Monday, April 25, 2022

Correctly Placing Misplaced Modifiers

 Alas, I constantly edit, even when I'm not being paid for it, the author didn't ask for it, and I can't actually share it. It's just a compulsion that happens as I read, especially news stories that have presumably already been edited. 

And heck, why not share the compulsion here? Maybe someone will learn from it. I do 'revision sessions' sometimes with students, just editing on-screen and explaining as I go, and this misplaced modifier problem is one of the most common and also one of the most easily fixed mistakes.

In a sentence, a "modifier" is a word or phrase or clause which "modifies" or deepens or narrows the meaning of another part of the sentence. The most common modifiers are the one-word adjectives and adverbs which add to the meaning of a noun or verb, like: The girl's outfit proudly proclaimed her Ukrainian heritage.

But often the modifier can be an entire phrase: 

  • The play took place in the old Gem Theater
  • He was waiting for the bus to come
  • The morning before the party, the dog got sick.

Or the modifier can be an entire clause (with a noun and verb):
  • He didn't notice the shocked silence that fell across the room when he wrote his name on the board.
  • The more you remember, the more you have to forget.
  • --

Some modifiers are "bound"-- that is, they have to be in a particular position, like just before the noun they modify. You know-- The pink dress. (Not --  The dress pink.) These "bound" modifiers are usually single words or short phrases that modify a noun (that is, they are "adjectival," which means "modifies the noun" :). 

Usually, however, modifiers are unbound, especially the phrase and clause ones, and therein lies the problem. An unbound modifier can "legally" be moved around to different parts of the sentence, but what's possible isn't always what you mean. Sometimes being too free-range with modifiers creates the horrific crime of a dangler, where impossible and sometimes painful things happen:

One day she hunted for a moose wearing diamond earrings.

Decisively slashing the knife, her eyes narrowed with purpose.


I have a lot of examples of this kind of mistake, but just for now, let's fix an easy one, adapted from a sentence in a major mag article:

She admitted her enjoyment of the bullying on Facebook last year. 

Many misplaced phrases have to do with time or place-- the "where and when" of the sentence. I see this most often when there are more than one actions in the sentence, as here:

She /admitted /her enjoyment /of the bullying. (Ignore the "on Facebook" and "last year" for a moment so we can focus on the kernel sentence.)

Subject/Verb/direct object/prepositional adjectival phrase.

We usually think of action as being represented by the sentence verb (here, admitted), but actions can also be shown in nouns (participation, bullying). So here there are three actions, all of which took place but perhaps not all at once. 

Actions take place somewhere sometime, and "somewhere sometime" are often important "condition markers" to add to a sentence. (I mean, these words and phrases mark an important condition that changes or specifies something about HOW the action happens.)

But while the position of where/when modifiers might be moveable, the reality isn't: SOMETHING happened last year. SOMETHING happened on Facebook. 


1. The admission.

She admitted last year...


She admitted on Facebook...

2. Her enjoyment.

...  her enjoyment on Facebook...


...  her enjoyment last year...

3. The bullying.

...of the bullying on Facebook.


...of the bullying last year.

(I know, not a great sentence because I modified it to protect the guilty. :)

Because the author placed the where/when modifiers at the end of the sentence, right after "bullying", readers will be forced to assume that the bullying took place last year on Facebook. And that might be exactly what happened (although it's not in this case).

But... what if that's not right? What if the bullying took place last year at school, and she enjoyed viewing a video about it last week, and is only admitting it on Facebook?

What happened on Facebook?

What happened last year?

(Some of this info might have been revealed in previous sentences, though not in this case. And still, that's no excuse for imprecision in this sentence. When all it takes is a moment to get it right, make it right. :)

What's a revision which makes those very clear so that the readers won't be confused about what happened when and where?

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment of the bullying last year.


She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of the bullying last year.

Sometimes it helps to "bind" a modifier to the modified word so that there's absolutely no question--

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of last year's bullying.


This is just one sentence and one set of facts, and one point of misplacement. Though I will try, there's no way to identify every possible opportunity for imprecision. 

There are as many options as there are possible permutations of actions and actors and conditions in any sentence. But ONLY ONE IS CORRECT. This isn't about delicate subtext or deliberate ambiguity or debated issues. This is just about placing factual information in the correct place in the sentence. You can get it right as easily as you can get it wrong. But you have to recognize when it's wrong, and then make it right.

Anyhoo, point is: Be sensitive to the meaning you create when you put a modifier somewhere in the sentence. Stop and think about the various interpretations the readers might make of this placement, and whether moving the modifier might make more sense. Time and/or place modifiers are especially tricky.

So if I mean the ADMISSION, not the enjoyment or the bullying, took place on Facebook, I have two easy options (the first being optimal):

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment in the bullying.

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment in the bullying.

I have a bunch more examples that I'll post and fix in the future. Usually in order not to shame the writers and editors (who, grumble grumble, should know better), I'll change the words and keep the construction.

