Category Archives: Literary World

When Beauty Destroys the Beast: “Uprooted” Book Review

13442434765_96be7d8e81_k

Before I began Uprooted by Naomi Novik I had high expectations. With over 50,000 ratings and nearly 9,500 reviews, this young adult novel has over a 4 star rating (out of 5). This book had to be phenomenal! At least, that’s what the overwhelming majority of the reviews indicated.

The first pages—almost the entire first chapter—grabbed my attention. This book is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast is a magician known as the Dragon and Beauty is a village girl about to discover that she has a much larger role to play than she’d ever imagined.

However, after the first pages, I had a difficult time reading the first third of the book. It didn’t seem any different than most of the young adult books out there. The protagonist Agnieszka is a seventeen-year-old brown haired, clumsy girl, whose best friend is beautiful and talented and brave. The Dragon is a one hundred fifty year old guy, who looks like he’s not much older than Agnieszka and is a jerk. (Where have we heard that scenario before?)

In the original Beauty and the Beast, the Beast was also a jerk, but I felt that there was a reason behind it. (He did look like a monster, after all.) The Dragon seemed to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk.

I felt like the Dragon being terrible and incredibly rude to Agnieszka for no reason, and she reacting like some exceedingly self-conscious, mumbling, and messy girl, was a story plot I’d seen before. One where the jerk of a guy was going to be the love interest. A story plot I’ve never liked.

But that all changed when I entered the second half of the book. Basically, I liked the book better when the Beauty and the Beast retelling ended and the story took on a life of it’s own.

Agnieszka started growing as a character. She began standing on her own two feet. As the world, characters, and plot built layers and layers on itself, I was pulled back into the story. I ended up not being able to put the book down. Some of the my favorite scenes were when Agnieszka and the Dragon were separated, because then I got to see what Agnieszka could do and what her personality was truly like, without the Dragon’s shadow looming over her.

While the final third of the book made me late a few mornings to work—I ended up reading longer than I should have—there was one scene that chucked me headfirst out of the story. Normally, a scene like this one wouldn’t have bothered me, if it were in an adult novel. However, this scene was in a young adult book that is intended for thirteen to seventeen year olds. This scene is a detailed sex scene between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Detailed enough that I could picture everything that was happening. I wouldn’t have wanted my fifteen-year-old cousin reading this scene. When I was fifteen, I read books that had sexual content, but never anything that I’d describe as soft Harlequin.

Other than that scene, the final section of the novel was extraordinary. The creativity and imagination fueling the rising action, climax, and resolution was brimming with excitement and depth. When the ending finally came, it was satisfying, mature, and realistic. It was a perfect ending to a book that turned out to be an incredible fairy tale.

Have you read any good books lately?

(Photo courtesy of Chris Alcoran.)

Advertisements

Imitation is an Intensely Challenging Flattery

Imitation of others work is said to be a form of flattery. That flattery can often be mistaken for plagiarism. However, when it comes to writing exercises, imitation can help expand your writing repertoire, especially if you’re attempting to imitate a writing style very different from yours.

By imitating sentences, punctuation, paragraph format, word flow, etc., you can improve your writing. You can take commercially successful works, literary works, and works that have survived throughout the ages and toil away on increasing your knowledge of varying writing styles.

By mimicking others’ works, you introduce yourself to different sentence patterns, expanding your vocabulary, and more, so that you avoid becoming repetitive in your work, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

 

 

Imitation Smiles

Bring on the challenge!

I mimicked three different works: “Stoner” by John Williams, “Desert Breakdown, 1968” by Tobias Wolff, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen.

I chose these three stories because of their wide-ranging writing styles. “Stoner” is written in a very factual format. The beginning of the novel starts with detailing information about Stoner’s life. The writing is detached and unbiased, and from the start there is a desolate atmosphere of disappointment.

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” is viewed through the eyes of a narrator, who falls short of his own moral measure, and the reader’s measure of him. The narrator has impulses toward abandoning his family in search of dreams that will most likely never come to fruition because of his self-defeating nature and his need to have someone else to blame for his failures.

