Monday, January 30, 2012

Working with Images to Get More Emotion into Your Chapters

This week, a fellow writer in New York sent me this bit of wisdom from writer Richard Bausch, who is known for his wonderful short stories. Bausch has been published widely, and he currently teaches in the writing program at the University of Memphis.

His thoughtful ideas on image and emotion will be the basis for our writing exercise this week.

"Make your feeling in things, images. There is so much more in an image because that is how we experience the world, and a good story is about experience, not concepts and certainly not abstractions. The abstractions are always finally empty and dull no matter how dear they may be to our hearts and no matter how profound we think they must be. I am perfectly aware that I am presently speaking in abstractions. So here is an example: there has been an auto accident. A head-on collision. We can say it contains all the horror of death and injury, and the terrible shocks to existence that await us all. Or--as my pal Allan Gurganus did once long ago in a workshop we were in, talking about this very matter--we can say a man with blood trickling from his ear and eyes wide and glittering unnaturally, knelt, shaking, at one of the broken headlights, trying, with trembling fingers, to put the pieces of shattered glass back into place. That opens the richest vein of horror, and it is experience, and we witness it, and feel it. So, in revision, get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves. Be clear about the details that can be felt on the skin and in the nerves."

This is echoed in one of my favorite writing books, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.  Butler recommends doing away with any interpretation (thoughts and feelings about things, essentially).  Let the things stand for themselves.

Readers are awfully smart.  They can get the meaning behind the message, if the message is delivered through images. 

In my writing classes, I help writers see how their book's "inner story," or the message of meaning in their writing, is primarily delivered to the reader through these images that reveal emotion, rather than through abstract thoughts and feelings.

This often seems counter-intuitive to the new book writer.  But look at your favorite stories.  Often the emotion is presented at a peak moment through a gesture, an object, the way light glints on a table top that's just been shined.  Images are how readers absorb the emotional impact, or payoff, of such a moment in a book.  I find this true, no matter which genre we're working in.

For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to test this out. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Choose a passage from your writing that is abstract:  maybe it's internal monologue, or thoughts and feelings from a character or narrator or author.

2.  Locate a tangible "thing," as Bausch says, that could possible convey this emotion or thought.

3.  Play with taking out the abstract and letting the thing speak for itself. 

4.  See if the emotional impact is enhanced.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pros and Cons of First and Third Person Point of View

One of my online students recently emailed me with a very good question.  Many book writers struggle with this during revision:  which to use, first person or third person. 

Which has the most impact on the story?  What are the pros and cons of each voice?

Sometimes the writer will create "islands" or scenes or snippets of writing in different points of view, as she moves through making the manuscript.  This is absolutely fine--it gives our random creative selves freedom to test out many options.  But when you've finally assembled your first draft, you need to settle it down.  You need to choose a point of view that tells the story best.

A wonderful writer, much published, once told me this secret:  for newer writers (new to book-length works), it's easier to get to know the characters in first person voice.  "The first book is often first person," she said, "the next ones are in third person." 

I found this true.  My first novel was attempted in third person but I had a terrible time bringing the main character to light on the page.  She seemed so distant.  On the advice of a writing teacher, I converted her scenes to first person. 

Suddenly she was visible, audible, clear to me.

But when I began work on my second novel, the me-me-me of first person was a bit hard to take.  First person can come across very self-absorbed.  Which is beautiful in short pieces, tiresome in longer ones, like listening to a rant.  To make first person palatable, much has to be worked in the environment of the story--letting the setting (container) reflect the emotions of the first-person narrator, rather than the narrator always delivering them.

In crafting my first book in first person, I learned this the hard way.  My teachers red-penciled out long and, to me, lyrical passages of self-reflection.  I remember one x-ed out an entire page, writing "Enough!" in the margin.  And it was.  I'd learned one of the downsides of first person voice--it can be way too much. 

My current novel, written in third person, is difficult in its own way.  Third is more distant, so I have to work harder to bring out the emotions of each character.  I usually write "islands" in first person, in their voices, to get to know them.  Then switch over to third for the actual scenes and chapters 

Memoir--Its Particular Challenges
Memoirists have a tricky task here--memoir is always written in first person (except for very experimental memoir) because it's all about me, the narrator, anyway.  It's my story, and no one else can tell it.  So the memoir runs the risk of being very blah blah blah about their own precious thoughts and feelings, which the reader may not care about. 

