Monday, May 31, 2010

First Person Foibles

More and more middle-grade and YA novels are being written in first person. Many people like first person because it brings them closer to the main character. If this is your POV of choice, here are a few tips to help make the task easier.

Show. Don’t tell.

Most of us know this already, but in a first person POV, it’s a bit harder because the nature of first person is to tell. The main character is ‘telling’ a story, so we have to work doubly hard to make sure the story happens, rather than telling it.

Telling - I stood at the bus stop wishing the driver would hurry up and arrive. It was freezing out and I didn’t know if I could stand the cold much longer.

Showing - I stood at the bus stop, shivering. The bitter wind blew hard and cold, and my lungs burned with each breath. I hunched my shoulders to my ears and slid my numb hands into my coat sleeves. Where was the bus driver?

Talking to the Reader

This is another common problem when writing in first person - talking to and explaining things to the reader. It’s an easy trap to fall into because, once again, that’s the nature of first person. But the main character shouldn’t be telling things he already knows. He should be telling us what is happening.

Example - My name is Aaron Cutler and I’m 13 years old. I’m sitting on this bus and heading to Georgia because my parents died, and now I have to live with an aunt I’ve never met.

What happened in this example? A boy talked. So really, nothing happened. Yes, we've learned some things about him, but there is no story here. It’s all explanation. Aaron already knows all this about himself, and he’s sitting by himself on the bus, so who is he talking to? The reader. But the reader isn’t part of the story. The reader doesn’t exist in Aaron’s world, so there’s no reason for Aaron to be talking to him.

So how do we get all this info to the reader without talking to him? Through action and dialogue. In this case, the easiest way is to give Aaron someone to talk to.


I sat on the bus and stared at the paper in my hand. Cora Bentley, 17 Wildwood Terrace, Atlanta, Georgia. Dad’s sister, and a total stranger. And I was stuck with her, at least until I turned eighteen. Five years with a total stranger.

“Mind if I sit here?”

I looked up. A kid about sixteen or seventeen stood there. “No. Go ahead,” I said.

He tossed a backpack into the overhead luggage rack, then sat beside me. "So, where you headed?” he asked.


And as the conversation progresses, the rest of the information comes out. The opening starts with story, rather than a lot of blather. And the conversation will help with the characterization of both characters.

The ‘I’ Syndrome

Another problem with first person is constantly saying ‘I’ did this or ‘I’ did that. Too many ‘I’s’ in a story can easily become annoying to the reader. Generally, they’re the result of falling into the telling and talking to the reader traps mentioned above. Solve those problems, and the ‘I’ count will magically dwindle away.

First person can be a powerful way to tell a story if it's done right. Conquer the common problems and you just might come up with a winner!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Poetry Friday: Robert Louis Stevenson

Once again, the mind returns to poems learned in early childhood - and so, for summer:

At the Sea-side

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.

My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.

Bed in Summer

IN winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

The Swing

HOW do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Rachel Carson - Passionate Woman, Powerful Words

This Wednesday as the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico continues, the woman on my mind is Rachel Carson. Born in 1907, she had worked for the US Fisheries Agency for years before publishing her first books in the 1950s, and was a best-selling author when she turned her pen to the looming crisis of pesticides in the environment. I remember the sense of foreboding that the cover of Silent Spring evoked (I was way too young to read the book in 1962) and the way it changed our thoughts about those aerial mosquito treatments when the notices from the town warned us to stay inside.

Rachel’s life will sound familiar to most of us – a child who began writing almost as soon as she could read, who wrote essays and magazine articles throughout the years she worked at her “day job,” not actually becoming a “full-time” writer until after two of her books had become best-sellers. She supported her mother and sisters, and later adopted her orphaned nephew and cared for her aged mother. So few women writers ever have the luxury of “just writing.” And yet Rachel did not allow her busy-ness to interfere with the things she was passionate about, keeping up with her research and her writing along with the demands of her life. She maintained her passion in the face of rejection and dismissive responses, sounding the warning cry about wide-spread use of wartime chemicals as pesticides during the heyday of “better living through chemistry.” The well-funded attacks on her research and her credentials sounds eerily familiar, even today.