This is what passes for giggly gossip in my life. :)

A blast from the past-

The columnist James Kilpatrick used to devote his first column of the year to the many ways you can place and misplace the word "only" as a modifier in a sentence, and used this example to show the difference in meaning:

  1. Only John hit Peter in the nose.
  2. John hit only Peter in the nose.
  3. John hit Peter only in the nose.
  4. John only hit Peter in the nose.

(Wouldn't you say "ON the nose"? I would. I'm not sure how deep I would want to hit IN the nose.)

"Almost" and "already" and "just" are other common modifiers that can be moved almost anywhere, but each placement means something different.

Here is a nice British professor who does a great job of showing how to determine what a modifier modifies and how it works in a sentence. 

You can find some good examples of misplaced modifiers at this Guelph University site. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

What is your story's praxis?


I like to listen to the author readings of their own stories in the New Yorker podcast. It's an enjoyable way to keep up with what's going on in literary fiction, and often inspires bloggy-type ruminations for me. A recent story, “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams, made me think about the "story praxis", which is my own not-very-precise term for "what the central process is". Determining this is more helpful, I think, in a short story because they are usually more focused and narrow in purpose than a novel. But it might be useful also to consider what your story's central process is, even in a novel.

For example, the praxis (or process or progression) might be an interrogation or a quest or... Well, in this story, the praxis is a puzzle-- one that is never solved. This isn't a real spoiler-- the question is posed on the second page-- but the main characters find themselves in a remote cabin with no neighbors, phone, internet, or memory of how they came to be here.  That's the puzzle at the center: Who put them here and why?

It's a very intriguing puzzle, and shapes the story both narratively (as they try to figure it out) and syntactically (the prose style is descriptive and observational). What makes this a New Yorker story, I think, is that they never do find out. They keep creating tests and experimenting and seeking clues, but that quest becomes so circular, they start to lose track of why they are even trying. There's a spiral-shape, I think, to the narrative, as they circle and circle the question, and it always takes them deeper into un-knowing.

BTW, this was Mr. Williams's first published story. Imagine STARTING your short story career at the New Yorker!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Has a publisher held your book hostage for 35 years? Here's a way to get the rights back, legal and free.

 I actually sold my first book when I was a pre-teen, okay, 24 years old. That was back in the Dark Ages, pre-internet, heck, pre-personal computers. There was a huge publishing boom then-- paperback originals-- and I know there are many like me who assumed then that the "7-year-limited-license" meant that the publisher only got the use of the book for 7 years. Silly me!

 In fact, publishers had all sorts of ways to keep extending that license without our permission, keeping our own books from us for decades with minimal payment and no new contract.

But... Congress enacted a rule allowing artists of all kinds (Paul McCartney used this for his old songs) to regain the rights to their works after 35 years post-sale. There's now a five-year period where we can easily reclaim the rights to our own works. 

You can learn more about that here:

Reclaiming your copyright after 35 years: a new opportunity    

Starting in 2013, authors began to have the ability to reclaim copyrights they transferred to a publisher in 1978 or later. Copyright law permits authors to reclaim their copyrights 35 years after transferring rights for purposes of publication. Authors interested in reclaiming copyright need to file a notice in advance, according to a designated timetable.

Reclaiming copyright allows the author to make new publishing arrangements, including making the work openly available on the web, or taking advantage of new economic opportunities.

Take back the rights! :)


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

15 Questions to Get into Your Character and Setting


15 Questions to Get into Your Character and Setting

I'm working on a 7-day "writer's block buster" program, and have "listing" as one of the techniques. 

This exploration doesn't exactly fit into that exercise, but I wanted to post it here because it's sort of similar, and .... well, I think it's useful when we feel like we can't really get into the emotions and perceptions of our character. I'll  list the questions so you can try this if you want, then give an example of what I did with it. What I like is by keeping it all pithy-- one line for each question-- I was forced to focus on the most evocative details. It's a really good way to go deep quickly.

So this is adapted from an exercise by Les Edgerton, who wrote the great Writer's Digest book Voice.

It's about getting into character and FEELING the setting in this scene, and then letting the setting details lead to the character emotion.

Read each question aloud and then jot down its answer without pausing. As the scene opens, become the scene POV character– YOU are the character.

Where are you?

What do you see right around you?

What time is it? What is the light like?

What is your body doing?

What do you hear right this moment?

What do you think that sound is?

What do you feel under your feet?

What do you feel in your hands?

What do you feel on your face?

What do you feel in your heart?

What do you smell?

What do you taste in your mouth?

Who is with you?

What do you hope will happen?

What do you fear will happen?


Okay, what did you learn about your character and setting????  And, most important, now that you know all that, how are you going to use it in your scene?

So here's an example of how I used this free-association exercise as a way to feel the setting from inside the character.

(Carrie's point of view-- at her gran's cottage after the funeral)
Where are you?
Kitchen of Gran's cottage.

What do you see right around you?
The yellow vinyl breakfast nook booth, the old sink with the window above it and a dirty pot soaking.

What time is it? What is the light like?
Twilight. Darkness edging outside. I have turned the overhead light on and the porchlight too.

