And Now a Brief Word…

Brevity is the soul of wit.[*] (Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, line 92)—William Shakespeare

Perhaps it’s winter’s elision into Spring, but I feel like it’s time for change, to experiment (a bit) with my writing here at the Sequence. Of late, several posts I’ve written here appear to run on the longer side. While I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve written, I feel the need for some variation.

Something of a palate cleanser, if you will.

I don’t suggest that terser writing is some sort of literary sorbet. Hemingway, a master of succinct writing, has a short story collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing that neatly summarizes his far from sweet oeuvre.[†] Rather, I’m looking to pare down my writing a bit, try new writing styles, and perhaps write more efficiently. Few writers think they have enough writing time, and I’m no different. It’s this latter goal, working on finding more writing time, that inspired this post. So, here’s my plan for…

…Writing Succinctly to Accomplish More

(1) Short Changing My Words

Recently, I expressed my interest in writing shorter pieces to a friend, and she suggested flash fiction. I haven’t tried flash fiction yet, but the imposed word count (under 1000 words) felt inspiring. Having studied formal poetry, one salient revelation was that restrictions can provoke creativity.[‡] While a word count might seem arbitrary, it requires writers to produce leaner prose while limiting scenes, characters, and action. And similar restrictions could be applied to nonfiction—especially when paired with short-format nonfiction such as the listicle.[§] Choosing a word count, then, could produce focused, sharp writing.

(2) Research Is Revealing

Like many people who blog, I schedule my topics, alternating among my different interests. What I don’t do, however, is plan topics by their development time. If I think a topic needs more research or isn’t “gelled” enough, I move it to a later point. However, I find that my posts often run longer than expected, seeping into time I allotted for other writing projects. And writing several long pieces in a row places more strain on my time to develop future posts. I plan to keep writing posts I enjoy, but I believe that alternating between longer and shorter post can afford both variety and extra writing time for longer works.

So, I checked my word counts and confirmed that my longer pieces (on average, 1300 words) matched my perception of taking longer to write and often longer than estimated. These topics (literary themes, book reviews, etc.) required extensive development in terms of notetaking or research. Yet, my shorter posts, which focused more on personal experiences (usually reading), also happened to be time consuming. My impression that word count and time spent writing were in a proportional relationship wasn’t the whole story. While I had some insight into better scheduling, I needed to investigate my process further.

(3) Structuring My Writing Process—Just a Bit!

I tend to discover my text instead of planning it (ie, I compose at the computer). Typically, my pre-writing is minimal, often involving relevant research and jotting my ideas down. For example, I devoted significant effort to discussing an author’s approach to the orphaned main character trope for a recent review, something I found interesting but didn’t give readers the flavor of book. Of course, I cut this section, but using an outline might have prevented the need to do so. Outlining also visually demonstrates how lengthy a topic is by the number of points present, giving a rough estimate of writing time needed. Of course, revisions—extensive or not[**]—will occur. Likewise, I expect much of writing will be unplanned.[††] I hope, though, that having a blueprint for my writing in mind will keep from diverting into unnecessary asides.

Off to Write

My course from here is clear: to apply lessons learned. To my surprise, a little writerly navel gazing has proved to be inspiring. I’m looking forward to trying out these ideas (particularly flash fiction), and I’m pleased that I set my first word count (775 words; I finished near 830). Next up, scheduling and outlining the next Sequence. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pre-writing to do.

 

What approaches have you tried for improving your writing? Add your response to the comment box below. Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter and stay up-to-date with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Polonius adds this quip after a longwinded discussion of wasting time.

[†] Or, as my friends and I joked more than once, his stories were about “Dying alone. In the rain.”

[‡] Robert Frost comes to mind when considering how form can work for a poet.

[§] You’re reading my first listicle post.

[**] Even Hemingway revises extensively: he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times because he had difficulties “Getting the words right”.

[††] I’m also certain that I’m likely to continue to tidying up the house when I get stuck. Today’s writing count includes two loads of laundry and unloading the dishwasher.

