For My Fellow Magicians….

Years ago I bid adieu to the rodent relay, and I couldn’t be more happy about it because now I have the time to do the things I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. One of those things is teaching, and more specifically, teaching writing to those who want to learn the craft. Most of my students are of my generation, and most are also retired. Like me, they want to take advantage of the time and resources they have, and I’m tickled to be able to help them.

I love to see the great strides many of them make. Some have had little or no formal training, others were steeped in academic writing, but very few have any experience with what I call “commercial” writing. That is, writing meant for a mass market, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, travel, or almost anything else. I make a special distinction for one kind of writing: I refuse to teach anyone how to write documentation. I did that for way too many years, and no one in management liked the way I did it. (On the other hand, the folks who had to read it often thanked me for making it light and humorous whenever I could. Management, evidently, has no sense of humor.)

There’s an issue which pops up frequently among my more successful students, those who’ve applied themselves for an extended period and have produced a children’s book, a novel (and in some cases, several novels) or a memoir. Every last one of them claims not to “feel” like a writer. They can’t say what a writer should feel like, but however that is, they don’t feel it.

Well, I’m here to set the record straight. So, be it known now and forevermore: Anyone who writes a book and takes the time and makes the effort to produce something as good as it can be, is a writer.

Most of the writers I know are modest folk, and that includes many tremendously successful ones. There are a few pompous assholes to be sure, but by and large, the writing crowd is characterized by people who are not only imaginative and creative, they’re generally thoughtful and caring as well.

We may not all come from the same places, socially, ethnically or politically, but that doesn’t matter. The feeling that we’re somehow frauds because we turn ideas into words and words into pictures is fairly universal. It’s a kind of magic, and most of us aren’t willing to accept that in some cases, magic really does exist. And, in fact, we’re the magicians.

Therefore I want to celebrate all my fellow magicians, no matter where they fall on the scale of creation. What we do has value. What we do makes a difference.

What we do makes us who we are.

–Josh

 

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Character Emotions — Part Nine

While far from a complete discussion of emotions, we’ve touched on those I think are the most critical and/or difficult to convey in any kind of writing. But one emotion that’s gone undiscussed until now is also one fiction writers should treat with extreme caution: happiness.

Waitaminute! Treat happiness with caution? But why? Happy is good, right?

One of the hallmarks of great fiction, or at least readable fiction, is conflict. So how does one square the happy character with one who must face a dilemma or two? Or more–like an attacking horde of zombie Viking cannibals?

The thing to remember about happiness is that it’s usually temporary. People who run around perpetually happy are instantly suspect. They’re either up to something, or they’re insane. Either way, there’s potential for conflict. If they’re always happy, and nothing dreadful comes their way, there’s no story. G’nite Irene. Zzzzz….

There’s also the issue of mistaking contentment and happiness. They aren’t the same thing. You could think of it this way: happy is when your team wins; contentment is when you pay off your mortgage.

There’s nothing wrong with having a happy character, even one who’s diabolically happy. But more often than not, you’ll have a character whose happiness is either illusional or about to abruptly end. Perhaps even tragically.

For writers of fiction, that tragedy is usually a good thing. It means there’s a story coming, and if an author is willing to do something dreadful to a beloved character, the chances of that story being truly compelling multiply exponentially.

So, how does one depict happy? By following the same guidelines provided for any other emotion:

  • Eschew clichés. Don’t tell your readers Egbert was happy as a clam, which besides being a cliché is just stupid; clams can’t even smile much less giggle, chatter, skip, or hum. Any of which might be useful in portraying someone in the throes of happiness.
  • Be specific. There’s bound to be a reason for this joyful moment in your player’s life; don’t keep it a secret. If your character has just discovered a cure for something awful, make sure your readers know exactly what that awful thing is.
  • Emotional range. Like every other emotion, being happy can and usually does encompass a range of feeling. A newly engaged female might experience a sharp burst of bubbly energy when she gazes at the sparkly new adornment on her ring finger, but that initial zing will likely dissolve into a contented sigh or maybe even one of relief.
  • Trust your own life experience. Unless you’ve never been happy, and that would truly be unfortunate, find something in your own history that made you gleeful, exuberant, or just plain silly. Examine those feelings and amp them up or down to meet the needs of your character.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the formula I offer for depicting all these widely varying emotions is exactly the same. The emotions aren’t, but the strategy is. All I ask is that you try it. You might surprise yourself!

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Eight

Last time around I presented the opening scene from a work in progress by writer Nancy James. Many of you who took the time to read it may have come away with the same question in mind that I had, once I got over the sheer impact of what I’d just read. How on Earth did she craft such a powerful and evocative piece? (And if you’re fortunate to know Nancy, you will have instantly recognized how different this bit of prose is from her usual, bubbly, out-going persona.) Click here if you missed it.

