Tag Archives: writing

Six Years and Slowing

On the "skiddah"

On the “skiddah”

It is March once again, and the anniversary month of this blog which started out as Outside the Box and is now Localista.

I don’t look too fashionable there on the skidder, but let me tell you, I was THRILLED to have a chance to get into the driver’s seat, turn the ignition key, and roll slowly backward, oops! I was maybe in the thing for a minute and a half before I stalled it. Heavy equipment operator is not going to be my next career.

What I did learn from this experience was 1)guys who work in the woods are great storytellers and hard workers and all-around great people and 2)enough about operating a skidder to finish a writing project.

Harvesting in the Maine woods has long been an economic driver for our state, providing jobs and a marketable resource. It is a local sort of job, and even with improvements in equipment, still requires a human brain. Unlike other jobs which are being outsourced to…robots. Check out this article, “Your Job May Soon Be Obsolete Thanks To Robots,”  on AGBeat from the American Genius Network.

Yes, computers are now writing news articles. Egads! Soon they will be writing books, I suppose, cranking them out from synopses and outlines, or maybe just picking and choosing from scenarios, character lists, and possible turning points from specialized plot and narrative computer programs. I’m typing this and thinking, “It’s probably already been done, but I don’t want to go look. I’m scairt!”

So, I’m still doing the localism thing as much as possible, have incorporated it into my life with room left for improvement, as always. Those hiking boots in the photo up there? Got ’em at Reny’s, one of Maine’s independent stores. It was the only size of its kind on the shelves, the only pair of boots in my size, and they fit perfectly. In fact, they were so comfortable with a pair of wool hiking socks I also picked up, I didn’t unlace them all day. The support felt fantastic!

Today I’m wearing a combination outfit–a sweater from Goodwill, a scarf that was a gift, and a pair of pants I bought full-price at Chico’s at the mall. I ate breakfast at a local restaurant, but then I got a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. It’s not about perfection. It’s about awareness and small changes and doing the best you can.

Six years later, I’m slowing down but trudging along, one step at a time.

Plain Jane to Pretty Parisienne

Notebook Facelift

Notebook Facelift

Dear Reader:

Since becoming a blogger, my journal-keeping (in an actual journal) activities have degenerated into difficult conceptions, failures to thrive, and sad rippings of pages from notebooks and crumplings of paper thrown into the waste-bin of my office.

Journaling was once a mainstay of my emotional life, an anchor, a place to throw difficulties from my mind onto paper and tuck them away where I never had to look at them again unless by choice. Mostly I want to vomit whenever I re-read my old journals. I recognize their former necessity, but I dislike the results. My journals are not pretty little recaps of my daily life. I call the writing in them emotional diarrhea. Not pretty. Sorry to offend.

I tried other kinds of journaling for different purposes. “I’m going to write for half and hour every day in a journal and use the notebooks for writing fodder,” I declared to myself ala Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Yeah, not so much. Once I started blogging (web-based journal fit for public consumption) and began this thing called Localista (once called Outside the Box) I never looked back.

Until now.

Recent upheaval in my personal life has me hauling down my old journals and searching through them for clues to help make sense of present problems. While reading them, I realize their old familiar raison d’etre might serve me again. I want to keep a personal journal. I want to start today. And I want something pretty on the cover.

may 8 2013 021

I had nothing appropriate, just a stack of plain black and white composition books I picked up for cheap a few years ago at The Store Which Shall Not Be Named while school supply shopping for the Teen. Okay, 33 cents. I caved. This morning I looked at them and shuddered. Ick. Ugly black and white. How did I ever think that would inspire me? I remember having some vision of these notebooks lined up on my shelf, filled with raw material for “real” writing.

Ughh, I thought. I cannot start out with this today. I will go to the store and buy a journal with a pretty cover.
Which will take an hour. And I’m enjoying the peaceful sunny morning with Vivaldi playing on Pandora web radio. And I want to write now. And I’m really not in the mood for delayed gratification. What can I do?

Inspiration struck. I remembered seeing some redecorated composition notebooks at a farmer’s market table last summer. Rummaging through the family art supplies, I found just what I needed. Voila! Parisian-themed craft paper and glue sticks. I love pretty paper in the same way I love pretty fabric and pretty art. I just don’t usually have much actual use for them. This morning, however, I had both the need and the means to create something unique and beautiful. A little gluing, a little folding, a little cutting and here is a pretty and pink Parisienne of a journal, ready for my journaling pleasure.

