Category Archives: Craft

Monday Craft Tips: Using point of view to make emotion more vivid (1)

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money.

crowbarWhen Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, Wolff enacts Marcel’s fear and courage by switching to Marcel’s point of view and using detailed descriptions: “He stood facing the door while Barnes jimmied it, his aunt and cousins and grandmother gathered behind him…shaking and clinging to one another. ” (31) Once Victor and Marcel begin to struggle, we shift back to Victor’s point of view: “Barnes shoved him away and swung the crowbar, catching Marcel right across the temple.” Within Victor’s point of view, Marcel’s death occurs in silence, conveying Victor’s shock and disbelief: “The boy’s eyes went wide. His mouth opened. He sank to his knees and pitched facedown on the floor.”  

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Monday Craft Tips: Use strong verbs to enact emotion on the page

For the last two weeks, we’ve been talking about Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Chain”. Near the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Brian Gold, saves his daughter Anna from a dog.

DamagedCarAnna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money:

Victor Emmanuel Barnes found it there three hours later.  He knelt and ran his hand along the jagged cleft in the car door, flecks of paint curling away under his fingertips. He knew exactly who had done this. He picked up the crowbar, tossed it on the passenger seat, and drove straight to the apartment building where Devereaux lived. As he sped through the empty streets he howled and pounded the dashboard. He stopped in a shriek of brakes and seized the crowbar and ran up the stairs to Devereaux’s door. (29-30)

Wolff conveys rage with the use of strong verbs: “tossed”, “sped”, “howled”, “pounded”, “seized”. (30) And where Wolff uses a less strong verb such as “stopped”  he makes the imagery memorable by using an unusual group noun: “stopped in a shriek of brakes” (emphasis added.)

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Monday Craft Tips: Use sensory details to make emotions more vivid

Do you remember this passage from last week? It comes from a short story called “The Chain” by Tobias Wolff:

He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)

Sledding2In subsequent sentences of this excerpt Wolff enacts emotion by piling on sensory details. The narrator’s overcoat “flapped” impeding his movement (2). Brian “screamed” causing his daughter to flinch. The dog grabs her anyway, but gets her shoulder instead of her face. Next we learn that “Gold was barely halfway down the hill.” His arms are pumping but his feet are “sliding in the boots”. He “seemed to be running in place, held as a fixed unbridgeable distance” as the dog finally drags Anna off the sled. All these details accrue to convey Brian’s panic and desperation, and they evoke a similar feeling of panic and desperation in the reader. By the time we get to the last sentence, we are so gripped by this scene that Wolff is allowed to get away with using the adjective “helplessly” partly because it’s rhythms convey Brian’s tumble down that hill to get to that dog.

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Monday Craft Tips: Use lists effectively to create emotional tension

SleddingTobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his short story “The Chain”, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna:

He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)

In the first sentence of the excerpt Wolff creates a list of disadvantages the narrator must overcome to save his daughter, contrasting the dog’s speed with the narrator’s “own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow.”

When trying to enact emotion on the page, consider using lists to create emotional tension.

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Monday Tips: Help with story-telling mechanics

It never ceases to amaze me that writers published by a legacy publisher still manage to produce work that has not been properly edited. Forget the typos, what I’m talking about is structural editing problems.

Without mentioning any names, I will simply say that I recently read one novel by someone employed by a top MFA program that was clearly lacking in basic storytelling skills, i.e. how to hook a reader and keep their nose glued to the page, another written by someone in another well-regarded MFA program about a couple of passive-aggressive characters in a stagnant story, and a third, also a teacher in a well-regarded MFA program, who wrote a novel with too many characters.

My favorite go-to book when I need help on story-telling mechanics is Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor. It is not just a book of exercises, but a collection of writer’s lore. A book that tells us not only how to handle words, but how to see things as a writer sees them. How to find the right structure for the ideas that we have. And most of all, how to collect words.

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Monday Tips: Avoiding over-used phrases when writing prose

We are all told to use the sensations when writing descriptions, to make our novels more vivid for our readers.But some of the best writing uses words that cross modalities.

 

For example, “my feet whispered across the floor”.

We know that feet can’t whisper, but isn’t that a vivid image?

 

Here is another one. “His clenched hands shouted frustration.”

Do you have any examples you’d like to share? If so, please drop a line to cynthia@spunstories.com.