So with apologies in advance to anyone disinterested in looking behind the curtain, here’s my take on why this scene works–and works so incredibly well. Simply put, it has: So, just as the Flash Gordon spaceship on the left–complete with the white fishing line that suspended it during filming–is laughably phony, the artist’s conception of the Space shuttle Atlantis on the right is easy to believe. It’s better art. It feels real.

If we focus on the elements I’ve been repeating over the course of this discussion, it’s fairly easy to see why this scene is so effective.

For openers, there are no clichés. Instead, simple language is used to describe both the macabre and the everyday, and the even-tempered mixture of the two only heightens the inherent tension.

The degree of specificity also contributes to the feeling of reality. We see the blood seeping into the gold carpet. We hear the awful sounds that go with it. There’s no hiding from this; the scene sprawls before us, a grisly image, in all its awful detail.

The point of view character experiences a range of feelings, albeit feelings blunted by the violence she has just witnessed. Her mind ricochets between thoughts of what just happened to how the furniture is arranged, from his still-beating heart to her concern for her neighbor if either had opened the door at that critical moment. She experiences someone in her face, yelling at her, and yet she’s strangely calm.

Sadly, Nancy is writing from tragic personal experience, and it is this which undoubtedly gives the entire scene its rock-solid grounding in reality.

From the standpoint of writing mechanics, one technique stands above the others: it’s the rapid-fire quality of her sentences. Short. Pointed. In some cases, brutal. Just like the terrible event which just occurred. These blunt, fast, often jolting sentences pound the reader like a hard-beating heart. Again, and again. They often eschew the niceties one expects to find in well-behaved sentences: subjects, verbs, and all the connecting tissue of evolved language.

As we read, however, we realize none of that matters in a moment like this. We’re not thinking in sentences; we’re thinking in images, and those images run the gamut from harsh and intense to soft and demure. It’s this overall juxtaposition of sensory messages which drives the truth of this scene home. We believe it, and we pray we’ll never have to experience anything like it.

Most importantly, we can’t stop reading it.

My hat’s off to Nancy, and I sincerely appreciate her allowing me to comment on her work in such a public forum. I’ve no doubt there’s a great deal more which can be said about this, and I invite my readers to offer their thoughts.

Hopefully, I’ll provide a less demanding emotion to dissect next time around.

–Josh

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Character Emotions — Part Seven

In the past few posts, I’ve discussed a number of emotions. This time I’d like to focus on an emotional state which isn’t as easy to sum up as fear, anger, jealousy, or passion. I’m talking about shock. Like most emotions, it manifests in a wide range, from mental and physical paralysis to babbling incoherence. Shock may be induced by an equally wide range of triggers including the surprise return of a loved one or an abrupt and unexpected death. Unlike other emotions, real shock is an extreme emotion. One might claim to be shocked that Ben And Jerry don’t make a certain flavor of ice cream, but recovering from that discovery would normally be trivial.

This post is longer than most, so be forewarned. It’s not that I’ve grown wordier, it’s because of the writing sample included. It’s the work of a talented writer and friend who has experienced more than her share of emotional upheaval. Time has granted her some much-needed perspective, but it hasn’t dimmed the power of her words or her ability to paint vivid, sometimes haunting, word pictures.

Because of the excerpt’s length, I won’t be adding any commentary until my next post, so please stay tuned. The following is the opening scene from a work in progress by Nancy James:

Secrets

The body lay before me on the floor. No, that is not true. When the knees buckled after the shot, I found myself across the room. I listened to his throat gurgling with blood. Saw the dark halo spread around his head onto the gold carpet. The needlepoint pillow I held when seated had flown from my arms and landed in the scarlet stream. Days later I would see where it had been carefully placed on the washer in the kitchen. A stitched sampler I had painstakingly created as a teaching piece now tarnished like all of life. Its rust and golds now darkened. His clothes would be returned to me later. The leisure suit carefully folded but stained also. Funny how people seek to preserve unnecessary tokens after a life is gone.

But that was later. In that instant, I knew what needed to be done. Late night rehearsals prepared me for this moment. Call for an ambulance. Call Bill for help and advice. But the phone rang as I touched it. The young woman who had rung the doorbell asked if everything was okay. “No,” I answered and replaced the receiver. A March of Dimes volunteer, she did not know she had prompted that now or never moment. She could not know the look in his eyes before the final decision, the finger on the trigger. She did not know the fear I felt when I realized the door was unlocked, and she might enter into uninvited danger. She did not know.

Neither did most of the world know our secrets. Don’t tell Daddy ran across my thoughts; he has a heart condition. That final attempt to keep our secrets from the gossips’ mouths and off The Meridian Star’s front page would fail. I made my calls.

I returned to the living room and knelt by the body. Still breathing, but gone. A runner’s heart that could last forever. I thought I should tell him l loved him. I could not.