Inside Cover

Inside Cover

And the craft project was fun, too, appealing visually and physically while the classical music flowed from the computer and the sun shone through the windows and a very large bluejay landed on the window feeder. Ahhh, bliss.

If I ever find a bunch of ugly comp notebooks at a local store like Mardens, I will pick up another bunch. Even for an non-craft person like me, this was fun and a great way to use those pretty papers I’ve had tucked away for years. I’m not sure how the journaling will go. I’m not expected much on the inside. Emotional dysentery and all that. But the cover will be pretty.

Do you keep a journal? What inspires you to write in it?

I Used To Love My Smith-Corona

I Used to Love My Smith-Corona

Dear Reader:

I was thinking about typewriters the other day. Looking through electronic file after electronic file for a certain Christmas story I wrote five, no, seven years ago, I thought, “It was better when we had typewriters; instead of copying from floppy disk to dvd to thumb drive to external hard drive, instead of moving from computer to the new computer to the next new computer, we had paper copies. In file folders. In a filing cabinet. Easy.”

Back in the olden days–pre-1992, let’s say–I wrote on an electric Smith-Corona typewriter my parents bought me for college. Actually, I wrote first drafts with pen and paper and only committed work to type when it was good enough for final draft. I still have these papers. They are hard copies. In files. In my filing cabinet. Not lost in a maelstrom of bits and bytes spiraling out of control on the hard drive of the elderly and ailing (slow) computer up in my office or here on the laptop or stuck on floppy disks in various hidey-holes in my desk…somewhere.

I’d argue without reservation that paper is a better system, except there was that time I let a friend read a story and she lost it until it reappeared five years later, stuck inside a July Vogue which she’d been reading out beside her pool that summer. I suppose the possibility of physical misplacement is as much a problem as losing those electronic files.

Plus, I can’t blame the computer for my disorganization. After all, I could print out a physical copy of everything for “just in case.”

But I miss the typewriter. I miss correction fluid. I miss lining up the paper and rolling it over the barrel. I do, in fact, have an old manual typewriter of my grandmother’s in my office, sitting atop a filing cabinet along with a copy of her self-published collection of local stories and recipes. It used to sit in the old “office” at my grandparents’ house, the room that used to be a front porch, the room where I used to plug in my Smith-Corona and type stories and papers for college classes. I can smell that room if I think about it long enough. Heavy smell. Like ink. Like some sort of oil. Like stacks of old papers.

I can’t type on this old machine. It needs repair, the keys are sticky, and who knows if you can still get ribbons for it, but I love that it is there, a talisman, a symbol of a different time. When things were not so easy. No auto-correct, for one thing. Editing marks, for another. A deliberateness born of necessity, fingers certainly not tapping out any old thought that crossed the mind. Not so easy to erase a word, a sentence, a paragraph, entire scenes.

Maybe someday, someone will invent a retro-looking computer, one that sounds like real typewriter keys when you hit the letters and dings! when the cursor jumps down to the beginning of the next line. If I get totally nostalgic (and find myself suddenly flush with cash) I could buy something like the beautiful old machine in the picture below.

It can be ordered at myTypewriter.com. In the meantime, I’ve learned my lesson: print out a hard copy and file it away “just in case.”

As for going local on this one, I’ve found office and school supplies to be a challenge. Discount/salvage stores like Marden’s and Reny’s sometimes carry notebooks, pens, rulers, cards, and craft items. However, this is pretty hit or miss. Locally-owned specialty and gift stores in larger towns and cities often have cute file folders, notebooks, pens, and stationery, but they are just-as-often often pricey.

Most recently, I noticed a couple local crafters at the Newfield Farmer’s Market were selling homemade cards and fancied-up notebooks–good possibilities, but where did those underlying notebooks and paper come from? China via Walmart?

I’d really, REALLY like to find paper made here in Maine. Maine was once a booming paper-making state that employed many citizens with good-paying, good-retirement, good-benefit jobs until outsourcing pulled the pulpwood out from under the the workers. How about repurposing some old mills to make specialty papers and cardstock from recycled materials? How about hemp paper? Save our forests and boost our economy. While we’re on the subject of actually producing things again, how about revitalizing our textile manufacturing, too? Like paper, fabric can be made from recycled materials and hemp. And what about shoes…?

