I thought since there aren’t A to Z posts on Sundays, I would change my RNLN posts to Sundays for April and see how that goes. As it is Monday evening, I would say that is still to be seen. I will try to have the next one up this Sunday.
Kafka on the Shore is the interwoven story of a fifteen year old runaway who calls himself Kafka, or “the boy named Crow”[Murakami writes in the novel that Kafka means crow in Czech, but it doesn’t (“kavka” in Czech means jackdaw)], and an older man, Nakata, who went through an incident as a child that removed his memory and gave him the ability to talk to cats. They both believe they may have murdered Kafka’s father through other-worldly means. The novel includes magical realism and unreliable narrators.
Format: The novel has some interesting changes in tense and POV. At first the chapters alternate between Kafka in first person present tense talking to himself (the boy named Crow) about his plan to run away, and Top Secret U.S. Department of Defense classified documents that are interviews about “The Rice Bowl Hill Incident, 1944 written in past tense. When the boy named Crow starts to talk, it is written in bold text and switches to second person (you). Later, the documents stop, but the chapters continue to alternate between past and present tense, the past tense chapters become Nakata’s story, and then, when Nakata sleeps for long periods of time, those chapters become his friend Hoshino’s story. A few times these narratives became unbalanced: one chapter would end on an exciting moment, and I would just skip over the next chapter to continue the narrative. When I went back to the chapter I skipped, nothing really happened. I didn’t feel like I missed anything not reading it.
Talking about the body: In A Widow for One Year, Irving talked about boobs to the point of obsession, Murakami’s focus was Kafka’s penis. The poor fifteen year old was very, very aware of his penis. At the beginning of the novel when I noticed the similarity to Irving, I thought that it was normalizing and bringing the real to the magical realism. But the novel was so full of bodily functions, that at one point I thought, “What could that possibly be adding to the story?”
Taboos: The sexual taboos in the story are brought in as part of a curse. Kafka says that his father told him he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother and his sister. This is part of the reason he felt he had to leave home. Though he says he remembers his mother taking his sister and leaving when he was four, he has only one picture of himself with his sister at the shore, and has no idea where his mother and sister are. When the strange masturbation scene with his “sister” happened, I thought, well at least they’re somewhat the same age and it’s not the statutory rape stuff from A Widow for One Year, but I thought too soon, that came later when Kafka falls in love with the fifteen year old spirit of the woman he believes is his mother, and then has sex with that woman who is in her fifties.
The other taboo in this novel had to do with killing cats to steal their souls and put them in a flute. The section was really disturbing, and made me physically sick and disgusted.
A Meaningful Song: The woman Kafka comes to believe is his mother, wrote and recorded a song that became a huge hit when she was in her twenties. The lyrics don’t appear to make much sense and are somewhat surreal, but later reveal that she knows about the same other-worldly place that changed Nakata’s life. Using the song as a connection between different characters, and different times is an interesting technique.
I thought this discussion of the song between Kafka and Oshima was fun for National Poetry Month:
“Do you think Miss Saeki knew what all the lyrics mean?”
Oshima looks up, listening to the thunder as if calculating how far away it is. He turns to me and shakes his head. “Not necessarily. Symbolism and meaning are two separate things. I think she found the right words by bypassing procedures like meaning and logic. She captured words in a dream, like delicately catching hold of a butterfly’s wings as it flutters around. Artists are those who can evade the verbose.”
“So you’re saying Miss Saeki maybe found those words in some other space—like in dreams?”
“Most great poetry is like that. If the words can’t create a prophetic tunnel connecting them to the reader, then the whole thing no longer functions as a poem.”
“But plenty of poems only pretend to do that.”
“Right. It’s a kind of trick, and as long as you know that it isn’t hard. As long as you use some symbolic-sounding words, the whole thing looks like a poem of sorts.”
So there you have it. The secret to poetry:
find the right words by bypassing meaning and logic
create a prophetic tunnel connecting to the reader
use some symbolic-sounding words
As long as you know it’s a kind of trick, it’s not hard. 😁
Applying What I Learned
There wasn’t much from this novel that I would want to apply to my novel. Any ideas about adding bodily function normalization and taboos I talked about in the A Widow for One Year post.
I’m still thinking that a past and present alternating chapter format could be interesting for my novel. This novel taught me that if I do that, both the past and present story lines have to be equally interesting at all times and add to the present story. Using present tense and past tense is a good way to keep the timelines clearly separated.
One thing I could apply to my novel is the use of a song with meaningful lyrics connecting characters through time. I could have a song that my main characters made up, but had forgotten about until one brings it up to reconnect to their childhood. Or there could be a song that was on the radio when they were kids that they used to sing the lyrics to incorrectly that is re-released because it becomes popular in a show or movie, and suddenly the real lyrics have an important meaning.
And, of course, now I know the trick to poetry, so the rest of the month will be easy.
This week I tried a whole new way of reading. I used the free application Spreeder for my first read of The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Spreeder is an online speed reading application that flashes text at a central focal point. Its default is one word at a time at 300 words per minute (wpm), but the settings can be changed to increase the number of words and the speed.
I copied one chapter at a time from Kindle and pasted it into the text pane. After pressing the green Spreed! button, the first word of text appears in the reading pane. Under the reading pane is a play button, a pause button, a new button and settings.
I’ll admit, it was a very strange reading experience. It felt especially surreal to read one word at a time. I think I liked chunks of three words at a time. I didn’t think I was comprehending at all, but when I went back to the text to make notes and figure out what to talk about in this text, I recognized foreshadowing and knew the characters and events.
I don’t think I would read a novel only once with Spreeder, but as a tool to speed up a first read, it was an interesting experience.
Things I Learned
First, a little overview:
The Awakening was published in 1899. It was the first novel written by a woman that had passion as the plot. It is considered a precursor of American modernist literature, and is a landmark work of early feminism. It’s set in New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast and was the precursor to the Southern novel style. The story has similarities to Madame Bovary in that a romantic woman becomes unhappy with her life and believes she will find happiness through romantic trysts. Unlike Madame Bovary, The Awakening focuses on Mrs. Pontellier’s emotional journey.
Change and the Emotional Journey:
This novel fits perfectly with what I read in The Emotional Craft of Fiction yesterday.
The sense of movement in a story comes mostly from inside. It’s a tidal pull, an emotional tug. It says not just that things are going to change but that people are going to change. It’s ongoing. In life, change isn’t annual. It’s daily. We change constantly, maybe every hour. We are forever evolving in our understanding of self, others, and the world. We are awake, alert, and alive. We ponder. We learn. Life is what we do, certainly, but even more it’s what we take away from it. . . .
As in our real lives, the raw material of the inner journey is ever present. You only need recognize it, make space for it on the page, and treat it like it matters.
To fasten the inner and outer journey, you only need to start with one element: either a plot event or a step in the inner journey. In the first case, go inside your protagonist to pinpoint what an outer event means. In the second case, stop at any inner moment and make something outward happen, something that symbolizes what’s going on inside. Outer events lead inward. Inward struggles turn outward.
Let’s take a look at how Kate Chopin fastens the inner and outer journey of Edna Pontellier.
Main Character Introduction:
The novel doesn’t start with the main character, but with her husband. At the beginning of the story Edna is Mrs. Pontellier. Her existence is defined by others: she is a wife and mother. The first mention of her is:
“The sunshade continued to approach slowly. Beneath its pink-lined shelter were his wife, Mrs. Pontellier, and young Robert Lebrun. When they reached the cottage, the two seated themselves with some appearance of fatigue upon the upper step of the porch, facing each other, each leaning against a supporting post.”
Her husband admonishes her and then sees her as his damaged object:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.
The first thing the reader knows about Mrs. Pontellier is that she has strong, shapely hands. Here is the first description of her:
“Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.”
It starts with the basic, cliché eyes and hair, but adds something about what she does with those eyes that tie in with her inner journey.
How Others See the Main Character:
Mrs. Pontellier’s next interaction with her husband, he admonishes her again:
“He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?”
Mr. Pontellier admonish his wife for her poor mothering, but it goes deeper than that:
“It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement. If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. . . . In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.”
Mrs. Pontellier is then the opposite of “the mother-woman”:
“The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. Many of them were delicious in the role; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture.”
Her favorite “mother-woman,” Adèle Ratignolle, calls her “Pauvre chérie.” And when warning Robert to leave Mrs. Pontellier alone she says “She is not one of us; she is not like us. In response Robert says, “You made one mistake, Adèle,” he said, with a light smile; “there is no earthly possibility of Mrs. Pontellier ever taking me seriously.”
After Edna’s night swim people notice her romantic nature:
“Sometimes I am tempted to think that Mrs. Pontellier is capricious,” said Madame Lebrun, who was amusing herself immensely and feared that Edna’s abrupt departure might put an end to the pleasure.
“I know she is,” assented Mr. Pontellier; “sometimes, not often.”
I really like how her husband recognizes this part of her personality, a contained fancifulness.
After Edna returns to the city, her friends notice she has changed:
“How handsome Mrs. Pontellier looked!” said Madame Lebrun to her son.