Ironically, considering that much of Carson’s research had been into the carcinogenic effects of pesticides in the environment, she developed breast cancer while she was writing Silent Spring and succumbed to it in 1964, 6 years before the establishing of the Environmental Protection Agency and a decade before the phase-out of routine use of DDT. Her legacy continues, however, and today it is taken for granted that the government has some responsibility to protect the environment and the public from toxins and pollutants.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mentor Monday - Thoughts on revising: Real Writers are re-writers.

One of the best things about writing the Notable Women profiles is also one of the hardest. They are SHORT! And it’s hard to write tight. The good thing is that trimming and tightening to come in under that word count is good training for any other writing we do.

Most of us tend to write weakly. We hedge our statements (with words like “most of us” and “tend to”) so we can’t be wrong. We buffer our words (“almost,” “rather”) to avoid giving offense. We write in the passive voice (“was spoiled”) so we don’t have to assign responsibility. Like politicians, we generate lots of words with very little content. Weak writing is innocuous, but bland. Readers don’t enjoy being bored, so editors don’t buy boring writing. 

Cutting waffle words strengthens writing. Believe what you write, and proclaim it with confidence. (This applies to fiction as well as non-fiction. Although your characters and plot are fictional, you must “believe” in them if you want them to come alive for your reader.) Watch out for “usually,” “probably,” “basically,” “kind of,” and their wobbly-kneed brethren. And no impersonal pronouns! If you catch yourself writing “one knows” or “one does,” stop and ask, “Who, exactly, is this ‘one’?” If it is you, say so. If not, rephrase the thought. (I know, your sixth grade teacher told you never to write “I.” That was to force you to focus on the subject, not on yourself. Still a good guideline, unless you’re writing op-ed pieces. What are you doing in this story, anyway?)

Be ruthless with the passive (“was broken,” “has been lost”). Ask “by whom?” Chances are, if you find passive constructions, you’re “telling” what happened. Back up and show it happening instead.

Good fiction techniques make for strong writing, even in non-fiction. Set the scene, develop the characters. Anecdotes illustrate points and draw the reader into the subject. Believable people capture readers’ interest, so they want to finish, to find out what happens. Sensory details bring writing to life. Your reader should not only see the scene you describe but hear the voices on the street, smell the passing bus, taste the smoke and feel the heat of the fire. Or taste the chocolate soda, hear the jukebox and feel the cool plastic restaurant seat.

All those details take extra words – which means cutting even deeper into the text. Make every word count, and you’ll make your word count.

Ready, set – trim!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poetry Friday: Crossing the Loch

Crossing the Loch

Remember how we rowed toward the cottage
on the sickle-shaped bay,
that one night after the pub
loosed us through its swinging doors
and we pushed across the shingle
till water lipped the sides
as though the loch mouthed 'boat'?

I forgot who rowed. Our jokes hushed.
The oars' splash, creak, and the spill
of the loch reached long into the night.
Out in the race I was scared:
the cold shawl of breeze,
and hunched hills; what the water held
of deadheads, ticking nuclear hulls.

Who rowed, and who kept their peace?
Who hauled salt-air and stars
deep into their lungs, were not reassured;
and who first noticed the loch's
phosphorescence, so, like a twittering nest
washed from the rushes, an astonished
small boat of saints, we watched water shine
on our fingers and oars,
the magic dart of our bow wave?
It was surely foolhardy, such a broad loch, a tide,
but we live—and even have children
to women and men we had yet to meet
that night we set out, calling our own
the sky and salt-water, wounded hills
dark-starred by blaeberries, the glimmering anklets
we wore in the shallows
as we shipped oars and jumped,
to draw the boat safe, high at the cottage shore.