Before I get too far off-subject in a rant for local manufacturing, I will end this post. One thing at a time, right? Take a look around your neighborhood, village, or nearby cities; you may luck out and find a great local source for your writing/office supply needs. If you do, drop me a line and a link. Localistas, unite!

The Plot Thickens Venison Stew

Farm Kitchen

Dear Reader:

I’m writing a novella. At first it was going to be a short story about a young woman who takes a farm internship in order to escape the mess that is her work- and love-life. Now it is ostensibly a novella about a young woman who takes a farm internship to escape said mess. And she meets a hot farmboy and falls inconveniently in love, of course, because this is a romantic comedy.

The problem is this: instead of the plot thickening nicely, like a stew, it is thinning into broth because I lack that crucial ingredient: conflict.

Well, there is some conflict, I guess. That would be “the mess that is her work- and love-life.” But that seems like backstory to me. Plotting it out in a Hero’s Journey kind of way, the first chapter includes the “Call to Adventure.” Great. But is it compelling? What, exactly, is my heroine’s quest? She’s not looking for love, though she finds it. She’s looking to escape and to regroup her resources, inner and outer.

And this brings me to theme. What is the lesson here? You can’t solve your problems by running from them? Or the opposite: sometimes you have to give up everything and start over from scratch?

I suppose a really smart writer would figure this out before typing that first “once upon a time” sentence. So what? I didn’t. Now I have to put my story on a back burner to stay warm while I go looking for thickeners, and that’s okay. It’s good weather for stew.

Since it is deer hunting season, how about venison stew? Even if you don’t don blaze orange and head out into the woods with your trusty rifle, you can buy venison from a deer farmer like Applegate Deer Farm in Newfield, Maine. You can also substitute beef. Or make it vegetarian with nice, chunky, dark mushrooms instead of meat and vegetable bouillon instead of the beef cubes. Enjoy!

Homegrown Carrots and Peppers

Here is a recipe for The Plot Thickens Venison Stew

2 lbs venison cubes
1 tsp. butter or lard
1 quart hot water
2 cups diced potatoes
1 cup diced turnips
1 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup diced parsnips (or more…I like parsnips!)
1 cup diced celery
1 diced green pepper
1/2 cup diced onion
1 tbs. salt
dash pepper
2 beef bouillon cubes
bay leaf

Seasoned flour: 1 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 tsp paprika

Roll meat in seasoned flour. Brown in hot fat in large pot. Cover with hot water. Simmer 2 hours on stove. Add remaining ingredients. Cook until veggies are tender, about 30 minutes.

Thicken by whisking together in a bowl 4 tbs. flour and 2 cups hot liquid from stew until no lumps (caution, very hot liquid!). Add back to stew pot. Delicious, thick, hearty soup. That was easy. Now, about that novella…

Am I Rita Skeeter?

Dear Reader:

When I dressed up in a green and black feather boa and headpiece on Halloween night and headed out into the community to take pictures and jot notes for my newspaper column, a few people yelled, “I know who you are…Rita Skeeter!”

My response? “Um, I didn’t plan to be Rita Skeeter, but I guess I’m glad I’m somebody.” In truth, I picked up the costume pieces on a whim a couple months ago, and on a whim dressed up on Halloween before heading into town. I guess with the fluffy boa, my signature red lipstick, my glasses, and my notebook and pen, I did bear a slight resemblance to the Harry Potter newshound.

My new life as a journalist keeps me out and about in the community, talking to the people who run the town as well as the regular people who live and work here but keep out of the spotlight. I’ve been to selectmen meetings, covered events at the elementary school, interviewed community members for profile pieces, and even slurped down some green juice at a free showing of the film FAT, SICK AND NEARLY DEAD at the public library. I practically beg people to send me tidbits of news that I can expand into articles. I am in my element. I can be nosy but detached, involved but not imbedded. I stand outside it, observe, and report what I see and hear. It’s awesome!