“Ravishing!” he admitted. “The city atmosphere has improved her. Some way she doesn’t seem like the same woman.”
Having other characters talk about the main character is a technique for both showing and telling at the same time. Other characters are more likely to notice changes in the main character before she recognizes them herself.
At Grand Isle she’s an outsider:
“Mrs. Pontellier, though she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them. There were only Creoles that summer at Lebrun’s. They all knew each other, and felt like one large family, among whom existed the most amicable relations. A characteristic which distinguished them and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable.”
This presents an interesting conflict in Creole women, both an absence of prudery and a lofty chastity. I’m not sure how that works.
“Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease.”
Setting as a Catalyst for Change:
Chopin uses her two settings, the sea and the city to influence her character’s emotional change. At the beginning, the sea seduces:
“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
She also combined the influence of the setting and the people in it as catalysts of change:
“That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her. There may have been— there must have been— influences, both subtle and apparent, working in their several ways to induce her to do this; but the most obvious was the influence of Adèle Ratignolle. The excessive physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty. Then the candor of the woman’s whole existence, which every one might read, and which formed so striking a contrast to her own habitual reserve— this might have furnished a link. Who can tell what metals the gods use in forging the subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might as well call love.”
In one talk on the beach with Mrs. Ratignolle, Mrs.Pontellier reveals her back and forth relationship with religion, her relationships with her family and childhood friends, and her romanticism about love.
“At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life— that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
When talking about her love interests before her husband, she had an infatuation with a tragedian:
“a marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.”
This comparison reveals her romanticism, and its conflict with reality. It is also in conflict with how her husband treats her now, showing a conflict with what she believes is reality and what her reality really is.
After teasing Robert about his attentions, Mrs. Ratignolle takes him aside to warn him to stay away from Mrs. Pontellier:
“Do me a favor, Robert,” spoke the pretty woman at his side, almost as soon as she and Robert had started their slow, homeward way. She looked up in his face, leaning on his arm beneath the encircling shadow of the umbrella which he had lifted.
“Granted; as many as you like,” he returned, glancing down into her eyes that were full of thoughtfulness and some speculation.
“I only ask for one; let Mrs. Pontellier alone.”
“Tiens!” he exclaimed, with a sudden, boyish laugh. “Voilà que Madame Ratignolle est jalouse!”
“Nonsense! I’m in earnest; I mean what I say. Let Mrs. Pontellier alone.”
“Why?” he asked; himself growing serious at his companion’s solicitation.
“She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.”
His face flushed with annoyance, and taking off his soft hat he began to beat it impatiently against his leg as he walked. “Why shouldn’t she take me seriously?” he demanded sharply. “Am I a comedian, a clown, a jack-in-the-box? Why shouldn’t she? You Creoles! I have no patience with you! Am I always to be regarded as a feature of an amusing programme? I hope Mrs. Pontellier does take me seriously. I hope she has discernment enough to find in me something besides the blagueur. If I thought there was any doubt—”
“Oh, enough, Robert!” she broke into his heated outburst. “You are not thinking of what you are saying. You speak with about as little reflection as we might expect from one of those children down there playing in the sand. If your attentions to any married women here were ever offered with any intention of being convincing, you would not be the gentleman we all know you to be, and you would be unfit to associate with the wives and daughters of the people who trust you.”
Madame Ratignolle had spoken what she believed to be the law and the gospel. The young man shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
“Oh! well! That isn’t it,” slamming his hat down vehemently upon his head. “You ought to feel that such things are not flattering to say to a fellow.”
“Should our whole intercourse consist of an exchange of compliments? Ma foi!”
“It isn’t pleasant to have a woman tell you—” he went on, unheedingly, but breaking off suddenly: “Now if I were like Arobin— you remember Alcée Arobin and that story of the consul’s wife at Biloxi?” And he related the story of Alcée Arobin and the consul’s wife; and another about the tenor of the French Opera, who received letters which should never have been written;”
Within this exchange of warning which is itself foreshadowing of the problems to come, Robert says he’s not as bad as Arobin which is another foreshadowing of other problems to come. I like how she slipped foreshadowing inside foreshadowing inside an argument.
Chopin foreshadows the ending in connecting Edna’s passion with not being able to swim. After listening to Mademoiselle Reisz play Chopin on the piano which aroused “the very passions themselves . . .within her soul” a group went down to the ocean to bathe in the moonlight :
“Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before. . . .
A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land. She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, “I thought I should have perished out there alone.”
“You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you,” he told her.
Again, like the mosquitoes, her mood is challenged and dissipates. And yet, things have changed. This passage does double duty of foreshadowing and connecting inner change to an outer event.
Inner Change and Outer Event:
When Mr. Pontellier reproaches his wife with neglecting her children it leads to the first mention that she is changing:
” She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood. . . .
It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood. She did not sit there inwardly upbraiding her husband, lamenting at Fate, which had directed her footsteps to the path which they had taken. She was just having a good cry all to herself. The mosquitoes made merry over her, biting her firm, round arms and nipping at her bare insteps.
The little stinging, buzzing imps succeeded in dispelling a mood which might have held her there in the darkness half a night longer.”
Her inner change starts with a change in their marriage. Her husband’s cruelty is now outweighing his kindness. The outer event is admonishment, the inner event is a dark mood and turning to herself for solace. However, this first mood is interrupted by mosquitos so it is only fleeting.
However, this change has primed her for experiencing the passion of music:
“The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.
She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.”
And that experience led her to face her fears and swim. After her swim, she doesn’t want the night to end, but reality eventually overcomes her fantasy, that duality within herself is always struggling:
“Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.”
Edna is aware that she’s changing and the author makes the changes clear to the reader through Edna’s thoughts and yet, even in contemplating how she has changed, there is some foreshadowing that she has changed more than she realizes:
“She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself— her present self— was in some way different from the other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect.”
It takes Robert leaving for Mexico for Edna to face what’s really happening:
“Edna bit her handkerchief convulsively, striving to hold back and to hide, even from herself as she would have hidden from another, the emotion which was troubling— tearing— her. Her eyes were brimming with tears. For the first time she recognized the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman. The recognition did not lessen the reality, the poignancy of the revelation by any suggestion or promise of instability. The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded.”
This realization then changed her perception of her surroundings and her behavior:
“Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing. She sought him everywhere— in others whom she induced to talk about him. She went up in the mornings to Madame Lebrun’s room, braving the clatter of the old sewing-machine. She sat there and chatted at intervals as Robert had done. She gazed around the room at the pictures and photographs hanging upon the wall, and discovered in some corner an old family album, which she examined with the keenest interest, appealing to Madame Lebrun for enlightenment concerning the many figures and faces which she discovered between its pages.”
When Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier returned to their house in New Orleans, Mrs. Pontellier didn’t return to her regular routine. This upset her husband, so he went out to eat at his club. She remembers how she used to react inwardly, then reacts outwardly:
“. . . and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear.”
After visiting her friend Mrs. Ratignolle in the city, she feels depressed but not because she won’t have domestic bliss but because she feels sorry for her friend having it:
“Edna felt depressed rather than soothed after leaving them. The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,— a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium. Edna vaguely wondered what she meant by “life’s delirium.” It had crossed her thought like some unsought, extraneous impression.”
Her husband begins to worry about her mental state. And her own thoughts betray unexplainable mood swings:
“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,— when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.”
Since Robert is gone to Mexico, he has replaced her husband in her mind as her idea of love:
“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour. The thought was passing vaguely through her mind, “What would he think?”
She did not mean her husband; she was thinking of Robert Lebrun. Her husband seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse.”
Once she has inwardly made this separation from her husband, she then moves from their house because she sees everything in their house as his, and wants a space of her own:
“Neither was it quite clear to Edna herself; but it unfolded itself as she sat for a while in silence. Instinct had prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty in
casting off her allegiance. She did not know how it would be when he returned. There would have to be an understanding, an explanation. Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”
And in this way, her inner journey from ,”beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” to becoming her own woman, an individual in the world is complete. She can then admit that she loves Robert, but that admission then leads to facing the truth of its impossibility.
As you can see, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening is a study in connecting the inner journey and the outer journey.
Applying What I Learned
Anchoring Inner Change to Outer Events:
Following Kate Chopin’s example, to connect my main character’s inner journey and outer journey, I want to tie her introduction description to her inner journey.
I want to use what other character’s say about her to show change:
Example: In the draft, the first time people are talking about Verity, I wrote, “Verity heard two pops. Her hand went to her hip, disappointed to feel the awkward handle of her taser.The new cashier appeared from storage with her palms held out at her chest. “Sorry. Sorry,” she said , “stepped on some bubble wrap. No need to take me down.”Verity relaxed her arms. She didn’t mind her reputation as an excitable hard-ass, if it meant everyone was on their toes.”
I like this, but it doesn’t show that it affects her. What if I add a comparison to a time when people talking about her did affect her:
“She didn’t mind her reputation as an excitable hard-ass, if it meant everyone was on their toes. And it was better than the whispers that she was having a break-down when she was let go from the department.”
