Tag Archives: Ann Hood

Friday Links 01.11.13

The second week of January means I began the week tying up last week’s semester and finished the week having started with a new group of writing students. It also means my sons are back in school, so I’ve had a few productive mornings writing before afternoon classes. Two great a-ha moments led to some great work, so I’m ending the week in a fabulous mood.

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!  If you have an article you think I (or my readers) should see, share the link in the comments.

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On Beginnings: Ann Hood

Ann had mentioned in May that she wrote an essay for Tin House outlining the dozen or so different ways she had identified that a writer can use to begin a story. Somewhere, on a fat, full legal pad, I have notes on all of them — but had been periodically checking Tin House for the full essay to post. Oh. Found it — ran in October — but it’s just a tease. Click through for this one piece on opening with dialogue. I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to buy the full collection of essays when it is published.

12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet

A title like that suggests lead-in to a Far-Side-esque joke about letters not up to snuff. No such gag. I dog-eared this article in fascination, as it shares the evolution that left certain letters out of our permanent alphabet, even as their sounds or symbols still linger. An interesting piece for all of us working with words.

Solving a First-World Blogging Problem

As we start a year evaluating our goals, accomplishments and maybe even worth as a writer, this is a fabulous post at Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara. Applying medical wisdom (“If the results won’t change your treatment plan, don’t do the test in the first place.”), she offers thought-provoking inspiration.

Inspiring Your Writing With Contemplative Practice

Just as many of us are beginning the new year with goals that have us wondering how to carve more writing hours (or discipline) out of our days, Patrick Ross (an instructor at The Writing Center in Bethesda, MD, and blogger at The Artist’s Road) shares Kurt Caswell’s advice for using contemplative activities to create healthy writing practice. Taken from a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, this short piece is just enough to get you inspired — but not keep you from your morning’s writing!

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Writing Character: Challenge of the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 1

Adapted fr a picture taken of me with my best friend (cropped, in adaptation) by his mother on the first day of 2nd grade. In many ways, characters are thinly disguised versions of the writer. Sometimes that grants vivid authenticity. Sometimes, not so much. (c. Elissa Field; repro w written permission)

Twice in previous articles, I mentioned the challenge of writing the character most like oneself, and it’s time I give the intended explanation.

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Where the idea for the post arose:

Along with posts on  internal and external conflict and character emotion, the impetus for this article arose from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May.

Among stories I’ve worked on in the past, I knew who my trickiest, most elusive or least successful characters were, but hadn’t noticed a pattern until an offhand comment from Ann. In responding to another writer’s manuscript in workshop, she observed that the flattest characters we write are sometimes those most like ourselves.  A little bell went off inside as I realized it was these characters I wrote with the least interest.

In conversations with fellow writers shortly after, over and over they agreed, which provoked need to tie together Hood’s advice with other a-ha’s on how to bring these characters to life.

Today’s post, part 1, will define why this is a challenge. Part 2 of the series will offer revision strategies.

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First, what does that mean: “most like myself”? 

In discussing this with friends, many are writing fiction from an autobiographical story, so have a character who is literally modeled from themselves.  Others might write themselves as a character thrown into unfamiliar or fantastical settings as if the stories were vicarious lives.  Hood herself used the example of writing her novel, The Knitting Circle, which she wrote in response to grief overthe death of her daughter.  I don’t write autobiographically, but each story seems to have a character — not always the protagonist — who is most invested with my own history.  She is my gender, and may have a lifestyle, profession, interests, roots or age drawn from my own.

Each of these is an example of a character drawn from the author’s own identity.

But isn’t that what it means, to “write what you know”?

Obviously, the odd snippets drawn from our lives can set our work apart.  Such details give our work texture and voice and authenticity.  One of my favorites to write was the opening lines of a novel draft where the character has a memory of running from the shoreline carrying a minnow cupped in her hands as a girl.  I like the immediate connection to childhood and nature, and it was perfect metaphor to the mystery of the story.

Drawing on actual experience creates writing infused with and anchored in something vivid.  That’s why we do it.  That effective use of authorial experience is not the challenge this article addresses.

Yet writing from self — not just experience — develops its own challenge.

In the workshop with Hood and in conversation with writing friends, the challenge arose that characters written based on ourselves sometimes feel — at least in early drafts — flat.

In some cases the writer is aware of it.  In other cases, it was something reported back from beta readers or agents.  The character might be written accurately, but wasn’t engaging or dynamic.  They were lifeless or invisible or downright annoying or defensive or without motivation.

