Character Emotions — Part Five (Encore)

Jealousy is one of the toughest emotions to convey without scattering clichés like rose petals at a wedding. Knowing your character is essential to achieving anything like realism.

As a child, I recall sneaking across the street to peek through the window of a neighbor’s house to watch my favorite shows on their color TV set. Color–imagine that! Color made all the difference in the entire universe. Black and white movies were a thing of the past, so why shouldn’t TV follow suit? Best of all, you didn’t have to buy a ticket, or worse, stand outside to watch. Oh, how I wished we could have one, too. When I asked my dad why the Nelsons had one and we didn’t, he answered with, “‘Cause Mr. Nelson’s a doctor. Besides, color TVs will never catch on.”

I remember wondering why doctors could buy color sets, but the people who dreamed up the TV commercials couldn’t. It wasn’t fair! Anybody could see my dad’s work on TV. How many of Dr. Nelson’s patients ever showed up on screen? Once in a while, maybe, as extras. So there! Pifffbt!

Now, cursed with the wisdom of age, I’d have to categorize that issue as a solid case of envy. But jealousy? Nah. Not really. So, what’s the difference? For me, it’s the degree of passion one has for the desired object, be it a car, a cat, a condo, or a courtesan. Had I been willing to hatch a plot to break into the Nelson’s house and make off with their gigantic, 21-inch, RCA color console, hide it in my room and refuse to share it with anyone, then one might call it jealousy. Tinged with a hint of obsession.

The idea of possessing the object of one’s desire–provided someone else already claims it as their own–is one true test of jealousy. In my mind, at least. Another possible test would be the degree of guilt associated with it. If, for instance, your character is willing to admit he’s “jealous” about something, it’s likely only envy, because he’s not concerned about owning up to it. Real jealousy, on the other hand, bestirs significant feelings of guilt, and the person experiencing that guilt, and its cause, won’t be keen on letting the world know about it.

Like so many emotions, it’s a matter of degree. Spouse abusers, for instance, allow their jealousy to override rational thought. How many times have we heard, “If I can’t have her, no one can!” But please, spare your readers; don’t dump something that horribly clichéd in your opus. Instead, paint a word picture of your character. Show his passion, as unreasonable as it is. When he’s in his car following the object of his overwrought “affection,” let the reader hear his rambling commentary, his guesses about what she’s “really” up to. This can be especially effective if the reader knows his target is engaged in something entirely innocent, perhaps even altruistic. Of course, the jealous “lover” would never be able to recognize anything but betrayal, whether there’s any truth to it or not. What does he feel when he sees her on the phone or stopping to talk to another male?

Thankfully, not all those stricken with jealousy take it to extremes; they don’t let their feelings carry them overboard. A jealous aunt, for instance, may be quite reluctant to release her hold on her charming little niece, Rosebud. Maybe it takes a bit of extra energy from the child to make the aunt realize she’s being unreasonable. Auntie’s face flushes, but not from exertion. It’s the shame she feels because she allowed her jealousy to drive her actions. A perceptive parent would recognize what’s happened, and would likely act to smooth things over and lighten the mood. Alternatively, the parent might allow his or her own jealousy to fuel a sharp response, possibly followed by a dose of recrimination, or perhaps a smidgeon of fear. Is it safe to leave little Rosebud anywhere near aunt Matilda?

Jealousy can take hold of almost any character, provided they’re capable of emotion. Imagine two children fighting over a particular kind of candy bar when they both have bags loaded with sugary swag collected at Halloween. Who would be the real monster in that scenario? When one child eventually takes ultimate possession, what does he or she learn from it? And what new knowledge does the loser in that same battle acquire? How do such things play out later in their lives? Who becomes the true winner?

Remember your own past and draw on it to create characters readers can believe in. Don’t be satisfied with bland expressions like “green with envy.” Find a fresh way to present your characters and what they feel. You could start by never even using the word “jealous.”

–Josh

Postscript: I’m reaching out to my readers for some help. I’ve entered a short story in a contest that might be a great fit for anyone who regularly visits this blog. This particular tale is an attempt at blending humor with horror. (I’ve been told it’s difficult. [shrug]) Anyway, a link to the story is posted below. I’d be greatly obliged if you’d be kind enough to read the story. And feel free to click on the heart-shaped button at the end. More importantly, if you’re interested in a new place to post your work, sharpen your skills, and build up your reader base, this might just be the venue!

Here’s the link: https://vocal.media/fiction/symbiote

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Character Emotions — Part Four (Encore)

Before I launch into the next emotion on the agenda, I want to pass along a link to a website which provides an interesting look at emotions. Click Here! It provides a good discussion of Plutchik’s Wheel, a tool used to show the various levels of an emotion, from mild annoyance to mindless rage, for example. As I read the article, I thought about how a character might progress through an emotional range before reaching a point which could justify some dramatic action.