I’m also humbled by the responsibility. Okay, so it isn’t the end of the world if I spell someone’s name wrong, but I do need to be cognizant that everything I chose to highlight and everything I chose to leave out creates meaning in the story. I can chose to underscore the positive or I can spotlight the conflicts and negativity. Is this choice to highlight the positive a kind of skewing of the truth? Is it an angle?

Of course it is.

I hope I’m NOT Rita Skeeter, the reporter in the Harry Potter series who slants everything toward the sensational and titillating. I hope I have more journalistic integrity than to take others’ innocent behavior and twist it into something scandalous, but I also hope to write the truth, to capture this place in all its weirdness and its normalcy, its high moments and its times of adversity, its people and its industry. In other words, I do have an agenda. My agenda is to strengthen the community by showing my fellow citizens who we are, what we do, how we do it here in our small, rural town.

Journaling on a Misty Morning

The Lake on a Misty Morning

Journal Entry July 30, 2012

I have dressed early–6 a.m., in sweatpants and hoodie–to stave off the morning chill. Yesterday was rainy, all day drizzle interspersed with sudden heavy downpours. When I wake this morning and see skies clearing, I know I have to get down to the lake to watch the white tendrils of mist rise from the glossy, rippled surface of the water. I bring a blue chair and a mug of coffee, a camera, and my journal.

The tiny community beach–one of over a dozen–is a short walk from my doorstep. For the first eight years we lived here, the beach was nothing more than a weedy opening in the scrub brush lining the lake. A pine needle- and leaf-covered path slopes down to the water’s edge from the gravel road.

We leave our canoe here, red and tipped upside down, most of the summer and fall. A neighbor borrows it, using his own paddles. He and his family–brothers? sisters? parents? There’s a whole tribe of them–moved into the house behind us two years ago, and they began to clear the opening on their own. Last summer, the community grounds-crew finished the job, cutting more brush, hauling in sand, positioning large boulders across the path to discourage illegal boat launches.

Cove


The water here is shallow, only just past my ankles many canoe-lengths out and suddenly deep toward the middle where the current runs. The lake was once a stream, dammed-up for electrical generation about a hundred years ago. It is all coves and curves and fingers reaching in to the land–swampy in places, steep sand cliffs in places. When cross-country skiing in the winter, you have to be careful for weak spotswhere the warm run-off thins the ice from below. I’ve seen guys on snowmobiles rev up and skim over circles of open water.

It is quiet on this Monday morning, the weekend whine of jet skis and power boats as distant as the line of Massachusetts plates heading south out of Kittery on I-95. As I trudge down the path, a heron splashes down, stands. I stop. We watch each other warily. I try not to breath, but he is distrustful and flaps away.

I take a few photographs of the pearlescent mist still hovering over the predawn lake. The water is all shadows here, lake rimmed with tall, close-set pines. Just now the sunlight slices a thin crescent along the eastern-facing shore.

These moments I feel fortunate to have found this place despite my misgivings about its viability in a low-carbon world.

Before the out-of-state developers and the homeowner’s association and the lots plotted on a grid of winding roads ending in numerous culs-de-sac; before the griping and bickering between towns and association; before the housing boom in the 1990’s and milfoil and aging water pipes and the eventual housing bust in the 2000’s, there were only a few scattered camps along this lake. Before those, there were farmhouses and hay fields and pasture for dairy cattle–fieldstone walls running through pine forest a testament to the area’s agricultural past.

Blue Boat

In the early 1970’s, in spite of controversy in the two towns out of which our community was carved, the developers developed. The out of state weekenders came first to the lakefront lots. They built summer camps and weekend homes. Later, in the 90’s when real estate prices soared, building contractors scooped up lots of lots. They built and sold spec houses for cheap to the young, middle-class families priced out of the Portland suburbs.

The towns gaped as the school population bloomed. Education costs skyrocketed. This wasn’t the “taxes without the costs” deal they’d been promised. Weekenders’ kids get educated out of state, but these new families bought “off-lake” and stayed year-round and their children entered kindergarten right along with the kids in the villages.

“It was supposed to be a gated community,” one angry school-teacher said to me six or seven years ago. “And there’s never once been a gate!”

Wince. One has to wonder if they wanted the gate to keep us “in” rather than to keep themselves “out.”

