Tag Archives: character motivation

Friday Links for Writers: 05.13.16

copyright Elissa Field (use w written permission only)

copyright Elissa Field (use w written permission only)

I’m midway through a 4-week break between classes, at the tail end of my Masters. This perfectly coincides with having a printed draft to complete a read-through revision, which makes this a busy writing week.

I’ve been wrestling with technology — finding the most efficient ways to keep track of complicated novel structures while moving large chunks around. I’ve written about mid-level novel revisions often, here, and this revision has had its own insights.

This week, I’m debating moving my outline (the structural spine devised to guide the revisions) into Excel. Complete nerdfest: that allows me to not only graph the chapters and parts, but graph key reveals, reactions, crossing of internal and external conflicts… Not word-nerdy enough? I’ve been obsessively analyzing concepts of action-reaction — the dialogue and external conflicts comprising actions, and all the modes by which characters react, in layers. Worth its own post — a post requested by another venue — but for today…

It’s time for Friday Links for Writers. Not surprising at least one link is a piece on character action. As always, share in the comments to let us know what resounds with you, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite links. Have a great writing week!

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Character Reaction — Make Your Character Respond

On The Editor’s Blog, Beth Hill discusses the need to reveal character in the written responses to action and events. While I’ve been considering a dozen different layers to response, she covers the big 4: action, dialogue, thought, and emotion.

Pixie Dust

Okay, so this will be, what, the third Donald Maass piece I share lately? Yeah well, he must be good at getting one thinking. His latest post at Writer Unboxed talks about using the most emotionally charged details to power your writing (and delete the rest). Experiences shared in the comments are just as inspiring as the initial piece.

a8b42ebd1d57086a0349245db28cc008Found on Pinterest: Plot Timeline Infographics
Plotter or pantser, I strongly believe in understanding (or planning) the best structure for the novel you’re writing. In revising Never Said, that backbone has been key to building a more complex story than would have been possible without it. The link above goes to pin for the “first act”. Click here to find Act 2 and here for Act 3. Want more? Clicking the pins takes you to the original articles.

How Mapping Alice Munro’s Stories Helped Me As a Writer

And, hey, if I’m confessing my inner word nerd… well, look, Elizabeth Poliner was geeking out on diagramming Alice Munro, too. For me, it’s been a mix of Anthony Doerr and Tana French – but, point is, if you’re diagramming your favorite writer, you’re not alone.

Print Products: Turn Your Book into a Notebook or Workbook

Many of my readers may already have stumbled on Joanna Penn, who has been generous, as her self-publishing career took off, to share creative ways to make a living with your writing. This post is just that, with advice on how to create accompanying workbooks or other print materials from your existing book (especially nonfiction). This would be a great approach for speaking engagements and workshops.

Santiago Caruso via The Guardian

Santiago Caruso via The Guardian

 

On Charlotte Bronte’s 200th Birthday: Illustrating Jane Eyre

This one is just for a little inspiration, for any of us kindling a love for the Brontes. A Guardian piece, featuring the Gorey-esque artwork of Santiago Caruso depicting scenes from Jane Eyre.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: the Privilege of Writing from in the Mess

I loved this answer Ta-Nehisi Coates gave to a Howard University student who asked him what responsibility he thought writers have. The link above gives that one answer. Or, here is the full conversation between him and professor Greg Carr, including a reading from Between the World and Me.

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What Are You Working On?

April seemed to be a huge month for writers using challenges to reach writing goals — and just as many of my friends hit May (and look forward to summer) with editing now on their mind. What is your current writing goal? What challenges or strategies keep your going or make hurdles in your work?

Have you come across any great writing links or resources lately?

Do share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

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Today’s Work: Sharing a Scene from Never Said

Running man

Some of you may know that I participate in a variety of writers’ groups online, which has been fabulous company and motivation as I pound through novel revisions this summer.

Novel Revision Process

I haven’t been posting about my writing process as often as I did last year, but regular readers may know that part of my obstacle is that I’ve taken on a daunting but very thorough revision process: rather than just continue tweaking draft 4-5, which I’d worked on through the winter, I am fully retyping the current draft. It has been an extremely effective process… but s-l-o-w, in the sense that it’s August 1 and I only have 24, 700 words in (last winter’s ms was 176,000).

What has been particularly exciting about the process is it has benefitted from the concentrated power of scenes written later in my understanding of the story, and I’ve been really excited, in particular, about the layer of meaning that have come about from expanding viewpoints.