I’ve seen Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions rendered a couple ways, including this format suggesting a flattened cone. Draw the petals together in a point, and the scale of emotion grows in intensity as the size of the cone increases. The areas between the petals represent compound emotions.

We’ve all heard that a hallmark of great fiction is the way a character evolves as their story unfolds. The same could be said of a character’s emotional state. A person is unlikely to wake up one morning and decide to murder a co-worker unless something happened previously to trigger the thought. (And yes, I’ve been sorely tempted to snuff out someone’s lights, typically someone in middle management. Fortunately, I never had sufficient motivation to do it. I did, however, conceive a number of brilliant methods for pulling it off. Those will likely show up in my fiction.)

But, back to handling character emotions. This week it’s fear. Of all the many emotions we’re likely to write about, fear is one of the most common. Just consider how many flavors it comes in–everything from cautionary concern to full-on, pants-crapping panic. Use a thesaurus to review the synonyms for it. (See for yourself, right here.)

All too often, when I read the work of my students, too little time is taken to parse out the precise levels of fear their character(s) face. It’s one thing to hear the sounds a house makes as it settles or when the ice maker deposits a fresh batch of cubes; it’s an entirely different thing to see a zombie tearing down your door. Good storytellers will almost always add an intermediate step.

Fear mounts, as pointed out in the Plutchik discussion, and it’s a technique commonly employed in horror, suspense, and thriller tales. For example:

Let’s say your character is a waiter in a restaurant, and thus far his day has offered no challenges. When a strange old lady is seated in his section, he takes her order, but he’s concerned by the furtive glances she casts around her.

The lunch crowd builds, and her order is delayed, so he stops by her table to let her know she hasn’t been forgotten. As he looks into her rheumy eyes rimmed by blood-red glasses, his pulse quickens. She squints at him, her face registering suspicion.

“I asked the kitchen to speed up your order,” he says. She responds with a grimace. There’s something wrong with her, he thinks, then quickly dismisses the notion as silly.

At last, his customer’s sandwich emerges from the kitchen, and he hurriedly delivers it. Though eager to distance himself from her, he asks if there’s anything else he can do. “Refill your tea, perhaps?” She responds with a mumble and a timid poke at her food with one gnarly finger.

He backs away, then halts as she lurches up from the table, her face contorted, and lunges at him with a carving knife, all the while screaming about something wrong with her order.

In this scenario, even as narrowly as it’s painted, there are no clichés. It has enough specificity to drive the scene; it depicts a range of emotion (two, actually, one for each character), and it relies on my personal experience of dealing with testy people.**

Of course, the scene could be more fully developed with additional customers, a cantankerous sous chef, a description of the venue, etc. But the emotional elements, especially the point of view character’s fear, are adequately conveyed. In the process, a mini-tale evolves, and the writer is free to let it fuel a much broader plotline.

Fear can be a great motivator, but taking the time to build it can make the difference between a sale and just another ho-hum story in your drawer.

–Josh

(**Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been attacked by a customer, but there was one cranky old reader who dressed me down for the way I ended a novel. She demanded a sequel.)

Until next time,

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Three (Encore)

The next emotion up for discussion is something that’s often mistaken for something else, especially in fiction. I’m talking about passion. At first blush, most people will automatically link the word to human intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with that; if our ancestors weren’t intimate, we wouldn’t be here. (And for those who might find this illustration improper, I hasten to point out that it captures merely part of a statue from a park in Lyon, France. And, to round out the mistakenness, the female depicted isn’t even human; she’s a centaur. Art lovers may click here for a look at the entire sculpture.)

So, what is it that passion is so often mistaken for? Obsession. I’ll explain more soon, for now, I want to recap my suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list includes:  losing clichésbeing specificavoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

When we talk about passion, however, it’s important to know precisely what emotion we’re trying to convey. In addition to being in the throes of passion, one can be passionate about something. One can also be obsessed with something or someone. The difference is critical.

When it comes to expressing sexual passion, which I’ve written about several times before, I prefer not to see the word “passion” used at all. It’s very nearly a cliché by itself, and if not, almost all the phrases which use it do fall into that category. To wit:

  • He wrapped his muscular arms around her and hugged her with a passion she’d never known before. <Yawn>
  • The passion in her eyes told him everything he needed or wanted to know. <Fer real?>
  • Armond’s passion knew no bounds. He leaped upon Dagmar who lay panting and exposed. Soon they…. <Okay, okay. I get it.>

In short, don’t tell me about their passionate encounter, paint a picture of it for me. But only if you’re absolutely convinced that including the graphic details of such a tryst is essential to the story. (My thoughts on writing sex scenes can be found here. Oh, and here. And here, too. Plus this one. I’m not obsessed–I use the topic less than once a year!)