I've been enjoying two memoirs this week that do very well with the first-person challenge:  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, and Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell. 

Fuller makes use of setting brilliantly--we completely get her personality in the story, but we see it against the very large backdrop of the Rhodesian civil war, and that puts her personal angst in perspective beautifully. 

Caldwell falters occasionally in her memoir.  A long chapter about her alcoholism left me slightly bored with her; I found myself skipping ahead to where the story reunites with her friend's story, the meat of this book (about her friend's death).  I found it hard to just have Caldwell's musings without the stronger backdrop of something of bigger importance than a single life.

As my student wrote, "First person gives more immediacy and emotional punch," and it certainly does.  But one human life, with its singular thoughts and feelings, needs always to be balanced in literature with a broader landscape.  Otherwise, the self-absorption will deafen the larger voice and theme of the book.

She also wrote, "Third person allows for more backstory, summary, and the internals of more than one character at a time. It allows for more emotional coloring."  This is true.  The range of colors is wider, too.  Which makes for a potentially more profound story. 

She was kind enough to send two examples from her book, which she gave me permission to share here.  One is written in third person, the second in first person, with the same narrator.  Which appeals more to you, as the reader? 

Third person
Jenna is always touched with a wisp of melancholy when she sees him and she chides herself for thinking of him other than the way he is now. She knows that, his tall figure is slumped in his wheelchair, his stringy muscles gone flaccid and shrunken; his forehead is a map of wrinkles and brown spots below a no longer existent hairline. Still, he holds her fast to this earth though he is disappearing before her eyes and it matters, more than anything, and not of knee-jerk reaction either, to please him.

First person
When Dad isn't in front of me, I forget; I think of him as he was when he was younger. Now, every time I see him, I'm overcome with melancholy. I stand a moment at the door to the sun room and the surprise sweeps me again. His tall frame is slumped in his wheelchair, all his stringy muscles gone flaccid and shrunken; his forehead is a map of winkles and brown spots just below where his hairline used to be. Still, I think, he holds me fast to this earth and being his stand-up girl matters as much as it did when I was a kid.

Very different effects, yes?  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Take a passage from your own writing, about the length of the one above.  Write it in the opposite voice as you've chosen.  If it's third, make it first.  if it's first, make it third.

2.  Read each aloud.  Which feels more layered, more interesting to you?

3.  Even if you are writing memoir, try this.  It's very revealing--you can see immediately where you've neglected the larger landscape of your story.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

From Event to Emotion--How Do You Bridge the Gap in Your Writing?

E.M Forester said that human beings lead two lives, "the life in time and the life by values."  In Aspects of the Novel, he writes:

"A story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence — it simply tells us what happened and in what order. It is the time sequence which turns a random collection of episodes into a story. But chronological sequence is a very primitive feature and it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. The only skill of a storyteller is their ability to wield the weapon of suspense, making the audience eager to discover the next event in the sequence. 
"This emphasis on chronological sequence is a difference from real life. Our real lives also unfold through time but have the added feature that some experiences have greater value and meaning than others. Value has no role in a story, which is concerned with the life in time rather than the life by values."

She waited for him for thirty minutes, but it felt like forever is a good example of this dual experience that we go through in real life, but makes for dull reading if placed in a book as it really happened (thirty minutes of not much).

But our books are enriched, our characters more vivid, if we can show both of these lives, the one driven by events and the one driven by the inner journey, or what writer Vivian Gornick calls the situation and the story behind it.  Obviously, readers crave meaning.  And they are best carried along by both the tension of the event and its emotional undercurrent. 

This week's exercise asks you to look at a peak moment in your book and analyze it based on this duality.  How much of each kind of time have you dedicated to this moment?  Most writers put 80-90 percent of their storytime into the "time value" that Forster speaks of, since this provides tension and momentum.  But a small percentage of every scene must also be revealed as "value time," revealing the meaning of that event.

Skilled writers do this through showing, versus telling.  What a character notices in her environment during a particularly tense moment, for instance, shows us the value of that event to her.  Smells, sounds, visual details, weather--all of these are used by writers to help show value and meaning.