I’m a Writer

It happened in the hot tub at the gym.  After my class where our instructor tries to kill us, I usually go over to the hot tub as my reward for still being alive.  When I got there on this particular Thursday, a woman was in the hot tub reading “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo” by Stieg Larsson.  I shouldn’t have bothered her, but I asked how she liked the book and we got to talking.  We went through the plot, the difficulties, the translation issues, the pros and cons of the movie versions, even the legal case involving his family and life companion.  Then she asked, “Do you think he based the Blomkvist character on himself.” And I answered, “We all seem to write ourselves into our stories.”   I said “we.” I didn’t think about it.  I just said it.

That’s when I realized that I think of myself as a writer.  I identify with writers.  I consider myself included in the Venn diagram of writers – the big fat middle part with the work, the struggle, the joy, the frustration, the breakthroughs, when things go well, when they don’t, the blanks, the rushes, the hating of the book one day and loving it the next, the drafts, revising, the doubt, the hope.  There is a connection that writers have, whether novice,  published, bestselling author or other.  When you sense that connection, you take it with you where you go; you don’t have to ask if you can or should consider yourself a writer – you know you are.

When did you realize you’re a writer?

It’s The Free Market, Stupid.

It’s the RNC convention so I thought I was entitled to at least one political rant.

My grandmother, Laura Gignac, was born in 1892. She raised 11 children during the Depression.  One of them was my Dad who was born in 1917.  He completed sixth grade then dropped out of school to work and contribute to the family.  He never learned to read, but that’s another story.  My grandmother worked in the clothing manufacturing industry in Woonsocket, RI.  She was one of the French-Canadians who emigrated from Canada to work in the New England factories.  At that time there was no minimum wage, no worker’s compensation, no unemployment compensation, no Medicare, Medicaid, no Social Security, no maximum work hours, no unions and certainly no health insurance.  It was just free enterprise; the FREE MARKET.  So, when she lost her little finger in an accident while working on an industrial sewing machine (there were no safety regulations either) all she got was FIRED.

I know what the free market looks like.  If you look at history you can know and understand what the free market looks like.  It is UGLY.  The unregulated free market is what drove the union movement; horrific accidents and child labor resulting from the unregulated free market is what drove safety regulations (OSHA), worker’s compensation, and child labor laws.  Slave wages that the free market could get away with is what drove minimum wage laws and limited hours.  Workers need regulation and regulation is a cost of doing business.

THE LESSON: If you have over 40 employees and can’t provide a living wage,  worker’s compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, social security contribution AND health insurance then you should rethink your business plan because THAT is the cost of doing business in a country that respects its citizens enough to NOT leave them at the mercy of the greed that is termed the FREE MARKET.  It is the cost of doing business in a humane world.

And it is the reason why I would rather cut off my little finger than vote for Romney/Ryan this November.

Confessions of a Head Hopper

The last time I read an excerpt from my third person novel at my writing group I was told by those who have my best interests at heart that I might want to check my point of view.  It seems that at times I HEAD HOP.  I checked it out and they are right.

From what they said and from what I gathered in my further research even in omniscient third person writers should stick to the POV of one character, usually the main character and only impart what that character is thinking or feeling at any given moment.  The thoughts and feelings of other characters should be conveyed through description, dialog and reaction.  The consensus was DON’T HEAD HOP – it confuses the reader and detracts from the flow of the story, making it choppy and disjointed.

HOWEVER, at the time I was also reading the historical novel QUEEN BY RIGHT by Anne Easter Smith, her fourth novel in her English “War of the Roses” series (Lancaster/York, you remember), which I very much enjoyed.  I also liked the writing very much and hoped it would rub off and inspire me to write well.  So, following my rebuke I turned to the book and sought solace in her fine example.  And there it was – the paradigm of head hopping; not between two characters, but at least three.

It is 1429 the MC, Cecily, soon to be a duchess, has just been robbed in the woods.  A squire has captured the robber, Piers, and brought him back to the scene while Cecily’s brother, Richard, and her fiancé, Dickon, also return to the scene.  Cecily is pleading with her brother to let Piers go.  Here is the excerpt:

She glanced now at Piers, who was looking in adoration at this angel of mercy with her porcelain skin, blue eyes and sweet voice.  The sun glinted through the leaves and into her waist-length fair hair, making her appear ethereal.  He thought her a vision, for she was the way he had always pictured the Virgin Mary when he prayed to her each night. He crossed himself reverently.