One could argue that a character might be obsessively passionate, and that might actually make for an interesting player. I’m thinking of someone who can’t stop thinking about sex, and/or sex with a specific partner, or partners.

But people can be passionate about many things: art, music, dance, and collections, among other things. I had a relative who collected Pez dispensers. He had hundreds of them, if not thousands, proudly on display in his rec room. I wouldn’t say he was obsessed with them, but he was certainly passionate. He didn’t make the focus of his life finding and obtaining every last variation of the gadget; he had a life and a family he dearly loved, and they were far more important to him.

The point is to be sure you know how your character feels about things. Then figure out how to convey those feelings. Try getting inside the head of a man who is so narrowly focused on his yard, that he cuts his grass with scissors and uses a ruler to be sure he gets the height exactly right. I’m not saying a character like that would be worth writing about, although if I knew one in real life, I sure wouldn’t make the mistake of walking across his lawn. That, however, might make for a good opening scene.

All this, and we haven’t even touched on the concepts of religion. People can be amazingly, and often annoyingly, passionate about their beliefs, even without being fanatical about them. Whether you’re talking about characters central to a particular faith, the leaders and/or teachers in a faith, or simply about one of the faithful, there are many levels of passion from which to chose.

Remember the keys when writing about emotions, especially passion: lose the clichés, be specific, avoid ambiguity, use a range of emotions, and rely on personal experience.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Two (Encore)

In the last session, the discussion focused on suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list included ditching clichésbeing specific, avoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

Let’s see if we can figure out how to pull this off.

Emotions manifest in twos, and threes, and…: Emotions rarely occur by themselves. We typically experience a mixture of them. That’s why the words “fear and loathing” are so often used together. (And yes, that’s a cliché.) There must be a hundred or more flavors of fear, for instance. Fear of failure, fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of attracting too much attention, etc.

Example: Let’s say we’re writing about fear. It would be a simple thing to toss out something like:

   Harvey’s knees buckled; his hands shook, and his teeth chattered. 
Something was after him.

Readers need more than a handful of clichés patched together with semicolons and commas. And even jazzing up the tired expressions–perhaps, “his teeth chattered like castanets”–won’t really improve it. If anything, they’re liable to lead to something humorous. Castanets? Really?

But consider this excerpt from Sue Miller’s The Good Mother in which a young mom finds her little girl terrified when she wakes up alone in a car:

   “Molly,” I whispered, and pulled her to me as I clambered in. Her 
body began to shape itself to mine, to cling to me, even before she 
really woke up. “Molly,” I said. “Molly.” And then suddenly, with 
consciousness, her grip tightened, and she started to cry, screaming 
in sharp pain like a child who’s just fallen, who’s bitten her 
tongue, who’s put her hand on a hot kettle, who’s lost.

This is marvelous stuff, and if one looks at it closely, it’s evident Ms. Brown managed every item in the list we started with. She didn’t rely on any clichés; her character’s actions were quite specific; there was absolutely no ambiguity; there was a range of emotions involved–from fear to pain–and I’m willing to bet the writer relied on personal experience to make the child’s emotional reactions not just clear, but real.

There’s a great deal of artistry in this sample. While the child’s feelings are described through tight and specific descriptions of her physical responses, the mother’s empathy is expressed in comparisons of the child’s fear response to a pain response. The reader is given the opportunity to connect with both characters since so many of the circumstances are common enough to be shared. The reader can easily place themselves in either position–the child’s or the adult’s. Extraordinarily well done.

We’ll examine another emotion or two next time around.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part One (Encore)

In a writer’s workshop I conducted not too long ago, we spent some time discussing ways to portray the emotions of our characters. It seemed evident, to me anyway, that too many of the participating writers were satisfied with static statements and clichéd expressions. Finding ways to show a player’s feelings is much more difficult, but it’s a great deal more rewarding when readers connect with them.

In much the same way that sensory writing can give life to a story, so will the proper handling of character emotions. As with sensory words, emotional words may apply to both fiction and non-fiction. This is particularly true of memoir.

So, where does one begin? With the writing, of course. Go ahead and create the first draft; let the flow of the story dictate what goes in. If you’re feeling the emotions of your characters, feed those details in, too. The exact wording isn’t critical in the first draft; much of it will likely be revised anyway.

Nuke the clichés: Once you’ve got something to work with, start hunting for clichés. Chances are you’ve used more of them than you thought. Take the time on this first pass to get rid of them. Update those excised passages with fresher expressions. You’re a writer, so write!

Be specific: Think critically about how your character’s life has changed and focus on the details most likely to engender an emotion. Is Jody’s job grinding her down? Is Dan’s bank account empty? Will the children starve? Is there enough gas in the tank to reach safety? Why is your character wearing an over-sized blouse or platform shoes? Why is the oh-so-perfect executive letting his hair grow long? Can the musician feel the patches she’s sewn into her clothing to hide the holes?