This poem is called "Crossing the Loch" by Kathleen Jamie from Waterlight: Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2007. 

Kathleen Jamie is a poet new to me.  I think she is already a favorite.  You can listen to Garrison Keillor do a fine reading of Crossing the Loch, here.

 Row on over to Laura Salas's place for some more Poetry Friday offerings . . .

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Women of Wednesday: On Change

People change and forget to tell each other.

                                 -- Lillian Hellman

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

                                  -- Harriet Tubman

L'esprit humain fait progres toujours, mais c'est progres en spirale.  (The human mind always makes progress, but it is a progress in spirals.)

                                   -- Madame de Stael

To me success means effectiveness in the world, that I am able to carry my ideas and values into the world -- that I am able to change it in positive ways.
             --Maxine Hong Kingston


If you don't like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it You just do it one step at a time.

                           --Marian Wright Edelman


If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?

                                         --Gloria Steinem

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mentor Monday: Writers @ Work

"I get up at four AM (I found out I'm a morning person).  At that time of the morning, you are closer to the roots of the imagination.  At the end of the day the edge is off -- you're not the same person as you were in the morning.  I rarely break this routine.  You do give up an awful lot.

           -- Lloyd Alexander

"Constant toil is the law of art."

                         -- Balzac

"A day in which I don't write leaves a taste of ashes."

                               --Simone de Beauvoir

"I get up and I have coffee and I speak to no man and I go to my desk."

           -- Hortense Calisher                   

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetry Friday - the little e.e.

I don't know why it is, but every time I think of Spring and poetry together, e. e. cummings comes to mind. So without further ado --

The Greedy The People

the greedy the people
(as if as can yes)
they sell and they buy
and they die for because
though the bell in the steeple
says Why

the chary the wary
(as all as can each)
they don't and they do
and they turn to a which
though the moon in her glory
says Who

the busy the millions
(as you're as can i'm)
they flock and they flee
through a thunder of seem
though the stars in their silence
say Be

the cunning the craven
(as think as can feel)
they when and they how
and they live for until
though the sun in his heaven
says Now

the timid the tender
(as doubt as can trust)
they work and they pray
and they bow to a must
though the earth in her splendor
says May.

Today's Poetry Roundup is being held at Alphabet Soup, hosted by Jama Rattigan

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mentor Monday - In The Beginning . . .

Beginning a novel can be tough. There’s always the question of when to begin. Start too early and you can lose your reader to boredom. Start too late, and he may become confused, or not be invested enough in your main character to care what happens to him.

Starting with backstory is a sign of beginning too early. Filling the reader in on who the main character is, and what her life is like and how she came to be in her current situation, generally makes for a slow beginning, one where nothing happens because the writer is explaining to his audience, rather than allowing a story to unfold. There’s no reason to read on.

Dropping a character into the middle of his problem could be starting too late. Readers don’t get the chance to meet your protagonist and form a connection with him, so it’s hard to care about him or his problem.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about beginnings (and I have no idea who I heard it from) was to start the story on the day that was different, the day your protagonist’s life changes.

In the Newbery award winning book, Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson starts the story on the day Jesse Aarons gets a new neighbor. Nothing earth-shattering happens. He doesn’t even meet his new neighbors. But Paterson shows us a few hours of his daily life, through action and dialogue rather than backstory, which allows the reader to see who he is and care about him. And when he’s told at the end of the chapter that new people are moving in, we know the new folks will be the catalyst for what’s to come, even if Jesse doesn’t.

In the world of Charlotte’s Web, a pig who is the runt of the litter is usually killed. On the day the story opens, Pa doesn’t kill the runt. The day is different, and the reader immediately knows there will be something special, or different, about this tiny piglet long before Charlotte tells us. In both cases, we have a reason to read on.