What is your body doing?
Standing at sink, hands in soapy water.

What do you hear right this moment?
Muffled voices out in the living room. Water splashing under my hands.

What do you think that sound is?
The friends who came to Gran's wake are saying goodbye to my husband Josh. I should be out there to thank them for coming.

What do you feel under your feet?
The old yellow linoleum floor. Now Gran will let me replace it.

What do you feel in your hands?
Water. Soap. The aluminum pot. Bits of gritty food from the pot.

What do you feel on your face? 
Dried tears. Dried soap where I touched.

What do you feel in your heart?
Lostness. Anger.

What do you smell?
Dishwasher soap. The last remains of the haloupki Mrs. Novak brought--
tomato and cabbage.

What do you taste in your mouth?
Hard water from the well. Bitter.

Who is with you?
Gran's friends. Aunt Barb. My husband Josh. My high school sweetheart Zach. They're all out in the living room. But I'm alone here in the kitchen.

What do you hope will happen?
That everyone will leave. Josh too.

What do you fear will happen?
That everyone will leave. Josh too.

Just freewriting that made me realize how estranged she was from her husband, and how this funeral made that clear. The washing the dishes, avoiding him, in Gran's kitchen, that made their estrangement resonant.

Analyze and Apply

Work for the emotion. Locate it. Embed it in the details. Make the character interact with the setting– but make the interaction manifest the emotion. So she's not in the living room crying with the other mourners– she's washing dishes in the kitchen, so we get the idea she's avoiding everyone. The water is warm but gritty with food bits. What does that say? Heck, I don't know, but it's sad without saying it's sad... like even this cleansing activity isn't so cleansing, just like the ritual of the funeral doesn't actually provide much closure. Everything in the kitchen reminds her of Gran, but not in a simple way– she thinks  of the yellow linoleum Gran never let her replace, for example.

Maybe she'd been crying, but now the tears are dry on her face.

One thing about real emotion is that it's not black-and-white. It's kinda complicated. It's not always direct. So she loved her Gran, but it's hard to face her death straight on. So where is Gran? And where isn't she?
Gran's in that old kitchen– the memory is there. But not in the obvious things like a framed needlework. Look for something a bit off– the peeling yellow linoleum Gran didn't let Carrie replace.

 When my grandmother died, we were all flummoxed about what to do with those awful commemorative plates that she had mounted on the wall by the dinette. She used to ask everyone she knew who went on vacation to bring back a plate for her. So there was a plate with the outline of the
Eiffel Tower, and one that proclaimed Wisconsin Dells! You know the sort of plate I mean. 

Well, none of us wanted them, but we couldn't throw them away. We ended up giving them to an old aunt, who wept over them like they were the Faberge Easter Egg collection. Anyway, doesn't that tell
you something about my grandma? And about me, that I loved her but really didn't want her dumb plates?

Use such details if you can. Objects carry emotional significance. Let's say after the funeral you're delegated to go through your grandmother's clothes to sort them out to give to Goodwill. What one item can you not give away? That item has emotional significance. You don't have to know why exactly ("I can smell her Emeraude perfume?") but it matters to you, right? Well, you don't necessarily have to know why you put this object there in the scene, but if it resonates within you, there's a reason.

I asked this at a workshop, and a woman in the front row said, with a breaking voice, "I kept a flannel shirt my husband wore." She knew exactly what I meant– because she'd done it herself, kept one item of emotional significance after her husband's death.

Avoid the generic. Don't go quirky for quirky's sake, but when it comes to objects, don't choose the same one everyone would choose. Let's say you have a young woman who is about to go off to college. What surprising item does she take with her? What does she leave behind? 

If she takes the photobooth picture of her and her best friend and leaves behind her old teddy bear, the reader isn't going to get much of a charge, because that's kind of generic. If she takes, oh, let's see, her piggy bank and leaves behind her passport... hmm. Now that means something unique. Don't know what... but the reader will figure it out. "She's afraid that she'll just leave– never go back. So she leaves her passport so that she can't just take off. She can't just leave home forever." Well, okay, maybe...
all I know is when I challenged my subconscious, that's what it told me.

Give your character something to do in the scene. I tend to write dialogue-heavy scenes, where all they are doing is talking (in a fascinating way, of course :). But if I put them in a meaningful setting,
or make it meaningful, and think about what there is to do in that setting, what objects are nearby. Give them a task, even if it's just getting dressed or washing the dishes. One writer told me she had a
character talking while he cleaned a gun, then when he finished, he loaded the gun and shot the person he was talking to! Now that's using an object to show emotion. :)

Just remember not to get heavyhanded, 10th grade English class symbolic mode. Instead of using generic symbols (the lowering sky, the cross reflected in the puddle), think about what object would have symbolic, emotional,or metaphorical significance to this character. We don't have to love
antique thimbles ourselves as long as we understand that this thimble signifies something important to the heroine. We can utterly hate muscle cars as ecologically unsound gas guzzlers, but we can still "feel" for the guy when he discovers a scratch on the GTO he restored with his older brother.