Avoid ambiguity: Don’t be afraid to research emotions you’re uncomfortable expressing. If you can’t paint an accurate picture, readers will notice, and they’ll lose faith in your message. Rather than settle for labeling an emotion, make the effort to explore it. How does it feel to be abandoned? Lied about? Bullied? What does it feel like to realize you’re the one doing those terrible things? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll feel something; as a writer, it’s your job to capture those emotions and express them.

Emotional range: Characters need more than one emotion. Imagine how quickly you’d become bored reading about someone’s never-ending depression, anger, fear, jealousy, or other emotion if it tainted every aspect of his or her life. Players need more than that to become “real” in a reader’s mind.

Dig into your memory: Chances are you’ve experienced something akin to whatever it is your character is going through. Tap into those memories and expand on them. I’ve never been confronted by a sabretooth tiger, but some of my characters have. You’d better believe I relied on my recollection of facing a snarling pit bull. Was it the same thing? Hardly. The pit bull was on a heavy chain. My fictional maneater wandered around loose.

I can remember being jealous, envious, angry, exuberant, and most recently, very sad. All those emotions either have or will find expression in my writing. You can, and should, do the same.

We’ll take a closer look at some commonly experienced emotions over the next few installments. Stay tuned!

–Josh

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Write *Something* Every Day (Encore)

Writers write. It’s as simple as that. Good writers tend to write a lot. That’s a big part of how they became “good” writers. If you aspire to become a writer, or if you’re already a writer and you want to improve your craft, the only way to ensure you’ll make progress is to put your butt in a chair and your fingers on a keyboard.

That alone isn’t a magical solution. You won’t learn proper techniques for grammar, punctuation, or anything else. But if you do some actual writing, you might just get your story out of your head and into some format that will allow you to work on it even more later. The important part — usually the hardest part — is writing down the tale that’s been needling you for the past few weeks, months or even years. The story sure as hell won’t tell itself! You have to do it. 

While this is certainly true of fiction, it’s absolutely true of memoir. You’re the only one who knows your story the way you do. As simplistic as that sounds, I’ve talked to people who are perfectly capable of telling their own story, but they complain that ghostwriters cost too much. Here’s a thought: write it yourself!

The reasons people toss off for why they aren’t writing are absolutely legion. “I’m too busy” is a great favorite. Most of the too-busy people I know, myself included, are too busy because we’re lousy at organizing our time. Find a half hour a day — morning, noon or night, it doesn’t matter — and set it aside as writing time.

Another one I just love to hear: “I’m waiting for inspiration.” Right. Like the Muse or the Goddess of Literature is going to appear to you in all their radiant glory and whack you upside the head with the inspiration stick. What a crock. Remember Thomas Edison’s take: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Right now I’m channeling the Muse ripping into someone’s gray matter to whisper something inspiring.)

Yet another favorite is, “I don’t have a place to write, a place all my own — a hideaway, a garret, or a cell in a monastery — where I can work undisturbed.” Seriously? How ’bout the back seat of your car, or a table for two (you and your laptop) at the nearest Starbucks? They’ll even provide free Wi-Fi, not that you’ll need it because you’ll be busy working on your masterpiece. You won’t have time for Solitaire, or Facebook, or E-mail, or Amazon, or any of the other bazillion distractions provided by the web.

“Who’s gonna watch my kids?” I dunno, maybe your spouse? Your next door neighbor? The grandparents? Check local churches for a “Mother’s Morning Out” program, even if you’re a dad. Worst case: load up the car — or a wagon, or a city bus — with kids and laptop, and cruise over to the local playground, or the schoolyard, or some other place where the little ones might be able to entertain themselves while you sneak in a half hour of creative “me” time.

What you need to be striving for is the habit. Write every day, even if what you write isn’t part of your magnum opus. It could be a blog, or a journal, or a rant to the editor of the local newspaper. It could be a letter to your dear, old Aunt Edna for that matter. Whatever. Just do some writing every day that isn’t required for your job. It must be writing that comes from inside you.

Why? Because that’s where the magic begins. That’s where the stories live. It’s your job to find a way to get them out and share them with the world.

–Josh

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A Not So Simple Case of Stage Fright (Encore)

Here’s something a little different. Possibly even suitable for a younger audience. Let me know what you think.

“I’m done for,” Jack told himself.

“If I weren’t such a chicken, I’d ride my bike out on the interstate until somebody ran over me.”

“What’re you mumblin’ about, Jerko?”

”Nuthin’.”

Rotten to begin with, Jack’s day had just gotten worse with the arrival of the last person on Earth he wanted to see, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik.

