Monthly Archives: February 2017

A Trend in Literature: Nameless Narrators

13908520198_0f6a24d13f_oIt can be agonizing to come up with the perfect protagonist name. In literature, a character’s name can be integral to that character’s identity. However, sometimes a character has no name. Perhaps this anonymous narrator plays no part in the tale, acting only as the observer. Or maybe the character is experiencing an identity crisis. Without a name, readers can’t unconsciously attach an identity to the character. Maybe the character doesn’t want to be known.

In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the protagonist has multiple aliases, but readers never discover his real name. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man contains a young, unnamed, college-educated African American male, who experiences violence and racism after moving to New Year in the 1930s. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the young and naive protagonist is never named, instead the book breathes more life into the deceptively charming and ultimately unworldly realm of the grand British country manor Manderley.

I found this trend of the unnamed character intriguing, and challenging, since I love naming characters, and thought I’d give it a try. As an exercise, I wrote a short scene where an unnamed narrator looks back at a pivotal moment. Let me know what you think in the comments:

The urge came again yesterday. An old thing now, a rote response to stress or sadness, or any other strong emotion, but still the impulse arrived. It seemed to surge up from the depths of my mind, like when you’re standing in the ocean and suddenly a riptide grabs you. Your feet are yanked out from under you. You know what’s happening. You know what to do to free yourself, but you don’t. Silly really. Such an old compulsion shouldn’t have so much power.

Yesterday, I saw her. At least, I think I did. A girl – no, not a girl, not a girl for a long time – with bushy brown hair and cherub cheeks that were anything but angelic. I couldn’t see her eyes. I strained forward in my seat, leaned to the side too far and slipped from my chair outside the little café. My knees hit the pavement hard, a jolt ripped through my legs.

The waiter came up to me. Tall and skinny, leaning over me like a wilting green bean, and asked if I were okay. I only looked away from her for a moment. One moment. But when I looked back across the street to the little used bookstand, she was gone.

My hands shook as I pushed myself off the ground. I stood, my legs unstable; the pavement felt like it was listing. The sunlight fell away, but there were no clouds in the sky. Still, the sun vanished and the sky darkened. Thunder rumbled. Something wet plopped onto my forehead. It ran down my nose, trembled at the slightly upturned tip, and then dropped to my lips.

She stood amongst the roses. Rain poured from the sky. The world was gray, except for the roses. Thousands of roses. Such vibrant red against the slanted rain. My hair clung about my temples and ears. My jacket stuck to my body, a second layer of skin. My shoes squelched in the muddy grass.

I couldn’t see her eyes. She bent over the roses, her hand thrust in among their thorns. She yanked on a stem, snapping it and ripping it free. Red trickled between her fingers. It coursed down her palms and wrists, mingling with the rain as it reached her arms. She held the rose up, her back arching, her head tilting toward the sky. Then, she dropped the rose and stomped on it. Mud sloshed up, speckling the hem of her white dress. The mud spread along the fabric, mixing with the rain until the bottom half of her dress looked like it had been tie-dyed. Too many colors used, so that everything appeared brown instead of blue or red or yellow.

I called out to her. Screamed her name against the thunder. She grabbed another rose. Repeated her previous actions. The extra flesh on her pale arms wobbled as she moved. She never looked my way. Over and over again she plucked at the roses, stomped them into the mud. Her dress turned brown. Her pale flesh darkened. Still, she repeated her ritual.

Mud sucked at my shoes, and when I glanced down I saw hands reaching out from the ground, hands made of grass and dirt and mud, rooting me to where I stood. But, of course, they couldn’t really have been hands. Perhaps roots, or perhaps she had stomped on so many roses that entire patches of them were buried in the muck, and only now that the rain came were they able to free themselves from the sludge.

It didn’t matter. I saw that she’d moved on to the next patch of roses. A line of torn red petals littered the ground behind her, a trail of fragrant breadcrumbs. If I were to go back to that grove of roses now, grass would choke the breadcrumbs, but I’d see them, shining as clearly as when they were drenched in rain. Mud only buried things for so long.

(Photo courtesy of Indrek Torilo.)