So here we are, living in the exurbs, an hour and many gas-powered miles from the jobs in Portland and Biddeford and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Association rules drafted in the 1970’s prevent many of us from cutting trees to create garden space, prevent us from raising a few chickens for fresh eggs. Mortgage defaults are up. Some roofs of abandoned homes have already caved in. There are no corners stores in our not-zoned-for-business community. We drive to get anywhere (or sometimes we bike, hard.)

This is not sustainable. It will not work in a low-carbon world where energy costs suck up ever-larger percentages of our disposable income. Am I crazy to worry?

There are mornings like this one when I walk, coffee in hand, down a pine-needle path to spend an hour or two writing beside the lake, and I think maybe I am worrying about nothing. Maybe I should simply I enjoy the scenery, the mist, the heron and let the future take care of itself.

Trees/Mist

And, if the world moves on, perhaps we can change fast enough to keep pace. Trees can be cut, livestock can be brought in, and we can muddle through, creating a kind of exurban agricultural village on our acre and half-acre lots.

Or else, like that heron, we’ll stop a moment, assess the danger, and flap away, leaving the lake as it was before…quiet, serene, barely inhabited but for those scattered camps, and the only thing that will remain of us will be the caved-in husks of our spec houses mouldering beneath these towering pines.

Beware the Iris!

Grape Kool-Aid Iris (at least that’s what I call it!)

I love the way these irises smell…just like their color. Grape Kool-Aid.

Their blooms blossom and fade quickly, two or three to a stem, but oh the heavenly scent while they are open and beckoning to the fat bumble bees that crawl into and out of them spreading pollen from plant to plant in that glorious symbiosis of nature. Sometimes the bee’s buzzing grows alarmed, higher-pitched, as she struggles to escape the perfumed interior of the flower.

Today, I crawled out of a similar enticing trap, and I’m hopeful I will make a clean getaway. A year or so ago, in order to enter a contest, I wrote a short-short story and published it on an e-publisher. What I didn’t consider at the time was that the story was “out there” forever. Published but not doing anything. Just sitting there. I couldn’t revise it and submit it anywhere, and the thing was, I wanted to revise it. I’d grown attached to the storyline and the character. It could have been so much more!

So, today I canceled my account with the e-publisher and tried to “retire” the story. It is still coming up when I type the title and my name into a search engine…the image for it anyway. The content is unavailable.

Now the question is…am I free to revise and resubmit? I don’t know. I think I will revise it for my own pleasure, and if it is worthy, I will send it out with full disclosure of its checkered, e-pubbed past.

Lesson? Be careful when you enter contests. Sometimes a contest isn’t a contest. Sometimes it is a marketing tool to lure potential “clients” close–like the sweet smell of the iris, luring bees into her velvety, purple petals for her own purposes.

Revision Isn’t For Dummies

Yeaton-Fairfax House

Dear Reader:

Okay, so revising isn’t usually a writer’s most favorite part of the job, but it is necessary. When we are in the flushed excitement of creation, we are carried away into that subconscious part of our minds where the stories live and we try to get it all down on paper as fast as we can before we can lose any of the details we are discovering down there in the deep. We are explorers wearing headlamps strapped to our foreheads, digging around in the cluttered shelves of our internal archives, sending messages back to “home base” where the fingers type and the hand grips the pencil and moves it across the paper. We aren’t thinking so much as transcribing. And it is good.

However, after a couple of days or a week (or in this case thirty years), we know it is time to send in the internal editor to do the dirty job of cutting, pruning, pursing of the lips and shaking of the head in disgust, pointing out weak spots, examining the structure for soundness, and causing us pain and suffering in general.

But we should thank our internal editor . . . because without him/her we might be tempted to send a story out into the world before its time where it will flop around and be humiliated and tossed into trash buckets and fade from memory as fast as a snowflake held in the palm of your hand.

So, when it is time to critique your story, or someone else’s, what are you looking for?