“Look at me, Jerko,” the Beast said. “I want an answer.”

Jack knew what he really wanted was an excuse to punch Jack’s lights out. And any excuse would do.

“It’s nothing important.”

“So, you got my grade fixed?”

There it was, the grade thing. If only Jack hadn’t opened his mouth; if only he hadn’t claimed he knew how to change data in a spreadsheet. If only…. “Yeah, about that,” he began.

“You didn’t do it, did ya?” More statement than question, the Beast delivered his opinion with a quick shove and a dose of halitosis, both well-known Blatnik trademarks.

“The thing is, I got caught,” Jack said, trying to hold his breath long enough for the Beast’s breath to dissipate.

The Beast showed him a fist. “You better not have ratted me out to Mizz M.”

“I didn’t. Honest. I told her I was just lookin’. I wasn’t trying to change anything.”

“Did she believe you?”

Jack shrugged. Mrs. Melchior could be a mystery sometimes, especially when it came to doling out punishment. The one she’d given him was clearly over the top. Super, extra over the top.

“At least you didn’t get suspended,” opined the Beast.

“That would’ve been a lot better than what she came up with.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’ve gotta play the part of Romeo in the year-end class play.”

The Beast laughed so hard Jack knew everyone in the whole school could hear him, and thanks to the magic of junior high physics, everyone would know exactly why he was laughing.

“C’mon, man. Gimme a break.”

The Beast struggled to control himself. “I heard Four Eyes is gonna be Juliet.” He doubled over once more. “Oh, that’s frickin’ awesome. I can’t wait to see you smoochin’ up 4E.”

“I don’t think that’s required,” Jack said, though he doubted his own words.

The Beast poked Jack’s sternum. “Just don’t forget to fix my grade before the end of the term.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Melchior will notice?”

“Ain’t my problem, Jerko. Do it, or else.”

~*~

Jack put in more hours than he cared to count in an effort to memorize his lines, but when it came time to recite them, he struggled. It didn’t help that most of the class had front row seats for his mortification. And smack in the middle, where Jack could smell his rank, nasty breath, sat Myron “the Beast” Blatnik, laughing harder than everyone else.

4E, on the other hand, knew every line as if she were reading from a script. It wasn’t fair by a long shot. When Mrs. Melchior finally granted him a reprieve and ended the rehearsal, Jack wasted no time following his Juliet to her locker, hoping to learn her secret.

“How do you do it?” he asked the tall, dark‑haired girl whom everyone but the teacher called 4E. “How can you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s easy. Where I come from, everyone can do it. You just have to give the words a special look.”

Jack had no idea where she came from, but he was absolutely sure it wasn’t anyplace nearby. She had a vaguely Asian look, and one of his friends pegged her as, “Cute, but not Miss Universe.” Jack hadn’t formed an opinion about her since he hadn’t quite gotten into the whole girl and guy thing yet, much to the amusement of his alleged pals.

“That’s fine for you,” he said. “But what about me?”

“I guess you’ll just have to work harder.”

“Aw geez, 4E. I’m already workin’ overtime.”

She just shrugged and walked away, leaving Jack sad and frustrated. At least she didn’t seem to care about her nickname like some kids did. He figured that was because no one, including Mrs. Melchior, knew exactly how to pronounce her real name.

~*~

A few more days passed, and on the eve of the dress rehearsal, Jack concluded his situation was hopeless. He had even given serious thought to running away to someplace where nobody knew him. His overwhelming gloom drove him close to tears as he stood beside his locker and contemplated various forms of pain-free suicide.

“Wow,” said 4E as she sidled up to him in the hallway, “you look like you just received a death sentence.”

“Might as well have,” he muttered. “Every time I think I’ve got my lines down pat, somebody looks at me funny, or makes a joke, or sticks their tongue out at me, and then I can’t even remember what day it is.”

4E stepped closer to him and crossed her arms. “Since you’ve been pretty nice to me, I’ll do you a favor.”

Jack gave her his full attention. “What kinda favor?”

“If you can give me some kind of sign when you need help, I can give you your lines.”

“A sign?”

“Sure. You could wink or something.”

Jack’s laugh held little mirth. “I can just imagine how everyone would react to that! They’d never stop laughing at me. Couldn’t I just rub my nose?”

“Based on the way it’s been going, you’ll rub it completely off by the time we get to the end of the first scene.”

Jack felt tears beginning to form. He had no intention of crying in front of a classmate, let alone a girl, but he had nowhere to hide.

“I’ve got a better idea,” 4E said. “At the dress rehearsal, whenever you need the next line, just start thinking of something really, really weird and specific.”

“Like Eddie Bogart’s funky ear?”

She shook her head. “Nah. It needs to be something nobody else is likely to think about.” Her lips twisted to one side as she gave it more thought. “How ‘bout pickles on ice cream?”