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Monday Tips: How to avoid cliches when polishing your prose

I have a date with my editor next month, so I’m busy polishing the manuscript for my new novel, AN UNSUITABLE SUITOR, which I hope to publish in February 2013. (Yes, all of you faithful followers on my blog are the first to hear about this new novel!) Set in the early 1920s in Georgetown, Washington DC and Berlin, Germany it is a tale of forbidden love, family secrets and identity.

 

In the course of polishing the text, my task is to get rid of clichés. So I make a list of words that I think I’m using too often so that I can go back and do a search to figure out just how many times I’m using these words.

Here is a partial list of my words:

SIGH

THIN

OPEN

STARE

GLARE

TURN

With that knowledge, I can then open one of my huge dictionaries and find a more unusual or interesting word. I suggest that you make lists of words when polishing your text.

Have a wonderful week!

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How to write glorious prose. NOT

Recently, I talked about two very talented writers, Janet Fitch and Juliet Marillier who both write engaging prose that reflect the content of their novels. Ms. Fitch’s prose in WHITE OLEANDER, set in contemporary LA, was suitably hard and edgy. Ms. Marillier’s prose in SON OF SHADOWS, set in 9th-century Ireland, was gorgeous and poetic.

But I’ve also recently read prose that just doesn’t work. And I wanted to show you an example of what I mean. This excerpt comes from Suzanne Weyn’s THE NIGHT DANCE, a re-telling of THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES to which she has added elements of the Arthurian legend of The Lady of the Lake. I thought her retelling of this Grimm’s fairy tale was one of the most interesting versions (and I’ve read several of them recently.) But she really disappointed me with the ending, which seemed rushed, mainly because the quality of the writing was far below that of the rest of the novel. Read the passage below, which comes from the end of the novel, and bear in mind that it is supposed to be set in 5th-century England. I quote:

 

At the end of the wedding party, Sir Ethan announced that he would be leaving with Vivienne, though they most certainly would be in touch. Any of the girls who wanted to come with them and study mystical ways were welcome…Gwendolyn, Helewise, Chloe, Isolde and Mathilde thought life on Avalon sounded exciting, though.

“Could Ione, Brianna, Bronwyn, Cecily and I stay here at the manor?” asked Ashlynn…we’d like to turn the place into an inn.”

There was a murmur of approval as this seemed like it would be a fun enterprise.

 

I cringe at expressions such as “would be in touch” “were welcome” “sounded exciting” and “seemed like it would be a fun enterprise.” It seems so insensitive to write Valley Girl or even modern British slang when you’re supposed to be conveying what 5th-century England would feel like.

A lesson in how NOT to write, when you do an historical novel!

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Monday Tips: How to write glorious prose

I’ve just finished reading Janet Fitch’s WHITE OLEANDER and have just embarked on Juliet Marillier’s SON OF SHADOWS. Both books are great reads, even though they are very different in tone. But what makes them both so enjoyable is that the prose style is so great.
For example, Janet Fitch uses metaphors and similes to great effect.

“What was the best day of your life?” she asked me one afternoon as we lay on the free-form couch, her head on one armrest, mine on the other. Judy Garland sang on the stereo, “My Funny Valentine.”
“Today,” I said.
“No.” She laughed, throwing her napkin at me. “From before.”
I tried to remember, but it was like looking for buried coins in the sand. I kept turning things over, cutting myself on rusty cans, broken beer bottles hidden there, but eventually I found an old coin, brushed it off. I could read the date, the country of origin.
It was when we were living in Amsterdam.”

And Juliet Marillier uses words to evoke a long-ago past where people lived closer to the ghosts of their ancestors.

“That spring we had visitors. Here in the heart of the great forest, the old ways were strong despite the communities of men and women that now spread over our land, their Christian crosses stark symbols of a new faith. From time to time, travelers would bring across the sea tales of great ills done to folk who dared keep the old traditions. There were cruel penalties, even death, for those who left an offering maybe, for the harvest gods or thought to weave a simple spell for good fortune or use a potion to bring back a faithless sweetheart. The druids were all slain or banished over there.”

I hope that reading these authors will inspire all of us to write more poetically!

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Monday Tips: What is your most useful resource as a writer?

I find that my most helpful resource when I’m writing is Jerome Rodale’s THE SYNONYM FINDER. As I polish the text, I’m looking for words that are exactly right. And I’m often stumped. I can think of words that mean sort-of-the-same thing, but aren’t completely right. So I often open this book, to find the right word. Do you have a favorite book that you use while writing? Feel free to drop a comment in the comment box. And have a great week!

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