Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Some things seldom if ever appear on the page because they are just taken for granted. If your characters leave the house—unless you specifically say otherwise—the reader assumes they are wearing shoes and street clothes appropriate to the season, have combed their hair, had breakfast, brushed their teeth. . .  If you’ve established quirks for your characters—e.g., Sue Grafton’s detective Kinsey Millhone works out twice a day—even these individual habits or routines aren’t mentioned every time they happen. The reader assumes those actions as part of the background.

 

Consider the power of not doing the usual. Under what circumstances might a character wear the same clothes for a solid 48 hours? Does it make a difference if those clothes are pajamas? What are the implications of skipping showers, hair washing, and tooth brushing? Why might a character eat sardines and Great Northern beans straight from the can? All of these possibilities imply powerful motivation or situational constraints. Is your character held captive? Lost in Alaska? Deeply depressed?

 

Even if your characters aren’t doing what’s expected, they’re doing something. Maybe it’s computer solitaire, or a jigsaw puzzle; reading trashy novels and eating bonbons; getting knee-walking drunk; or maybe it’s only sleeping, or staring into space—but it’s something. What that something is—and the feelings that accompany it—say a great deal about your character. Is your character in survival mode? Overwhelmed? Feeling rebellious? Guilty?  Ashamed? Weak?

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS

Sometimes what a character doesn’t do is as telling as what s/he does do. Use it!

 

Characters Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Giving First Rights

Sometimes life gets on top of you. You aren’t dead, just buried. And accidents happen. Such was the case for me once upon a time. When two on-line journals went live nearly simultaneously, I realized that I had granted first rights to both of them. My attempt to set things right follows.

To the OxMag Editorial Staff:

I am embarrassed and extremely regretful to have to tell you that I inadvertently granted publication rights to two literary journals. On May 8, 2015, when I granted OxMag rights to my short story “Trust,” I did not recall that I had previously (on March 27) granted publication to Diverse Arts Project Journal. All I can say in my defense is that over the last several months I’ve been distracted by two surgeries, daily hospital care for a persistent non-healing wound, various other health complications, family issues, and a flurry of short story acceptances. Once I discovered my error, notifying you seemed the only honorable thing to do.

As an on-line publication, I suppose that you can—and may wish to—remove my story from this issue. Alternatively, should you choose to allow the double publication to stand, please add an appropriate footnote acknowledging the Diverse Arts Project Journal.

Again, my apologies for the error. Please let me know how you decide to handle this. And thank you for your time and efforts on my behalf.

A little more than three weeks later, I received the following response:

Thank you so much for coming forward with this issue, we appreciate it.

Because it is our policy generally to only publish previously unpublished work, we will remove your story “Trust” from our Spring 2015 issue. We did enjoy your story, and re-reading it gives us time to again appreciate why we chose to publish it initially. We encourage you to continue submitting work to OxMag, but also remind you to in the future keep us informed of the status of any simultaneous submissions. (Submittable actually has an option to withddraw stories from consideration once they’ve been accepted without you having to notify everyone.)

We wish you good health, and also congratulations on the other short story acceptances—that’s very exciting!

Avoid First Rights Blunders

There are several take-aways for writers. One, with e-publishing, this sort of error can be corrected. Unlike a print journal, where making changes of this sort would be prohibitively expensive, it’s a relatively easy fix. Two, if you screw-up—regardless of the medium—admit it. Besides easing your conscience, doing so reflects well on you. In this case, OxMag thanked me and invited future submissions. And, three, take care of the paperwork (either yourself, or through a third party). It’s much better to avoid this sort of situation than to try to repair it!


You can read “Trust” at The Diverse Arts Project

Passionate About Writing

passionate about writing
 
I’m passionate about writing because it keeps my brain working. I want my stories to be accurate and interesting, and in doing the research to make that happen, I learn new things. For example, in working on “Feeding Bella” I learned that ketamine, a veterinary anesthetic, causes hallucinations in humans; its street name is Special K. Or, again, researching the Great Depression, I learned that gasoline was ten cents a gallon and ham was ten cents a pound.
great depression gas prices
When I first retired, which I did at age fifty-two, I became depressed—much to my surprise. I‘d looked forward to more time for cooking and gardening. But filling my life with things I used to get done evenings and weekends felt hollow. And I hated to keep introducing myself by what I used to do—as in, “I’m a retired vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.” Before retirement, I hadn’t realized the extent to which my identity, and my friendships, were tied to my work life.