“What good is that supposed to do?”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, my name’s not Four Eyes.” She then uttered something that included two tongue clicks and a short, breathy whistle.

Jack decided he’d stick with 4E.

~*~

At the dress rehearsal, Jack donned his costume as if it were required for the guest of honor at a firing squad. Nervous sweat dripped from everywhere, soaking his tights and his short jacket. The only thing which stayed dry was the feather in his monumentally stupid hat.

Somehow he staggered out on the stage where 4E waited for him dressed in similar period clothing. But just as she had no problems with her lines, her costume looked great. In fact, without her big glasses, she was edging closer to Miss Universe territory, and he told her so.

Her smile made her look even prettier. “Now don’t forget what I told you to do if you forget something,” she said.

He couldn’t begin to imagine how thinking of something stupid‑‑like pickles on ice cream‑‑could possibly make any difference, but he agreed. Since he was about to perish on stage anyway, in front of everyone he knew, what difference did it make? On the plus side, by dying out there, Myron Blatnik would be deprived of his main goal in life, Jack’s torture.

Jack somehow managed the first few of his lines without difficulty, but he made the mistake of looking at the Beast squatting at the edge of the stage making faces at him. The curtain shielded Blatnik from the teacher giving him a clear line of sight to the actors. Suddenly, Jack couldn’t remember anything.

His skin grew clammy, and he began shaking and stammering. The worse he got, the more the Beast laughed. Jack stared at 4E in desperation.

She smiled and winked at him which seemed to break the spell.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on a huge bowl of fudge ripple ice cream with sliced pickles piled on top. Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head. It was her!

He opened his eyes to see if she was talking, but she was just smiling, and he could still hear her speaking his lines!

Jack looked around to see if anyone else heard her, too, but it seemed clear no one else could. Mrs. M had grown impatient; the other kids didn’t bother to try and hide their giggles, and the Beast grinned and gave him the finger.

Finally, Jack blurted out his lines, just as 4E had recited them to him.

From then on, with 4E’s help, he made it through the rest of the rehearsal. At the end, Mrs. Melchior complemented both of her star players. The other students, with the exception of the Beast, crowded around them, clapping them on the back and telling them how great they were. Jack even began to believe them.

Once everyone packed up and started leaving, Jack hurried to find and thank 4E as she stood beside her hall locker.

“How can I thank you?” he asked.

“I’m not saying another word until you call me by my proper name,” she said. “It’s–” She rattled off a few syllables punctuated with clicks and a whistle.

“I– I don’t think I–“

“Adios,” she said, turning away. She didn’t seem to notice the smattering of kids who had hung around to watch them.

“Wait,” Jack said and gave it a try.

“That’s close,” she said. “Try again.”

Despite the laughter and the noise of the other kids, Jack did give it another try. And then another. And another. Until he got it right.

“That’s it!” she said, her smile wider than ever.

Jack wiped his forehead. “Okay then. How can I really thank you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “A kiss will do.”

The gang surrounding them thought this new development was insanely funny, and they all burst out laughing, especially the Beast.

Jack merely hitched up his tights, cleared his throat and said, “That’s fine with me, Juliet.” Then he kissed her full on the lips.

It was a long kiss.

Some of the boys continued to giggle, but the girls in the crowd elbowed them into silence.

By the time they finished that one, long kiss, Jack’s world had expanded exponentially.

~*~

With his confidence restored and his fear under control, Jack managed to play his role quite convincingly to a girl he now realized he adored. As a result, they both turned in performances that could only be described as masterful, even for junior high schoolers.

Afterward, at the cast party, the Beast pushed his way between Jack and 4E’s newly found admirers. “Hey, Jerko. You finished with our other project yet?”

With 4E holding his hand, Jack didn’t flinch as he looked the Beast square in the eye. “Before I answer, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like ice cream? I mean, as big as you are, you probably eat a lot of it.”

The Beast seemed to expand right where he stood. “So what?”

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Vanilla. What of it?”

“Stay with me now,” Jack said, ready to launch into the tactic 4E suggested before the show. She had seen the effect the Beast had on him. He stared hard at Blatnik. “Try thinking of that big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream just smothered in pickles.”

Pickles?

“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Jack said. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid.”

The Beast actually growled at him. “Yer in for it now.”

“Oh, puh-leeze. Just take two seconds to think about that ice cream with lovely green pickle slices sliding down on all sides. C’mon. Give it a try.”

4E squeezed Jack’s hand as she smiled, not saying a word.

Suddenly, the Beast looked nervous, and his face reflected a growing fear. He glanced from side to side as if seeking an exist.

4E continued to smile, while Jack held his ground and then, at the appropriate moment, cracked his knuckles.

With that, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik reached the breaking point and pushed his way back out of the small crowd.