Writing Advice: Solid Suggestions, Contradictions, and Context

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman

Advice has something in common with Schrödinger’s cat: until it’s examined, its status is unknown. In the case of advice, the question is if it’s any good.[*][†] On a regular basis, somewhere in my social media streams, I find the flotsam of writing advice swirling amidst other writing topics, inspirational quotes, and the obligatory cat photos. For this post, I decided to wade in and see what I could find. I trawled Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.[‡] Then, I performed internet searches just to make sure I’d gotten a good sense of what’s available.

Solid Suggestions

Much of what we’re advised about writing seems familiar after a few quotes. We should submerge ourselves in reading—read often and widely, particularly the works of celebrated authors and works beyond our own genre preferences. We need to actually write, write regularly, finish writing that piece, and submit our work for publication. It’s solid advice[§] that many repeat in their own way, so much so that it seems like an ever-expanding ripple in a pond. Here are few great variations on a theme:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. —Stephen King (GR)

Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that—keep writing. —Gillian Flynn

To be a successful fiction writer you have to write well, write a lot … and let ‘em know you’ve written it! Then rinse and repeat. —Gerard de Marigny (GR)

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. —John Steinbeck

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Contradictions Ahead: Apply with Caution

People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.—Toni Morrison (GR)

The more specific writing advice gets, the more disagreements emerge. Here are four exemplary writing rules many of us have encountered at one point:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Avoid adverbs and adjectives
  3. Write what you know
  4. Vary word choice

To understand the source of this discord, it’s useful to examine one so-called rule more closely: show versus tell. Mary Robinette Kowal indicates that showing “mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensation,” when telling would prevent the reader from sharing in the character’s feelings and sensations. However, Susan Defreitas argues that “hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that…doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling… you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.” Similarly, she observes that this advice causes writers to provide involved character backgrounds when simply stating a few choice details would have accomplished the same effect. To this list, Kowal adds uninteresting action, that is showing every move a character makes (regardless of its relevance) instead of summarizing and (again) achieving the same result. Still Defreitas’s framing this “rule” as bad advice stirs up dissent. Michael Neff states that “I’ve never seen SHOW DON’T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to ‘tell’ at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn’t sufficient.”

Feeling swamped with conflicting messages yet?

Having delved into this topic, two things became clear. First, such advice is most often proffered toward beginner writers, something which both Neff and Defreitas acknowledge. Less experienced writers, still learning how to make their writing flow, tend toward verbosity. Second, much like all the items on this  no means exhaustive list, “show versus tell” seems to suffer from either misapplication or strict over-adherence. It seems that the more novice writers may need a more precise understanding of  the advice provided, as well as permission to view such advice as a guideline to learning how to better self-edit.

For Your Consideration: Personal Preferences, Specific Information, and Context

Yet, some writing advice resists categorization, especially when presented outside its original context. For example, several quotes by Elmore Leonard surfaced in my research, some of which other writers found objectionable.[**] When I specifically searched for his writing advice, I found an article that he wrote for the New York Times. The rules he shares are his take on how he chooses to remain invisible as a writer, something he acknowledges won’t work for all writers. And most of those rules include successful exceptions (albeit from other authors). So, it’s really about his writing aesthetics, which he offers should they prove useful to other writers, even those more visible writers.

Then there are writers whose advice seem to lack mooring without context:

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. —Raymond Chandler

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. —Kurt Vonnegut (GR)

In Chandler’s case, this isn’t so much writing advice as it was a tactic he resorted to using because of the demand for more action in pulp fiction tales. I suppose it serves more as a literary life saver than an advisable course of action. And then there’s Vonnegut’s opinion on semicolons. While his outlandish metaphor may leave one reeling, his advice reduces to a dislike of semicolons.[††] As Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) reveals, his advice (when examined in context) is more hyperbole than a strict injunction: after all, Vonnegut uses semicolons in his fiction writing. Avoiding semicolons, however, is a stylistic preference (not a rule!) and, as such, can be ignored by those who love their usage. But in Vonnegut’s defense, his colorful advice for writing short stories ranges from his personal preferences, more general advice (eschewing suspense, which of course won’t work for everyone[‡‡]) to specific and rather good information on characterization (such as ensuring that characters want something, “even if it is only a glass of water”). Again, once the context is understood, the writer can decide whether the advice offered is applicable.