 

For me, writing has replaced my former career. It engages many skills—especially research skills—from my academic past and it’s enlarged my social circle. I’ve never met a dull, boring writer.
passionate about writing
I always excelled academically. Now getting a story published is like getting an A on my report card; books are like making the dean’s list or Phi Beta Kappa.

 

My writing brings in very little income, so thank goodness I don’t write to put food on the table. Instead, writing fuels my imagination.

 

I’ve always written. In high school it was plays for the student body, poems for my boyfriend, the junior class prophesy and the senior class will. In college I tested out of composition and so had only course-specific instruction, such as how to write research reports. From then through my twenty-seven year career, I wrote academic tomes.

 

passionate about writing
Now I write fiction, and with fiction, anything is possible. I’ve dabbled in historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, magical realism, memoir, and memoir-based fiction. I’m passionate about writing because it can take me anywhere, real or imagined.

 

I’m passionate about writing because it’s cheaper than therapy and just as effective when dealing with depression. My most recent depression descended in 2014-2015 during my bout with breast cancer that put me under the thumb of the medical establishment for twelve months, frequently getting treatment five days a week. From that experience I published “Beast and the Beauty” (magical realism), “Art Heals” and “Repair or Redecorate after Breast Surgery” (two personal essays about reclaiming my body via tattoos), and “Hindsight” (an essay on how my experience changed my perspective on my years with an invalid mother). Writing allows me to know myself and others in new ways.

 

passionate about writing
BOTTOM LINE: Writing is my passion because it’s my lifeline.

Tools of the Trade

vivian lawry typewriter tools trade
I recently wrote about smart phones as writing tools. Today I’m writing about tools at the other end of the spectrum.

 

In my high school, Mrs. Echard taught all typing and shorthand classes. College-bound students were guided toward the Personal Typing class. It was the only class that was regularly half male! In this class, one learned to write personal and business letters, but also to compose at the typewriter.

 

I can see her now—brown hair, brown skirt-suit and heels, white blouse—modeling proper business attire. And I can hear her saying, “Always write your first draft at the typewriter. Triple space it, so you have room to edit and add notes. Don’t worry about typing errors, given that it’s only a draft. No matter how slowly you type, it is still faster than hand writing.”
vivian lawry
So there we sat, at individual oak desks in even rows, in good typing posture (i.e., feet flat on the floor). A Remington manual typewriter sat centered on the desk, stacks of paper and carbons off to the sides. Two of these typewriters would have been on the ark, had Noah taken objects.

 

All were black with gold lettered Remington on the front. The ribbon spooled from left to right, black on top and red on the bottom. Changing said ribbons was a messy, bumbling business.
vivian lawry typewriter
The keys were arrayed in a fan-like shape and the biggest hassle was hitting two keys at once, causing them to jam at the platen, requiring manual separation—also a messy business.
typewriter tools trade
The keys were round buttons, black on white or white on black, of all letters and symbols—including a symbol for cents, no longer standard on keyboards today. The shift key was also labeled Freedom.
tools trade
Being manual, the pressure on the keys was reflected in the lettering. All fingers not being equally strong, the end product often looked like this.

 

tools trade
Editing back then was literally cut and paste, then retyping the rearranged text. Moving a paragraph—or even a sentence—meant retyping and entire page or maybe more.

 

Correcting a spelling error meant using a round rubber wheel with an attached brush. This is such an ancient artifact now that sculpures of them are in museums and gardens.

 

That was a time when making copies meant typing carbons. Each page and carbon had to be corrected separately—and heaven forbid one erased a hole in the paper.

 

I learned Mrs. Echard’s lesson well. I never after hand-wrote a draft, or much of anything else. By now, I find it difficult to hand-write a thank you note!