I have been sharing about this regularly on Twitter (#SumNovRev), within Facebook groups and during daily writing activities at TeachersWrite! but have posted little about it here.

Sharing an Excerpt of the Work in Process

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonThat said, today I am sharing an extended scene from the last third of my novel in progress, Never Said. (I shared a short excerpt from this as part of Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback; revision to this scene was prompted by character description activity on Kate Messner’s blog for TeachersWrite.)

About the Excerpt

Michael Roonan is an elusive main character as the novel takes place at a point in his life when he appears resigned to his own death despite the community around him absolving him from blame. He goes along with his best friend’s insistence that he go on the run, but there’s the unspoken undercurrent that he doesn’t disagree with the man who is after him (Sean).  This excerpt is from Sean’s POV, but really is lead up to the reveal of secrets Roonan has been keeping all along.

I’ve written before about how I like to play around with POV, writing from several different viewpoints as I discover a story. This antagonist, Sean, was a fun surprise, as he had insights I hadn’t thought of.  (Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict).

 

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Excerpt from Never Said

(The following is an excerpt from an unpublished novel. Do no copy or use without express written permission from Elissa Field.)

Sean saw the back of Michael Roonan’s head from a distance, across the thin stream that split the village center.  Mick turned toward the marketplace on the other side of the stone bridge. Wind lifted his hair and Sean saw his face in full profile. Definitely him. His hair was heavy, coarse with the filth of a man on the run. It calmed his anger to know Mick ran, no matter what he’d said. His hair grown out like the mane of a horse, so unlike himself.

Unrecognizable from the man he’d last met on the jetty south of Wicklow, when he’d watched Mick dive off the stern of a trawler, knowing he was avoiding the Garda whose lights flickered fierce off the roofs of their cars, parked in jackknifed formation at the entrance to the docks. Sean had grinned at him, unseen: They’re not for you, Mick. It’s a body washed up against the headwall. Coppers wandered bored as farm dogs, no hints yet if it were a murder or just a ferry jumper or a man washed overboard. So tedious, waiting on coroners.

He followed the intermittent bob of Mick’s head beyond the concrete breakers, carried far south by the inlet currents. He might have drowned, another body to be fished out, but sputtered out of the surf along the strand amid coarse grasses and weekend strollers. Sean watched him collapse. Waited. Mick pulled himself to sit facing out to sea as if what chased him was yet panting in the frothing waves. Not behind him in the car park, where Sean  leaned back for a smoke. A think.

Shells or stones – he couldn’t see from this distance – rattled in the waves with a sound like dried bones. Mick’s hair was buzzed military-short, then. More stark than months Sean had seen him reported, imprisoned in isolation for all the players who wanted him dead.

This little man. Hunched along the shore line, thin thread of light blazing brilliant beneath the oyster shell gradations of the sky.

Water and sand fell from his shirt when he stood. He brushed kelp from his shoulder. Otter of a survivor. One summer in Ridell, there’d been one of the younger brothers – he was sure it was Mick –pulled in an undertow jumping off the tower at Blackrock. The black shadow of his head, like the back of a turtle or a skate, pulling deeper and sideways along the Irish Sea bottom that would be exposed, smelly with the decay of exposed mussels and whelks at low tide. Sean was the one to dive for him, a bolt through the current, wrenching him to the surface. Clear vomit of seawater sprayed over his forearm as he held the boy’s chin in the crook of his elbow, rolling onto his back, the boy buoyed on his chest as he waited out the current to let them go. The little brother’s head gagged and sputtered and cried, gasping for air. Struggled to get free, to swim, not knowing all you could do is relent and float until the current gave you up. “Easy,” he’d told the top of the boy’s head, fixing his face to the sky. “Look, there. See the gulls? How many is that?”

He was sure it was Mick. The Roonan son who covered his ears at the high engine whine of his father passing in a race, even as others took pictures or shook their fists to cheer.

There was no rush. Wait him out.

Mick’s head was down when Sean came upon him, nearly dried, on a bench along the roadside not quite into the adjoining village. Mick said, without looking up, without surprise, “How is it going for you, Sean? I’d heard you were out.” It was barely discernible: the faint shift of posture to check peripheral vision, clear enough one wolf to another, to be certain Sean was alone.

“You killed Stephen.”