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And the Rest Depends on the Recipient

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ―Neil Gaiman (GR)

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. ―Saul Bellow

Much of the remaining advice that I read bridges numerous topics, such as dealing with criticism, the revision process, sources of inspiration, and lifestyle choices for writer—all of which I left unaddressed because I realized that most writing advice (even advice that doesn’t specifically address writing like lifestyle choices[§§]) depends on its recipient. And it’s with that I find my conclusion. Unless it’s outright facetious non-advice or literal nonsense, most writing advice has potential to resonate with another writer. Our understanding and application of the advice in question may be imperfect but that doesn’t diminish its value . Writing is highly personal; we won’t all find Leonard’s advice on adverbs useful or Bellow’s revision remarks explicable without its context.[***] So where does that leave us? We must think carefully and choose wisely for ourselves. And most importantly:

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman (GR)

What’s your favorite writing advice? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign up to receive the latest Sequence’s newsletter to read the latest posts and more.

Works Cited and Consulted:

“Bad Writing Advice from Famous Authors.” Flavorwire. N.p., 19 Jan. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://flavorwire.com/364797/bad-writing-advice-from-famous-authors

Bell, James Scott. “5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore.” Jane Friedman. N.p., 07 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://janefriedman.com/writing-advice-to-ignore/

Charney, Noah. “Gillian Flynn: How I Write.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 21 Nov. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html

Defreitas, Susan. “The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have).” LitReactor. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have

Forgarty, Mignon. “Vonnegut’s Famous Semicolon Advice Was Taken Out of Context.” Quick and Dirty Tips. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/vonneguts-famous-semicolon-advice-was-taken-out-of-context?page=1

Flood, Alison. “Cormac McCarthy’s parallel career revealed – as a scientific copy editor!” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Feb. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/21/cormac-mccarthy-scientific-copy-editor

Furness, Hannah. “Motherhood is no threat to creativity, author Zadie Smith says.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 June 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10116709/Motherhood-is-no-threat-to-creativity-author-Zadie-Smith-says.html

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Bad Writing Advice explained.” Mary Robinette Kowal. N.p., 31 Oct. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/bad-writing-advice-explained/

“Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. N.p. 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/kurt-vonneguts-8-tips-on-how-to-write-a-good-short-story.html.

Leonard, Elmore. “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 2001. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

Neff, Michael. “Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice.” Algonkian. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://algonkianconferences.com/TopTenWorstWritingAdvice.htm

Popova, Maria. “9 Books on Reading and Writing.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 17 Sept. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/09/best-books-on-writing-reading/

Popova, Maria. “How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.  https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/john-steinbeck-working-days/

“Quotes About Writing Advice (676 quotes).” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/writing-advice

Shepherd, Jack. “30 Indispensable Writing Tips From Famous Authors.” Buzzfeed. N.p. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/writing-advice-from-famous-authors?utm_term=.htxAJxWMY#.arXJkAVmw

“When in Doubt, Come When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand.” Quote Investigator. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/31/gun-hand/

NOTES:

[*] Which is at least better than being dead or alive, as is the cat’s case.

[†] And that’s before we consider whether said advice is wanted or unsolicited.

[‡] Quotes obtained from Goodreads are marked (GR); all others are linked to their specific sources. The Goodreads quotation page is in my reference list.

[§] None of us would be writing without first reading. And if you want to write, sooner or later you must put words on a page.

[**] “Never open a book with weather” makes James Bells’s list of writing advice to ignore. It seems a bit unfair, since Leonard’s article addresses some of these concerns.