 

BOTTOM LINE: not that long ago, writing was a very slow, laborious activity.  I marvel that anything got written at all.

Should You Kill Your Darlings?

It’s the mantra we always hear, in every writing class, from every teacher:

“[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” –Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

If you’ve never heard this quote before, what King is trying to say is that by “killing” (deleting) our “darlings” (the phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs, and/or chapters we love the most), we open our writing up to new possibilities and let go of some of the earlier, stale work we’ve created.

kill darlings

To some extent, this is true. Holding on to old parts of your work, like parts you’re especially proud of, is much more favorable to losing them. However, in many cases (especially when you think of shorter writing forms, like poetry), deleting those darlings will pack more of a punch later in your work.

But is it always true?

kill darlings

If you’re proud of your darlings, there must be a reason. Maybe it’s the imagery you’ve invoked, a character who leaps off the page, or a line that thrills you. These things might not work for whatever you’re currently writing, but that’s not to say they need to be deleted forever!

So I would restructure the phrase to say “Relocate your darlings” (although it packs less of a punch). Save them for a rainy day! If you write longhand, keep a file folder or notebook of your darlings. If you’re someone who writes using a computer, add them to a document or folder. What doesn’t work now can work later, and it will be all the more satisfying to keep those darlings alive.

kill darlings

Adding Nature to Your Writing

virginia wildlife squirrel

I’ve written before about the use of pets in writing. But what I am writing about now is not domesticated animals or houseplants. Of course, there are lots of versions of nature writing, from guides to insects, shells, birds, etc., to books like Hawk, which gets into all sorts of emotional and philosophical issues—but I’m not writing about that, either—no, not writing in which nature is the focus.

 

Nature to illuminate character. Does your character respond equally to flora and fauna? Why or why not? Does your character respond very selectively to nature? Maybe only attracted to or aware of rabbits?

 

bunny virginia
Or maybe your character is a gardener in his/her leisure time. How does that play out? Flower arrangements for a dinner or wedding? Flower shows? Garden club commitments that conflict with plot demands, creating tension?

 

Is your character an indoor person rather than an outdoor person—generally keep the natural world at arm’s length?Why? Allergies? Fears? Sun sensitivity? Physical handicap?

 

What sort of nature draws your character? The great outdoors? The eastern woods? Again, why?

 

All of these sorts of things can be inserted as grace notes, dropped in strategically, not highlighted but effective.
 
Nature to set the mood or tone.
 
Thunderstorms give us one tone—threat, foreboding, physical danger.

 

virginia landscape
Sunny landscapes and/or skies create the opposite—good cheer, good luck, a generally upbeat tone.

 

So, including nature notes can illuminate character and set mood or tone. How else do you use bits of nature?

Discover Richmond for Writers

discover richmond writers
That I am a fan of the Richmond Times Dispatch periodic publication Discover Richmond is no secret, given that I’ve written about it before. The recently published June/July 2018 issue is especially relevant for writers.

 

discover richmond writers
For mystery writers the “Back to class” article is right on target. Michael C. Leopold teaches a class at the University of Richmond titled “Catching Criminals with Chemistry”—which is a relevant bit of info in and of itself. Also, this short (2 p.) article mentions several examples of the chemistry-crime solving connection, including how chemistry reveals clues through analysis of gunshot residue and drug traces. Also, much to my surprise, fingerprint matching is still done by human experts, not computer images. AND the article raises interesting questions, such as, “Does this partial match give police the right to investigate potentially innocent family members—or collect their DNA samples—just because they are related to a felon in the database?” A short but excellent read.

 

discover richmond writers
Potentially relevant to any writer is the long article about the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, where the Army teaches those enrolled how to handle the human remains of soldiers—with dignity, reverence, and respect. These three words are emphasized in the article—which immediately leads to many possible story lines in which they are violated or ignored.

 

Most who come for training are enlisted soldiers and marines, but “officer-course attendees come from all of the military service, and from federal agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Park Police.”