Hood is known for teaching nonfiction and memoir, and her fiction is often rooted in personal experience.  During our workshop, in responding to one writer’s manuscript, she gave example of the process she went through in revising one of her novels.

Making a connection to the weakness she addressed in her revisions and the manuscript at hand, she said: characters telling our own story “can suffer from attachment to reality.”  The problem, she said, is that reality often comes without the fullness and resonance of story.

In my experience, I was surprised to notice authorial blindness might have me writing vivid factual details of the character’s life, yet her emotions and motivation remain unrealized or unengaging, in the same way that you could have a vivid, accurate list of ingredients for the grocery store, yet that is not the same as visualizing a fully-prepared dinner laid out for Thanksgiving.

Like shaving or putting lipstick on without a mirror, you know where you are, but not quite how to see yourself — or therefore reveal yourself to a reader — without perspective.

Some examples:

My own weakness is that the character most like myself is often the one I am least curious about.  I am excited getting to know this shady, paramilitary character in my draft, Wake, or the Cuban-exile, artist mother in Breathing Water, or the fastidious doctor surrounded by monkeys in another draft.  The daughter or girlfriend character?  Not so much.  It’s not that I don’t like her, but, well, I sort of forget to write her. Raised to be a good, self-deprecating American, I might even tend to write her vaguely annoying.

Sometimes — especially if I was writing into unfamiliar territory — this character provided my own entry point into the story, the point at which I bridge my own knowledge or culture or personality, to the less familiar places and culture and experiences I might take the story and characters. The resulting character revealed my vulnerability and initial lack of insight, without yet contributing the meaning such a character was intended to offer.

Hood’s basic advice:

On a most basic level, Ann Hood said the key to writing characters based on the writer is for the writer to create authorial distance.

Begin with the value of your experience, but then create distance by changing key elements through the process of asking, “What if?”  Create differences between the character and self so that you start to feel that curiosity, start to imagine that character as someone fully fledged and outside yourself.

Having bashed my own characters to provide examples, I should offer one I’ve written where I saw Hood’s advice working.  I feel myself closely identified with the protagonist of my story Jar of Teeth.  Beginning with truths from my own life, this character had once marched on Washington for Roe v. Wade (as I once did) and made it through college and dating years never unwittingly pregnant and therefore breathed a sight of relief at never having had to use the rights of Roe v. Wade (also true).  But what if she were older than myself, living in a different city, and with a job cleaning the taxidermied exhibits in a museum? And what if her child were not my young sons but a college aged daughter, and what if that daughter was now asking her to pay to avert her own sudden emergency? Without giving away the whole story, I can say that I see this character as more three dimensional, being outside myself, than if I were imagining her from the inside-out.

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Can you share an example of a character that challenges you and may fit this pattern?  Does Hood’s advice ring true for you?  Or what other advice have you encountered?

Want more on this topic?

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Novel Writing: Grace Paley — How Internal & External Conflict Build Story

I came away from my workshop with Ann Hood last month with a legal pad filled with notes covering much more than the workshop’s promised topic of “beginnings,” and I promised to share many of those insights, here. So far, this is unfolding in the order in which I apply them to my own writing, rather than any logic better suited to an audience, so apologies for that.  Today was meant to continue with Character (see links at the bottom, for prior posts), but instead responds to a single, powerful margin note on Conflict.

Story is Made Up of Two Conflicts

On our first workshop day — prior to questions, discussion or critiquing — Ann Hood began with a lecture on ten successful ways to start a novel or story, and pitfalls to avoid. The hour-plus lecture was equivalent to a jeweler passing us diamonds while digging through a cart to find gold, as the “minor” points Hood used as illustration were entire lessons in themselves.

Within context of another point, Ann made reference to a lecture or workshop she herself had attended with Grace Paley decades back, in which Paley declared that every story is made up of two conflicts: the external conflict (war, the need to get free, search for a lost possession, argument) and the internal conflict (fear, insecurity, memory, rage).  The climax occurs when those two conflicts converge.

Much is made of plot points, of the actions and events that make up scenes, building the story’s arc toward climax.  And a line is often drawn (particularly in attempts to define literary fiction versus commercial fiction) between stories that derive from internal, character-driven conflict, and those deriving from external conflict and action.  What I could not remember hearing before, although instantly believed and understood, was this idea that both conflicts are at play, in layered tandem within a work.  Certainly I’d given attention to both internal and external tensions in my work, but it was new to hear them described as separate and equally important storylines: that internal conflict had its storyline and external conflict had its storyline, and that their related tensions and ultimate collision is what builds the depth, suspense and resolution in a story.