I took some of the suggestions from HOW TO WRITE SHORT STORIES by Sharon Sorenson (MacMillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster MacMillan Company, New York, 1998, 3rd edition.) and went down a list from the chapter “Checking Your Story” (page 73) as follows:

Does the beginning capture the reader’s attention?
Does the beginning allow the reader to entire the character’s world?
Does the beginning start the conflict?
Are the characters believable?
Do the characters’ dialogue and actions fit their personality?
Does the story establish the characters’ motivations?
Does the setting contribute to the tone and premise of the story?
Is the point of view consistent?
Does the conflict make sense?
Do the events arise out of character choices rather than from outside the characters?
Are there vivid sensory details?
Does the resolution grow naturally from the conflict?
Are the conflicts resolved?
Is the ending satisfying?
Have I used conventional grammar and punctuation?
Are the words spelled correctly?

Checking your own work for these elements may not be the most fun thing in the world, but if you give yourself a little bit of time in between first draft and revision, glaring issues will most likely jump out at you. I like to go through first with a quick read and mark places that jar or irritate me. This can be done using “track changes” or “balloons” on the revision tab of Microsoft Office Word if you are using that program. Other programs probably have similar tools. Otherwise, print out your story or look at your notebook, grab a pencil and make notations on your paper.

Next, I go through the story again, analyzing the spots I marked, asking myself, “What isn’t working here?” I make notes. I might try a few different things—getting rid of sentences, adding words, crossing out entire paragraphs. If I make very big changes, the plot may also need to be revised.

Finally, I make another draft, incorporating any changes. Then I begin the process again. When I am satisfied that it is as good as I can get it, I proofread it for grammar and spelling and punctuation. Then, only then, do I ask a trusted “first reader” to take a look at it and give me an opinion.

Unless I don’t wait . . .

Because sometimes I want to make sure the story is even worthy of all that work, so I might share a first draft with a first reader. Or if I’m stuck and want some suggestions.

It’s all about what works for that particular story.

If you would like to read a short story I composed in high school and read more about revision and my own revision notes for the story. . . click on Lesson Five: The 30th Day.

I welcome comments and suggestions. As always, thank you for hanging out with me . . . Outside the Box!

The Plot Thickens

The Hero's Journey

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating structure in a story–Plotter and Pantsters. A plotter figures out, maybe even draws a map or outline of the events that will take place in a story. A pantster puts a character in a situation and maybe has a vague idea where the story will end up, but “flies by the seat of his pants” when it comes to writing the story. BOTH ways are valid.

Stephen King is a pantster. He says, “Plot, I think, is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” (from ON WRITING. Check it out. This is one of the best books on the craft of writing, ever!)

King’s way is to start with a situation…a predicament. Into this situation he puts a character or a group of characters. These characters reveal themselves over time. They act, he records. He starts with situation–he calls it a tableux–and throws in some characters and watches to see what they do and writes it all down.

What is the downside to this, you ask? It sounds so simple, and when people ask, you can say something like, “Oh, I don’t want to know what will happen. It would take all the fun out of writing.” Well, here’s the rub. King has read A LOT. He’s also written a lot. He has incorporated the conventions of story (including the rhythm of plot) into his subconscious.

Either that or he really has made a deal with the Devil.

So, while King makes pantstering look fun and easy and, dare I say it, cooooool, the rest of us may not have developed our talent to that extent. What happens when we try? We end up writing ourselves into corners we can’t get out of. We go down dead ends. We lose the threads of the story. All those threads get tangled up, and we waste time rewriting, scratching our heads, wondering how the heck we are ever going to unravel this unruly story/novella/epic plot.

Since we are beginners and we really want to finish something in our lifetime, what can we do to compensate? Especially when we are still in the beginning stages of learning the craft?

We can become Plotters, if only for a little while.

Okay, so King thinks it is the dullard’s first choice. Whatever. I love King’s characters and his stories pull me along, but guess what? We aren’t all Stephen King! There are other ways to get the action down on paper, and they are just as valid. There are outlines. There are index cards. Story maps with bubbles and lines drawn in between connecting them are another choice. There are many plot worksheets, maps, schemes, rubrics, etc. that the beginning writer can use. You can find many on the internet and many more in books specifically written on the subject of plot. Try a few, if you want. See what works best for you.

Keep in mind, though, that even here in Plotter-land you start with the basics: A situation and at least one character. The character has gifts and foibles and goals and fears and needs. The character will act in situations and from that other situations will arise. Pay attention to cause and effect. Pay attention to how your character is learning and growing. Have a premise in mind, i.e. what is the point of this story, anyway?

Eventually, you and your character will make it to the resolution, and you’ll both be able to revel in the rewards of your hard labor.