“Atmospheric Disturbances” quickly questions narrator reliability, specifically bringing attention to close-up, first-person narrator unreliability.

I wanted to compare the same basic story through different writing styles to see how the various writing styles would change the tone of the story. I also wondered if the order you read the imitation pieces in would affect your impression of the story.

The basic premise I decided to use was about a friendship between two girls, Elizabeth Kendricks and Catie Abrams. I won’t go into any greater detail about them here, but will explore their story through the three imitation pieces.

“Stoner” Imitation (“William Stoner entered…by Stoner’s mother.” pp. 3-5):

Elizabeth Kendricks moved to the town of Wistburg as a child in the year 1997, at the age of six. A few years later, while playing soccer in her yard, she met Catie Abrams and recognized her as her new best friend and as a kindred soul, where they remained friends until the fall of 2010. She did not realize how much college would change her, and that she would discover how quickly her best friend would demote her to a pawn in some of her more fanciful games. When their friendship ended her ex-friend made no move to rectify what had happened between them. This lack of apology still effects Elizabeth Kendricks to this day, an emptiness within her: “I will never forget what transpired that fateful weekend, my memories will never fade, and I will never be the same. Forever void.”

Anyone who happens by what transpired may wonder why these two people were ever best friends, but no one digs too deeply beyond the surface. Elizabeth’s teammates, who held her as the most determined of collegiate athletes, think of her ex-friend vaguely now; to her old high school friends, that weekend is an admonition of the continual death of friendships, and to her newest friends it is nothing more than a story with which they wade through blankly and put aside.

She was born in 1991 in a hospital in Falls Church Virginia near the city of Arlington, some two hours from Wistburg, where she would ultimately meet Catie. Though she had happy early years in her childhood cul-de-sac—playing with other children, making her Barbie Dolls kiss—she found, when her father said he was leaving, happiness couldn’t last. At thirty-five her father left; taking his car, he looked at the horizon with the hope-filled eyes of a newly single man. Her mother stared at her three children, as if she were stuck with an impossible task to endure alone. Her eyes were red and her cheeks blotchy, and the yellow of her hair was beginning to give way to premature gray worn back with a hair clip at her neck.

With the earliest memories she possessed, Elizabeth Kendricks knew she was good. As a little girl she helped anyone who needed it, practiced ballet and soccer in the yard in front of her house, and worked hard to impress everyone she knew. And during her short stint in private school, she would, from the moment she woke to the moment she slept, do everything in her power to make people feel special. At thirteen the weight of the world was already weighing too heavily on her shoulders.

Being good was a solitary pursuit, of which she was sorely tempted from, and with Catie she felt tied together with a good sister she never had. In the mornings the two of them walked to middle school together as siblings often would, laughing with each other; many people believed they were sisters, the only times they were apart was at night when no one could see them and even then they’d spend hours whispering through their phones to each other under their bed sheets.

Their houses were across the street from each other, and the brick stairs were a favorite hangout spot. The stairs had with so much teen gossip taken to crumbling into the front gardens—purple and rust red, streaked with yellow.

Between their houses was a smooth neighborhood road, lightly lined with trimmed trees and a few scraggly weeds, and a basketball hoop, where the girls spent most of their afternoons together. Behind their houses were two backyards, each with an outdoor lawn set, a pile of wood, and a fence, with a dent and paint streaks on it. The grass was a yellowing green, unsymmetrically grown and speckled with mud, up through which worms wriggled and were pulled apart each summer by the girls’ brothers.

 

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” Imitation: (“Krystal was asleep…was an opening.” pp. 119-120)

Elizabeth was dancing when they entered the auditorium. Catie had sworn to not shoot a video, but when they reached the stage she took out her phone and did so. Elizabeth’s face was pale from the brightness of the stage lights. Her hair, too unruly for a dancer, clung drenched to her body. Only an odd strand swung into the air. She had her arms raised above her and that made her seem much taller than she was.