“Catch ya later,” Jack called out after him.

The Beast didn’t respond.

~*~

Jack walked 4E home a short while later. On the way he couldn’t help but comment, “I still don’t understand what you did to him.”

She chuckled. “Once you got him to focus on something odd, I was able to put a suggestion in his mind.”

“What kinda suggestion?”

“He now believes you’ve got a black belt in karate and could break his arms and legs as easily as you destroy pine boards.”

“No kidding? I don’t know anything about karate.”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “Just in case.”

Jack realized he’d been holding her hand the entire time they’d been walking, and when they reached her house, he was reluctant to let go. “This whole thing has been amazing. And I still don’t know how you were able to memorize your lines so well.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “Where I come from, everyone can do it.”

Her response sounded familiar, and Jack squinted at her. “Just where, exactly, do you come from?”

“Promise you won’t tell?”

He nodded.

“I come from the fourth planet orbiting the star Earth people call Alpha Centauri.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, where do you come from?”

4E wasn’t laughing. “That is where I come from.”

“Right,” Jack said, still trying to make light of it. “I thought all you space aliens were supposed to be green or look like reptiles or something.”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “Although we do have one thing that humans don’t have.” She pulled the hair back from her forehead to reveal a third eye. “Any time I need to remember something forever, I give it a special look.”

~End~

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Tag! He (or she) is it! (Encore)

Blah - Speech Bubble BackgroundAs mentioned before, good dialog isn’t real, it just sounds that way. But for reasons that will probably remain a mystery forever, many still learning the craft of writing insist on loading up their dialog with crap, by which I mean adverbs, adjectives, unneeded identifiers, and an endless array of substitutes for the word “said.”

Let’s get the modifier thing out of the way first, ’cause it’s the worst of the offenses. The only time you need to use an adverb or an adjective in dialog (and pretty much everything else you write) is when you’ve exhausted every possibility for finding an action verb to do the job. Then, it’s probably okay. But as my Mom used to say, “Don’t make it a habit.”

Modifiers tell readers how something is said or done; action verbs show them. It’s that simple. Mary whispered something is way better than Mary said something softly. They get the same idea across, but one paints a picture; the other doesn’t. You want readers to *see* your dialog as if it were being acted out in front of them. Modifiers replace actors with stage directions. Who wants that?

Wur unwantedWuz unwantedSo, what’s an action verb? For me it’s pretty much any verb other than “was,” and “were.” The other forms of “to be” are suspect, but the real offenders are these two. Avoid them when and if you can.

Next, trust your readers to know who’s saying what to whom. If there’s any doubt, then stick in a speech tag. Something like “Joe said” works well. Try to avoid sticking Joe’s name inside a quote, because it’s just lame, and almost nobody talks that way. F’rinstance, the following is bad form; don’t do it:

“You’re kidding, Rupert! I didn’t know that. And get this, Rupert, that liver transplant I had? Well, Rupert ol’ pal, it turns out I didn’t need it after all. You may not believe this, Rupert, but someone just unplugged my brain. Who knew?”

This is even worse:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said to Rupert, blissfully. “And that liver transplant I had?” Joe laughed hysterically. “It turns out I didn’t need it after all.” Joe scratched his head vigorously. “You may not believe it, but someone just unplugged my brain,” Joe said. “Who knew?”

Even if you nuke the three modifiers (blissfully, hysterically, and vigorously) the line still sucks. I’d go with something like:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said. “By the way, you remember that emergency liver transplant I had? Huge mistake. I should’ve gone to a real doctor.”

MoronThe idea of dialog has been around forever. It was old news when the Greeks pumped it into their plays. Socrates employed dialogs to persuade the ancients to see things his way. But the main idea behind dialog is two-way conversation. Yes, you can have a dialog involving more than two speakers, but in most cases, you’ll only have two. If only one character talks, it’s a monologue. Tune into any late night TV show with a host, and you’ll get an example. But, since you’re unlikely to get a job writing monologues for a network comic, let’s focus on character dialog, and let’s practice by using two voices.

There are a host of ways to differentiate those voices. Dialect is a good one, provided it isn’t overdone. Toss in an odd pronunciation, a bit of slang, maybe a foreign word or two, and you’ll lock in the identification without a speech tag or an action tag. [Note: we’re talking seasoning here, not poisoning. Keep it light; all you want is flavor.]

“Yo, Tex! Whut’re you doin’ here in the hood?”
“Had to buy me a new shootin’ iron, podnuh.”

Watch out for pronouns, especially if the speakers are of the same sex. Use both action tags and speech tags, but only when necessary.

“It’s getting late,” Missy said.
Suzie checked her watch and sighed. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am,” she said. “What else is new?”