I want to use setting as a catalyst for change:
Example: In The Awakening the voice of the ocean is seductive. What about Verity’s setting is deceptive? When she goes on her daily run, she avoids her neighbors and their dogs. When Memphis goes on a walk with her, she greets the neighbors and pets the dogs, but this doesn’t change Verity’s feelings about her neighbors and their pets, she believes she knows the truth, that Memphis is being fooled by their pleasant facades.
I want to use backstory to show her dual nature. I want to use foreshadowing to hint at what will cause change. I want to put foreshadowing inside foreshadowing inside an argument. And I want to anchor each of my plot points to steps in Verity’s inner emotional journey.
I’m really glad I chose The Awakening by Kate Chopin this week. It is a great example for learning about character arc and emotional journey.
This week I read Home by Toni Morrison. Home is a compact novel of only one hundred and forty six pages. It has a great opening hook of a man trying to escape from a hospital and letting the reader in on his plans of deception and escape. He doesn’t remember what he did to get arrested or taken to the hospital which starts the story off with a mystery. However, the novel continues to surprise by changing POV characters. The reader, keeps expecting the story to return to the first character Frank, a Korean War veteran with PTSD, but the novel keeps moving from character to character through the women in Frank’s life before coming back to him.
What I Learned
Structure: For a short novel, it has a surprise multi-POV structure with chapters in italics talking to the author, or someone who might tell the MC’s story in the future.
The title does a lot of work for the novel. It presents the theme and dramatic question and argument. What is home? Is it a place, a feeling, a person? Is it true that you can’t ever go home again? Or is home the place you settle, find comfort, or just give up looking for anything better?
Opening hook: The novel starts with one of the italicized sections describing a childhood memory that is a mystery about witnessing a dead body being buried in a field and ends addressing “you” as the person “set on telling my story.”
The first opening scene. The opening sentence is one word: Breathing. The next sentence is, “How to do it so no one would know he was awake.” What an intriguing opening. The character is contemplating using the most basic controllable action necessary for life to create a deceit. Instantly the reader has a ton of questions. Who is he trying to deceive? Why? Whether our MC is a good guy or a bad guy, he is manipulative and deceitful at the most basic level. And yet the reader wants answers to why and thus there’s already an investment in the character at least until they find out why he’s in that situation.
Evoking emotion: The emotion this novel evoked for me was disgust. To do this, Morrison broached taboo topics like Eugenics, forced sterilization, the horrors of war, PTSD, and child prostitution. I talked about writing about taboos in my RNLN post about A Widow For One Year by John Irving. She used many different techniques to finally get the reader feel disgust.
1. An unreliable main character. The main character is a Korean War veteran with Post Traumatic stress. He signed up with two of his childhood best friends and watched them both die horrible deaths. Morrison’s descriptions of how he experiences PTSD make his actions and feelings both real and relatable.
2. Making the main character honorable, or giving him heroic attributes: the only thing he has is the medal he earned for valor, and the reason he escapes and heads to Georgia is to save his sister. Everything he does is because he received a letter that says his sister’s life is in danger.
3. Making the main character vulnerable and giving him faults: The main character keeps getting mugged and losing all his money. He has to rely on the kindness of strangers. He has to trust others when he can’t even trust himself.
4. Betrayal: Though Morrison has set up the MC as a person who can’t be trusted, through making him relatable, honorable, and vulnerable she tricks the reader into believing him, only to be betrayed by the horror of the truth of his actions during the war when he finally faces and shares his truth.
Ending: The ending circles back to the opening scene, finding closure for the children in that opening memory.
Character and Character arc:
By using multiple POVs, Morrison makes it possible to see the MC through the eyes of the women in his life. One of the chapters is through the eyes of the “evil step-grandmother” who his family lived with before he left for the war. From her point of view, she had just gotten what she wanted in life before her new husband’s destitute family showed up and took it all away. They not only took her space, they expected her to be responsible for their children who became the only ones for her to take her frustrations out on.
Near the end, Frank sums up his sister Cee’s character arc for the reader:
“This Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world. Nor was she the not-even-fifteen-year-ole who would run off with the first boy who asked her. And she was not the household help who believed whatever happened to her whole drugged was a good idea, good because a white coat said so. Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel;s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes. Their low expectation of the world was always on display. Their devotion to Jesus and one another centered them and placed them high above their lot in life. They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones. “
I think one of the things I’m learning through reading novels as a novelist is telling the reader what you want them to take away from the novel is something the great novelists do. What makes it different than just exposition or telling is that the statements are interesting and thought provoking. The rule “show don’t tell” appears to be a rule meant to be broken.
Description and time: When the main character, Frank (Smart) Money does finally go home to his parents’ house, “that had been empty since his father died,” he re-rents it for a few months and finds some treasures in a hole next to the stove. “Cee’s two baby teeth were so small next to his winning marbles: a bright blue one, an ebony one, and his favorite, a rainbow mix. The Bulova watch was still there. No stem, no hands—the way time functioned in Lotus, pure and subject to anybody’s interpretation.”
In that short description, she says so much. The most important things to the MCs young self were his sister’s baby teeth, his winning marbles and a broken watch. But she’s also described life in the town he grew up in, and time itself. Time is “pure” when it can’t be tracked or known.
Another way she uses description and time is right after Frank brings his sister Cee to a safe place. Her life is in danger. The reader doesn’t know if she will live and so the reader is hooked. Frank has done what he can do and now his sister’s well-being is out of his hands. So what does Toni Morrison do next? She writes two pages of description about the sun and heat. Current writing instruction would would most likely tell me that readers won’t put up with that much description anymore. They will get bored or scan over it, and yet, in this novel it works. She’s putting the reader in Frank’s shoes. He’s feeling the sun and the heat acutely as he walks to line up for work in the cotton field while no longer having anything he can do to help his sister but wait and stay away.
Thought provoking equivalencies: The thing that really makes this novel stand above to me are the statements about abstractions:
content=hopeless “My family was content or maybe just hopeless living that way. I understand. Having been run out of one town, any other that offered safety and the peace of sleeping through the night and not waking up with a rifle in your face was more than enough. But it was much less than enough for me. “
desire=disgust “Thinking back on it now, I think the guard felt more than disgust. I think he felt tempted and that is what he had to kill.”
violence=good “Once seated, Frank wondered at the excitement, the wild joy the fight had given him. It was unlike the rage that had accompanied killing in Korea. Those sprees were fierce but mindless, anonymous. This violence was personal in its delight. Good, he thought. He might need that thrill to claim his sister.”
This week is going to be a little different. Every time I look “Abstract Art” in my local library system’s catalogue, the novel Kaleidoscope by Brian Seznick comes up. The cover looks like an extreme close-up on a green eye with the white lettering across the pupil. I’ve been curious why that novel comes up with “abstract art” every time, so this week, I checked it out and read it.
Seznick explains the connection himself in an author’s note:
“During the first three months of the pandemic . . . I started making abstract art, perhaps because it felt like the world was shattering, so my art needed to do something similar. . . . I found myself ripping apart everything I’d already written. It was like the narrative was shattering along with everything else, and out of the shards a new book began to take shape. . . . That’s why I decided to call this new version of the book Kaleidoscope, because each of these elements, like bits of colored glass, turn and transform and rearrange themselves into something new.”
I also finished S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. You may recall that I first encountered S., or The Ship of Theseus while looking at unusual formats during RNLN of The Woman in the Library. I was taking my time reading it, reading a couple of pages of the text, then reading all the marginalia. But then I saw that two people are waiting for it at the library, so it will be due soon, so I started reading the text about a half chapter at a time them going back to the marginalia and that worked a lot better for me to get me into the story, though I must admit, after initially loving the concept, I found the result rather dull.
Both of these novels were very unconventional and yet, to me, had a lot in common. They both found ways to manipulate time, to have the past, present, and future exist in the same space, and they both explored the concept of identity, of knowing one’s identity, of a person’s ever-changing identity. And they both explore the fluidity of relationship.
Time & Space, Identity, and Relationship
In the sixth story, “The Abandoned House,” Seznick addresses Kaleidoscope‘s approach to time and space directly when James says,
“Most people think time is a machine that needs to be oiled and wound with a key. They think it’s something you control and maintain. But maybe it’s more wild than that. Maybe it’s bigger and stranger. Maybe time is uncontrollable, and endless, and … dangerous. Like a forest eating a house.”
The order of the very short stories of the narrator and James moves like that: bigger and stranger and wild. In the first story James leaves and the narrator is accused of his murder, and in the second the narrator has become, or is a giant who can become invisible and James may be the name of a boy who gives him an apple. Later James is an imaginary friend, and in another story the narrator is a spirit.
Then how is this a novel?, you may ask. Or how are these the same characters?, you may wonder. Seznick does a great job of explaining this in “The Story of Mr. Gardner.” Mr. Gardner attempted to write the ultimate reference book. He started with defining an apple, and ended up with seventy-five thousand pieces of paper, still trying to finish his definition of an apple when he died.