The music rang across the cheap flooring of the auditorium. The seats swelled along both aisles, red as the rotting stage curtain. Catie saw the silhouette of Elizabeth on the curtain with each pirouette across the stage, and the glint of metal under the curtain. Then Elizabeth went still. Braggart, Catie thought, and for a moment she felt as fantastic as she had predicted to feel.

But it didn’t last. She had ignored her promise, and she was going to get a look for it when Elizabeth gave her some attention. Catie nearly threw her phone at Elizabeth. But she didn’t want to lose a phone, and fib to her parents, and watch Elizabeth scold her again. By now Elizabeth had hundreds of examples of Catie, Catie with rocks in her hands standing in front of Elizabeth and beside her and behind her and the three instances she’d bitten her since becoming friends.

Catie did not react well. For some reason she always exploded. But those tantrums gave the wrong impression. An old friend of Catie’s had expressed it right—“fun, wild, and self-serving.” Well, that was the perfect picture of Catie. All the world was waiting for her. All she needed was a cohort.

 (“Krystal was awake…low anyway.” pp. 121 – 122)

Elizabeth was sitting now too. For a second she didn’t speak or do anything. Then she looked over at Catie out the corners of her eyes. “So tired,” she said. She tucked up her hair over her shoulder and turned to Catie. Catie kept her eyes on her feet. “Home from the dance,” Catie said. “Man, thought you’d never stop.”

“The video,” she said, “Catie, the video.”

“There was nothing I could do about that,” she said.

“But you swore.”

Catie glanced at her, then down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t help it.”

“I don’t want an apology,” Elizabeth said, and stood up. Catie could see that Elizabeth was biting her tongue. It made her feel happy. “Okay,” Catie said. “Do you want me to erase it?” She got out her phone to show she meant it. “If that’s want you want I’ll do it.”

Elizabeth let out a sigh.

Catie put her phone away.

Elizabeth started to walk down the middle of the aisle. Catie didn’t move anywhere. At least Elizabeth was mad at her and not another. “Hey, Elizabeth,” Catie said. “Look. I bet a chocolate bar that you’ll have forgiven me by ten o’clock.”

Elizabeth gave Catie a look that Catie felt all the way to her core. “A chocolate bar,” Catie said. “Think so?” She went after Elizabeth and saw her hands were fists. She tapped her shoulder. Elizabeth paused, then turned around and flexed her fingers, as Catie knew she would. Elizabeth was not one to stay mad. She wrapped her arms around her friend.

“A big chocolate bar,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s giant, I checked.”

“No YouTube,” she said. “This time don’t put me on YouTube.”

Catie stopped hugging. Then, without blinking, she puffed out her cheeks. Elizabeth snorted and rolled her eyes at Catie. Catie immediately started laughing and put her hands on her hips, where she tried to imitate Elizabeth.

“I have to go,” Elizabeth said. She rubbed her arm. “I have homework, a lot, to do tonight.”

Catie frowned. Elizabeth could study three times the amount of time Catie was willing to do homework, and when Elizabeth got straight As she liked to describe in supreme detail what she did to get there. It made Catie angry.

“Next commercial break,” Catie said, “I’m bored anyway.”

 

“Atmospheric Disturbances” Imitation: (“Last December a woman…puppy trembled.” pp. 3-4)

This morning a girl walked into the dorm room who looked precisely like my best friend. The girl slammed shut the door after her. In a pair of glittering midnight purple heels—Catie’s heels—she was dangling a flabby condom. I did not know she had condoms. And the real Catie, she didn’t let condoms hang out in the open, she didn’t have sex at all. The lemoncrustedly skunk odor of Catie’s ganja was swarming the room and through that audacity I peered at this girl, and at that condom, admitting to myself simply that Catie was exceptionally bad.