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The Art of the Critique, And How Not To Get People Pissed at You

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When writing, it’s important that your work is reviewed by others. Virtually no one gets published without having their work critiqued. It’s a vital step to ensuring that all those little grammatical errors are fixed and that you don’t have any gaping plot holes. It’s also important that you review other people’s work, and know how to do so correctly.

Correctly?

Yes, there are right and wrong ways to critique another person’s work.

You do want to include positives and things to work on in your critique. While it’s essential for writers to know what needs to be fixed, they also must know what works well, or else they might cut some of the best parts of their work.

State why something works well. Don’t just say, “I like this…” Why did you like it? Did it make you sympathize with the character? Did it ground you in the story? Did it provide vital information? Explain why something didn’t work, but please try not to run on for pages and pages. Writing tends to be very personal. Often writers are nervous when it comes to getting their works critiqued–I was, until I grew a thick skin, and sometimes I still get emotional and have to take a breath over a review before I can look at it more objectively.

Print out the work you’re critiquing. Your brain processes what it reads on the computer differently than what it reads on paper. You’ll end up reading through the piece multiple times. The first read-through should be just that: a read-through. No critiquing, yet. On the second time through, you might want to jot down in-text comments. After your third read-through, then you want to write out the overall critique. This is where you state positives and things to consider/work on.

You’ll give the writer both the in-text comments and the overall critique, because the in-text comments deal with specifics, while the overall critique deals with the piece as a whole.

Below I’ve included an example of a friend’s work I critiqued. The critique is from the first chapter of an idea for a novel. The idea was to show how the narrator is spiraling out of control throughout his life.

Review of SARAH Chapter 1

What Worked

Wow, what a wild ride. I felt like I was on some of the drugs the narrator consumed. I really enjoyed the strong voice presented in this first chapter. The narrator is opinionated and disturbed, and his intense voice feels like a punch in the face. I immediately get an idea of his personality. Though a physical description of him isn’t given, I picture him as the typical Wall Street man, the type (as the narrator says) who cares about making a lot of money. Money over family.

The narrator’s voice pulled me into the story (not to mention the crazy cast of secondary characters). I know the narrator is going to get into some hairy situations before the novel is finished, and it intrigued me enough to want to keep reading. (Do we get to know the narrator’s real name eventually?)

I may not personally like the narrator, but that’s okay, because I want to follow his story and see what trouble he gets twisted up in.

Credit for all the footnotes throughout the chapter. They were entertaining and helped solidify the narrator’s extreme and chaotic personality.

One of my favorite sections in this chapter was the extended footnote, where the narrator turned into a stag and then ended up skewered on the stag’s antlers. It was a weird and trippy scene that showcased the unreliability of the narrator, as well as echoed back to “House of Leaves.”

Things to Consider

The title of the novel is SARAH, and in the first sentence we get the narrator talking about Sarah, however very quickly Sarah was lost. Readers didn’t find out who Sarah was before she vanished within everything else that happened in the chapter. Who is Sarah? Maybe you don’t want to reveal who she is/what she means to the narrator yet, but leave some breadcrumbs, because she doesn’t feel important enough to be the name of a novel.

It wasn’t until my second read through that I realized the first sentence was the only aspect of this chapter that occurred in the present. Everything else was a flashback. That needs to be clear immediately, because I kept thinking you were getting your tenses confused. (However, sometimes you did accidentally switch from past to present tense. This was jarring. I’ve included specific comments on pages 3 and 4 as examples.)

This chapter was a whirlwind, and that made it hard to follow. Slow things down. You cover a huge amount in eleven double-spaced pages. I felt like I was jumping from one scene to the next without ever finding my footing. This narrator is fascinating and readers want to see how his story unravels one excruciating detail after another.

Though the footnotes were great, there were a huge number of them in the first chapter. It might be a good idea to let readers get situated in the story before we’re swamped with footnotes. So, keep some of the footnotes, and over a number of chapters build up the number of footnotes you’re using, because they help to show how unhinged the narrator is/is becoming.

Something to think about: Where do you see this story going?

(Photo courtesy of csw27.)