“We had only a tiny fraction of everything he wrote in our possession, but the fragments included references to Greek myths, the origins of the universe, children’s fantasy novels, the quests of King Arthur’s knights, the creation of the periodic table, a man who found the entrance to a buried city behind a wall in his house, spaceships, ancient Egypt, mysterious castles, the invention of the kaleidoscope, and the knitted blankets of his childhood bed.
“It’s sad that Mr. Gardner died without finishing,” I said.
“I suppose,” said James. “But I think he may have discovered something interesting.”
I waited for James to continue. He gently placed his hand on top of the pile of papers, as if he was touching a living thing, and said, “The entire universe can be found inside an apple.”
The stories in this novel are like those fractions of everything that define the narrator and James.
In S. the physical space of the book, the text, the footnotes, the inserts, and different colors of ink show the past, present, and future, overlapping on the page. In the text of The Ship of Theseus which is the novel that S. revolves around, time behaves differently on the ship than it does on land. In the section of Ship of Theseus called “Interlude: Toccata and Fugue in Free Time,” the character S. moves between the ship and land many times, slipping between times and spaces.
“When S. is on the orlop, with the pen’s nib flying over paper, with ink spattering over skin, fabric, wood, what emerges on the paper are flashes of image, lightning-strikes of sense-memories, fragmented impressions of events. They refuse to be strung into coherent, linear narrative no matter how consciously he tries to arrange them so; in fact, the more he tries, the more the pieces resist his efforts. Many feel as if they belong to his past, but others almost certainly belong to the lives of others . . . he transcribes a captain’s log of voyages he has never taken on a ship he has never boarded; he chronicles (confesses?) his murderous skulkings on terra firma , although these accounts drift away from fact, toward distortion and grotesquerie as he—a dazed but rapt Hephaestus—sits and sweats in the greasy orange glow, watching his hands as if they were not his own.”
V. M. Straka
The marginalia references another of V. M. Straka’s fictional novels, but this can also be read as a description of S. as a whole.
At one point in The Ship of Theseus, the story addresses the philosophical question, or mental puzzle called “The Ship of Theseus.” S. finds a book that chronicles every change that has been made to the ship he is on, and poses the question to himself.
“On the first page is a charcoal drawing of his ship (no, he reminds himself, the ship on which I’ve been held)—or, rather, an earlier version of it, when it was a harmonious whole, a shipwright’s realization of a xebec that would fly across the main and leave sailors about other vessels dumbstruck with envy. With each page S. turns, he finds another drawing of the ship along with marginal notes cataloguing the changes it has undergone.
He flips forward, ten to twenty pages at a time. Again and again the ship sheds a feature and dons a new one, reinterpreted and remade. Some of these changes are noteworthy . . . each one seeming to widen the gap between what was intended and what turned out to be. . . .Are they the same ship? Intuition tells him they are, though perhaps he is being influenced by the fact that the pages are all held together within the same covers.”
V. M. Straka
This made me think of the short short stories that make up Kaleidoscope, and all the postcards, letters, and marginalia that make up S. Are they novels because they are held together and presented as such? I think it’s more than that. Each of the authors used moments within the novels to explain how to read and appreciate them as novels.
Applying What I Learned
Though my novel is told chronologically, these novels got me thinking about all of the times in my MC’s life that affect what is happening in the present story and got me brainstorming.
Which times of Verity’s life play the largest roles in her present being?
Happy childhood, loving parents, happy home
Her dad gets shot in a random act of violence Meets Memphis because forced bussing Memphis uses Verity’s address so they can continue to go to same schools, Verity’s mom goes along with it when asked, but holds it over Memphis. Says if she ever gets called that Memphis is in trouble, she’ll tell them the truth. This starts Memphis’s resentment of Verity.
Middle School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence High School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence / parties / dances
College : left town for the first time / felt a little fame from basketball / aches, pains, injuries?
Good relationships/ Bad relationships
Her mother getting sick Leaving college to go to school closer to home to take care of mother Taking the job as a cop Becoming a detective Solving her first big case Pauline getting murdered The restraining order / getting fired Her mom dying
All of these things and more happen before the novel begins.
In Kaleidoscope, the two main characters—the first person narrator, and James take on many different personae.
I, the first person narrator is a boy, a giant, a man James is an imaginary friend, a boy, the king of the moon
What are my MC’s different identities?
She is the store detective working a nine to five, going home, eating dinner, watching tv, going to bed, doing it again tomorrow Verity of the first paragraph of this novel. She is the Verity of the present who goes through the events of the novel She is jogger Verity She is Memphis’s friend Verity She is Verity who pretends to be like Memphis to get attention She is daughter Verity, grieving for her mother She is jobless Verity, grieving for her future She is obsessive connection-making thinker Verity She is detective Verity She is police officer Verity She is uncomfortable in her body tall Verity She is in command of her body basketball player Verity She is not Malibu Verity
By the end there, I was thinking about Barbie and all her different personae.
How do the events I listed that formed how Verity is in the present interact with her different identities? I think I’ll try writing some of the big events in Verity’s life from her point of view as they happened, then as a memory from the POV of a present identity. Once I’ve done that, I may want to re-evaluate my chronological telling. Is there a stronger way to use time, identity, and relationship in the way I tell my story?
This Week’s Surprise Connection
I checked out a book called The Writer’s Library by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, in which they talk to authors about the books that “made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives.” I thought this might have some interesting insight for this study.
In the Foreword by Susan Orlean she says, “In Senegal, when someone dies, you say that his or her library has burned.” (Having lived in Senegal, I did not ever hear that, and have trouble imagining it, said, but some people in Senegal could say it.) But that’s not this week’s surprise connection. Later she says, “At last, I understood how much we all are our books. Their meaning to us doesn’t end when we close the last page. What we glean from them alters us permanently; it becomes part of who we are for as long as we live.”
After reading that, I started reading Kaleidoscope and in the third story “The Library,” I read
“I found one other thing from the wreck,” I told him. “A locked chest.”
The boy sat up. “Where is it now?”
I brought him the chest, and he opened it with the key he wore around his neck.
As he lifted the lid, we saw the trunk was full of seawater stained black with ink and glue. One by one the boy pulled out soaking, ruined books. They dissolved in his hands and he collapsed on the floor in tears.
“Tell me what they were,” I asked. “My father’s books,” he said. “He was teaching me from them. I loved reading these books and discussing them with him. Now he is gone, and so are all the things he knew. Everything is lost.”
It was as if the two texts were talking to each other.
Maass says, ” . . . none of readers’ emotional experience of a story actually comes from the emotional lives of characters. It comes from readers themselves.” So how are we supposed to get a reader to feel from our writing?
He says, “There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. The first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, . . .The second is to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, . . .The third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. This is other mode,”
Let’s start with what made me laugh:
1. The first example is when we first meet the four members of the Thursday Murder Club as a group for the first time.
A question has been nagging at Donna throughout lunch. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, I know you all live at Coopers Chase, but how did the four of you become friends?”
“Friends?” Elizabeth seems amused. “Oh, we’re not friends, dear.”
Ron is chuckling. “Christ, love, no, we’re not friends. Do you need a top-up, Liz?”
Elizabeth nods and Ron pours. They are on a second bottle. It is twelve fifteen.
Ibrahim agrees. “I don’t think friends is the word. We wouldn’t choose to socialize; we have very different interests. I like Ron, I suppose, but he can be very difficult.”
Ron nods. “I’m very difficult.”
“And Elizabeth’s manner is off-putting.”
Elizabeth nods as well. “There it is, I’m afraid. I’ve always been an acquired taste. Since school.”
*A note about Character Description: At the end of that first funny insult fest, Osman gives a little physical description: “Elizabeth is going glassy-eyed with red wine, Ron is scratching at a West Ham tattoo on his neck, and Ibrahim is polishing an already-polished cuff-link.” These little descriptions say so much.
2. “So we were all witnesses to a murder,” says Elizabeth. “Which, needless to say, is wonderful.”
3. Then, this contradiction not of behavior, but of the common understanding of the challenge of chess.
“Chess is easy,” says Bogdan, continuing the walk between the lines of graves and now flicking on a torch. “Just always make the best move.”
“Well, I suppose,” says Elizabeth. “I’ve never quite thought about it like that. But what if you don’t know what the best move is?”
“Then you lose.”
All three of these places where I laughed while reading, were mostly dialogue and had to do with contradictions. In the first example, the people talking all seem to get along and be fun and interesting pensioners in an old folks home. But they are quick to say they are not friends, and insult each other. What made me laugh was the insulted person agreeing with the insult. In the second example, was the unexpected reaction to the horror of murder, that it’s wonderful and somehow needless to say, as if murder is always wonderful. In the third example, it’s the idea that a difficult strategy game is easy, simplified to making the best move. Of course it’s that simple, if you don’t make the best moves you lose. Every game comes down to that, life comes down to that. But it’s not that simple, and that’s what makes it funny.
Which of the three primary paths made me laugh? I think it’s other mode, the third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. I think Osman set up an expectation of these pensioners being friends and hanging out because they like each other, but has them contradict expectations: saying they are not friends, not being upset when insulted, saying murder is obviously wonderful, and chess is easy. Each of these contradictions made me laugh.