 

discover richmond writers
On the other hand, if you want to know how it’s done properly, read on. For example, enrollees practice carrying a weighted casket-like case to master a dignified transfer ceremony. Interestingly, 95% of the Army’s mortuary affairs specialists volunteer for this duty. The Marine Corps requires its specialists to be volunteers. What sort of person would so volunteer? What’s the motivation?

 

Because the work is so “grisly and grueling” those working in mortuary affairs are given many opportunities for mental health and/or religious support to deal with the emotional strain. The article features real people, both trainees and teachers, and gives a concise summary of mortuary affairs in the military.

 

discover richmond writers
For those who write historical fiction and/or nonfiction—or whose plots include references to past events—this issue of Discover Richmond is a gold mine.

 

discover richmond writers
The Archive Dive is just that. It pictures interesting artifacts in various Virginia collections, from Colonial times to WWII. And speaking of Colonial times, I had never made a conscious connection between our English roots and witchcraft. And when considering witchcraft in the colonies, my mind went immediately to Salem, MA. But the earliest witchcraft charges in Virginia were made in September, 1626.

 

discover richmond writers
The article describes the case of Grace Sherwood, who did not drown during the water test, and therefore she was convicted and put into prison. Apparently Virginia courts were reluctant to kill witches, unlike Massachusetts where nineteen so-called witches were executed in one year (1692).
discover richmond writers
Having written a novel set in Bath County in 1930-1935, which included an element of bootlegging, I was particularly interested in “THE WETTEST SPOT ON EARTH” about moonshining during Prohibition in nearby Franklin County. All of this eventually led to national interest and a trial of 34 defendants, 55 unindicted co-conspirators with literally hundreds of witnesses. Much was written about liquor, jury tampering, and murder. It seems Sherwood Anderson wrote about it for Liberty magazine.

 

This article is full of interesting—and sometimes amazing—information. For example, considering the ingredients in moonshine, and equipment to make it, one expert testified that over a four-year period “Franklin—the county had a population 24,000 in 1935—imported 70,448 pounds of yeast, compared with 2,000 pound in the city of Richmond (population 189,000 during the same time frame).”

 

discover richmond writers
Similarly, for sugar, Anderson wrote, “There were said to be single families in the county that used 5,000 pounds of sugar a month.” And the county consumed more than 600,000 five-gallon cans, which would hold a total of 3,501,115 gallons of moonshine coming from this one county. Have I said enough to entice you to read this great article?

 

This issue of Discover Richmond includes many articles I haven’t even mentioned, from the Appalachian Trail to second-hand storestrumpet honeysuckle.

 

discover richmond writers
 
Read it. You’re sure to find something of interest and probably something of use for your writing.

The Good and the Bad

lewis ginter origami garden
The good is yesterday’s visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden—the usual lush flora plus the current exhibit of metal sculptures based on origami. I saw only part of the sculptures but they are stunning! The heat drove me away before I tour the entire circuit, so a return visit is in the offing. I wanted to share, but couldn’t think of a way to make the excursion particularly relevant to writers and/or readers.
good bad lewis ginter
Therefore I decided to alternate the good with the bad—some nuggets of really egregious writing, from mixed metaphors to clichés—cited in this essay in the June 18th issue of The New Yorker.
new yorker critics high crimes
 
N.B.: The entire article is 3.3 pages plus a full-page illustration. Clearly, I’ve chosen only some of the worst writing quoted from The President Is Missing (Bill Clinton and James Patterson) to suit my purposes. The article contains much that is complementary, informative, and entertaining, and I highly recommend reading the entire thing!
“She had to bite her tongue and accept her place as second fiddle.”
“…the sorrowful, deer-in-the-headlights look is long gone. The gloves have come off.”
good bad lewis ginter
“Along the way, little animals bounce out of her path.”
“Augie looks at me like a lost puppy, in a foreign place with no partner anymore, nothing to call his own but his smartphone.”
good bad lewis ginter
“Adrenaline crashes through my body.”
“Volkov’s eyebrows flare a bit.”
good bad lewis ginter
“Augie lets out a noise that sounds like laughter.”
good bad lewis ginter
“…her face once again becomes a poker-face wall.”
good bad lewis ginter
“Casey falls to a crouch, gripping her hair.”
good bad lewis ginter
“…eyes in a focused squint…”
good bad lewis ginter
“a sweeping nod”
good bad lewis ginter
“shakes his head, hiccups a bitter chuckle.”
good bad lewis ginter
“My head on a swivel, I focus on Devin.”
“I break into a jog, something close to a full sprint”
good bad lewis ginter
“a bunch of scrambled jumble”
Bottom line: Even highly educated and highly successful writers sometimes try too hard to make their writing compelling and vivid. Beware!

