. Setting can help tie it all in.

But readers don't like to be bored. If you go too far with the details, setting can become either ho-hum or distracting. Dragging on and on with description takes away from all the other points you're trying to get across to the reader. Your story begins to suffer if you substitute page after page of setting for character or action. (Mr. London was an anomaly, and knew how to balance setting with character better than most.) There would be little room for forward thrust. You have to blend story line, character, and theme with the proper setting.

 Instead of long blocks of description, it is just as effective to pin setting to character action. "As Carol made her way leisurely down the path through the woods, she noticed that the trees were turning to red and gold. and the air was crisper than it had been a few weeks ago." Of course, there are times when a setting does need a more detailed fiction narrative. If Carol was fleeing through the woods, you might throw a couple of obstacles in her way and/or create a cold, strong wind at her back to indicate that even though her pursuer wasn't close yet, he was definitely coming. In that case, there could be a paragraph describing what Carol was seeing -- and what she was not seeing -- as she ran through the woods. 

Just like every other necessary ingredient in writing fiction such as character and plot and theme, setting must be perfectly blended into the mix. 

Now, if I could just figure out how to build the desolation of Mars around two characters falling in love, I might have a best-seller.  

Or not.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Thief

Early in the fall of 1960, I stole a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library at Robert E. Lee Junior High School in Lynchburg, Virginia. I didn't mean to steal it, I just never returned it. See, my parents made a decision to move to New Jersey just as I entered the 8th grade. Before I knew it, we were packed up and on a Greyhound bus heading toward the Garden State (and my own personal "culture shock"). That bus trip was a long and uncomfortable trip; there was a second horrible Greyhound trip in my life but that's another story, and a sadder one.

My only saving grace on that first bus trip was my stolen book. I read for a straight 20 hours, even nearly walked into the men's room at one of the rest stops along the way because I had Betty's Smith's wonderful story in my hand and in front of my face, trying not to think about how I would have been going to my first sock hop at Robert E. Lee on Friday with a freckle-faced boy named Mark Russell if I had not been kidnapped by my own parents.

That was the first time I read that wonderful book. But it would not be the last. Over the years, I have read it at least 7 or 8 times. My daughter also periodically reads it again. If asked what's the best book ever written, we would both answer A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. 
(Although, lately, she will be quick to add that #2 is Sarah Silverman's Bedwetter.)

I will quote here the first page blurb because I am not writer enough to do it justice.
"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heap[s]. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water,and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of [it]."

There are parts in the book that stand out in my mind so vividly that when I think of them I almost feel that I am right there when Francie lies to get a beautiful doll, and I am right there when she realizes that shame is hard to live with. I feel the longing when Francie sees the school in a different neighborhood where she wants to be a student, and I am beside her when her father, Johnny, convinces her mother, Katie, to tell the school that they are moving to an address in that school district. I am also Katie when she knows it's wrong and allows it in the name of love for her daughter. I adore Aunt Sissy just as Francie and her brother, Neely, do, and when the children find "balloons" in her purse and blow them up and hang them out the apartment window, I feel their confusion at the consequences that fall upon Sissy.

There is the brave and joyful Christmas tree incident, and the coffee can nailed to the closet floor where Katie hides away every nickel she can pinch from their poverty for her children's future. I mourn for Johnny, whose weakness for drink finally takes him from his family. I am terrified for Francie when the man on the dark stairway tries to drag her away.

So many memorable scenes. There is not one scene in the book that I don't associate with one thing or another in my own life. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a history lesson (set in the early twentieth century), a geography lesson. A treatise on the politics of the era. An understanding of poverty. There's love and hate and sorrow, stoicism, family unity, and courage from the heart. 

Everyone should read this old book. 

My copy, stolen accidentally (after reading it, however, I certainly wasn't going to send it back to Lynchburg) is held together with silver tape that is now dried out and cracked, and the pages fall out. I suppose I could find a new copy online. But I think I probably won't. I'll just keep tucking the pages back between the torn, broken cover, and read it again.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Show not Tell

The writer's Cardinal Rule: Show, don't tell.

As I learn more about this thing I do (writing), I'm beginning to realize that many fiction techniques are not as hard as I thought.

For instance:

You could tell your readers that Lucille has a great voice, but if you want them to believe it, you better make Lucille sing. You could tell your readers that Sam has a temper, but you need to show Sam slug somebody if you want your readers to care.

Lucille might be nervous about a singing engagement, but nobody's going to know unless you make her anxiously pace and clasp her hands tightly in front of her. How about a furrow of worry across her forehead? Before Sam slugs the bouncer, show the flush creeping up his neck, his eyes flashing with anger. After he punches the bouncer, show the look on his face that says he wishes he hadn't done that. Maybe show him shaking his sore hand out because man, that dude's face was hard.

So there was a hurricane. Okay. What happened, what did it sound like, look like? Did the wind roar, did a wall of rain smash into windows? Did the neighbor's roof fly off, were trees crashing to the ground and sounding like thunder when they fell?

I'll be honest, in my own novel I've been lax in putting in the show instead of the tell. In my most recent revisions (I'm not lying -- I really am writing a novel which I plan to show somebody someday) I've begun to work on the details that show my characters' traits and the setting and circumstances instead of just telling my readers who and what and where and when.

I read approximately 2-3 books a week. And of course, writers read for many reasons in addition to being entertained, and I'm finding so many good writers who've got this show don't tell thing down to a natural instinct to enrich their stories with the right detail. I think show don't tell is just that -- the right detail for the right character, for the right setting and circumstances. I'm learning to pay attention to the particular details an author will use to enhance their work. 

George Orwell said about writing, "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom you can neither resist or understand."


Monday, August 1, 2016

To revise or Not to Revise

So I've been researching query letters and it's kinda scary. 

First: Apparently I have written too many words. And here's why this scared me. Well, not scared me, really, just disconcerted me because I keep telling everyone the book is finished and now I'm afraid I've got to edit for the 25th time (Or 26th or whatever.) Now I'm going over it in my head wondering what I need to cut. Wow, I just spent most of yesterday wondering what I needed to add. This writing thing is hard!

The average fiction book is from 80,000 to 100,000 words. I have written 115,000 words, and I can't even imagine how to get rid of 15,000 words. Maybe I could just give 'em to some other writer? Let me know if you need a word or two, or 15,000. 

My other worry is that all the successful query letters to agents are so good. But that's not as much of a worry as the fact that these agent queries are written by writers who've actually been published. Some have even won awards for their work, including awards for the very book they're trying to sell to an agent. Which makes not a lot of sense to me -- why would you have to try to sell an award-winning book to an agent? Wouldn't it just stand on its own merit and have agents coming out of the woodwork begging to handle your award-winning book? Writing for money is confusing. And is it super gauche to admit I'm writing for money? Can I put that in my third paragraph bio to an agent? Probably shouldn't. huh?

I've just finished a really good writing guide book by author Hallie Ephron, who I believe is writer Nora Ephron's sister. The book is 10 years old, but the advice and information is still relevant. The title is "The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel". From the first sentence of your first draft to the finished novel and how to write your agent or editor query letter, the manual is clear and concise and easy to read. I've read so many writing advice books, and even have many on my shelves. But this one is so comprehensive that I would recommend that any writer could find answers to just about any question in this guide.

I think I might have even learned how to decide which of those 15,000 words are keepers and which words are just stuff that I can happily send to the dead file.

 And so, here I go again. Revise, revise, revise . . .