There was a long silence. Cars passed, their headlights bilious green in the odd fog come in from the sea. That color got to him, always – color of the dead boy in the canal – and he wanted to shake Mick, to shake the whole world, the way Man and Ulster vibrated in the high-revved videos of Gerry Roonan at 200 miles per hour. How did Mick take this for granted? How did he not know how lucky he was, for what he had? Him and Stevie: they’d be famous racers, just like their da. What hate makes you blow that all apart? For what? Not even a cause.

Mick turned fully to him, no avoidance in his eyes. “I killed Stephen.”

“What the fuck, Mick. Can’t you even deny it to me?.. Why? Why would you do that to your own brother?”

Roonan didn’t answer that. Not yet. “How did you know?”

“I watched you. I saw you do it, you stupid fuck. Watched… I saw him…”

Both were in it, then. Graphic memory. Two men, brothers to Stephen in different ways, watching from opposite sides as the universe sucked inward on Stephen then exploded infinitely outward. The only two to have seen it plainly, true. Night stills for them as it does in sacred moments, letting damnation seep in.

“Why the fuck did you do it?”

A man climbs fully inside his eyes when come upon his truths. Sean knew as he stared into Mick’s face waiting for an answer: it was there. Mick was walking around inside it as if visiting an old room, testing what was remembered, what was broken, what was new. He wanted to punch him, deflate silence by crushing his head like a collapsed football. Fury at such deliberation, such unhurried reflection. Michael was a big man now: past twenty-two Sean guessed, strong from pulling nets on the trawler, taller than Stevie would have been. He’d heard stories of Roonan crushing an undercover cop’s head against a rock to stop the man from beating an informant. He’d heard rumors of his calm shadow in a doorway being enough to scare off provo gunners.

“You need to run, Mick.”

The man’s eyes rose to his face, but he was not there. Somewhere else, some other time, and a chill went through Sean. Remembering the boy in the hedgerow, when Rodgers hit the tree. Sean and Stevie and Mick were the first to the body, the racer’s attached hand still opening and closing in a fist, as his severed arm was further down across the road. The man’s eyes met their three faces through his visor, pleading for help. Mick would have been just eight when he heard that first gasping groan of a body giving up life, and his father’s road racer had passed them just after, front wheel lifting in the air at the surprise of finding Rodgers’ spent machine broken apart across the road, then whining away up Perry’s Hill.

He did not give away the gun tucked into his waistband. Did not acknowledge he could pick up a rock or that broken sign post just feet away and bash his skull. Could have done it then, that evening, as the high pressure sodium lighting came on over their heads, lighting them in a glow as if good friends reminiscing before walking home from the pub. He said as if he had yet to make a plan, so Mick had the benefit of a warning: “You need to run, because I’ll have you dead for it.”

Mick had stood. His feet were bare, having kicked off his white rubber fishermen’s boots when they filled like anchors with the sea. He looked up and down the street like an animal dropped from a car, dazed and recalibrating for home. He took a step toward the street to read a sign, he looked back to the car park where he calculated Sean’s car was parked. “I know you will,” he said to Sean. “But I won’t run. Not when you come.” Mick met the man’s eyes, held them to be certain Sean understood, and he’d walked off slowly in the direction of the main road.

If you want to share your feedback in the comments: 

If anything resounds with you, do click “like” or leave me a comment to let me know what you liked — it’s hard and lonely work, so I will love you forever for any encouragement. Seriously. Of course, the impact may be lost a little,  since this piece is from 2/3 through the book, and some details may reference earlier chapters (for ex: “hedgerow” is a frequent reference to where the boys stood when watching Roonan’s father race motorcycles) — but still, find kind words to let me know if any of the scene didn’t work for you and why.

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What About You?

What are you working on this week? Are their aspects of your writing process or writing community that help you get it finished?

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No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

 

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Friday Links for Writers 07.11.14

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

It’s been a busy week of nonfiction writing, blogs, novel revisions, restructuring in Scrivener, software upgrades, query drafts and… have to say one of the best parts has been some great connections with other writers online.

So this is a shout-out to all of you working on your writing. I’m going to busily get back to the draft I’m retyping (read more about that process here: Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft).

But in the meantime, enjoy this week’s Friday Links for Writers, which shares some of the best resources I’ve come across. Best wishes with your work!

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Find Dialogue Daunting? Expand Your Character Talk

Whatever your focus in writing or editing your dialogue, this post at Lit Central is a great examination of all the options available to vary how you communicate your characters words or thoughts.

