Monday, May 31, 2010

My Thoughts on Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., a day when we acknowledge and express appreciation for the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces and their families.

Every generation seems to have at least one war associated with it. For my parents, it was World War II. For my generation, it was Vietnam. I was twelve years old in 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson expanded U.S. participation in the Vietnam war. I remember feeling proud that our soldiers were fighting to keep people free. It was during that time that I began to write a lot of poetry, much of it in support of our involvement.

In high school I continued to write poetry. I learned to play the guitar and composed songs. I don't remember at what point I began to shift from defending U.S. actions in Vietnam to questioning and later opposing our continued participation. So many horrible things were happening. It wasn't simple to me anymore -- probably because I wasn't a child anymore.

I would like to share a poem I wrote in high school when the suffering and heartbreak caused by the Vietnam war weighed heavily on my mind. The poem is about a dying soldier. It is dedicated to all those who have given their lives in war and to the loved ones left behind. For the freedoms we enjoy because of your sacrifice, we are grateful.

At Last

In silence suspended you lie there and stare
At reflections of candlelight, soft on her hair,
Then you start from your dream as smoke fills the air,
For you know you're leaving at dawn.

The noise and the shouts beat a drum in your brain.
You remember the feeling of fear and of pain,
And an image of jungles, more jungles, and rain,
And you know you're leaving at dawn.

Your thoughts slip away once again to her side,
Through your feverish eyes and the slow-rising tide.
She's too far away. How can you confide
That you know you're leaving at dawn?

How can you tell her goodbye one last time,
That you're sorry you're leaving, you hope she won't cry.
But you see the tears that would soon fill her eyes
If she knew you were leaving at dawn.

Your mind is still throbbing. You feel far away.
You want to tell her; you're trembling with pain.
She must find someone new. She can't sit and wait,
For you know you're leaving at dawn.

Thunder -- then stillness -- then coldness -- then heat.
She's waiting, she's waiting, but she should be free.
Your eyes close in peace. No more will they see.
And how can you tell her you're gone?

Scotti Cohn
(c. 1967)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Plot A or Plot B?

I'm reading the book 179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin. Selgin writes, "Remember that there are really only two plots: Plot A, where a character is routinely unhappy and suddenly seizes an opportunity for happiness, and Plot B, where a character is routinely happy but some circumstance or irritant destroys or undermines his happiness, and he must act to reinstate his status quo. The solution to plot is to make sure you are dealing with one of these situations."
Just for grins, I took a look at my work in progress (the revision/rewrite of a finished novel). I feel Plot B is the closest because the story evolves out of something distressing that happens to turn the character's mostly acceptable life upside down. At the same time, the character was not entirely happy with her life before the upsetting incident, and is open to seizing a new opportunity for happiness. She wants to "reinstate the status quo" in some respects but also would welcome change.

What do you think of Selgin's two plots? Would you identify your current WIP as Plot A or Plot B? Why?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Behold the Well-Turned Phrase!

For me, one thing that makes a piece of writing enjoyable to read is when the writer uses what I call "well-turned phrases" regularly throughout the piece. By "well-turned phrase" I mean a phrase that is succinct, evocative, effective, and contains an unusual or unexpected reference or association.

Once again, I'm going to refer to the book I'm currently reading, which is A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. Maguire describes the terrain at one point as "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret."

When I read that phrase, I literally stopped (briefly, not long enough to take me out of the story) and smiled.  Why? Because that eight-word phrase conveyed information in way that resonated with me, and in a way that I had not seen dozens of times before.

I am just one person and I'm not a professional writing instructor, but let me try to explain why the phrase works so well for me.

Let's start with "scrappy farms." The word scrappy gives me a sense of two qualities: fragmented or disjointed (composed of scraps) and contentious (or, perhaps in a more positive light, having a fighting spirit). Right away, my mind is filled with images of farms that are not in good shape but also refuse to succumb to defeat.

These farms are "worn grey" -- a color that makes me think of old age, ill health, and shabbiness. The word "worn" itself suggests "worn out" or "worn down" -- weak, struggling, aged.