[††] A preference he shares with Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also dislikes exclamation marks.

[‡‡] Notably suspense writers.

[§§] Suggestions include wrecking your life (Jerry Stahl) or not having children, which Zadie Smith admirably rebuts here.

[***] Still looking for the context for midnight writing…

Writing Molly Weasley: How Rowling Knit Kindness into Her Character

Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares at least some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry.

As I wrote in my first essay on hobbies, I find how fiction writers portray hobbies in their stories fascinating because (I’m quoting myself here) “hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself.” Given this versatility, authors include character hobbies to accomplish diverse goals in their text. Early in the Harry Potter series,[*] J. K. Rowling introduces hobbies in several interesting ways. Nicolas Flamel, a character who is discussed but never appears in the book, is an opera lover (220). Providing him with a hobby gives readers a glimpse of his personality while preventing this cameo character from being one-dimensional. In contrast, other hobbies help develop the plot. The Famous Witches and Wizards Cards (found in packets of Chocolate Frogs) represent a magical version of trading cards. While their presence doesn’t reveal much about the children collecting them,[†] Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. When Neville gives Harry a card for his collection, Harry discovers why the name Nicolas Flamel seemed familiar. As a result, the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) finally find out what is being hidden at Hogwarts: the Philosopher’s Stone (102–103, 218–221). The most intriguing use of hobbies in this book, however, involves character development. In this second essay of a series that explores how writers employ hobbies in their writing, I will discuss how Rowling uses knitting to further illustrate aspects of Molly Weasley’s character.

yarn-and-knitting-needles-rowlingBefore we discuss the role of knitting, it’s useful to examine Harry Potter’s first encounter with Molly. Meeting the Weasley family at Kings Cross Station was more than a fortunate solution to Harry’s difficulty in finding his way onto Platform 9¾ (91–93). Rowling uses this scene to introduce several important characters to the series (among them Molly Weasley) and create certain expectations of them. When Harry approaches Molly for assistance, she correctly determines that Harry is new to Hogwarts and needs help without him needing to say very much. This episode demonstrates that Molly (accompanied by five of her own children) is quite proficient at sorting out children’s needs, even when the child is not hers. She kindly points Harry in the right direction and he soon is on the platform. Shortly thereafter, we learn that Molly did not recognize Harry before Fred and George informed her of his identity (97), which establishes that her choice to aid Harry represents her normal behavior versus an attempt to ingratiate herself with a famous individual. Furthermore, Harry also overhears her ban Fred and George from asking potentially painful questions about his past as well as forbid Ginny from taking a gander at Harry. Given that celebrities tend to be treated as objects of curiosity instead of people who might want their privacy, Molly’s actions here represent an act of empathy. From this brief appearance, then, we expect Molly Weasley to be maternal, kind, and empathetic.

With this sketch of Molly’s character established, Molly exits the text until the final chapter. The remaining information we learn about her is gleaned from Ron’s remarks, most of which occur during the train ride to Hogwarts. The pertinent points here are that the Weasley family is far from wealthy, hence Ron’s secondhand belongings and bagged lunch—which, of course, includes Ron’s least favorite kind of sandwich. Charitably, Ron credits his mother with being too busy looking after the five children to recall his food preferences (99–101).[‡] Although these details are minute, they establish important information about Molly and set the parameters of what her hobby will reveal about her. When authors use hobbies to provide additional character exposition, the hobby in question either disrupts our expectations of the character or complements them. Rowling chooses to complement Molly’s character, thus giving her a hobby that suits her circumstances. Since Molly is quite busy (and occasionally frazzled by) caring for her several children, her hobby needs to be practical and inexpensive. Additionally, a hobby such as knitting is an excellent way to supplement a tight clothing budget, especially since some items may be reused for younger children (scarves, mittens, hats, etc.). Knitting also permits generosity. For gift givers on a budget, a handmade item (such as knitted one) represents an affordable gift that is useful to the recipient.