Break long passages into smaller ones. Use incomplete sentences now and then. Er, uh, and uhm are perfectly natural, as are lines truncated by the response of the other party.

“I was dating Mary back then, and–“
Mary? The one everyone called ‘The Nun?’ That Mary?”
Joe blinked. “The Nun? Who called her that?”
“Well, uhm– It’s, uh– Actually, everyone did.”

If you’re more concerned with the content of the dialog then the format, focus on that first, then go back and make it entertaining.

I’ve written books about this stuff. Hey! Maybe you should get one. Look: here.

–Josh

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Does your hero have hay fever? (Encore)

Huh? Why would that make a difference? Why would someone even ask such a question?

Bear with me. This all goes back to an article in The British Journal of Homeopathy, Volume 29, published in 1872. It included the following observation:

“Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”

So, what does this have to do with heroes? Only everything!

The reason the upper crust in Merrie Olde England were more prone to having hay fever, along with a host of other ills, is that they weren’t exposed to as many bugs and viruses as afflicted the common weal and therefore had built up little immunity. The rich typically came from smaller families, which also limited their exposure to germs introduced by siblings. Remember, the riff-raff had a much lower standard of hygiene. The rich even washed their hands from time to time! All of which led to a weaker immune system among the upper crust.

Now, think of the hero or heroine in your current work in progress, but do so in terms of the human immune system. The more germs, microbes, and viruses they encounter, the stronger their immune system will be, assuming said germs don’t kill them. Likewise, the more adversity they face, and the more foes they encounter, the more likely they’ll be to survive the ultimate crisis. It’s as simple as that.

If you constantly hose your character down with the fictional equivalent of antibacterial soap, he or she won’t stand a chance when the fertilizer hits the proverbial mixmaster. It would be like doing your children’s math homework for them. They’ll look great right up until they have to perform an equation in class, most likely on a test that’ll mangle their grade point average, and crush your dream of having a successful-looking kid, like a car smasher at a junkyard.

A hundred-plus years after the article cited above, another popped up on the same subject. This one focused on “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.” The study examined the incidence of hay fever among 17,414 kids born in the spring of 1958.

Of 16 variables explored, the “most striking” was a comparison between a child’s likelihood of developing hay fever and the number of his or her siblings. It was an inverse proportion; the more brothers and sisters a child had, the less likely he or she was to get the allergy.

Simply put, those extra siblings provided more exposure. Does that mean your hero must constantly battle family members? Maybe, if the setting of your story features a single household. In stories with a slightly larger scope, those siblings are symbolic of the stumbling blocks you must provide for your protagonist in their quest to reach a goal.

For immune systems, it’s probably best if the ongoing exposure doesn’t escalate, though in nature, there’s certainly no guarantee of that. In fiction, however, the opposite should be the norm. The threat level and/or the degree of difficulty should constantly be on the rise. Problems should only get harder, and the villains more despicable as the tale progresses. If you’re unable to find suitable bad guys, there’s always nature, government, and the shortcomings and foibles of your hero to focus on. The point is, things should only get harder, the prize more worthy, and the perils more dire. That’s the way to grow a hero.

Now, lay off the anti-microbial, anti-septic, anti-germ hand soaps. Sneeze once in a while. It might be good for ya!

–Josh

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Aw. Not again! We interrupt this program….

My bride and I are finally able to spend some time with a couple grandkids we haven’t seen since the start of the pan-damn-demic. So, I haven’t gotten much writing done in the past few days. None, in fact, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty.

I do have an announcement, however. It’s been a tad over six years since I added a new book to the Little Primitive series. I worked on other stuff, sure, but I’ve largely neglected my two-foot-tall hero, Mato, and all his full-size pals (to say nothing of a cast of bad guys that still keep me up at night).

So, it gives me great pleasure to announce that book four in the series will be available soon. I don’t have an exact date, but it’ll likely be in about a month. All I can provide at this juncture, is a peek at the cover:

P4 Cover concept 1 A Primitive in Peril, features the ensemble cast from the first three books and a new player from Mato’s clan who’s sure to capture your heart… sooner or later.

In addition to the usual evil-doers who populate Mato’s world, this tale features two previously unexplored terrors–the weather and social media, either of which could spell doom for the little folk.

Like the first three books in the series, A Primitive in Peril is a fun read full of oddball characters and twisty plot stuff. What’s new is a wilderness setting that will chill you right down to your toes (among other things).

If you’d like to get a head start on the series, which will undoubtedly fill gaps I’ve left in the new book, you can any or all of the first three books right here.

Unfortunately, the Amazon photo of the covers for the series isn’t very clear. So, here’s the cover lineup for books one through three:

Prim covers 1-3

You can get a great deal on the series in Kindle format right now. (Use the link above.)

In the mean time, I’m gonna go back and play with my grandkids!

–Josh

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