To #%&* or Not to #%&*: Profanity in Fiction

I’ve drafted a post about this myself… Have you ever wondered about the need or inappropriateness of swearing in your writing? Check out this post by Roseanne Parry at the Loft Literary Center for a discussion and options for how to make your language-level fit your work.

MS Wishlist

Ever seen those #tenqueries series on Twitter, where a literary agent shares their review and replies to query submissions? Well, how about a central site that takes the greatest wishes of all those agents? You can search them on Twitter using #mswl – or check out this link for a summary of all those posts.

Is it My Query or My Sample Pages?

On her blog, literary agent Carly Watters answers what she says is the most common questions she gets in workshops: “How do I know when it’s my query or whether it’s my sample pages that are stopping me from getting full manuscript requests or offers?” In a list of solutions, she helps you identify likely answers. Definitely check this out – it has been one of the most recommended shares on Twitter this week.

How to Tell if Your Story is on Track

Kristen Lamb’s post on her blog addresses the importance of being able to summarize your story within a couple sentences. She is not alone in the advice that, if you can’t summarize your story in three sentences, agents and editors begin suspecting structural problems. She offers clear components of effective log lines.

How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, Hosseini and more

This post at The Atlantic shares advice gathered through 2013 from 50 different writers for the By Heart series, including Khaled Hosseini, Tracy Chevalier, Andre Dubus III, Aimee Bender and Amy Tan.

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How About You?

What goals are you trying to reach this summer? Are you using any online communities, camps, challenges or communities to help motivate your writing? What works best (or worst) for you?

If you’re looking for writing community…

I’ll be posting separately about some of the inspiration I’ve found in connecting with others in some of the writing camps and challenges going on this summer.

On Twitter: I’ve been sharing my own goals, motivational prompts and revision activities in order to finish a novel by summer’s end using the hashtag #SumNovRev.  Say hello or share your own suggested strategies if you visit the thread.

 

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On my educator’s blog:

 

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Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary — then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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c. Elissa Field

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Friday Links for Writers: 09.06.13

At work writing. c Elissa Field

At work writing. c Elissa Field

Writing this week has felt like a covert operation: completely unexpected details of my characters or scenes in reaction to the most unexpected inspiration, in a week I hadn’t planned to have much time to write. You can’t complain about that.

What’s been great about this week’s writing is the way that deepening discovery of inner character details has re-envisioned and empowered a couple moments I hadn’t thought much about. Developing and nuancing character is so much about discovery.

By chance or serendipity, this week’s Friday Links shares a series of articles on approaches for character development, starting with a review of a favorite author’s new release. As always, let me know what resonates for you in these links, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite reads from the week in the comments. Best wishes for a great writing (and reading) week!

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Someone, by Alice McDermott

What the writer of this review says about Alice McDermott is exactly the reaction I’ve had to McDermott’s strongest work. I was equally stunned by the same short story (nugget to her coming novel) in the New Yorker, in a way that ties to the kind of quality I seek in writing. “Her sentences know themselves so beautifully,” the review says, and touches on the ways McDermott accomplishes deeply nuanced characters.

What’s Next: How Do I Look?

This post by Cate Levin at She Writes begs a question I’m sure she is not alone in asking: how much description is needed of a protagonist? In first person POV, no one wants to force in details like, “while tossing my long strawberry blonde hair…” Cate shares her own thoughts, and invites conversation on what other writers find matters in describing main characters.

Knowing What’s Real

Keeping on the same theme: Cate Levin’s question reminded me of this guest post by Khara House on writer Gerry Wilson’s blog (see the next link for more on Gerry). In asking whether it’s necessary to describe your main character, Cate was really raising the question: what details really reveal the character, more than mirrorlike description? Khara’s take on this is lovely.

Own the Emotion, Then Give It Away

Sharing the post by Khara, I came across another of my favorite posts that builds on this same theme. In this, Gerry Wilson makes a fabulous connection between ballet training and writing in the need to fully occupy and use emotion in developing character.

Indiegogo: Bestseller with Chuck Adams

Okay, so this is an Indiegogo fundraising page for the book Bestseller, currently assembling advice on how talented writers can become bestsellers from editor Chuck Adams. Fundraiser or no, the page includes several short videos with Adams sharing behind the scenes stories of editing, rejection and one of his great acquisitions, Water for Elephants, giving an interesting view into different aspects of the industry.