Yarn and knitted itemsWhen we next hear about Molly, it’s during the chapter on the Christmas holidays—when her hobby makes its debut in the series.[§] Harry, Ron and his brothers signed up to stay at school over the holidays. On Christmas morning, Harry received a Weasley sweater accompanied by delicious homemade fudge.[**] It’s a small moment in the story: Ron appears to be a bit embarrassed that she made Harry a sweater, while Harry thinks it was nice of her. Yet, it is important in several ways. Molly, despite other demands on her time and finances, nonetheless makes Harry a gift. Why? Because Ron let her know of Harry ’s potential for a present-less Christmas (200). Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares at least some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry. This small gesture, therefore, further illustrates that Molly’s examples of kindness and generosity set the tone for her children. Whether it’s Fred and George helping Harry load his trunk onto the Hogwarts Express (94) or Percy offering Harry endless advice about wizarding chess on Christmas Day (204), the Weasley children seem prepared to help others and share what they have. Also of note, Molly’s decision to gift Harry with a Weasley sweater marks the moment when Harry begins his transition from family friend to honorary family member. While Fred and George agree that their mother makes more effort when knitting a sweater for someone who isn’t family, they nonetheless ensure that everyone, Harry included, wears their Weasley sweater and eats together because “Christmas is time for family” (202–203).[††] With the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry hereafter spends his Christmas holidays in the company of the Weasley family, collecting a new sweater with each passing year.

Rowling’s use of Molly’s hobby in the first Harry Potter novel expands our knowledge of this character a great deal beyond her initial portrayal. We not only witness her generosity and compassion, but also see how her influence shapes her children’s generosity and kindness. The sweaters she knits, which the twins describe as “warm and lovely” (202), symbolizes her love for her family. Thus, her gifting Harry with a sweater can be viewed as her extending that maternal love to him. Rowling’s thoughtful placement of this hobby, therefore, allows her to shape expectations about this character both here and in the stories that follow.

What’s your favorite hobby in the Harry Potter series? Share in the comment section below! Also, don’t forget to sign up to the Sequence’s newsletter at the popup window.

NOTES:

[*] Unless otherwise specified, I will be referring to events in the first Harry Potter novel. The edition cited here is:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[†] Since Rowling’s goal is plot development instead of character exposition, this makes sense. However, it’s likely that Harry’s interest in these collecting cards stems from their novelty and that they provide him with more information about the wizarding world.

[‡] It’s also the reason why his sweater is typically maroon (200).

[§] Intriguingly, I don’t believe we ever see Molly knit in the books (unlike other knitters in the series), even though her knitting is mentioned in most of the books. If I’m wrong, let me where I can find her knitting!

[**] I’m using the term “sweater” as it is a universally accepted term for this garment (in American English, “jumper” refers to a dress).

[††] Molly couldn’t have said it better.

Setting the Table for Family Drama: Writing Dinnertime Conflict

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do.

Among the most commonly occurring and underrated settings employed in fiction is the dining table. The dinner table serves more than (hopefully) good eats: it provides both place and reason for characters to be together. Relatively few limits exist for such gatherings. The dinner table accommodates routine meals but also can expand (with a leaf or two) for a holiday party or become several tables at an awards ceremony. Locations also are flexible: I’ve recently set the opening of a story at a patio table during a birthday barbecue. Impromptu celebrations such as promotions, too, might result in an outing to a favorite restaurant. Since mealtimes can occur at any point in the plot, so long as it makes sense for people to eat, the dinner table represents one of the most versatile settings that writers can use to creates scenes, forward the plot, and/or explore the central problem of a story. While these tables can appear in innumerable story types, I will discuss how a few of my favorite authors set the table when writing about families.

