On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

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Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?

I don’t write or read horror (so I tell myself), but horror or dark fantasy elements are working their way to the surface of my mainstream novel, and this blog post (essay, really) has given me valuable insight into what I’m dealing with and how to develop it further. If you deal with myth and archetypes in your work (don’t we all??), do yourself a big favor and follow the Zombie Salmon.

Zombie Salmon (the Horror Continues)

For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we…

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Flash Fiction

The  A to Z Challenge has been keeping me very  busy in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but directly or indirectly I’m blogging about writing, so I hope some of y’all are dropping by from time to time.

For the challenge I’ve been rereading some of the poetry I wrote in the 1980s, especially in the years after I moved to the Vineyard. Gradually my lines got longer and longer and turned into one-act plays, short stories, and eventually a novel. Still, I have to admit that some of that poetry is pretty good, and also that writing short and concise, often in meter and rhyme, had lasting and beneficial effects on my prose.

So lately a guy joined my writers’ group who’s writing flash fiction. Although, or more likely because, I tend to write long, I’m very tempted to give it a try.

And just now I discovered that Spry magazine’s blog is doing an “ABCs of Flash Fiction” series. Clearly the muses are trying to give me a message! They’re only up to D so far. If you’re interested, here’s where it starts.

A to Z Challenge 2018

Last April I did the A to Z Challenge right here in Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going. You’ll find links to all my A–Z posts under the 2017 A to A Challenge tab at the top of this page.

What’s the challenge? Blog on your chosen theme every day for a month, with the post titles beginning with A, B, C, etc., in sequence. Since there are 30 days in April but only 26 letters in the alphabet, you get Sundays off — except when April 1 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.

I’m here to tell you that blogging A to Z in one blog was a serious challenge, and one I’m pretty proud to have met, but when I briefly, very briefly, contemplated doing it in two blogs at once, I knew this was nuts.

Instead, I’m going to do the challenge in my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but to combine the theme of that blog (Martha’s Vineyard) with the theme of this one (writing and editing): How living on Martha’s Vineyard has affected my writing. Both my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and the novel in progress, Wolfie, are set on the Vineyard, so I expect to be blogging about them, and maybe about my other big writing project: developing a script for 1854: A Folk Opera, conceived but not completed by the late Jack Schimmelman.

I also plan to blog occasionally about more general stuff, like how the Vineyard both encourages creative work and makes it difficult. Place is a powerful influence on me, and I’m drawn to the work of writers who are strongly influenced by the places they live in and/or write about. So even if you aren’t all that interested in Martha’s Vineyard, you might want to follow From the Seasonally Occupied Territories for the month of April.

Come on over!

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

It’s An Illusion

Having a story to tell is a great first step. Getting it across to readers who aren’t privy to your intentions? That’s where the craft comes in. Here’s some excellent guidance on how to keep readers engaged without giving everything away or withholding too much till the very end.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with…

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Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

Dear Characters: Now What?

It’s been two and a half months since I last posted here. Eek. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to say about “writing, editing, and how to keep going” — it’s more that I’ve had too much. At some point “too much” became overwhelming because I didn’t know where to start.

Sound familiar? You’ve been there before and so have I, so I’m doing the only thing that’s worked in the past: Start somewhere.

Travvy, on whom the title character of Wolfie is based

So I’m closing in on the end of draft #3 of Wolfie, my novel in progress, The writing of draft #3 has deepened the characters, enriched the story, and surprised me quite a few times. I just arrived at the key scene where draft #2 stopped. It’s not the end of the novel, but by the time I got here last time around, I knew I had to let both the characters and the plot develop further before I could see my way forward.

In the eternal debate between “planners” and “pantsers” — those who map out their plots before they even start writing, and those who plot “by the seat of their pants” — I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a general idea of where I’m going. Almost from the beginning I’ve had a final, or near-final, scene in mind. The trick is figuring out how to get there.

Characters are key for me. They drive the plot, but sometimes I have to get to know them better and even nudge them along. When I was doing a lot of community theater, one director repeatedly urged his actors to “make interesting choices.” An interesting choice leads to more interesting choices — the way one billiard ball bumps another and makes it move? Less interesting choices lead to dwindling energy or even dead ends.

In real life I’ll usually choose to avoid conflict. Onstage or in fiction, this can be an interesting choice, but not if you have a whole cast of characters choosing to play it safe.

Is it a selfie when one hand takes a picture of the other hand?

So I’ve arrived again at my key scene. It’s the scene that nearly all the characters have been moving toward through the entire novel. It’s as if the logs and kindling have been laid for a bonfire — but who’s going to strike the match?

As usual at such crossroads, I’ve turned to my fountain pens and started writing in longhand. I’m playing with possibilities. It’s almost like conducting an audition: which character is the most interesting choice, and what interesting choice will that character come up with?

Watch this space!

Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.