My Smart Phone Writing Tool

my smart phone writing tool
This week I bought a new smart phone, which led me to think about ways my smart phone helps me with my writing.
my smart phone writing tool
The Photo Function. I’ve always liked photos but I didn’t really get into taking pictures until I bought my first cell phone that included a camera. With a camera always in my pocket, the ease of picture taking made me nearly an addict, and I take several pictures a day.
This morning I photographed the creature watching me eat breakfast. Being more aware of the fauna in my yard often leads me to look up info about them, thus making me more informed in general, and sometimes serving as story starters. For example, I wrote “Man vs. Beast,” a magical realism piece about a man’s battle with beasties from squirrels to deer.

 

my smart phone writing tool
Taking lots of pictures has made me more aware of the world around me, more aware of details, such as plants that survive in the concrete jungle. It’s also made me more aware of framing—i.e. what needs to be left out to improve a (word) picture.

 

my smart phone writing tool
 
The List/Notes Function.
 
This function is great for jotting down words or phrases that come to mind or are overheard that might suit a story I’m writing now, or might write in the future (e.g., oh, perdition!, about played out, we’uns and you’uns). Also it’s a handy place for lists of books recommended in conversation.

 

my smart phone writing tool
THE CALENDAR.
 
My favorite aspect of the calendar is that I can separate writing events from personal, medical, travel, etc. This makes it easy to identify due dates and writing deadlines, as well as readings and book signings.

 

my smart phone writing tool
 
Maps/Navigation.
 
The maps and navigation functions have made me bolder, more willing to attend meetings, events, and conferences. Not only can I get driving directions spoken aloud to me, I can locate food once I get there!

 

my smart phone writing tool
Contacts. I can separate writing friends from others for mailings, etc., and each contact can be used in more than one list. This is incredibly more convenient than using my old Rolodex system, easier to make changes and edit.

 

my smart phone writing tool
Search Function.
 
Last but far from least, my phone allows me to search the internet for whatever bit of info I might need for what I am writing, anything from the cost of gasoline during the Great Depression (10 cents a gallon) to lists of imaginary/fantasy diseases. With this aspect of my phone tool, I can be accurate more easily and get background on virtually every person/event/issue of relevance.

 

Bottom line: Although some bemoan the ever-growing dependence on technology, I for one appreciate the ways a smart phone has made my writing life easier and richer.

 

my smart phone writing tool

Need Help with Summer Reading?

Last week I wrote about some of the classic books that PBS suggested people read (or love) the most. But if you’re looking for a new book or genre to read, Goodreads has a list of suggestions for you.

[Source: Goodreads]
Goodreads has brought in Lori Hettler, the founder and moderator of The Next Best Book Club, to put together a couple of curated lists of summer reading challenges. The two lists are broken up into sub-categories to help you make it through the challenge.

List 1: Beginner Level

  • Summer-related tasks
  • Tasks to stretch your comfort zone

List 2: Expert Level

  • June Reads
  • July Reads
  • August Reads
  • What to read during any month to stretch your reading comfort zones

These two lists include broader challenges (i.e., reading a book of poetry) to more specific tasks (i.e., reading a book that features a yellow, green, or “sandy” cover).

This could be a great challenge for people who feel like their reading list is lagging or that they’re stuck in a rut, reading in the same genre.

Have you started this Goodreads challenge? What list are you using and what reading task are you most looking forward to?

need help summer reading