Character Sketches: How They Bring Fictional Characters to Life

9781270733_e3e28651e6_kCreating fictional characters can be challenging. You might get a glimpse of a character in your head, but when you go to write a story about that character, you discover that he is one-dimensional. Developing a character sketch enables you to purposefully design your character. It gives you the opportunity to brainstorm and then organize physical and non-physical characteristics, such as height, eye color, personality, the character’s backstory, and the character’s inner and outer conflicts.

Character sketches can be written in various ways. One way is in outline form, where you have categories and subcategories. An outline form works well for highly organized people, because it acts as list, like the partial character sketch example below:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

I. Physical Description

   A. Eyes

  1. Color: Caribbean Ocean blue
  2. Glasses or No: No glasses, no contacts; perfect vision
  3. Any striking features: His eyes are blue to the point where they seem inhuman, like he’s wearing colored contacts.

   B. Hair

  1. Color: Dark brown
  2. Style it’s kept in: Cut short and straight
  3. Any striking features: His hair usually smells like chlorine.

Sometimes an outline can seem too rigid. In that case, consider doing a character sketch in paragraph form. By asking questions about your character, you create a quasi mini-story, as if you’re describing your character to the reader. There’s no plot to this mini-story, but you learn in depth about your character and have more room for creative expression, as in the below example:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

What does your character physically look like?

“Water droplets flung free from Marc’s dark brown hair. It always amazed him that no matter how short and straight he kept his hair, chlorine seeped in and refused to budge. Not that he’d express that to any of his teammates. He didn’t want to be called a wuss and get rat tailed. By the time swimmers got to high school, they’d perfected the art of towel snapping.

“He was already nicknamed “pretty boy” because of his eyes. He couldn’t help that they were ridiculously blue. It irritated him anytime some girl mooned over how his eyes reminded her of the Caribbean Ocean.”

A third way to create a character sketch is much more fluid. It’s where the character speaks directly to the reader, and relates his personal story in a conversational manner. This type of sketch usually contains stream of consciousness elements, as in the following partial sketch:

“Hey, I’m Marcelo. (You can call me Marc.) I’m co-captain of the varsity swim team at Mount Crest High School. I’m seventeen. A junior. (Can’t wait to be a senior.)

“My best friend is Ana Arias. Yeah, my best friend’s a girl. Get over it. (And no, we haven’t done it. Have I thought about her naked? Once. It was weird. Like accidentally glimpsing my mom naked when I was ten. Not something that can be unseen.)

“I have this crazy ex-girlfriend. Hot as all get out, but nowhere near hot enough to stay with. My teammates think I’m the insane one for letting Vicky go. They say sex with crazy chicks is the best type. Seeing as how she’s the only girl I’ve done it with, I wouldn’t know. (She was flexible and had a thing for pinching. I always ended up with bruises.) Though there’s this girl Stephanie (Steph) Blake who likes me.

“Steph’s a sophomore. She’s pretty. Got a great butt. She likes wearing shorts that let half of her butt hang out. (Steph is biracial, and without sounding like a complete girl, she has the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. Don’t think she’s ever had a zit. And to make me sound even more like a wuss, her eyes are beautiful: almond-shaped and hazel. Any guy should jump at the opportunity to get with her. She’s got this demure, Catholic girl thing; it’s like part of her personality is missing, and she lives by a literal interpretation of the Bible. I’m Catholic, but not that Catholic.)”

Character sketches are especially helpful if you have a large cast of characters. Too often it’s too easy to confuse characters or have them all sound the same. When your characters become living, breathing individuals with dreams, fears, and goals, they become unique and relatable. They become people that readers want to invest time with.

Have you created a character sketch? Did it help you visualize your character and his personality?

(Photo courtesy of Danica Saerwen.)

When No Monkeys Show Up: Why Creating Critique Group Bylaws Is Vital for Success

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Happy Monday, Everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your weekend, and if you worked, I hope that at least you weren’t bored out of your brain. Part of what I did this weekend was chat with some new friends about creative endeavors. Turns out we’re all writers!

This led to offers and agreements to read each others’ works, which got me thinking about my previous experiences with beta reading, specifically participating in critique groups.