She, the girl, the likely condom user, reached up to de-dress. Her arms concealed her eyes slightly, and my tongue choked the end of my throat, but yet, I could watch: identical yanking off crumpled dress, identical pushing up of same dark purple bra with spilling peach breasts. Identical brows lined thick across like on caterpillars with all those innate stripes that fail their singular purpose to become winged beings flying up in the blue sky around the plants. Identical female, but not my Catie. It was a new awareness, that’s why I noticed. Like the instant at the end of a movie where I can hardly say to myself, “I was deceived.” I recall thrice standing up from a movie where the girl, hidden now for ten-some years, was snorting popcorn in her reclined seat, jabbing her finger at the guy on which there was a sticker “I Spit, I Suck, Fisted in Many States.” I would attempt to remove the sticker from the back of the guy, but the girl kept swatting my arm, re-snorting, throwing popcorn, a noise like a burst of tinfoil crunching on the ground. When I would leave I looked all about the theater for the guy, and around the parking lot as well, but I never spotted him.

“Hey!” the fraudulent said loudly, appearing to ignore the stifled air. “I’m still drunk.” She duplicated Catie’s subtle lisp thoroughly, the words slipping over each other. “You are awake this early?” She pressed those sparkly purple heels against her thigh; the condom wiggled.

 

Wow! Okay, so that exercise demanded more intellectual awareness than I thought it would. I had to consciously focus on the core elements of each sentence. Doing so helped me become more aware of structure, both in terms of punctuation and style. Not only did I look at where the commas, semi-colons, and periods were, I examined word order, flow, syllable count, sentence length, parallel structure, and more.

Reading over my imitation pieces, I know I succeeded in some areas and failed in others. When I began this exercise, I had thought to use the same section of story for each imitation piece. I quickly realized that was something I couldn’t do, so I switched tactics and used each piece to express something different about Elizabeth and Catie’s friendship, or more accurately, their relationship, as well as different periods within their relationship. “Stoner” is the overarching summary of their association, while “Desert Breakdown, 1968” shows a glimpse of them during high school, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” shows them in college, near the end of their friendship.

With the “Stoner” imitation, I was able to get an accounting of when Elizabeth and Catie became friends and was able to give some background into Elizabeth’s personality and life without getting too subjective. For “Desert Breakdown, 1968” I found that using Elizabeth as the protagonist didn’t fit, so I switched to Catie as the protagonist. This time you get a sense of who Catie is, and that she may not be the best of people.

In the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation, I was able to shed a different light on Elizabeth and Catie’s relationship. One part of that was due to the story being in first person, while the other two pieces were in third person. This gave a zoomed in view of Elizabeth rather than a wider angle because everything readers were seeing was through Elizabeth’s eyes.

I also didn’t want to follow Galchen’s (“Atmospheric Disturbances” author) narrator unreliability so much as give the impression that something occurred the previous night between Elizabeth and Catie, something that Catie doesn’t yet know about, something that Elizabeth discovered about Catie, which has changed her perspective of her best friend so much that she doesn’t recognize her. I’m not sure if I was successful in that endeavor, but I hope I was at least in part.

Overall, it was very difficult to create a different story from the ones John Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Rivka Galchen were telling, while still keeping true to their stylistic elements.

As for whether or not the order the imitation pieces are read in alter a reader’s impression of the basic premise, I believe they do, especially if you read the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation before either of the other two pieces.

Have you ever done imitation pieces? How’d it go?

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk.)

 

Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)

 

Gina with the Cross: A Vingette

I first came across vingettes when reading The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of vingettes. Instead of having a single plot, where each chapter flows in chronological order, this novel is more a series of photographs. Each picture shows a scene, a snapshot into a person’s life. In the case of The House on Mango Street, that life is of Esperanza Cordero, as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood that she’s determined to leave, only to discover that once she fulfills her dream, she’s drawn back through the need to once again see the people she left behind.

Intrigued with the vingette, I decided to try my hand and create a scene that’s more about conjuring meaning through imagery than plot:

Gina with the Cross

166642911_123b31c585_b

Gina, petite squirrel girl with emergency red flare nails and gold cross necklace, one purple rhinestone and one missing because she liked to pick, was my girlie friend who loved to pray.

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” she said, staring at me, her brown eyes wide. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap and her elbows were going to leave indents in her knees.