Look for objects which matter to the characters, and then let them work with them, use them. Also consider putting those objects at risk. Or have the objects put them at risk. Let's face it, people have DIED running back into their burning house to save a photo album or Mom's embroidered
pillowcases. My sister and I used to groan about my parents who kept this horrible old skillet of my grandma's, with a bad handle that rotates and dumps the hot food on your feet half the time. Not only would my parents not throw it away, they still used it every day! My sis and I talked about stealing it and burying it in the woods. :)

And you  know what? When my parents died, my sister grabbed that skillet, and still uses it. And I bet she still hasn't fixed the handle.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Heroic Flaw: Free Characterization Workshop with Alicia Rasley 2/12 2pm ET

  Alicia T Rasley


Heroic Flaw: Characterization Workshop with Alicia Rasley

Deepen your characterization with the Heroic Flaw

February 12th 2022 // 2:00pm ET

The Heroic Flaw: To deepen your characterization, learn to create "The Heroic Flaw": That which makes them great brings them down! We'll discuss how to use the character's great strength against them, to bring them into conflict, and force them to change.
This workshop will be presented Feb. 12 by Alicia Rasley, award-winning writer, experienced editor, and affirmative teacher.

Sign up here! Even if you can't attend then, sign up and I'll send a replay link after.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Starting with Idea: The Thought-driven Story

 Let's talk today about “idea” as a way to start a story. Some stories, especially those classified as “speculative fiction,” start not with anything concrete like character or setting, but with an idea to be explored.

As science fiction writer Orson Scott Card explains, “Idea stories are about the process of seeking and discovering new information through the eyes of characters who are driven to make the discoveries.”

That’s really the appeal of an idea story. No matter what it turns out to be, it starts as an intellectual puzzle. In the spirit of that sort of intellectual mission, let’s consider some ways an idea can start a story.

Questions. For example, many mysteries start with a scene that presents a question, one of the oldest questions of all, “Whodunnit?” But most authors add some additional complication, like, what could kill a man alone in a locked room? (Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal detective story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was perhaps the first to pose that question.) The point of these “idea-mysteries” is to challenge the intellect of the sleuth (and author and reader) to go beyond the expected and familiar to speculate, innovate, and interrelate clues to come up with possible though unlikely solutions.

What-ifs. This is a specialized question that truly is speculative, as it seeks to imagine something that hasn’t happened (and probably won’t). This is more of an experiment than an exploration. A good recent example is The Martian, which poses the question, “What if an astronaut was left behind on Mars?” A great classic example is Oedipus the King, which asks, “What if the detective learns he’s actually the murderer?”

There’s also a what-if variety that experiments with the past. Alternative histories like Harry Turtledove’s The Great War inspire the author and reader to consider how the present might be changed if an important past event were changed. These alternative histories have a point beyond the mere alteration, however. Philip K. Dick’s “Man in the High Castle” takes the question “What if the Nazis had taken over the United States?” to pose the deeper question, “Would Americans resist?”

Themes. A theme is a message, a “moral to the story,” that can usually be stated in a sentence, but is better developed through story events. The film Chinatown, for example, uses the “water wars” of southern California to explore the theme of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The difficult task in theme-based stories is to avoid being preachy. I’d suggest having the theme in mind and creating characters who have to discover that truth, but only at the END of the story. That way, the theme evolution will be a more organic process.

Perspective. A perspective-based story requires, you guessed it, an alteration of perspective, demonstrating that what you see is dictated partly by where you’re seeing from. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities juxtaposes the experience of the French Revolution in Paris with that of London, that of a victim with that of an observer. A variation of this perspective-test is the “fish out of water” plot, where our world is viewed through the eyes of an alien or stranger.

In my opinion, this is one of the most socially important genres, as it forces our notoriously solipsistic species to examine ourselves objectively—something more and more essential in a diverse culture.

Concepts. A concept is the simplest and yet most profound of ideas, often expressed in a single word— Freedom. Dispossession. Exile. The speculative aspect of this comes from recognizing that simple concepts are actually the opposite of simple and that only a story and a character can truly portray the complexities. For example, the film Casablanca explores the concept of “neutrality” through the cynical and detached character of Rick, a symbol of the isolationist United States trying to stay isolated in those dark months before Pearl Harbor.

Starting with the concept but developing it through the complications of a 3-D person within a culture is a good way to avoid the sort of closed system that readers of speculative fiction loathe.

Twists. This story takes something conventional and twists it to produce something both familiar and exotic. You’ll often see this in novels aimed at teens and pre-teens, as connecting the normal with the unusual trains them in the important mental skill of skepticism and imagination.

The trick here is to make the base story perfectly plausible (Harry Potter really is going to boarding school and taking courses, but they’re about incantations and potions), so that the twist is more fun, making the familiar unfamiliar.

All of these idea types pose the risk of becoming just tricks. To avoid that risk, consider that each of these should lead to a deeper question, and that is in the end what we want to explore in the story.