I immediately applied this to question my novel-in-progress, Wake. The draft is just now reaching a fully fledged form, and Paley’s standard provided the first clear questions I asked to define the structure I intended, and whether it was succeeding.

What is the external conflict? 

In Wake’s case, the external conflict is the search to discover if the ‘fatherless’ boy’s father is actually alive, and reunite them.  Saving the father’s life involves solving the mystery of whether he’d committed a crime during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The search for the father is what propels the initial story, and the question of the father’s survival runs in essential opposition to the son’s need to have them all live happily as a family.  Side conflicts cause obstacles and tension, but this is the central conflict.

Oddly, the value of workshops or peer feedback is that, until being asked the question, I’d never recognized this was the actual conflict.  In my mind, Wake began as a love story and I was, well, rooting for the girl to get her guy back.  But I’d suspected for awhile that romantic love is not the true conflict.  It was the boy.  It was the crime.  It was the question whether the father would live.

What is the internal conflict?

You won’t find mention of Paley’s differentiation between internal and external conflict in Ann Hood’s book, Creating Character Emotions , but Hood’s discussion on page 11 of the range of emotions a character progresses through in the course of a novel offers insight into internal conflict.

Hood makes the point that characters develop through “a range of emotion, that [gives] them depth and complexity.”  She uses one of her own characters to show that characters progress or mature, from one emotion to another in the course of a novel.

In her example, the character starts as unhappy.  Then, “She moves from hope and excitement to loneliness and even despair before she matures emotionally,” ultimately reaching resignation.

Earlier, Hood portrayed the same character as moving into a stage of jealousy, noting that each emotion has its own point of maturity: she could not become jealous until she had felt hope, nor could she reach resolution without passing through that moment of jealousy.  Hood describes each emotion a character struggles with as “one step on an emotional ladder” that “characters should climb, emotional rung by emotional rung.”

Progressing through those emotions to resolve a single internal question (fear, desire, guilt) would be one way to explain internal conflict.

In my novel-in-progress, I thought the internal conflict was the longing of the female character to reunite with the lost lover — but isolating the external conflict, above, helped me refine this.  Love may motivate her, but the real internal motivation is the desire for the son to have his father, and this is in direct conflict with the father’s internal struggle with guilt. While the external conflict asks, “Will the father live?” the father himself asks should he be allowed to live, as his hidden guilt (for a crime other than what he was accused of) will not allow him to share in the happy-ever-after he has denied someone else.

Where external and internal conflicts converge = climax

In Wake, the two conflicts converge when the external world refuses to find the male character guilty of a crime. His inner guilt surfaces and must be resolved, pressing resolution of his inner (and external) mystery.

As you read this, the examples from my work may or may not be meaningful, but what’s worth saying is how much more clear the story’s organization became after naming the external and internal conflict.  Both conflicts could be seen mapping naturally like veins through existing scenes, clear where they converged, and how that convergence located the resolution.  It became clear where the story should start, how much was needed to get into the action, when certain information should be divulged, and where the story would end.  Identifying how resolution hangs on the male character’s inner conflict confirmed opening lines I’d just written, which plant the seed on the first page that he believes “memory is fickle” and is certain of his own guilt.

The idea of internal conflict as rungs on an emotional ladder has helped me clarify the internal journey the male character goes through — particularly that the emotion he is experiencing or demonstrating in each scene is a progression of maturing experience.  I might have been attempting to portray him ‘consistently’ in earlier drafts, but now see where his internal storyline would have him confused, then resigned, then hopeful, then dutiful, then penitent, etc. The clarity of this has rendered more vivid scenes, and provoked different interactions than I was originally imagining with the characters around him, including his memory of a single moment of fury (which I wrote about in my last post).

For all that “clarity,” the work is still messy, at the moment. I’ve had some great writing days, but must confess frustration the past couple days while rereading a large patch that was much less finished than I hoped…  So I post this with well wishes for all of you and your writing.  I will clearly be busy with it, myself.

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What do you think?

I’d love to hear questions or your insights in the Comments.

Thanks to Gerry Wilson, who replied to the last post asking about Hood’s advice on writing characters most like oneself.  I’m getting through the stretch of notes that provoked this post, and hope to have that one up next.

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Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon  Powells    Indiebound.org

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Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy

Notes of scene and personality of my character, scribbled in the margins while reading Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.

My writing hours are all about budgeted time — hours or whole days declared for fiction, versus blocks of time commanded by the kids, teaching writing, client work, and the daily grind.  While teaching usually yields hours every day for me to write, the last two weeks were forfeited almost entirely to the end of the school year.  As Friday was finally the last day of school, it was interesting to see what writing work I would land on, in my first days of freedom.