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More on Writing Character

Are you on a roll and want to read more about writing (or revising) richly developed characters? That’s actually a favorite topic on this site. Here are a few favorites:

Along with a fabulous group of writers, Elissa Field is a Founding Member at Wordsmith StudioFab Writing Community

It wasn’t pure chance that I shared with you writers Khara House and Gerry Wilson. Gerry, Khara and I (and lots of those reading this post) are part of a fabulous writing community called Wordsmith Studio. I hope sharing Friday Links or other posts on my site is useful to other writers and readers, because there is a great bond when writers support one another — and this is exactly the community Wordsmith Studio members have found together. You can find more about our group’s activities by watching the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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If you like this blog, be sure to join the community of readers using any of these options: WordPress’s +follow button or the email subscription, RSS feed, or use the Bloglovin button.  

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Novel Revision: Can Literary Fiction be Hot?

hotfiction

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

So what am I working on next, in this series on mid-process novel revisions? Okay, confession. Maybe, while working on novel revision this week, I caught myself admiring Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And maybe I rewatched Sense and Sensibilities, catching my breath for the 99th time over Colonel Brandon’s silent anguish of love. Maybe that had me thinking about hot main characters and romantic plots.

But then, just maybe, as I reread parts of my novel which has matured into its thematically-layered 4th or 5th draft, I stumbled upon a love scene between my main characters and cringed.

For a complete list of articles from this Novel Revision series, look below.  But today it’s time to take on love scenes.

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Love Draws Us In

If you’d asked me what this novel was about during first drafts, I would have called it a love story. It opens with the prattling of a toddler conceived in a love affair between the main characters. I feel a loyalty to that love spark, even as growth in the story has come to focus more on the layers of conflict and the larger theme of civilians avoiding violence during war.

That early feeling of falling in love with this broken main character is a central integrity to the story that doesn’t leave me.  Key transitions in plot hinge on the moment they met, the moment they were drawn to each other, the moment they first, well, you know, and whether they are in love, and how that changes their original response to conflict. The love tension between my MCs is the fun part of the story, and a powerful inspiration that keeps me going from draft to draft.

Tough, my current revision process tells me.

How many first dates, even well described, would make it through the rounds of novel revisions? As I re-read these original scenes and decide how to edit love into the final drafts, I’m left wondering what role sex plays in literary fiction.

Purpose of the Sex Scene Fits the Purpose of the Genre

Sex plays different roles in different genres, of course, and thinking about the purpose of a genre helps to establish a guideline for the purpose sex scenes would serve in a book.

If I were writing romance fiction, the purpose of my sex scenes would be to evoke a romantic experience for the reader. For a mystery or thriller, sexual tension might accelerate the tension of a crime or create the more mysterious, romantic motivation for a detective or spy. For young adult lit, sexual activity is handled carefully to depict first experiences crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore likely to focus on hesitation or anticipation, and small details a young person would remember of a first kiss or holding hands.

In each case, defining the work’s purpose is a good starting point in knowing what love scene details will advance a story without being off kilter or over the top.

What is the Role of Sex in Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is less easily defined than some other genres, so I was left wondering at the role of sex in my WIP. In many cases, literary fiction is a hybrid with other genres, containing elements of romance, mystery, historical, coming of age, or science fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass addresses the effective crossover between literary and commercial fiction.

What is generally the case in all literary fiction and its hybrid/crossover varieties is that heat and passion can’t be the only purpose of love or sex in a story. Dang. I can’t just say my MC is a hottie and they are so in l-o-o-o-ve. The passion has to fuel or depict a larger purpose in developing character and advancing the conflict.

Of course, there are numerous literary best sellers where sex is not present. In his essay, Sex in Literature, Adrian Slatcher references Julian Barnes in saying “‘the author feels a commercial obligation’ to write about sex. But there have been several literary bestsellers to involve almost no sex at all.”  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, there is the non-sexual tension of his main character not sleeping with the prostitutes he befriends. In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, love is brotherly and era-appropriate dating scenes involve sitting on a blanket at the beach or arriving at a nanny’s house to pick her up for a date.

But sexual passion is fuel in much of literary fiction. Looking back on stories that continue to resonate as classics, it’s often a romance at the heart of the story that we remember. The fact that the romance between my main characters is important to my own interest in my WIP tells me that I need to give careful consideration while revising, for this to remain a strength in the final story.