When I read Ender’s Game, for example, the "twist" is clear-- (spoiler warning) the children thought they were training on a videogame to stop an alien invasion, but in the end, it turns out the game was real and they'd just stopped the invasion. But I found the deeper question to be, “Why do we sacrifice our children for war?” That deeper question leads to the plot development that the adults deceive the children that war is just a game.

Another way to make an idea into a full-fledged story is to embody the idea inside a character’s journey. Ask yourself who needs to learn this theme or experience this twist? Oedipus, for example, is an arrogant man who will not accept the power of the gods over him. So he has to be forcibly confronted with the fact that they control his fate.

The most successful idea stories start with an idea… but they don’t end there. The idea is more than just a statement or speculation, but rather a process whereby the reader and characters experience the idea and come to understand what it really means.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Writing Process? It all depends... It's so interesting (to me anyway) to think about how we imagine.

 >Hi, Alicia!  I know everyone has their own writing process, but I am intrigued by the idea of starting with character.  Do you think that it might be easier to work on the goal and motivation part as part of the character bio first and then use those aspects of what you learn about your protagonist (and to a lesser degree, the other main characters in a romance) to outline the story incorporating conflicts into turning points?



Well, I think one important step for authors is to find their own ideal writing process, and modify it as needed (different books might require different processes). At some point, most stories will benefit from being outlined or structured with acts and turning points based on character development study (including GMC- I do other analysis too). But that doesn't have to be in the beginning of the process.

For me, the sequence I do things is dependent a lot on what I "know" about the story ahead of time. There are books where I've known the characters in some guise for a long time. My last published novel's main characters have been in my head since... well, I was a teen, probably. The first book I wrote (never completed) had a mysterious Russian lady named Natasha (though she was mysterious in a different way than she turned out to be in the last book). The first  book  I  sold had a cynical "best friend" character that was named John (later changed to Tom when I rewrote the book decades later-- complicated reasons to change his name). Now these two actual characters never "knew" each other in the jungle-story-world of my imagination, but I knew them. She was always Russian but spoke English with very little accent, and she was always sort of shadowy, always named Natasha, and usually married to a sea captain. None of those stories ever got written, but I kept trying her out as the star of a story, then usually never writing or finishing that story, or replacing her with some other heroine. "Tom" actually showed up in his original form in several books, always as Tom and always the cynical friend of the hero. 

Anyway, I -knew- these characters. It's weird to say that because I kept changing aspects of them that might seem central, like their backstory and (with "Tom" -- who became Matt, see :) his profession and social status. But in my head, Natasha was always remote and yet vulnerable, and was a widow  of a man who loved her but never knew her. In my head, "Tom/Matt" was always a cynic, a "scientific" man (this was always set in the Regency time, so "science" meant being rational and curious) who withal that was kind of a super-loving person who was cynical partly to protect himself.

I'd never tried to bring them together before in my head (because, see, Tom/Matt was always the best friend of the hero, never the hero), but then one day I just thought of them talking together, annoying each other, and I thought, "They don't even like each other much."  I knew at that moment they were the only people who really understood each other.. 

So then I had to build a story ("Brighton") around these two characters who were -known- to me in their essence, but didn't have the right story yet, or pairing.. I already knew them, so doing exercises about their characters just helped me pinpoint more about what I wanted them to -do, rather than her just drift around my head being remote and vulnerable, and him in my head making sardonic comments.. 

Once I came up with the goal of them solving a mystery together, it all clicked. They could bring their disparate skills (hers intuition, his forensics-- oh, I'd transformed him from an Army  intelligence captain to a navy physician) to this task, and of course, in the meantime, fall in love. It really helped then to think of their motivations to help me plot..... I already KNEW them as characters, see.... so his external motivation became keeping her from getting arrested (she was the prime suspect), and her internal motivation was to hide from her past (the murder victim was a friend from Russia who knew her late father).

After that, well, plotting a mystery is never easy, but the goal/external motivation/internal motivation helped me a lot. I knew that while Natasha also wanted to solve the mystery, she would still be concealing something about this victim/old friend until she trusted Matt, and that should happen right at the "reversal" or midpoint scene.

So.... point is, when I already knew the characters, I used the exercises to help me fit them into the plot (or more, rather, get the external plot to develop them and the romance). 

And as for process, well, long before I got much plot done at all, I'd written several of the "romance" scenes between them, like the first scene where he comes to her aid when she reluctantly asks for it ("They don't even really like each other”) and the situation-setup where we learn that they were in-laws-- he was married to her sister-in-law, she was married to his brother-in-law (that is, their late spouses were fraternal twins who had died in the same flu epidemic years before), so they could be connected without, you know, really liking each other much.. That was sort of hard to explain, but I knew it would "fit" their emotions towards each other and the reason why she would ask him for help.. 

So I had several "romance" scenes drafted before I even knew this was going to be a mystery! Plotting then from the motivation became the way I made the characters have to open up to each other (they had known each other 13 years without doing that, after all) enough to fall in love.

Okay. So that was my-- and only mine, I'm not suggesting this as a MODEL, goodness knows—starting-with-character process.

