James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Month: April 2016

Sunday Writing: a Characterization Exercise

 

Rear-Window-PosterI’ve become increasingly a believer in getting out of your head and into the world to improve writing. Sometimes the easiest way to to do this is to read more. I’m surprised at how many writers I talk to who are trying to grow themselves as writers who have given up on their youthful reading habits. It turns out that reading time and writing time exactly overlap, so they quit reading. Argh! Big mistake! For myself, I have to keep reading to clear my head of my own rhythms and to remind myself that’s there’s many ways to assemble sentences and stories. Good movies or television can get me out of my head too.

The next way to get out of my head, though, is to get up from where I’m writing and go watch the world, but I have to do it the same way I get out of my head while reading or wa
tching a movie: by being aware that I’m are gathering material. When I go outside as a writer, I take a notebook, and I go by myself. I want to be consciously aware that I’m paying attention to help writing.

Here, I’ll give you an example exercise that I used with high school students to help them create more realistic characters (instead of the shallow, cliched, weak echoes of human beings they’d write on their own) that involves getting them out of their desks.

The students want to write characters from scratch, but let’s face it, most of us don’t have enough in our heads to produce the detail that makes fiction work. Since I told them they needed four attributes to be writers: an ability to observe, a felicity with language, a willingness to make connections, and something to say, this exercise works on an ability to observe. It’s a fun one. It makes the students observe real people and makes them look at the world in a new way.  I have the students pick a teacher to do this to, but you could do it anywhere, as long as you have enough time to watch a real person in action.

By the way, you need to be unobtrusive with this exercise.  From the outside, it can look like stalking.  And, if you’re Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, you’re just plain creepy.

Here’s the assignment for the students:

Turning a Real Person into a Fictional Character

Since the very best fiction convinces us that its characters are real, and that their hopes, dreams and tragedies are genuine, it makes sense to study the qualities of real people so we can create fictional ones more convincingly. For this exercise, you are to sit in on a teacher’s class and study them in a variety of ways. Remember that tiny details bring anything into a tighter focus, so what you will be looking for are the most revealing, unique elements to include in your character sketch.

I. Physical Description
A. QUICK INVENTORY: List the physical details about the teacher you are observing that you would give if you were filling out a missing person report. Include height, weight, build, hair and eye color, hair style, distinguishing marks and clothing. This can be done as a list.

B. UNIQUE DETAILS: List any unique details about the teacher you are observing that would separate them from others of similar height and build. This could be a close look at their face, for example. Be observant!

II. Mannerisms
A. HAND GESTURES: Describe how this teacher uses his/her hands as she/he talks. Does he/she hold something?

B. POSTURE AND BODY MOVEMENTS: Describe how this teacher holds her/his body. Is there a slouch? Is there an almost military stiffness to the back? Does the person appear flexible, rigid, fluid, jerky, etc.? Does the teacher move around a lot (and how is this movement done) or does she/he stay still?

C. EYE MOVEMENT: What does this teacher look at when he/she talks? Is there eye contact? Does the teacher seem engaged in the classroom or are the eyes elsewhere? Are the eyes unusually wide or narrow? Does the teacher blink a lot or not? Do the eyes seem the windows to this teacher’s personality?

III. Speech
A. TONE OF VOICE: What does the teacher’s voice sound like? Is the delivery quick, halting, loud, soft? Are there variances in tone? What could the voice best be compared to? Does the voice trail off at the end of sentences? Does it rise at the end of sentences? What kind of words are emphasized?

B. WORD CHOICE: What kind of things does this teacher say? Record verbatim several of this teacher’s utterances. What seem to be this teacher’s favorite way of beginning a sentence? Are most of the sentences questions? facts? instruction? Are most of the things said directed to the class as a whole or to individuals?

IV. Synthesis: The Character Sketch
Write a one to two paragraph character sketch of this teacher as if you were introducing him/her as a character in a short story. You will probably have to give the character sketch a brief setting and situation like, “I sat in the back of the classroom watching the new teacher,” or something else to provide a reason for the description. Try to make your teacher character as vivid and detailed as possible using the details from your observations above. Be sure to emphasize the details that capture not only the teacher’s appearance but also the teacher’s personality.

Sunday Writing: Advice for Beginning Writers

war)of_the_worlds_cover_art_2Each year I taught the Science Fiction class in the high school, I asked my students to write a science fiction story, but it was a literature class, not a creative writing one, so I didn’t have the time to have them do the exercises that a writing class would do.  They had to write the story with very little instruction.

The first exercise to get them into the story telling mode was to write their own “Global Dispatches.”  This was a follow up to studying H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.  The students were to write their own version of what they experienced during the week-long invasion of Earth by the Martians as if it happened in Grand Junction today.  The idea was that their story would be a bit of oral history, as if a historian came to town after the invasion to talk to the people who made it through to the end.  I got the idea from Kevin Anderson’s brilliant anthology, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, that told Well’s story from the point of views of famous personages who were alive when the invasion would have happened had it been real.

The objective of the assignment was to get the kids into story telling mode, but I needed to boil down the instructions to what I thought was the essence of making a story interestingly dramatic (because without instruction, most of them would write tons of exposition that didn’t read like a story).