My main goal for summer’s longer hours focuses on the two novels I am revising

That work craves larger blocks of hours for rereading drafts. I last left off rereading the more finished draft, Breathing Water, needing to decide between two voice options, then delete some random chunks in the middle, and fix any broken transitions. The second novel, Wake, is still working its way to becoming a first, full draft, so there is a veritable carnival of piecing together the written portions, replacing original ideas with newer scenes, now curious to chart plot points and track how effectively the story unfolds.  Revision to three short stories is also on target for the summer, as it has now been nearly 10 months since the last time I submitted work.

With those clear goals, you’d think the first free days would have been spent rereading those drafts.   There will be days that I do exactly that.

But today was messy. Messy to wake from the deluge of the past weeks: blearily checking email, voicemail and social media to see what was going on while I was otherwise occupied.   Messy to face the end of year mess my house becomes, with two wild monkeys disguised as sons co-habitating with me.

Messy to greet the twine-ball of pent up ideas my writing mind is today.  Apparently, a mind antsy with ideas, made to wait days to write, does not reach its turn ready to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Writing Character

Today’s writing job, instead, is to re-open the copy of Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions that I’ve been reading for the last week. I attended a workshop with Hood in Miami, last month, and bought the book from the Books & Books table at her reading.  While the workshop focused on novel beginnings, Hood’s lectures and responses to workshop questions shared a wealth of advice, both from her own experience and drawing on advice from dozens of other fabulous writers she has worked with or learned from in her roughly 30-year career.

In that vein, a single line of advice she offered (how to avoid writing flat characters, when writing those most like yourself), piqued my curiosity to read her book, which explores the full gamut of how to write characters with complex and authentic emotional resonance.

As I pick it up today, however, it is not to continue reading, but to face the rampant notes I scribbled wildly in the margins when reading last week. The picture accompanying this article is modest compared to the extended scene scrawled in the margins stretching 6 pages, between headings for “Anger” and “Confusion.”

Creating Emotional Characters:  Hood on Anger

Ann Hood begins the section on writing Anger with a quote from Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost: “‘Outrage, combining as it does shock, anger, reproach, and helplessness, is perhaps the most unmanageable, the most demoralizing of all the emotions.'”

Applying this to writing, Hood says, “Anger has so many gradations, so many levels, it is indeed — for the writer at least — one of the most unmanageable emotions.”

The paragraph following this lists words for the myriad levels of anger people experience (from pique, ire and exasperation, to madness, wrath and ire), with the warning that writers “tend to write anger as a flat or simple emotion, something closer to rage.”

By contrast, she says, “What makes the emotion so interesting — and challenging — is that it has many different levels.”

This idea that emotions are not one-dimensional, not predictable, but composed of complex gradations, unpredictability and even contradiction, is key to her advice throughout the book.

Messy Writing: Scribbled in the Margins

Roonan, the enigmatic male character in my draft, Wake, is confused, guilt-ridden, self-condemning, but rarely angry.  Still, a single line at the end of those three paragraphs in Hood’s chapter on Anger triggered a newly-revealing scene.  Roonan cascades through layers of emotion, through the tiers of family history he has previously misunderstood.

In one fit of messy scribbling, I tied together a series of tropes that have been disconnected references scattered through the story.  Roonan now connecting the inner (and reflexively external) conflicts signalled by his father’s racing motorcycle, his mother’s reaction over evidence of a death, memory of cleaning up to protect her, facing the day his brother died, discovering the bag of locks his father had left stashed beneath the bed… the guilt he lives with keying back to a single, fierce moment of fury, in which he sees himself fulfilling everything he had set out to avoid.

In my head, I understand each of these elements, but in this baby-draft, they were as-yet unwritten.  Magically, this dam of understanding burst in reaction to a single line at the end of those 3 paragraphs of Hood’s advice: “Sometimes anger leaves you sated.”

So it is that today’s job is to return to those notes, transcribing them into the “add-on” document I keep in Word as new material to be added into the draft. The work may remain messy after that, or may fall into a neat pattern of revision as planned.  The key, I’ve found, is to respect where my head is — most of all, to get all fresh material recorded, so not lost, before pushing myself back to revision.

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More on Character, and Hood’s Advice on Beginnings

I’ll share more of Hood’s advice on character, as well as advice on writing beginnings in coming posts.  If you have specific questions (such as Hood’s advice regarding the challenge of writing characters similar to yourself), let me know in the comments.

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copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

 

Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon Powells    Indiebound.org

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