There was another book (The Year She Fell), however, which very much started with plot, in fact, a story question-- why would the richest girl in town commit suicide (this happened in the small town when I was growing up--IIRC, she shot herself in her white Cadillac convertible, right in front of our high school, using the pistol her great-grand-daddy had carried as a confedrut gennel -- that's how we pronounced it <G> in the Civil War, or so the story went). That's all I had -- the richest girl in town. Suicide. Why.

So I started having to figure out "motivation," as that's the "why," right? (In the actual event, her motivation was never clear, though I -- who knew her and didn't much like her-- uncharitably assumed it's because someone finally told her "no" and she couldn't live with it. There was a really weird "only in rich families" twist where her parents had legally adopted her best friend when the bff's family was going to move away, so that Little Princess would never have to be sad for a single moment... and I ended up using that in a different way in the book.) 

And from the external motivation-- the why she killed herself-- I worked back to what her goal was (what she was trying to hide-- you can tell "hiding information" is a favorite theme of mine), and then to the internal motivation-- why she had to hide this.. And that was the original storyline, but it was too... depressing, and I started playing around with a mystery plot on top of that goal-motivation-- her sister trying to figure out afterwards why this had happened. (This is actually kind of the story-structure of the Hitchcock film Psycho, though in that it's not suicide, but  the sister is the one who becomes the "detective".)

Well, along the course of ten years or so of noodling around with this basic plot, I ended up changing most everything except that central story question of the richest girl in town and the odd twist of the family adopting the girl's best friend. I'd read a couple Susan Howatch novels where the story is told from several different (often opposed) viewpoints, and I wanted to try that for some reason, and I ended up deciding she had not one but three sisters, and each had some valuable piece of information about the death that they didn't know they had (and was irrelevant in isolation, until joined with the other two). And... well, it wasn't a romance, but I added the viewpoints of two of the sisters' fellas, because I wanted to experiment with first-person male POV.

In the end, what was there of the original idea? The suicide question, and the adoption, and that was about it.. The whole POINT of the book became experimenting with alternating first-person  POVs, and the idea of the suicide just was the vehicle for exploring how limited any one understanding of an event is. And as I drafted each POV section, I realized that the REAL question (and that it should be revealed as the real question after the middle) was not "why did older sis commit suicide," but "why was younger sis ever adopted?" 

In every book I've written, I think, I had a different sequence of processes. But usually I drafted some scenes or passages early to get a feel for the voice of the book. This is always "my" voice, but you know, is this book-voice curious or cagey or optimistic (I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said!), and sometimes to set down conversations which had arrived complete with inflection and tone of voice in my head that I didn't want to forget.. I'd usually draft scenes, just pieces of them, and completely out of order, scenes that woule arrive in my head or I wanted to work out, until I ran out of the glimmering scenes and passages. Then I'd stop and get to plotting or character work or whatever I could do next.

That is, I'd run through what was easily accessible- what I knew, the scenes I'd come up with those last few moments of semi-consciousness before the alarm clock rang--and draft those, sometimes just in bits, never fully formed. I might jot down the dialogue but not the setting, the emotion but not the description. And then I'd usually have to get more logical and analytical because inspiration had run out.

I'm not advocating this process, lol. But in every book, no matter how good I got at this, there was a point I had to get analytical, usually when I couldn't avoid plotting any longer, or when I had to figure out the why—like why does Natasha ask Matt for help rather than someone else? OR I had to have a good reason why they were stuck together long enough to overcome their conflicts and fall in love. 

Or I might finish a whole draft and know it wasn't really working, that I'd missed the point somewhere, or that it didn't evolve into some strong theme, or there were long stretches of nothing happening, or the romance didn't cohere. And then it was time to outline the whole story and go through and figure out how to fix. Often that would be when I'd start re-inventing -- come up with a better goal that allowed for more external action, make the internal motivation something worth fulfilling in the end, and so on.

Again, this is just me, but this "character-plotting" of goal/motivation/conflict can be really useful over and over again in the process of a novel (and how and when it's useful might vary with every book), not just at the beginning. I use that process to help explore the characters, to build a plot around these characters, to give the characters a reason and way to change, to turn motivation into action, to make the internal manifest externally, to make a more logical sequence of plot events.

So developing the character goal and motivation is very useful, but it's not the only development task, and you don't have to do it the way I suggest.. Mine is a way of tying character development into plot structure--making "deep structure"-- but there are other ways too which might be more effective. This is more about "deepening and intersecting" character and plot than, say, creating a more dramatic and exciting plot.

Well, that doesn't answer your question, probably, but that's what you made me think about! I'd say- different writers, different processes. There's no one way to do this. When does inspiration fail for you, when does the basic raw material you started with run out? Maybe then it's time to start looking at character development. Or maybe you need to do this first to jumpstart your inspiration, and later to fix plot problems or understand the romance.

It all depends. ;)

And I think most writers who have written a lot of books will say, it depends on the book too.. Some writers evolve one type of process, one sequence of tasks, and use that for every book (this is useful when you want to write several books a year- wish I did that). Others meander around a story idea until they find the process which works for this particular story.