Now let’s look at what made me weepy:
Joyce is reading the suicide note from the widower she was romantically interested in.
“And that was that, I suppose, so silly when you look at it, but I had no easy way of digging the tea caddy back up. So would continue to walk up the hill, and continue to talk to Asima when no one was listening, telling her my news, telling her how much I loved her, and telling her I was sorry. And honestly, Joyce, for your eyes only, I realize that I have run out of whatever it s that we need to carry on. So that’s me, I’m afraid.
Joyce finishes and stares down at the letter for another moment, running a finger across the ink. She looks up at her friends and attempts a smile, which turns in an instant to tears. The tears turn to shaking sobs and Ron leaves his chair, kneels in front of her, and takes her in his arms.”
Which of the three primary paths made me weepy? I think it’s outer mode, to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. Maass says, “An important part of this method is the lengthy discourse . . . Why delve so deeply? One reason is to create a longer passage for the reader. That in turn creates a period of time, perhaps fifteen seconds, for the reader’s brain to process. That interval is necessary. It gives readers the opportunity to arrive at their own emotional response, a response that we cannot know.”
The section that made me weepy started long before this example section when I got weepy.
Applying What I Learned
How can I apply these techniques to my novel? Maybe my first step is to read through and find all of the places where I named an emotion. Then label which emotions I think the reader might feel. Then find which of the three primary paths will best evoke the story emotion.
This is a quick first step into the study of the reader’s emotional journey. I think this study will continue for many novels to come.
Overview: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is an intimate look at a philosopher’s wife, her husband, and eight children and their guests at a summer house. The young son wants to take the boat trip to the Lighthouse but the weather is not cooperating and he is very disappointed. The novel is told in stream of consciousness from a very close omniscient point of view, so the reader is inside all of the character’s minds almost simultaneously.
The novel has three sections. The second section is a distant point of view in which time has passed and the house has been left vacant but is now being cleaned for the family’s return. The final section shows how the characters (and the world) have changed due to World War I.
This novel is semi-autobiographical in that Virginia Woolf was the seventh of eight children whose father was a philosopher and scholar and her mother died suddenly.
Things I Learned
Introducing characters through their thoughts and then their physical appearance: From the very first page the reader is in the characters’ heads. Here is how we are introduced to the Ramsay’s young son, James: “Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue . . .”
So we start inside his head and heart where he can’t keep his contradictory emotions separated, and then we see what he’s doing. Then she gives a little setting as part of his emotion: ” It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling—all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark, and uncompromising severity . . .”
And after we know his feelings, and how they affect his actions and his surroundings, we get some physical description: “. . . with his high forehead, and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty . . .” I love that description of his frown, a six year old “frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty.” Then, in the same sentence she moves into how his mother sees him in that moment: “so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”
So we’re even seeing his mother’s hopes for his future career. However, in the next paragraph we see another side of this little boy: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence . . .”
What a turn. By saying what the boy would do, but didn’t, Woolf has shown a secret dark side to the child she’s been introducing, but also introduces the child’s father in a very interesting and mysterious way.
Let’s look at another character introduction: The next character introduced after Mr. Ramsay is Tansley. He speaks before anything is said about him: “It’s due west,” said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsay’s evening walk up and down, up and down the terrace. That is to say, the wind blew from the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him. “
The narrator calls him “the atheist Tansley” and yet Mrs. Ramsay whose mind we end up in doesn’t like that her children tease him by calling him the atheist. They call him the atheist not specifically as a religious non-believer, but because he doesn’t believe in anything. And they are teasing him because he admires their father and is studying under him. The only physical characteristic given is that he has bony fingers. He is introduced in relation to Mr Ramsay, but from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view that he says disagreeable things, and thus the first thing he does in the novel is say something she finds disagreeable.
And here’s a third way she describes a character: She let’s the reader in on how one character thinks of another. Here we have how Lily (an artist friend) sees William Bankes (an old friend of Mr. Ramsay): “Suddenly, as if the movement of his hand had released it, the load of her accumulated impressions of him tilted up, and down poured in a ponderous avalanche all she felt about him That was one sensation. Then up rose in a fume the essence of his being. That was another. She felt herself transfixed by the intensity of her perception; it was his severity; his goodness. I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know; you have neither wife nor child (without any sexual feeling, she longed to cherish that loneliness), you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes); praise would be an insult to you; generous, pure-hearted, heroic man! But simultaneously, she remembered how he had brought a valet all the way up here; objected to dogs on chairs; would prose for hours (until Mr. Ramsay slammed out of the room) about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks. How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?”
I love how Lily’s thoughts go from “you are the finest human being that I know” to “he objected to dogs on chairs” to what does liking and disliking mean anyway?
Describing setting through the emotions it evokes: The setting in this novel is mostly the gardens around the summer home which is near the ocean. As I mentioned in the description of James Ramsay, objects and setting are described through emotion. Here’s another example: ” They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”
Notice also how she used her sentence structure to delay “a fountain of white water,” building the mystery and tension throughout the sentence, so that the reader, along with the people on the beach, “had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came.”
Revolving: I noticed an interesting pattern of repetition through out the novel. An instantaneous repetition and then a later call back type of repetition that made me think of the cyclical nature of thought, memory, the seasons, years, life, etc. For example: On page seventy-six in my paperback she writes, “Minta cried out that she had lost her grandmother’s brooch—her grandmother’s brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was(they must remember it) set in pearls. They must have seen it, she said, with the tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that!” Then on page 77 she writes, “There was nothing more that could be done now. If the brooch was there, it would still be there in the morning, they assured her, but Minta still sobbed, all the way up to the top of the cliff. It was her grandmother’s brooch; she would rather have lost anything but that, and yet Nancy felt, it might be true that she minded losing her brooch, but she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else. We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for.
Another example: On the bottom of page thirteen to page fourteen she writes, “He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now) . . .” Then, on page twenty-seven: “The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. Every door was left open. She listened. The drawing-room door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut—simple as it was, could none of them remember it?”
The first example of this repetition is only a page apart, this connection of the character Tansley hearing Mrs. Ramsay talk about windows and doors and then Mrs. Ramsay talking about windows and doors is fourteen pages apart, and yet they are part of a pattern of repetition and call-backs throughout the writing that stood out to me as part of the novel as a whole as a study of distance.
Near the end of the novel she seems to explain all of her circular repetition when she says, “For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.”
Distance and intimacy: The first section of the novel is so intimate that the reader is inside everyone’s heads almost at once. The second section is so distant that huge changes, life and death, are in brackets at the end of sections of exposition. The third section is back to intimacy, but a guarded intimacy that has changed too much over time. The premise being explored is at what distance is the correct distance for connection?
Near the end of the novel the character Lily makes this comparison of physical distance and emotional distance, “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, she thought upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched out; he seemed to become more and more remote. He and his children seemed to be swallowed up in that blue, that distance;”
I really like this section talking about the Lighthouse from a distance compared to the lighthouse close-up: ” James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the by. n the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and light seemed to reach them in the airy sunny garden where they sat.”
From this passage one could conclude that relation includes both closeness and distance.
Contradictory Abstractions: Virginia Woolf liked to explore our contradictory natures and talked a lot about contradictory abstract nouns which I enjoyed. Here are some examples of how she explored contradictory abstract nouns: Truth / Deceit- “The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.
Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west.
To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.
He stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask he Coastguards if she liked. There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.”
Reality / Illusion – “This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be dance round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
Wisdom / Naivete – “And that’s the way I’d like my children to live—Cam was sure that her father was thinking that, for he stopped her throwing a sandwich into the sea and told her, as if he were thinking of the fishermen and how they lived, that if she did not want it she should put it back in the parcel. She should not waste it. He said it so wisely, as if he knew so well all the things that happened in the world that she put it back at once, and then he gave her, from his own parcel, a gingerbread nut, as if her were a great Spanish gentleman, she thought, handing a flower to a lady at a window (so courteous his manner was). He was shabby, and simple, eating bread and cheese; and yet he was leading them on a great expedition where, for all she knew, they would be drowned.”
Love Languages: Love languages is something that I read about and liked in Plot vs. Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The idea that everyone expresses and understands love in different ways. Virginia Woolf gives a good example of individual love languages, “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. . . . Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? . . .And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. ” This passage shows two people with two different love languages, one wants to hear the words and say the words, the other shows love through deeds and actions and wants love through deeds and actions.
Dialectic Thinking: And speaking of love languages. Here’s a great passage where Lily demonstrates dialectic thinking on love: “Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love;”
Applying What I Learned
Character description: Since I’m writing in close third point of view, I can’t float around in all my character’s heads. The only way I have to describe my characters is through my main character’s point of view. However, to follow Woolf’s order of introduction from emotion, to action, to physical description, I can try introducing my characters through body language, and facial expression, then what they are doing and objects they are interacting with, then more specific details of what they look like. I can also be more aware of how my main character is feeling when other characters are introduced, and use that feeling as a filter for how she would see the other person.