Despite her whispering, her words charged down the pews, bouncing off the stone floor and the stained glass windows. Nail polish puddled around the purple rhinestone in her left index fingernail, trying to suck the stone down into the sea of red.

“Why?” I asked. My hair fell about my face, and as I stared at my friend, her face was cut into strips: pale, pink flesh divided between strands of coarse mud.

“If you don’t, you’ll be excommunicated.” She scooted closer to me, until our knees bumped against each other. “Just tell them what you did.”

I tugged at a loose flap of skin clinging to the edge of my fingernail, twisting it around and around and then yanking. A plum of pain stabbed into my flesh. I yanked again.

What I did? I wanted to breathe, to expel all the air from my lungs. Just shove it all out there and away, but my throat was constricting. A lump formed in it. My lump, a callous, lopsided chunk of lard and ash. Soot-coated and reeking, it slicked against my esophagus, twisting, trying to grind up the soft tissue there.

“I have nothing to apologize for.” I frowned. My voice had choked on itself, like some piglet trying to squeal, but who had its mouth taped shut.

“Don’t say that.” She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers until pain spiked up my wrists. “You’re going to Hell, if you don’t.” Her forehead bumped against mine; her breath burned my cheek. “Worse, you’ll be ostracized. What will your pa say if he knew? You’re going to give your ma a heart attack.” Her voice dropped, quivered. “What about me? What am I supposed to do?” Her head started shaking, almost as if it had a life of its own. “I can’t keep this secret.”

I ripped my hands from hers. “Then, don’t.” I rose. Pain spiked through my jaw. It raced down the side of my neck and made my ear throb, a double bass bashing against my eardrum.

The backs of my calves banged against the pew and the wood shrieked against the stone. A few parishioners swiveled around from closer to the altar, but I didn’t care.

I opened my mouth to shout: What are you looking at! You think you know me! You think you know who I am! But no words came out.

My gaze fell to Gina. She stared up at me; her lips parted in a stark O, her Bambi eyes bright in the dim candlelight. “Tell them whatever you want. Whatever makes you sleep better at night.”

My palms pressed against my jeans. My index finger poked through the hole worn at my knee. “You can even tell them that I wanted it. That’s a lie, but you know that’s what they’ll say. I asked for it.” The big cross gleamed in the background. Massive and golden, it hung heavily over the altar, waiting for the perfect moment when its cables would snap and it would crash, banging against the stone, and squashing whoever was standing beneath it. Perhaps I should stand there. Perhaps it would fall on me. “After all, our bodies know when to get pregnant and when not to.”

“Aislinn…” Her hand fluttered to her mouth. I hoped she could feel my eyes piercing her. I hoped they seared her ribs black. “I know you didn’t want it. I know you were forced – I believe you – but…you killed your baby.”

The lump grew larger, churning and elongating. It would turn my throat to stone. “It was never mine.” I spun around and abandoned the pew. My Keds squeaked against the aisle. One of my shoelaces was untied. The white flopped against the red of my shoe, and dragged along the gray stone. I glared at it, but didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Gina hadn’t moved.

Solid oak doors rose in front of me, stretching far above my head and arching. Iron bars locking them in place. I stopped and stared stupidly, my hands frozen at my sides, unable to press the bars. I’d been able to enter this place. I should be able to leave.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood. There were eyes on me.

My nails pierced the palms of my hands – there would be little crescent moon imprints that would refuse to fade – as I slowly turned, my heels digging into the stone. Great, golden eyes from a tilted head, encircled by jagged thorns, watched me. They shouldn’t be able to. The head was pointed down and to the side, the ribs jutting out against the flesh, the stomach caving in, but still the eyes were on me.

I could have been so many things. I’d wanted to be so many things. What was I now, to Him? To everyone?

Noise rose in my throat, shoving upward, scraping and clawing at my tongue and lips, trying to pry my jaw apart. An uproar about to burst free, shredding me from the inside out, but my lump wouldn’t allow it.

I steeled my hands – iron could only burn – and shoved open the doors.

(Picture courtesy of arbyreed.)

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.)

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

6331555062_fff3552d77_o

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.

__

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.)