So …. well, stay open. Experiment. Be unsparing with yourself and yet generous. Figure out when you need to let creativity flow, and then when you need to step back from the flow and get analytical. Most of all... experiment. There isn't any one way to write this story, or any one way this story can develop. Try things out. You won't lose the essential seed of the story by experimenting with the soil and water and fertilizer combinations. To mix another metaphor!

What about you? Can you think back and track the process of one of your stories?


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Monday, November 15, 2021

Shakespeare and worldview-- reposting this because it seems to have disappeared!

 Shakespeare's world view and voice

Shakespeare's world view is contained in his voice, in his particular gift for ambiguous and ironic passages. He was writing plays, where there's dialogue and action and little else, so his voice isn't concentrated, as it might be in fiction, in the narration. Rather his voice comes out in how he treats characters and how they speak and act. (Playwrights and screenwriters must allow room for the actor and director to have voices too!) This is especially clear inJulius Caesar, which explores some of Shakespeare's favorite themes-- the nature of heroism, the danger of charisma, and the contradictory wisdom and foolishness of the mob.

Of course, Shakespeare is the great characterizer. Sure, there were characters before that, as there was some perspective before Brunelleschi, but Shakespeare so advanced the presentation of multi-layered characters that, well, we're still studying them. He's also a bit of a trickster-- Julius Caesar is not the protagonist ofJulius Caesar, but then, I bet Marcus Brutus wouldn't have sold that well. :)

Where does Shakespeare's voice come in? Here's where: in his great poetry, in the tossed-off comic lines, in the skill at writing high-flown sentences that actors can render as conversation. But his voice is more than his words. His voice is much more in how he regards the characters and the world they inhabit. (Of course, we know nothing about Shakespeare's personal world view, but we do know how he viewed the world in his writings, because we have them. :) His genius was in, I think, regarding the world and humans with skepticism, but also moving beyond cynicism. It would be cynical to present (as he does in the beginning of Caesar) that perceptions can't be trusted, that they (like the omens in the play) can be misinterpreted and manipulated. But he doesn't stop there. Yes, perceptions can be deceptive... but the truth will always out-- in the actions and the words of the characters.

So a character's real intent is shown subtly in his words (sometimes not so subtly). But that doesn't mean he speaks his intent necessarily, rather that the truth has such power that it will influence the speech and action is ways that we can understand. That is, Shakespeare's voice "gives voice" to the truth, but not in some obvious way. His world view is not transparent-- nothing is clearly clear, and he starts, I think, with acknowledging the complexity of humans. They are not one way. In fact, in the very end of the play, Mark Antony looks down at his enemy Brutus and acknowledges his nobility (which Brutus's own actions cast into doubt), and says:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

That is, the measure of a man is the mixing of elements-- the depth is in the contradictions. Shakespeare's skill, however, took contradictions and never allowed them to become incoherence. That's because, I think, his view was that the contradictions made the character-- he respected the contradictions as having meaning.

So, for example, Mark Antony was a libertine, a cynic, a manipulator. (I admit to being overly influenced by the performance of James Purefoy, not in the play but in the TV show Rome-- he did an amazing job of showing Antony's complexity.) But there was one thing noble about Antony-- he actually, truly, deeply loved and esteemed Caesar. That was not an act, and not just a triviality. It was the core of him. He loved Caesar. Caesar's murder fired him to revenge-- but his way of revenge was characteristically manipulative. The nobility, however, was what fired him to action.

Now Brutus was a noble man. But he had a single ignoble quality, and that was that he was easily flattered, especially about his own honor. In fact, his reputation for honor was more important to him than acting honorably, and both Cassius and Antony make subtle and successful use of his need to be venerated. This single ignobility fires his actions in the play.

That privileging of the single "off" characteristic is, I think, part of Shakespeare's approach-- that "off" trait might actually be closer to the center of the character than all that nice consistent stuff. Antony, for all his faults, is a lover. He loves life, he loves Caesar, he is soon to love Cleopatra-- and all with an abandon that shows that love really is the most important thing to him. So while his willingness to shake the hands of the murderers might seem to show his cynicism and corruption, a deeper view might be that it shows that love is more important than his self-respect and honor, for this is the only way he'll be able to insure that Caesar gets an appropriate burial (and it also sets up for his vengeance).


In the play I saw in Stratford, young Antony insists on shaking the hands of each and every conspirator, thereby covering his own hands with Caesar’s blood. But as he goes from one to the next, their glee at killing their enemy begins to change to something not quite shame, but at least embarrassment, at being so clearly revealed as conspirators. This was, even more than the great funeral oration, the pivotal moment in the play, when these little men symbolically confessed to killing a far greater man.