Bill arrived with the ambulance. The body was carted away. A neighbor, Cathy, came. Sought to comfort. Marian came. I remained calm.

Somewhere in there, two police officers arrived. One pinned me down in our wingback chair. Tastefully covered and decorated. A nice cozy arrangement around the fireplace. A farce of comfort. His hands were on the chair arms, and he was screaming in my face. I wondered vaguely why he was so angry. Why he was yelling. Later I learned he thought I had killed Coach Cameron. No, in the doorway he had committed the crime himself.

I sit now in the blue channel-backed chair inherited from his parents. A gallery of ancestors stare at me from their matched frames on the wall. Such a formal, organized, beautiful room. Everything carefully coordinated. Proper. Tasteful. Now filled with chaos and confusion. Soon I will leave to have my hands dusted at the police station, to be interrogated, to spend the night elsewhere.  Secrets exposed. Shame exposed. Now everyone will know.

We’ll discuss this in more depth next time around. See you then!

–Josh

[Secrets excerpt: Copyright 2018 Nancy James]

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Character Emotions — Part Six

These discussions about how to convey character emotions don’t come in any particular order, alphabetical or otherwise. So, if you’re trying to guess what comes next, good luck! But here’s a visual clue for this go-round: Please try to restrain yourself, even though we’re going to be talking about excitement. Considering all the emotions fully drowning in cliches, excitement has to be near the top of the list.

There’s a good reason for that since excitement can come in so many forms–from sheer joy to abject terror, and a pile of other triggers in between. Like virtually all emotions, excitement is only part of the equation, and it’s not strong enough to stand on its own. It’s most often partnered with something else.

The problem for most writers is how to avoid being snared by the verbal form of a leg-hold trap: clichés. It’s just too damned easy to resort to them! Consider these tired, worn-out, overused examples:

  • Jamal was so pumped he could hardly stand it.
  • Betty had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Looby couldn’t sit still, the excitement was killing him.

I have no idea what’s fueling the excitement of these three characters, but with just a tiny bit of effort, it’s possible to make those clichés useful. Consider:

  • Jamal tried to sit still, but his heels kept bouncing off the floor, and his knees pummeled the underside of the table in a nervous staccato. Do it, damn it. Do it now!
  • Betty choked back the butterflies abandoning her belly. She squirmed as she held back the firey eruption she expected at any moment. For God’s sake, what was taking so long?  
  • Looby bounced in his seat like a caged jumping bean. It chafed his butt, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t think about anything other than the puppy they’d promised him, and today was the day.

More often than not, the excitement phase of an event occurs before something happens. It’s the anticipation that drives those butterflies and pounds that drum. Time is a relevant factor as well. Imagine one of your characters standing in line to ride what they’ve been told is “the world’s scariest roller coaster.” You don’t just need a word picture, you almost need a word video to show the mounting anticipation as your player nears the boarding gate. It works the exact same way in a memoir.

Not surprisingly, it works that way in the case of someone waiting for something bad to happen. Imagine your character being transported to the gallows or the guillotine. Again, there’s excitement and anticipation, but it’s hardly the kind anyone would envy. But knowing what goes through your character’s head will make the reading of it irresistible. Or it should!

Excitement has so many wonderful flavors, it’s hard to know which to write about here. Consider the excitement of a first date, a first kiss, or a wedding night. Or consider what a young man goes through the first time he works up enough courage to ask a girl out (and I pray our over-stimulated society hasn’t yet made that an easy thing). And what about the young lady who receives the call? Has she been waiting for it? And if so, how? Eagerly? Impatiently? Or maybe with dread? Please, oh please, oh please God, let Alonzo call me first!

The whole “first kiss” thing bears further review, and not just because my work-in-progress involves a coming of age story. (Seriously? You think I’d try to plug a forthcoming book here? In these <cough> sacred pages?)

Okay, the first kiss. From the male perspective, it’s pretty cut and dried. The thoughts drifting through a young guy’s head are along the lines of: Oh crap, I’m sweating; can she smell it? What’ll she tell her friends? What if I suck at kissing? What if I mess it up? How long should it last? What if she laughs? What if I fart? Oh, God, I can’t do this!

All the while, the object of our young swain’s affection will be having thoughts of her own: Should I eat a breath mint first? What if he doesn’t know what he’s doing? What if he realizes I don’t know what I’m doing? I’ve only ever kissed my parents, my dog, my arm, and my friend Wanda, but she’s never kissed a boy either. Oh, God, I can’t do this!

If you’re going to write about excitement, you’d best be prepared to handle what comes next, because it’s often the exact opposite of what’s anticipated. At least, that’s the way it happens in good books. <smile>

–Josh

 

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Character Emotions — Part Five

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 vividly 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

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Character Emotions — Part Four

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 sou 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.)

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