For these stories, setting the action at the dinner table can be quite natural. After all, families often are urged to dine together: shared meals are touted for strengthening familial bonds as well as providing a host of positive benefits. And who wouldn’t want to dine with their loved ones? However, even tight-knit families experience their moments of discord. Featured prominently in the Harry Potter series, the Weasley family is considered a loving one.[*] Harry Potter’s first breakfast at their home, however, is rather tense. Concerned that Harry hadn’t replied to their letters, Ron, Fred, and George Weasley decide to use their father’s enchanted car to rescue Harry from his relations (it was a cloudy night) and sneak him into their home undetected. Unluckily for them, Mrs. Weasley observes both absent boys and car and upbraids all parties for their irresponsibility save the relatively blameless Harry. Mrs. Weasley is somewhat mollified when her sons tell her of Harry’s hardships, but she isn’t one to let them escape the consequences just because their intentions were good: they have chores to do. She sends them outdoors to sort out garden beds instead of letting them nap right away (Rowling 24–41).

Rowling accomplishes quite a lot in these pages besides removing Harry from an unpleasant situation (and thus moving the plot forward). Harry, long accustomed to his aunt’s and uncle’s tendency to condone and excuse his cousin’s bad behavior while punishing him for mere infractions, sees Mrs. Weasley appropriately scold her children for engaging in a risky activity. His subsequent meals at the Burrow, where he is welcomed at the table and in which Mrs. Weasley attempts to feed him up (the Dursleys begrudge him every morsel ), are new experiences for him.[†] Escaping to the Burrow introduces Harry to how loving families work. More telling, though, is the contrast that reader sees between Harry’s home life, which is arguably neater, wealthier, and unhappier (Rowling 1–42). Rowling underscores the point that judging people’s worth by mere appearances or their wealth is fallacious. What makes people worthy is the how they treat each other. It’s little wonder that Harry would rather spend his summers in the happy chaos of the Burrow.

Manor house banquet tableFor unhappy families, however, the potential for tension at the table is extensive. Agatha Christie, a master of the manor house mystery, frequently seats her characters at a banquet table. Since her mystery novels often involve the murder of a wealthy benefactor to various family members (money and resentment making excellent motivations), mealtimes can be quite intense. The dinner table, being an obliging sort,[‡] works as both setting and opportunity for narrative exposition. In “The Second Gong”,[§] dinner guests and family members alike almost race to the dinner table to ensure they arrive punctually because their host, Hubert Lytcham Roche, notoriously despises lateness. His tardiness is so unprecedented that his guests and butler are stunned and hardly know how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, they find Hubert dead. Here, the table works in two ways: it reveals aspects of Hubert’s character (his controlling, unyielding nature) and gathers all the principal suspects together. In A Pocket Full of Rye, however, the dining table serves as the murder scene: Rex Forestcue, a rather nasty man, is poisoned during breakfast whilst surrounded by suspects—er, family members—all of whom had both motive and opportunity to kill him. In novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie uses the dinner table to review the case and acquire background information: Captain Hastings, a guest at Styles Court, and Hercule Poirot discuss the murder of Emily Inglethop during breakfast on at least two occasions, which affords Poirot the opportunity to question persons present about events surrounding the murder (for which he was not present) and gather clues.

Of course, not every family need be wealthy (or murderous) to be unhappily seated together at the table. From the outset of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it seems clear that the seven-year-old protagonist’s parents don’t relate to their bookish boy. Neither mentions his kitten’s death after it occurred, not even to offer consolation. The boy doesn’t share his disappointment about receiving the unsuitable replacement cat with them, anticipating (correctly, I suspect) that his parents won’t understand that the hurt remained new cat or not (Gaiman 14–16). During another incident, his older self (who narrates the events) observes that he only consulted adults as a child when he absolutely must (Gaiman 63), suggesting that the boy already expects adults to be reluctant to help him. Understandably Gaiman’s protagonist is terrified when he realizes that his new childminder is an actual monster. He sits at the dinner table on two occasions, hungry but afraid to eat what the monster made for supper (Gaiman 82, 90–92). Beyond their immediate horror, these moments reveal a larger pattern in the novel: the powerlessness of children. It’s all too easy for the monster to portray the boy as truculent, making his protests seem…childish. The boy, already aware of how easy he is to discredit, knows he cannot expect his parents to believe or assist him. Gaiman captures this bitter aspect of childhood, its impotence, and allows it to be the force that drives his narrative by seating a child at a table.