And Antony's speech is, of course, highly manipulative. But there are moments of such love and anguish:
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:

You all did love him once, not without cause: 
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

In Shakespeare's world view, the truth always comes out in one way or another, usually in a character's words and actions. And so even here, when Mark Antony is trying his damnedest to manipulate the mob, the anguish keeps coming out. So there's always a "bursting out," even in as careful a speech as Antony's funeral oration. (That the emotional burst outs help his cause doesn't mean they aren't real.) So think of that as an aspect of S's voice-- that characters reveal, whether they want to or not. Dialogue in Shakespeare is never on one level, meant simply to convey external information. It's also meant to conceal and deceive, and while it's doing that (with the other characters), it's also revealing (to the audience) the truth about this person. This is part of his voice, part of his world view-- humans are complicated, but they are not incomprehensible.

Notice that Cassius pretends that he wants to kill Caesar to save Rome, but his own words tell a different truth, that he is envious of Caesar's charisma and resentful that it isn't his-- a real narcissist, and that slips out when he speaks of why Caesar isn't qualified to lead Rome:

I had as lief not be as live to be 
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar

But that narcissism actually teaches him how to appeal to Brutus, because he can sense that beneath Brutus's undeniably noble qualities is vanity: 

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, 
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'? 
Why should that name be sounded more than yours? 
Write them together, yours is as fair a name; 
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well; 
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em, 
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

(Notice also Shakespeare's characteristic preoccupation with names-- "Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore are thou Romeo?" Another aspect of voice is what we emphasize and repeat.)

As with Antony, Brutus reveals what matters to him, what drives him, in his speech. He might be trying to save Rome from the man he thinks might be a dictator, though he also seems to want to save Caesar from becoming just another ambitious tyrant. But he's truly getting played by Cassius, who knows just how to get to him-- Here's Brutus, reading an "anonymous" note ostensibly sent by a common citizen:

Opens the letter and reads

'Brutus, thou sleep'st: awake, and see thyself.
Shall Rome, etc; etc. Speak, strike, redress!
Brutus, thou sleep'st: awake!'
Such instigations have been often dropp'd
Where I have took them up.
'Shall Rome, etc; etc.'
Thus must I piece it out:

Shall Rome stand under one man's awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call'd a king.
'Speak, strike, redress!' Am I entreated
To speak and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise:
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!

Cassius appeals to his vanity, his sense of himself as the last in an illustrious line. They were, all of them, the "First of Rome," but Caesar somehow got ahead-- and Brutus is easily led to thinking there was something uniquely unjust in that, especially if all of Rome were sending him the anonymous requests to rebel.

So Brutus uses his friendship with Caesar to set up the murder, and his reputation for honor to sway the Roman mob to his side. But Antony is clever-- or maybe Brutus is easily used, for Antony maneuvers him into allowing Caesar a decent funeral and a loving eulogy. Brutus has to agree, if he's going to be an honorable man, and Antony makes great use of that term in his eulogy:

He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.

The crowd turns on the murderers, and Brutus never quite catches up after that. But Shakespeare doesn't stop there. The last acts deal with Brutus slowly coming to understand what has happened, what his vanity led him to do, when he finds out that Cassius, the one who proclaimed Caesar to be corrupt, is selling public offices:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes.

Notice that first line, referring to the day (March 15) that they killed Caesar-- this quintessentially Shakespeare line:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Its tragic wail, the anguish of it, is not about the words (although, wow, he could put together words), but about everything that has been Brutus in this play-- the honorable man, the one who admired and envied Caesar, the naive Brutus, the disillusioned Brutus caught up now in a war against the city he loves-- caught up in a loop of self-recrimination and self-doubt, and how does that come out? In repetition. Brutus isn't repeating words because they're pretty, or because it's Shakespeare's habit, or because he's read some book about how to be poetic... he's repeating because he can't get past it. He can't get past what he's done:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Yes, Shakespeare uses repetition ("Out, out, damned spot!") but not because it's good "voice"-- it's because it's good character, because when you're caught up, as some of his characters are, in events they set in motion but can't now stop, your mind just goes round and round and round, obsessively repeating what you regret.

You can feel that in Brutus's March/March/Remember/Remember (Shakespeare was writing for theater, and he had to write lines in a way to convey to the actor how to speak this, so it's no surprise we can hear Brutus's anguish in those words).

We have only words. But words are more than just words. In story, they are everything-- and so your voice is everything. Your voice is how you convey it all-- what's happening and who these people are and why it hurts so much. And if you know all that-- if you are in the story and it's in you-- the words will come. But the words only matter because they convey the story-- and yes, they convey the story in the best way. But if you start with words-- if you think that your voice is about alliteration or punctuation-- you're starting where you should be ending.

Shakespeare has a voice that transcends genre. He doesn't "sound" the same in the sonnets as in his tragedies and comedies-- but he's always trying to convey more-- sometimes the opposite-- of what's on the surface. His voice shines with jewel-like facets not because he was so adept at assembling words as shiny surfaces, but because he believed in the depth of human beings, believed that in their self-deception you could find their truth, and in the end, the nobility was in the possibilities:
...the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

If you know yourself and your story, your characters and your meaning, then your voice will come through, Think about what your attitude is, what your sense of the world is, what truth means to you... those really are (or should be) a more important factor in your voice than words and punctuation.