Here’s the advice I put up on the board for them as they worked on their narratives:

Writing Stories that Work

– Write in scenes–don’t summarize!

  • Tell the reader at least 3 details from different senses
  • Tell the reader what the character did or what happened
  • Tell the reader how the character felt about what he/she did or what happened.
  • Use your imagination and your knowledge to provide specific details in the scene.  If you don’t know details, make them up.
  • Put your fingers on the home row (if you are typing), close your eyes, and then start.  The words will be on the page, but the story is in your head.  Be in your head, not on the page.

This assignment presented this way almost always seemed to work and their narratives were much more interesting.  The quickest form of the list is this: scenes, senses, actions, feelings, specific details, close your eyes.

Sunday Writing: Top Ten Rookie Writing Mistakes

rejectedFrom the “Top Ten Rookie Mistakes” panel at MileHiCon a few years ago.  Here’s my quickie list of top ten mistakes.  I’ve tinkered with this since I first put it together, but I think these are the basics.  This is the stuff that marks rejectable manuscripts in the slush pile and allows an editor to quit reading before reaching the end.  I’m open to suggestions for ones I’m missing or questions about the ones that I’ve included.  Each is easily worthy of a separate, long discussion.

Top Ten Rookie Mistakes

  1. Failure to use action verbs.
  2. Failure to be specific.
  3. Point of view character is passive or pluckless
  4. Failure to invest “caring” into the point of view character.
  5. Relying on exposition instead of narration (particularly at key points that would be much more interesting dramatized).
  6. Failure to be unique (or at least to be familiar in an interesting way).
  7. Failure to surprise the reader globally (how the story unfolds) and/or locally (at the sentence level or word choice level).
  8. Failure to unify the story (the beginning doesn’t set up the end, or there are incidents and details that are not tightly integrated into the story).
  9. Having nothing to say or saying nothing (the story has a “so what?” feel).
  10. Language that is not concise.  The story needs pruning.

 

April/May Asimov’s

APRILMAY2016 AsimovsThe latest Asimov’s is out with my short story, “Three Paintings.”  The main character is an artist who has come up with an unusual experiment in creativity.

I have artist friends, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t create an artist who wouldn’t pass their verisimilitude test.  So far, the two who’ve read the story said that I didn’t screw up too badly.

This is my 12th appearance in Asimov’s, starting with “Safety of the Herd” in 2002 (13th if I count a reprint of an Analog story that appeared in the Greek edition of Asimov’s).  It is truly awesome to make a sale there.  If you would have told me twenty years ago, the year I made my first professional sale, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Old Stuff vs. the New Stuff

1953-10 The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction by Ed EmshwillerYou know how sports fans will sit around the table and argue about today’s teams vs. the teams of the past? How would the 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 do against the Superbowl champion 2015 New England Patriots, for example? This is an evergreen topic, and I think it’s an interesting one for the modern science fiction/fantasy writer.

How do the old market conditions (pre computer era) and the new market conditions compare? My premise is that computers and a proliferation of markets who accept e-submissions, among other factors, has increased the number of writers. Here are my complete thoughts on why I think there are more writers than ever competing for the publishing slots.  Are the conditions more difficult now for a writer to break into the big three print magazines?

To get to my question, do you think that the bulk of what Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF is better than what they used to print, say, twenty to thirty years ago? I know better is an arguable term, but if you assume there is a kind of “middle of the road” story for the three markets, which would be stories that are fine on their own terms but not award winners, has the bar for the middle of the road gone up? Does a writer have to be “better” now to get into those magazines than they used to have to be?

By the way, when you consider this question, be sure to factor in the rosy-goggles-of-time factor that eliminates all the forgettable stuff you read, leaving only the glittering jewels of your favorite stories.

Or here’s another way to ask this question, if you could take your current writing skills, climb into a time machine, say to 1975 (or 1955) and try to make your way in the world as a SF writer, do you think you would have more luck then than now?

Just wonderin’.

Sunday Writing: Art and Competitiveness

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Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We had a local creative writing conference and contest at Colorado Mesa University, and I gave extra credit to enter the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, “How can we make our poems competitive.”

Wow!

So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges would be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where “competitive” becomes “publishable.”

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • –   details and appeals to the senses
  • –   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis

So, in terms of writing short stories where judges are replaced with editors, this is what I meant by each term.

Unique:  Editors respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way. The key is not necessarily a brand new idea but a fresh handling of it.  A brand new idea, of course, is cool too!

Specific:  Buyable stories focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the narrative.  They relate to tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories transport readers to fully realized experiences.  They don’t read to find out what the characters feel or think; they read for a moment to feel or think those things themselves.

Sound:  A story is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the tale.  This is why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build sentences and paragraphs.  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about “unique” above, but it’s also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it’s about how it’s played.  A story is not just the plot, it’s about how it’s told.

Connections:  The interesting stories are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially “duplicitous,” appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost’s “Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged” appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it’s also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together.

I know this probably sounds theoretical and far removed from the story you are writing at this moment, but I think the deeper thinking about theory and language plays out in improved writing.

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