There are always exceptions, but starting on the day that is different seems to be the exactly right place to start. It gives you room to establish character, set time and place, create empathy, and introduce the difference that creates the problem that drives the story. Try it on one of your own novels. It might just be the beginning you’re looking for.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Poetry Friday: In Praise of Lilacs

The lilacs are in full bloom, two weeks earlier than usual. I am accosted by their scent when I head out the front door to fetch the morning paper or put a letter in the mailbox. I confess: at this time of the year, sometimes I go in an out my front door several times a day, just to experience that airborne perfume.

In New England, we have always used the lilac as a garden gauge, too. When the lilac’s bloom it’s safe to plant your tomatoes.

So, in honor of these perfect flowers, I’m sharing Amy Lowell’s Lilacs. The poem is long so I’ll post just the beginning and end here. You can read the poem in it’s entirety at:

Add Image
by Amy Lowell

False blue,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere. ..

False blue,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

Amy Lowell, “Lilacs” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Copyright © 1955 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © renewed 1983 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Brinton P. Roberts, and G. D'Andelot, Esquire. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.Source: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

This week's Poetry Friday host is our own Diane at Random Noodling:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tuesday Book Review: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I do most of my reading-for-pleasure in the car. Even though I work at home and don’t have the commute most people have to deal with, it’s amazing how many books on CD a person can “read” in any given week. I read at least one a week as I do errands, drive to business meetings, and take recyclables to the dump. Those 10, 20, and 30 minute car rides add up. I thought I’d share some of my recent great finds with you.

Kathi Appelt’s latest, Newberry Honor winner The Underneath is a prime example of the adage: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Illustrator David Small has created a cover that shows a sleepy hound-dog laying under a house or porch. Cuddled next to him, are two, gray, sweet-looking kittens. Don’t be fooled. Appelt’s book wasn’t also nominated for the National Book Award because it is “sweet.”

The Underneath is a book filled with tension. Ranger, the hound, belongs to the cruel Gar-Face. Gar-Face was an abused child who grew up to become an abusive man. Ranger let his master down, once, and for that has been tethered to the house with a 20 foot long chain. His whole world is the circumference of that 20 foot span. Ranger’s world includes the crawl space under Gar-Face’s house: the underneath.

To this microscopic world comes a pregnant calico cat. She gives birth to her kittens and Ranger helps to raise them. Does this still sound sweet? Not even close.

Appelt combines Native American story telling, creepy and seductive bayou creatures, anthropomorphized animals, and a unique narrative voice to tell a story that began thousands of years before and climaxes in the present. Pick up The Underneath and be ready to be amazed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mentor Monday: A Plethora of Plots

A woman I know said she was not interested in seeing the movie, Avatar, because she’d heard it was just basically the Pocahontas story all over again. Interesting point, but I thought it was sort of a remake of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story or…

You get the idea.

It got me thinking about the concept that there are only a limited number of plots in literature.

If you try looking up “basic plots” on Google, you find several theories from the single literary plot to the “20 Master Plots.” I’ll share one from the middle of the bunch

The Seven Basic Plots in Literature:

Man vs. nature
Man vs. man
Man vs. the environment
Man vs. machines/technology
Man vs. the supernatural
Man vs. self
Man vs. god/religion

Before my feminist friends get upset, let me say that I’m comfortable enough with the strides made in the Women’s Movement to use the term “man” here to mean “all people.”

Your assignment today, kids, is to take your favorite children’s books and see if they fit in any of these categories. Here are some examples that occurred to me:

1. Man vs. nature: The Cay
2. Man vs. man: Amos Fortune: Free Man
3. Man vs. the environment: The Little House books
4. Man vs. technology: John Henry an American Legend
5. Man vs. the supernatural The Graveyard Book
6. Man vs. self: Hatchet (Could also be Man vs. Nature)
7. Man vs. god/religion: Preacher’s Boy

Now you try. Feel free to share your lists with the class.