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do. It can serve as a mere setting, providing the appropriate backdrop to the story at hand or cleverly reveal information about characters. Often, scenes from a dining table allow writers to connect to larger themes they explore, both for their stories about families and elsewhere. As such, it might not be such a bad idea to set characters down for something to eat and see what happens next.

Do you have a favorite mealtime scene from a story or book? Share what you liked about it in the comment box below. Also, sign up for the newsletter and receive links to latest Sequence in your inbox!

Works Cited

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles: the First Hercule Poirot Novel. New York: Berkley , 1990.

Christie, Agatha. A Pocket Full of Rye. New York: Signet Book, 2000.

Christie, Agatha. “The Second Gong”. Witness for the Prosecution, and Other Stories. New York: Berkley , 1984.

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine , an imprint of Scholastic Press, 1999.

NOTES:

[*] At this point, the Weasley family’s problems lie more with financial constraints and the odd personality clash versus actual deep disagreements with each other.

[†] Harry, much like Jane Eyre before him, represents a tragic form of the poor relation: the orphaned and presumed penniless child required to live under the guardianship of uncaring relations.

[‡] Unlike the murder victim.

[§] For anyone besides me experiencing a bit of literary déjà vu with this story, it’s useful to know that Christie later rewrote and expanded this story, which she called “Dead Man’s Mirror”. I’m working with the original because I like its simpler plot. Having said that, Christie’s work can feel familiar in places because she reuses elements such as nursery rhymes (“Sing a Song of Sixpence” is one I’ve noted in a few stories), themes, and motivations (typically, money).

Writing and the Art of Paper Craft

What my hobby taught me about my writing.

There should be a limit to one’s ability to feel embarrassed by juvenilia and other potentially cringe-worthy work. Like that first poem I wrote and work shopped, if it still existed anywhere.[*] And yet early efforts in some ways, whether they subsist only in one’s memory or in actual, viewable format, possess a certain strength in their imperfection—something I’ve recently discovered by reminiscing other artistic endeavors:

I vividly remember my first camera, how it felt: the textured red plastic case with the smooth black cord I now would call a wristlet strap.[†] Its rectangular flash stick—my camera didn’t take cubes, which I felt were far cooler. I was ten or thereabouts. I kept most photos, even bad ones, in an album that had sticky pages with plastic covers. With age, the glue became visible wherever photos weren’t. Somewhere along the line, I learned about acidic (not archival) paper. I did not necessarily become better at photo taking.

By high school/college, I switched the photos to an album now called a scrapbook. It had manila pages and clear photo corners, which I found disappointing. I thought the pages and corners would be black, like the scrapbooks of yore, the kind my grandparents remembered from their youth. Removing the old photos proved to be challenging. They’d peel and tear on occasion, the cantankerous, yellowed glue refusing to graciously cede its grip. This time, I added some captions, school awards, and the like.

horsebackdoublex.jpeg
One of the bad but interesting photos: the double exposure makes it look like a great spirit horse decided to join us on the ride. (Photo by R. Gould.)

It didn’t occur to me that I was revising my first draft. (I still kept many of the bad photos because they were all I had or were wrong in the right way. Because sometimes, mistakes[‡] can be cool.)

Side projects, both sweet and hilarious, informed my process. My friends and I decorated clipboards for each other using photos, magazines, stickers, and contact paper. Concepts from collage shaped my scrapbook. How these projects somehow gave me permission to make my own wedding invitations,[§] and how I never questioned that I could do so even though I’d never created cards previously.

(I sketched designs and found instructions on the Internet, and I made every last invite, with half the tools and knowledge I have now. There are a few mistakes, but fewer than I’d guessed there’d be.)