Another thing I can learn from Woolf’s character descriptions is to surprise the reader by presenting the character’s dark side as part or their description. How can I do that without knowing the character’s thoughts? They can say something rude, or unpleasant. They can do something unexpectedly mean, or bad, or just icky. I’m excited to try this out.
Setting: I really liked how she combined setting with emotion. My main character’s house is an important setting in the novel. When the reader is first introduced to this house, my main character has just gone through a life and death battle. She’s slightly injured, and on a sedative, the adrenaline is running out, so she’s exhausted but her mind is spinning, replaying what just happened, trying to remember every detail, so what does the house look like when she walks up to it? She’s angry and frustrated, but happy to be alive. Is the neighborhood friendly and familiar, or menacing and full of strangers? Is the house inviting and safe, or old and in need of a frustrating amount of work? Is it the house full of happy memories, or the house of sad memories? When she goes inside, what are the things she notices? The smells, textures, sensations, are they comforting, or further traumatizing, reinforcing that somehow she deserved what just happened? All these things can be expressed in how I describe my MC going into her house.
Revolving: Though I won’t be using this in Virginia Woolf’s style, it could be a useful technique for showing my main character’s ideas changing over time. I could have her think something at the beginning and have that thought come up slightly changed in reaction to an event, and then again slightly changed in response to another event, until she’s thinking the opposite at the end. I could do the same thing with another character through dialogue. The character can make a statement of belief or feeling at the beginning of the novel that they repeat slightly changed through out until they are saying the compete opposite by the end. I like those ideas and can already think of how to use them in my novel.
Distance: How can I use Woolf’s study of distance and intimacy as a writing technique? I think my take away is how she states the premise to the reader. She has her characters thinking about it and drawing conclusions. Since my main character is the only character with thoughts the reader can read. She may have some thoughts about how distance and intimacy interplay. However, that is not my novel’s premise. Near the end of my novel she needs to be thinking about truth and deceit and how her views on issues of truth and deceit have changed.
Love Languages come up in my novel between my main character and her best friend. One sees love through actions and deeds, the other through gifts and objects. Both of them feel taken for granted and that the other doesn’t love equally because they have these different love languages. I can try to make this clearer through my MC’s thoughts when she does something she thinks is showing love to her friend but doesn’t get the reaction she expects or wants. And since my novel is in close third, not omniscient POV, I will have to clearly show her best friend’s feelings through body language and dialogue.
I did it! I finally read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I finally understand the title that’s been sitting on my shelf for what seems like forever. It took a half a day longer than I thought it would, and it felt like I had run a 10K when I finally finished the last page, but I did it!
This was the first time I made my notes directly in the book. This was an old paperback in bad shape, so I didn’t feel bad marking it up. I forgot to put a color code in place before I started, so my highlighting colors don’t mean a lot. I attempted to make orange consistently mark foreshadowing, and pink marked statements about abstract nouns. I still used some post its to mark sections I thought I would want to reference.
It felt pretty good to highlight in the book, but since I felt like I just wanted to get through this novel and finish it, I didn’t spend time writing any notes in the margins. I think if I enjoyed the book more, I might have really enjoyed the process, so now I think I want to try this process again with another old paperback. I have an old copy of a book I love that I’ve been wanting to re-read. For the moment, I’ll keep that as a possible future read.
Things I Learned
A Widow for One Year was kind of all over the place. It reminded me of a clip show from an old TV series, when they would make an episode out of clips from other episodes. It contained aspects of all of the novels we have looked at so far: It used fictional books as part of the story like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds. It had the meta levels of a writer writing about a writer writing about writing like The Woman in the Library. It had the realism, sex, and adultery of Madame Bovary. It had the sexually obsessed parents of Unspeakable Things. It had the head-hopping omniscient narrator, and social commentary of Little Fires Everywhere. This vast tome had a bit of everything. And yet, it was completely different from all of those other novels in its emotional rawness and ability to surprise.
The thing that stood out for me the most in A Widow for One Year by John Irving was the excessive use of blatant foreshadowing. This is another reason the novel felt like a clip show, or like I wrote on Tuesday, ADHD as a novel. Irving starts a sentence in the present ant by the end of the paragraph you’re in the future or past and then he gets to the next sentence of the action in the present and then he’s off again. This created a strange constant pendulum swing of time. The distant omniscient narrator can see forever into the future and the past and will randomly let the reader in on this information. Such as, “In a year’s time, the police would crack down on the “illegals”; soon there would be empty window rooms around the red-light district.” This future knowledge doesn’t even affect the main characters, but there you go, future told.
Irving addresses this in a somewhat meta comment on his own writing, using a quote from Graham Greene. “On the subject of childhood, Ruth preferred what Greene had written in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Oh, yes—Ruth agreed. But sometimes, she would have argued, there is more than one moment, because there is more than one future.”
Tragedy’s influence: This novel starts years after a tragic accident in which two teen boys die. Their deaths tear their family apart and influence the actions of the family members and the people around them for their whole lives. He emphasizes the effect of this tragedy through giving special importance to photographs hung around the house, each with a story that the characters tell to one another to keep the dead boys alive in their thoughts.
One of the things that Irving does well in A Widow for One Year is to bring the reader into taboos: mostly sexual taboos. Keeping the reader focused on sex and taboo sexual behaviors so when the events of the plot happen they are real surprises. Like a magician’s slight of hand, Irving has the reader looking at sadism and statutory rape, while never suspecting the deaths on the horizon.
Her first example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about homosexuality during a time that sodomy was illegal and a homosexual could be put to death. She used it as an example of a writer confronting taboo that could not be written about openly and said, “Being elliptical gives you a lot of power that being head on and direct would not have.”
But Irving’s use of taboos isn’t elliptical at all. It’s graphic and realistic and shoved in the reader’s face again and again. Oates goes on, however. She mentions memoirs about alcoholism, depression, and being a widower, and says they “hit a nerve of candor.” She also says that “tapping on secret audiences is the consequence of writing about taboos.”
Talking about the body: Irving’s focus on boobs and talking about penises is both casual as if people always openly talk about their bodies, and then repetitive to the point that I wondered about his odd boob obsession. This casual nakedness being normal and yet odd starts near the beginning of the novel when Ruth is four years old. “As usual, she took only a passing interest in his nakedness. “Your penis is funny,” she said. “My penis is funny,” her father agreed. It was what he always said.
By the time I neared the end of the book I was pretty tired of reading about Ruth’s boobs and came across this exchange. “It may have been his anniversary, but he was looking at your breasts,” Hannah said. “He was not!” Ruth protested. “Everyone does, baby. You better get used to it.”
I think there’s definitely something to be learned from the vulnerability of nakedness, and the realism of humans as sexual beings, but I also think Irving got a little hung up on it in this novel.
Applying What I Learned
At this early stage of my revision, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before. Starting at the end of my draft, I’m putting two scenes at a time into Scrivener and then brainstorming fifty other options. So I copied my final two scenes into a Scrivener file taking the time to write summaries and titles for the scenes and using the meta-data to color code the emotional arc and label the scene value. Then I brainstormed fifty other possible endings. Then I copied the two scenes before that and did the same. I’m really enjoying the brainstorming and near the end of fifty new ideas, the ideas are getting interesting. Going through this process is helping me really understand the infinite combinations of choices that make up every novel. I can also see how a first draft is like my mini-trampoline that I love, it’s a surface with springs, to bounce off of again and again.
Let’s look at how I can apply some of the big-picture elements of Irving’s A Widow for One Year to my novel revision.
Time: Though I was not a fan of how Irving used foreshadowing in this novel, is there a way of changing the chronology of my draft that would be a better way to tell the story? If I altered chapters between the present and five years ago leading up to and after the homicides, that could be very interesting.
It would show three different versions of my main character: 1. the recovered version in her new normal life 2. the confident rising star detective of the past and 3. the after homicide descending version, losing herself, not able to solve the case, crossing the line, getting fired, and hitting rock bottom. It’s a good idea. I might give it a try.
I could write all of the backstory about the homicides as scenes from my MCs POV. She, of course, wouldn’t see that she was spiraling, or crossing the line, but the reader would see her becoming more obsessive, and making bad decisions. This technique would change a lot of dialogue and exposition to scene which is also more immersive for the reader.
Tragedy: Like the characters of A Widow for One Year, my MC had a tragedy in her life when she was young that affects her motivations and decisions. I can use photographs, objects, and memories, stories she tells, sayings she uses, and ways she responds to people to show how much this tragedy has shaped her life and the lives of those around her. Irving’s example can help me emphasize this effects of the tragedy more through out my novel.
Taboo: I like the taboo exploration-distraction technique idea. In my novel the taboos are: paganism, mysticism, sacrilege, bisexuality, random acts of violence, psychological manipulation, and corruption. I may need to zero in on some specific aspects of those taboos that make people really uncomfortable and aren’t written about very much. And brainstorm how I can really lean into the taboo to surprise with a plot event.
Talking about the body:
I don’t think I talked about bodily functions all that much in my novel. After reading Irving, I’m wondering if I don’t need to get into the body more—not the obsessive, creepy breast fixation—but each of my women may be at a different stage in her cycle and it would affect her in a different way.