Finally, the farms are worn grey "with wind and regret." What a difference the word "regret" makes when used in this context. Maguire could have said "with wind and dust" or "with wind and drought." Instead, he pairs a concrete, physical word (wind) with the more abstract term regret. This takes us into the minds and hearts of those who tilled the soil, sowed the seeds, and nurtured the plants. . . or those who failed to nurture the plants, as the case may be. These farms are just-barely-living testimonials to hard times and neglect.

Think about how much more effective "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret" is than a phrase such as "the desolate countryside" or "farms that had seen better days."

If you are a writer, perhaps you automatically use well-turned phrases in your writing. If not, take a moment when you're "finished" with a piece to wander back through it. Scout for places where you can replace a flat, colorless, or clunky phrase with one that is well-turned.

In the meantime, I hope you will share a well-turned phrase from your work or someone else's, and tell us briefly what you like about it!

Monday, May 10, 2010

What did you want to be. . . ?

Interviewers often ask, "When did you know you wanted to be a writer?" My first instinct is to say that I can't remember when I didn't want to be a writer. It's true that writing became my favorite thing to do at a very early age. From about first grade on, when I wasn't doing schoolwork or other activities, I could usually be found in my bedroom writing a poem or story or "novel."

But the fact is, at one time (I think when I was in around 5th grade maybe) I thought I might like to be a pediatrician, and around that same time I also thought I would like to be a veterinarian.

Then I found out that in order to be a pediatrician or veterinarian, you had to be good at science. Who knew? I wasn't terribly interested in science, nor did I do all that well at it in school (in other words, I tended to struggle to bring home a B rather than a C, and sometimes did not succeed). I also discovered that in order to pursue those careers, I would probably have to dissect animals in school -- possibly even cats. That put me right off!

So perhaps it's no surprise that at this stage in my writerly life, I am enjoying writing books about animals (veterinarian) for young children (pediatrician). I find that these are the types of books that have the most meaning for me personally, the ones that make me feel the best inside.

It's funny how my earliest interests have stayed with me throughout my life, and how they influence my writing every day.

Do you see a connection between what you thought you wanted to be in your early years and what you write about? Do you tend to write about things that fascinated you or appealed to you during childhood?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Nine Items of Terror for Writers

I recently attended a performance by The Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling  and comedy troupe. They were fabulous!

At the end of the show, they performed their "Terror Trick." This involved juggling nine "items of terror" they had gradually introduced during the show. These items were a cleaver, a torch, a salt shaker, a ukelele, a skillet, a fish, an egg, a block of dry ice, and a bottle of champagne. They juggled all of these at once, then ended up "cooking" the fish and the egg in the skillet and drinking the champagne. So it all came together into a somewhat cohesive whole.

As I left the theater, I thought of a parallel to writing. I wondered what the "nine items of terror" would be for writers -- the disparate elements that writers must expertly juggle and interweave to create a "grand finale" (the completed work)?

Let's see. . . How about we start with Point of View (POV) as Item of Terror Number One. Should I use first person, second person, third person distant, third person close, multiple-person, omniscient, alternating. . . or should I just pour myself a stiff drink and call it a night?

The differences between third-distant and third-close drive me insane. I no sooner think I'm using one than I realize I'm using the other. Omniscient seems easiest, but detached. I think it's harder for the reader (especially a child or young adult) to "connect" with the main character when something is written in omniscient POV. First person POV requires a consistent, age-appropriate voice. You have to choose your vocabulary carefully if the narrator is a child or teen. Would they use that word? Would they perceive things differently? And when you're in first person, you can only comment on things the character sees, hears, knows about, etc.

Recently I came across a tip: If your third-person character is constantly talking out loud "to himself," you may want to switch to first person. That makes quite a lot of sense to me. I tend to stick with third person, but struggle with whether to "zoom in really close" or remain more objective.

I could go on, but I think that's enough for now from my POV.

What "item of terror" would you add and what is "terrifying" about it?