While critique groups can foster a highly beneficial, symbiotic relationship, they can also be detrimental. It all depends on who’s in the group and how the group operates. But how can anyone know what a group’s expectations are, if there’s no document outlining the rules—well, more like strongly encouraged guidelines?

When I joined my first critique group, I knew that we were to turn in at the most ten double-spaced pages a month and that we had to attend most monthly group meetings. However, that’s where the rules ended, and it was all too soon that I wished there were more obligations. The meetings turned into social hours, and it wasn’t long before people were showing up late or not at all. One day, via a Facebook message, the group leader abruptly announced that the group was going to be online only and people could turn in work if they felt like it.

That was over a year ago. No one has turned in a single word.

My current writing group is very different. I founded it, and the group encompasses some individuals from my graduate writing program. The group’s name is “The Writers’ Syndicate” and we have bylaws. These rules state the group’s purpose, membership requirements and expectations, meeting scheduling, preparation, and structure, the addition of new members, and events/retreats.

While the final document can come across as strict, we’re a fun-loving group of serious writers, and because we all understand how easy it is to let writing fall to the side—everyone has other obligations, like full-time jobs, family and friends, etc.—we wanted to have rules firmly in place.

I’ve included my group’s bylaws below, if you’d like to use them as a reference for creating your group’s bylaws. Take a look!

The Writers’ Syndicate Bylaws

Purpose

The Writers’ Syndicate was created to aid in developing writers’ work through honest and rigorous feedback; to encourage and help writers to submit their work for publication; and to provide a supportive and encouraging environment and network. The critique group is based on the workshop style.

Membership Requirements

  • Members are fiction writers, either working on novels and/or short stories.
  • Members are serious about their craft.
  • Members are ultimately pursuing publication.
  • Members are able to receive criticism of their work, and are able to provide detailed and helpful criticism of other members’ writing.
  • Members are able to consistently attend meetings.

Note: Non-active members may remain a part of the group. However, their non-active status may last no longer than three months. After three months, their membership will come under review, to be decided if the member must become active to remain in the group, or due to circumstances can remain non-active.

Non-active members will not submit any work to be critiqued; they will not critique any other members’ work.

Meeting Scheduling

  • The Writers’ Syndicate meets one evening biweekly, from 6:00 pm to approximately 8:00 pm.
  • Meeting locations will be set to accommodate all members, and will be agreed upon by all members.

Meeting Preparation 

  • Two to three members’ submissions will be critiqued at each meeting.
  • Submissions will be no more than 25 pages apiece. (There will be a one or two page leniency to reach a chapter or story ending.)
  • Submissions for meetings will be sent out at least one week prior to the scheduled meeting.

Meeting Structure

  • The first 15-20 minutes having snacks/dinner, talking freely, and sharing any interesting and helpful writing tips or resources, books, or links discovered.
  • All members will participate in a verbal critique. Verbal critique times will be divided evenly between all works submitted at the current meeting.
  • The member whose work is being critiqued cannot speak during the critique. The member will have time after the critique to address any questions or concerns.
  • Each member will supply a written critique for each piece submitted at the meeting.

Member Expectations 

  • Members should strive to submit work and provide written critiques when appropriate, and to attend all meetings. Advance notification must be given when a member cannot meet the following expectations.
  • Members must be supportive and respectful of other members.

Addition of New Members

  • Active members may introduce potential new members to the group. But the group must unanimously agree on the new member, and the new member must meet all membership requirements.
  • Prospective new members must submit a writing sample to the group, and attend a critique meeting once each member has reviewed the writing sample prior to the prospective new members acceptance into the group.

Events/Retreats: 

  • Holidays: Members can bring holiday related treats to the meeting that takes place closest to a holiday.
  • Writing Conferences/Readings: Members are encouraged to attend at least one writing conference and/or reading during the year.
  • Annual group getaway: Attendance is encouraged, but not required. Members will plan a trip together, and the trip will focus on group bonding.

Note: Non-members may attend the annual getaway, as long as members are given advance notice.

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What do you think? Have you had a positive or negative experience with critique groups? Share in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.

(Photo courtesy of Sally T. Buck.)