One of my characters is pretending to be older, to be a woman that would have gone through menopause. Having a tampon or pad in her purse would give her away. Also having her period would give her away, so cramps, bloating, headache, taking Pamprin, or a similar drug; these would all be signs that she is a younger woman. Being on the pill, could also give her away.
My MCs best friend is sexually open and likes to shock her by being crass, so she would openly talk about having her period, having her period while having sex, embarrassing moments of bleeding in public, etc. These are taboos that people don’t write about that much, though it did come up in Little Fires Everywhere.
Maybe having her period came up in the victim’s wife’s defense. Maybe she couldn’t have committed a grizzly homicide because she had cramps and was tired physically and mentally from having her period. It made her sluggish and anemic. That could be an interesting societal issue. I wonder if there’s legal precedence. I’ll look in my women and the law book.
Though I found Irving’s obsession with breasts really obnoxious and annoying and his obsession with sex disturbing, I think that avoiding sex and bodily function is also wrong, so finding a balance is important. Humans have basic needs, food, water, shelter, elimination, sleep, exercise/physical labor (purpose) and sex (connection). So my characters need all these things too.
Now that I’ve explored my process of Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN) for a while, I thought I would combine my RNLN focus post with my Contradictory Abstractions post on Tuesday, but then we had surprise snow and the sun came out, so I took a snow day. Then yesterday was the Heron Tree submission deadline and now it’s mid-day Thursday, so you’re getting one combined post this week.
As I had hoped, my studies of contradictory abstract nouns and reading novels like a novelist have combined and overlapped, so that I can study them at the same time. As I read Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee, this overlap became even more apparent. Today, I’ll lay out how novels are a study of contradictory abstract nouns at three different levels: the premise of the novel as a whole, the character arc of each character, and the change in value during each scene.
Every novel is a persuasive argument. The author comes up with a premise and uses characters, and inciting incident, conflict and resolution to prove that premise to the reader. In Dialogue, McKee puts it this way:
“A core value is irreplaceable because it determines the story’s fundamental nature. Change core value, change the genre. For example, if a writer were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core values would pivot her genre from love story to redemption plot.”
Look at those contradictory abstract nouns he placed in there for “core value.” Think of how many stories that revolve around Good vs. Evil. Every story, in a way, attempts to define these two abstractions and then pit them against each other.
Every novel is about change. The main character needs to change to achieve her desire though she may not want to, or know that she needs to until she is forced to make some difficult choices. McKee says:
“The impact of the inciting incident decisively changes the charge of the value at stake in the character’s life. Story values are binaries of positive/negative charge such as life/death, courage/cowardice, truth/lie, meaningfulness/meaninglessness, maturity/immaturity, hope/despair, justice/injustice, to name but a few. “
Look at all those contradictory abstract nouns I’ve been looking at since last summer.
Every scene of a novel from beginning to end works to prove the premise, but it also has its own change in value. McKee explains:
“The values in scenes can be very complex, but at minimum, every scene contains at least one story value at stake in the character’s life. This value either relates to or matches the story’s core value. Scenes dramatize change in the charge of this value.”
This reminded me of my posts in November when I organized different contradictory abstract nouns into the big five. For example if my overall premise is truth and deceit, then a scene may be trust/distrust, and another may be honesty/dishonesty.
RNLN Things I Learned
Now let’s look at these three aspects of a novel using Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The novel is about a wealthy family in a planned community in Ohio, whose lives are changed when their mother rents to a single mom and her teenage daughter.
Premise: The main premise of the novel is stated just after the three-quarter point (pg. 258 in the hard-cover); “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
The author explores this question through examples of a demanding “perfect” two parent wealthy family with four children, a poor single parent of one child, a surrogacy, and an adoption process gone wrong. She also shows two of the daughters wishing they had the other one’s mother.
The author’s premise turns motherhood into an abstract noun and its contradiction which she shows through couples who cannot conceive and abortion.
I looked back at the beginning of the novel to see if the premise was stated there as well and found this interesting line, “. . . they could see there was little inside to be saved.” And though this is talking about the house it could also be speaking to the character Elena as a mother and her relationships in her family.
Character Arc: The novel starts our in the wealthy mother’s point of view. Then I thought it was going to be multiple point of view by chapter, but it turned out it was written in omniscient which I figured out at the beginning of chapter five when she started head hopping from paragraph to paragraph. The character arcs seem to be looking at a combination of values of good/bad, rich/poor, and love/hate.
The novel opens with the house on fire, and a statement of who lit the fire, all that wealth and worldly possession up in flames, so the change is already known, the rest of the novel is the why, the explanation of how they got there.
Scene Value: Picking a random scene in the novel, I got the backstory section when Mia thinks she’s being followed on the subway by a mugger, but it turns out to be a person who offers her a proposal to make money. The scene’s value runs along fear of the unknown to fear of the known/possible. Along the main premise the scene moves from not a mother, to possibility of being a mother.
Ship of Theseus
After reading the novel Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I watched the Hulu mini-series called “Little Fires Everywhere.” Remember when we looked at The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and talked about interesting formats which led me to The Ship of Theseus? The Hulu series made me think of The Ship of Theseus as in, if you change, replace, and add to every piece of a story, is it the same story? What pieces have to stay the same for it to be recognized as the same story? The Ship of Theseus really is an interesting thought puzzle and there it was playing out right before my eyes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what has to stay the same in a story for it to be recognized as the same story.
Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is the first novel in this series that I read on my tablet. Using the Kindle functions were more difficult, even frustrating, on my tablet. When I attempted to highlight with my finger, the whole page moved. I had to place my finger, wait and then when the marker showed, try to select the words I wanted which was hard to do with precision. By the time I made my selection, I wasn’t very interested in bothering with colors and notes.
So here’s my tip (for myself and you if you have a cheap tablet): have the stylus and bluetooth keyboard handy when reading novels like a novelist on a tablet.
Other people’s highlighted selections showed up as dashed underlines. I did find it interesting to see what people underlined. They did not appear to be craft notes, but more like quotable sayings, or pleasant platitudes.
On my tablet I discovered a couple more Kindle features: when I highlighted a name (an 80’s pop-culture reference) Wikipedia opened and told me who it was. I then tested this by highlighting the name of a character and something call X-Ray opened showing me all of the places in the book where that character is mentioned.
Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is a novel, published in 2020 set in 1980. The book description on Amazon says it was “Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown” in Minnesota. It is told from the point of view of a twelve year old girl. The popular boy she has a crush on gets kidnapped.
The Beginning: The beginning of this novel didn’t feel like it set up the tone or characters for the inciting incident. To explore this, let’s go through the questions about beginnings:
What do I think the book is about from the first page? A family that farms, or in a farming community, that has happy family game nights. The last line on the page mentions it’s nearly Summer, but it arrived early and “Was really going to mess with crops.” Does the first page present characterization, energy/tone, mystery, and emotional bedrock? The characterization on the first page is from the point of view of one of the daughters, the energy and tone is content and happy, there isn’t any mystery and the emotional bedrock appears to be family bond, and belonging. How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think this novel started in the wrong place. I would start around chapter six. The scene in the bar has the tone of the novel, the strange behavior of the father and the cop, the girls out of place in a bar but also doing something normal for kids their age, playing pac-man which brings in the 80’s connection without forcing the pop-culture reference.
How is the main character introduced? Playing cribbage with her family. She is paired with her mother, her sister is paired with her father. She and her mother win. She is laughing and eating popcorn. How is the main character first described? Through an experience with her Aunt Jin. “She was the only one who didn’t pretend I was normal.” This could have been interesting, but she goes on to say that her Aunt had been at her birth and stayed for a few weeks after to help her mom, but then stared at the permanent red mark around her neck from difficulties in childbirth and said, “If you’d been born two hundred years ago, they’d have drowned you.” That’s the girl’s first memory of her favorite person. Then after telling the story of her birth, she comes back to the memory with her Aunt in which she goes on to say, “It would have been bad luck to keep a baby whose own mother tried to strangle it twice.” The twelve year old then says, “I decided on the spot that it was an okay joke because Mom was her sister, and they both loved me. ” So the introduction to the main character is that she has a red, ropy scar that circles where her neck meets her shoulders. And that her favorite aunt stares at it and says mean things.
I think this story really started in the bar in chapter six. The father taking his daughters to go day drinking with the local cop is much more representative of the feel of the novel than a game of family cribbage.
I think the author started with the cribbage game scene because she wants the reader to see what the family presents to the outside world: a normal, wholesome, loving family. But that’s supposedly a pretense. The main character says again and again that she’s not supposed to tell anyone what her home-life is really like, so the opening scene when no one else is looking from the point of view of a fearful pre-teen would be a very different scene. It wouldn’t be the fake happy family presented to the world. So this set-up which doesn’t include any interesting action or insight, or the inciting incident, gives a false impression and doesn’t bring the reader in. Later it makes it hard to suspend belief and I found myself wondering if the main character is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The character of the aunt reminds me of the cook in the 1980 movie, The Shining. The character is built up as the savior, the rescue, is begged for help, finally arrives, and is axed instantly having done nothing. The whole character feels completely pointless. At least in The Shining the cook was a mentor, confidant for a moment at the hotel. In this novel, the aunt is only talked about and written to, she does nothing.