If you are interested in learning more on this subject, click HERE to access Lesson Four in the Teen Writing Workshop series. At the end, I include a short plot “aid” as well as some helpful websites about plot structure.

In Joseph Campbell’s classic study of universal elements in plot structure of mythology and legend, Campbell’s heroes are given a Call To Adventure which they can either chose to accept or not. Consider this your call to adventure! Embark on a new story today . . . Outside the Box.

What A Character!

Teen Characters by The Teen

Dear Reader:

Last night was Teen Writing Class night, and this week we discussed the craft of characterization. I am enjoying this process of teaching narrative and fiction writing techniques and terms. The students are remarkable writers–open, observant, funny. Teaching also forces me to write examples, and I’ve been rather amused by the characters and scenes that have popped out of my subconscious with just the teeniest prodding around in the psychic storeroom.

Following is a short scene showing characterization techniques–dialogue, vivid verbs, and sensory details. Mostly we hear the character’s voice, though, and I think we learn quite a bit about Penelope Perry just by listening to what she has to say. Also note that we don’t know much about the narrator. He or she is a classmate of Penelope’s, that much we can gather from his/her point of view, but everything else about him or her is still hidden in that storeroom of story ideas in my subconscious.

If I wanted, I could probably dig a little deeper, find some more pieces of the story, and put it all together. I have a feeling, though, that frantic Penelope is seeing the light of day for the first and last time this week.

Back she’ll go to whatever dusty shelf in the storeroom she has been languishing for who knows how long. Perhaps since my own elementary school days? Maybe she’ll be tossed into the recycle bin someday, emerging in another form in another story, and maybe not. Who knows? The truth is, we don’t really know where stories come from. They are just there, waiting for us to find the pieces and put them together. If the end product is sturdy enough, it will last for centuries (think Shakespeare and Dante). If not, well . . . at least Penelope had her moment in the sun.

Penelope Perry’s hand shot up into the air as soon as Ms. Walker swooshed through the classroom door after recess.

“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” Penelope bounced around in her seat, a pink-cheeked, over-pressurized steam-engine about to blow. The rest of us slouched behind our desks and glared at her, but, as usual, she was oblivious.

“Yes, Penelope? What is it now?” Ms. Walker exhaled as she spoke and her eyes slid toward the clock.

Penelope sat with both palms flat on the table, elbows jutting out to the sides. You could see her arms shake with barely-repressed excitement. Her knees bounced up and down beneath her desk as she spoke in her girly-girl-goody-two-shoes voice. “I know you said we weren’t supposed to touch the goldfish, Ms. Walker. So I thought you should know that Timmy Landry stuck his hand in there and grabbed the fish which is now floating on top of the water and I think its dead and you’d probably want to know that. Plus, Marissa and Lolly were fighting over who had the prettiest pencil eraser–Marissa said pink and Lolly said green–and Marissa called Lolly a swear which I won’t repeat because I know you don’t want us to say swears in your classroom. And then Derek called Marissa a swear and I had to cover my ears because it was a really, really bad word and my mother would be mad if she found out. I’ll probably have to tell her when I get home and she’ll call the principal.” Penelope took a breath and then she was chugging off again, her voice rising higher with every word. Her eyes widened. “And I’m pretty sure how you feel about kissing, Ms. Walker, so Colin and Tami really shouldn’t have gone into the art room closet when the were supposed to be taking a note to the office for you. And . . .”

“Enough!” Ms. Walker held up a large, firm hand. “That’s quite enough, Penelope.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Class, please take out your math books and start working on page 56. I need to take a look at that fish.”

Creating multidimensional characters is challenging. Listening to conversations, taking in the rhythm of speech, observing people’s unique ticks and habits, analyzing body language that demonstrates inner emotional landscapes, trying hard to be honest about what we see, hear, know about people–these practices help us to write characters that are vivid, sympathetic, real.

Listen. Practice. Stretch. Work. If you do those four things, you’ll get better.

If you’d like to read the entire lesson, please click HERE. Or you can find it under the Teen Writing Class tab at the top of the page. Remember, to be a writer all you really need is a notebook, a pen, and a block of uninterrupted writing time a day. Go ahead. Be a writer. I dare you . . . Outside the Box.