I’m working on new projects, considering re-doing a few old albums with the more modern approach I currently use. I worry if my projects are too conventional, my captions too cute and canned. I’m working up some new phrasing. I’m an editor, after all.[**]

And somehow this proves that even when I’m not writing, there’s this writerly quality to what I do and that I improve, try new things, and find surprising measures of success that sometimes make me amazed that I did what I did. Then, this epiphany clicks: my older writing is just that—older. It’s only a step in the process of becoming a better writer.

What projects inspired your writing or changed how you saw your work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, sign up for the newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*] It doesn’t. I checked.

[†] Of course, no photos of this long-gone camera exist, which amuses me because I remember it more clearly than some of the events my 110 recorded.

[‡] Mistakes or errors are signposts to success. They point where you need to change direction, learn more, or just try harder.

[§] Permissible but not by my any means sensible. Hating every over-the-top romantic and/or too expensive card that felt very much unlike us also fueled this decision.

[**] I re-read my posts and fix the tiny grammar errors. Yep, editing all the way out the door and to the store.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

character.jpg
Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0.

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-he rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-he’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many harships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses. “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[§] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[**] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to my newsletter to receive notification when new posts are available.

 

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991. Print.)

[§] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).

[**] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

 

Christmas Stories and the Naughty List

The ruiners of Christmas are all about wish fulfillment. Just not yours.

For the last several years, my husband and I have hosted the Christmas Day festivities.[*] When we’re finally alone and things have been cleared away enough for now, we kick off our own holiday celebration by watching The Ref. After weeks of holiday hustling and making the feast festive, we’re ready for a grittier Christmas tale.[†]

And there’s nothing quite like watching the holidays go a bit off the rail.[‡]

You see, Christmas stories can’t seem but to help ending well.[§] The question is really how does everything go wrong and then get righted. Because most stories about Christmas tend to capture our anxiety about making the holidays perfect—the just-so gifts, the traditions warmly observed, the delicious spread, the making of new, joyous memories—in contrast to the more likely realities of working late on/through holidays, indifferent gravies, suspect presents, and cranky kids. Christmas isn’t going to be perfect.

But in Christmas stories, there’s at least someone to blame.

Enter the villains of Christmas, the wicked and nasty folks who won’t let the rest of us have our fun. In sharp contrast to our real lives, the rotten are readily reformed—or at the very least, they are thwarted. Some are one-dimensional characters, really more plot devices than people (the Grinch). We delight in their nastiness and cheer for their comeuppance (the thieves from Home Alone). For more complicated characters, writers have the trick job of convincing us that these characters can be cruel while remaining capable of recognizing that they are the problem (Scrooge). We’ve got to believe they can see the world through other people’s perspectives.

And that may well be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled by the Christmas tale—the gift of understanding. We witness the remorseful father who accepts a child for whom that child actually is (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer), the miserly bosses who finally understand how their workers truly need funds (A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and the green men who finally get holidays are bit more than consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas!). However cheesily and unrealistically, we are filled with hope. Perhaps we, too, can find a way to open our own hearts and understand or make ourselves understandable to others.

Or at least thwart those who won’t be nice.

Happy Holidays! And be good to each other.

Who is your favorite Christmas villain and why? Post in the comment section below! Also, sign-up to my newsletter to receive notification when new posts are available.

NOTES:

[*] This is meant to be a lighthearted holiday piece. If you are among those for whom the holidays are a difficult time and are reaching a crisis point, please seek help. You are valuable. For more support, check out https://psychcentral.com/lib/telephone-hotlines-and-help-lines/.

[†] To be honest, there’s a small part of me that identifies with the Grinch railing about all the “NOISE, NOISE, NOISE” of the holidays, all of which deserves a few humbugs.

[‡] Or, rather a lot, in the case of The Ref. Larceny, divorce, and blackmail aren’t your typical holiday tropes.

[§] Except, I’m told, the movie Krampus. But it is mostly comedy/horror film, so it’s not exactly in the standard Christmas genre.