Credibility Flaws: The section of Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee that I thought related to this novel was called “Credibility Flaws.” Here is McKee’s list of faults that damage credibility, and examples from the novel. Remember, this novel is written in first person POV of a twelve year old girl in a small farming town in Minnesota.
1. Empty Talk – when the reader can’t find a motivation in the subtext of what the character says, causing the dialogue to sound phony.
“I know,” Sephie said, wiping her face, eager to agree. “I made a mistake. Mrs. Tatar is impossible but I should have gotten tutoring.” “You think I should help her, don’t you, Dad?” My liver felt yellow at this, joining in coddling Dad like he was a babyman, but it’s what worked.”
2. Overly Emotive Talk – The character uses language that seems far more emotional than how she actually feels, making the reader think the character is hyper-dramatic and false.
“I’d die if he ever came all the way up those stairs.”
“If I didn’t see Gabriel for the rest of the day and he didn’t ride the bus, I’d walk to his house after school. I would. I’d do it. I needed that necklace.”
3. Overly Knowing Talk – injects the author’s knowledge into the character’s awareness. The character looks at events with insight beyond her experience.
“A strip of sweat rolled down my back and was absorbed by my training bra. The cicadas were whirring, and the air smelled dusty purple from the lilacs tossing up their pollen like Mardi Gras floozies. I licked my lips and tasted salt.”
4. Overly Perceptive Talk – characters with excessive, unconvincing self-awareness. “When a character describes himself with a depth of insight more profound than Freud, Jung, and Socrates combined, readers and audiences not only recoil at the implausibility; they lose faith in the writer.”
“I’d been studying the lacy frost pattern on the inside of the bus window, thinking Rorschach could have saved a buttload on ink if only he’d moved to Minnesota. . . .This was a Life Event.”
5. Excuses Mistaken for Motivation – “In an effort to match a character’s over-the-top action with a cause, writers often backtrack to the character’s childhood, insert a trauma, and pass it off as motivation. Over recent decades, episodes of sexual abuse became an overused, all-purpose, mono-explanation for virtually any extreme behavior. Writers who resort to this kind of psychological shorthand do not understand the difference between excuse and motivation.” I talked about this above in answer to How is the main character first described?
6. Melodrama – The problem of melodrama is not over-expression but under-motivation.
“I couldn’t run past hiim. Trapeed, I made myself arger, hoping he couldn’t see my knees shaking. “You come one step closer and I’ll slap you.” Now I was in Dynasty? But I still couldn’t make sense of what was happening. was in Lilydale Elementary and Middle School, standing in a lit room, Mr. Connelly wasn’t more that fifty feet away. I could even hear Charlie Kloss’s ragged notes splitting the air. But my stomach held a bag of ice suddenly, and I grew light-headed. I was afraid, really and truly, and I’d known Clam my whole life.”
Using the pop-reference of the show Dynasty is like the character saying “I know I’m being as melodramatic as a prime time soap opera,” and the author continuing the melodrama anyway.
Misuse of pop-culture references:
The novel is set in the eighties which quickly becomes clear through reference after reference. But these eighties references feel out of place and forced, taking me out of the story. Right away while talking about the plans she and her sister have for tanning that Summer the main character says, “Boys liked no tan lines. I’d learned that watching Little Darlings.” Little Darlings is a film from 1980. Since I’ve never seen it, it doesn’t add anything for me.
Then, on the same page she describes her mom and dad. She says, “Dad was handsome, too, with a Charles Bronson thing going on.” I’m guessing she means some aspect of the actor’s characters, but without any detail, this also means nothing. She describes her sister as “a dead ringer for Kristy McNichol.” Wikipedia informed me she was in Little Darlings.
Then when talking about her birth she says, “The whole fiasco wasn’t exactly a job well done. Plus, Rosemary’s Baby had hit theaters a couple years before, and everyone in that room must have been wondering what had propelled me out of the womb with such force.”
Later on, some of these references became problematic because they were too familiar. For instance, Remington Steele was mentioned four times, and I just happened to be watching Remington Steele on Amazon Prime Video. So when she says, “That’s why I liked Remington Steele, Laura Holt did all the work. She was the real deal. She didn’t waste time being romantic.” That was just wrong. That was the conflict of the show. Laura kept saying she didn’t mix business with pleasure, but they couldn’t help themselves, and almost every episode ends with them kissing. She wastes a lot of time being romantic.
Then when she brought up The Empire Strikes Back, I knew there would be trouble. Even if she hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back she would have seen Star Wars by then, or at least know everything about it. So it again felt completely unbelievable when she said, “Every single kid in the world but me and Sephie had viewed it at the movie theater three years ago. I’d had to pretend I knew what they were referring to when they made pewpew noises and talked about the dark side.” I mean honestly, that’s just ridiculous. She would have seen a million commercials for the toys. Back then there were story records, and books. She didn’t have to see the movie to know the entire world and stories of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
These misuses of eighties references was yet another way the story lost credibility.
Empty foreshadowing: Only 38% of the way through the book, she ends chapter 16 with, “I look back at that day and wonder where we’d be now if I’d eaten those strawberries, too. It wasn’t fair that only Sephie had to bear that.”
This bit of foreshadowing is never resolved, and adds nothing to the story. After finishing the book, I think the author means that if Cassie had eaten the strawberries, she would have seen Gabriel’s necklace, but if that is what she means, Sephie would have seen the necklace just as easily as Cassie. She wouldn’t have ignored it if it was there. Either way, it doesn’t make sense, and is just left dangling there doing nothing.
Applying What I Learned
This week’s novel along with Mr. McKee’s craft book taught me a lot about making characters and their actions, including the act of speech, credible. It starts with the very first paragraph, setting the tone and introducing the character and dramatic question. If this doesn’t match the premise of the novel, the character and her story isn’t credible.
I also learned that pop-culture references, though specific and emotionally loaded details, can be problematic in different ways: some don’t add anything to the story because they aren’t understood, and others may be used incorrectly and be wrong to the reader. Either way they take the reader out of the story.
And a very important thing I learned is that if you use blatant foreshadowing, make sure that it actually means something, and isn’t just floating around out in the ether after the book is over.
To apply what I learned to my novel at this point in my developmental edit, I want to make sure that the motivations, and desires of my characters are clear and plausible. I also want to look for any characters that seem important but don’t really do anything. I have a character near the middle that might not really be doing anything. I think I was playing around with a possible love interest then dropped it. I’ve also already noticed some Overly Knowing Talk in my novel. My characters, whether a make-up artist or palm reader seem to like to talk about neurons and brain-function. I think I’ll be trimming out the neuroscience after I do the major structural edits. 😃
The concept of this series of posts is to stop reading craft books, learning from other writers’ chosen examples, and learn from novels, choosing my own examples. However, I had one craft book from the library that I hadn’t finished, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It’s very good, and I noticed examples of some of the things I read in the book while I read this week’s novel, Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey, as a novelist.
Choosing the Novels
Though I have lists of books and somewhat of a plan for an order of what I would like to read and study, I am already learning the importance of being flexible. One of the main issues for my reading list is availability. My hold on Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng became available so A Widow for One Year by John Irving is getting pushed back another week.
I signed up for the second section of the Wesleyan University course “The Modern and The Post Modern” on coursera.org. The novel for the that section is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I don’t think I’ve read it, so I’m excited to get to that one after Irving.
Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN)
So this week I’ll be focusing on what I’m learning from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It covers a lot more than spoken dialogue. He explores dialogue as three modes of talk: said to others, said to oneself, and said to the reader or audience. He says the three functions of dialogue are Exposition, Characterization, and Action. As you can see, his study of dialogue covers all the aspects of a novel.
Though the book covers more that just dialogue in the traditional sense of quoted speech between characters, I thought I would also focus in on the questions from my original list that have to do with dialogue:
What is the first line of dialogue? What is the main character’s first line of dialogue? Did it reveal the main character’s main concern? Did it foreshadow what was to come? Does it showcase the character’s personality? Do I like this first line of dialogue? How many words is it? Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one?
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension? Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking? How can I apply what I like to my own work?
Is the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?
Through this exploration, I will hopefully have a whole new list of questions inspired by McKee’s book.
The way Dialogue influenced my RNLN got me wondering if other craft books will influence my reading as well. One of my main goals for this project is to learn how to evoke emotion in the reader, so I think I’ll re-read my copy of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass while I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng to see if the craft book helps me focus on finding useful examples in the text that will help me improve my writing.
It’s All Coming Together
I keep talking about enjoying the synergy of my studies, but this week’s serendipity was pretty funny. Last week I mentioned the fun fact that Henry Mancini wrote the theme song for Remington Steele which I’ve been enjoying on Amazon Prime Video. I didn’t realize when I chose Unspeakable Things for RNLN that it was set in the eighties and went a little nuts with the pop culture references mentioning Remington Steele many times. 😄