Sex Reveals Character and Conflict

Literary fiction tends to be centered on character transformation, and sex can be a powerful symbol of where a character is in conflict. Sex is symbolic of inner conflicts of being trapped, captured, free,  released, linked or united, and often serves as transformation in the plotline of internal conflict resolution.  This can appear as outright sexual activity and its outcomes (think Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), desire that fuels action without explicit sexual activity (Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence) or the state of desire restrained from action (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Romantic desire can appear to stand alone as a character’s inner conflict, but is generally symbolic of something more.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice, where the character’s internal conflict is resolved through acknowledging mutual love and marrying, that desire for love is integral to a larger theme of defending personal identity within the external conflict of England’s old property laws. Sex is an inherent theme of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but serves to create tension and release of tension and violation within a greater theme of war.

As much as love or sex can be used to signal transitions in inner conflict, it is also used in opposition. Sex is the external act of internal emotion, and tension arises if the external act (or lack of action) is in conflict with what the reader knows about inner emotion. Intense emotions are created when a reader knows the character’s desire but the character does not act on it, as in Kasuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which exudes a sensual tension partly because the butler never breaks his reserve.

Similarly, sexual behavior or loving actions can create a dramatic contrast to depict a character’s inner torment. In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the scene when soldiers walk to a brothel while on leave is the antithesis of sexy, establishing through contrast how nightmarish their battle world has been and how dislodged the men are from emotion. The presence of sex without love or compassion is often symbolic of inner dysfunction, as Hemingway often used to signal the disembodiment of humanity after the shock of war. Reams of literary fiction include sex as sickness or sex in its dysfunctional state, such as The Kite Runner, The God of Small Things and The Color Purple.

Not Choreography

One of the simplest rules I’ve heard in knowing how to write sex in fiction is that effective sex scenes do not involve choreography. If you could replicate the movements and positions based on what is written, then it’s too much.

Like any other sensory details in successful fiction, sexual details have to serve the story, not just paint a picture. In that sense, I have been really resistant to say my main character is beautiful or describe the dramatic eyes I imagine for her love interest (yeah, that picture up top comes close). My story is not advanced by the characters being attractive.  Beauty is only meaningful when it reveals what the character perceives as beautiful, or beauty in relief against themes of pain or darkness. Hot details need to be something more than just what we, as writers, find hot in a mate. As with any character traits, they should reveal the character’s fear or hope or history or greater desire and what keeps them from finding happiness. For my female character to notice scars on my male character’s knuckles is more meaningful (and less ridiculous) than to say he has nice hands.

Often, the novel’s sexual tension is best achieved in description of a nonsexual event. In Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the hottest sensuality comes not from deflowering of the mute wife, but in the nights she sneaks to feed the wild tiger meat from her husband’s stores.

But let’s say we do want to communicate that the scene was hot.  The details to establish hotness still need to fit the novel’s theme, advance its conflict, and fit the voice. Only rare novels would benefit from Victoria’s Secret outfits and naming of body parts and positions. Words that are hot in imagination or real life — like lips and fingertips and more — often turn ridiculous in writing (and euphemisms can be even more ridiculous).

Successful sex scenes often evoke sensuality with words unrelated to the body or actual sex. Even in overtly sexual novels, like The English Patient, sexual details are often odd, like sexualizing the divot at the base of the woman’s throat. Hardy described blooming mushrooms in the woods rather than describe Tess’s virginal skin in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has his characters wait a lifetime to reach fulfillment in Love in the Time of Cholera, and description of that scene involves reference to constipation.

Revising with a Mind to What Makes Sex Scenes Work in Literary Fiction

It seems the key is to understand the purpose or message of your own novel, and know your story’s internal conflicts, to understand which kind of sex (or lack of) scene can work within your story. Sex is one of the choices my characters make in carving out their odd path toward resolving their inner conflicts, and their scenes together reveal love and hope and passion and parental intentions, but also dysfunction and imbalance and fear.  Revising feels like coming at the scenes from an angle rather than head-on, working to deepen character and conflict, understanding how each detail reveals the progression in character transformation and not just heat.

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What About You?

Have you been conflicted in writing or revising love in a story?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

If you want to read more on the subject, I admired this great post by English writer Isabel Costello: Sex Scenes in Fiction.

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Recent posts:

Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Recent posts:

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