“Mother of God, help me,” he begged her. “They will brand me or even hang me.”

Cecily touched the lad’s tousled head. “God have mercy,” she murmured. “Perhaps the Holy Mother will hear your plea.”  She was taken aback when he prostrated himself mumbling an Ave Maria.  Staring at his quivering body, she was aware for the first time of her power, and it made her brave.  Suddenly she imagined [Joan of Arc] facing the Dauphin Charles and all his court, and she was inspired.  She turned back to her brother and tried again. “Richard, I beg of you, have mercy and give him another chance.”

Dickon could see tears in her eyes, and he wondered briefly if they were conjured up to soften her brother’s heart or if they were genuine.  Whichever way, he was impressed.

For a moment, Cecily thought her brother would not bend, but all of a sudden, his face softened and he chucked her under the chin. “Certes, Cis. How can I resist such a supplication?” He turned back to Piers and told him to rise. “You owe your freedom to the lady Cecily. I hope you will not make me search you for the treasure you took from her. Return it immediately before I change my mind.”

Dickon was amazed at the change of heart in this stiff-necked knight. He was also struck by Cecily’s charity for this sniveling peasant. It made him think.

Phew! That’s a lot of back and forth inside people’s heads with added back story, and imagination. The only person whose thoughts the reader doesn’t specifically hear are those of Richard, but his opinion is aptly conveyed in the description of his face and actions.  So, why does this head hopping work?

First, because, as a reader, I want to know what the characters are thinking.  It is a scene of CONFRONTATION.  In confrontation people DO NOT reveal what they are thinking through their conduct or in what they say.  In fact, they often try to hide what they are actually thinking in such a situation, so the usual substitutes to head hopping don’t work.  Also, in this particular scene the characters are making choices that will define them and it is important for the story that the reader understand why they make those choices.

Another instance when head hopping appears acceptable or even necessary is where a character has a SECRET that s/he does not want to reveal to another character in the scene but which is important for the reader to know.  This happens at another point in QUEEN BY RIGHT.  In fact, head hopping occurs a lot in the book and as a reader, I have enjoyed delving into the minds of the characters.

Second, the author attaches the thoughts and feelings to dialog to anchor the internal revelation.  The character speaks, then he or she thinks or feels, so that the head hopping is in a cohesive package rather than instant back and forth.  The presentation gives the reader time to adjust.

So, I went back to the excerpt I read at my writing group, and sure enough it is a scene of confrontation and a defining moment (as scenes of confrontation often are).  I am grateful to those who made me aware of my head hopping, and will edit and revise the manuscript with the perils of head hopping in mind. But now, to me, that doesn’t mean a blanket ban.  The judicious use of head hopping can be an important and useful tool to tell a story and inform and engage the reader.

What do you think?

For The Win

Among the many rites of passage of childhood – first steps, first words, first day of school, kindergarten graduation, etc. – one important milestone is often overlooked or minimized – the 8th grade YEARBOOK PAGE.  Last year my son, William, was nearly deprived of his opportunity to express himself and display his strengths and interests in this unique medium through ignorance and misunderstanding.  The following is the unabridged and unedited [although annotated] email I sent to my son’s class advisor setting everything straight.  Take heed because this is the kind of stuff they don’t discuss in parenting handbooks.

The subject Yearbook Page

Dear Ms. Zoe,

I am writing in an attempt to clarify William’s yearbook page predicament.  I met with Jon [Middle School Director] and briefly with Jean [Principal] yesterday.  No one asked William about his yearbook page and what he was thinking when he made it.  Everyone, and by everyone I mean Jon and Jean, assumed the page was violent and angry and I was called in to discuss the “inappropriate” page and concerns about his “choices.”  No one asked or talked to William about the page.

William had told me he used a quote from the movie “Stepbrothers” and blacked out what he thought would not be an acceptable word.  Other than that I didn’t know anything about the page going in.  Jon showed me the page [see above] and I didn’t see anything that bad, and by that bad I mean nothing worse than Laura [my daughter who is 3 years older, featured in “The See Through Dress” Aug. 2, 2009] did on her yearbook pages with [Marilyn] Manson quotes, etc. and nothing worse than what William had for a page last year when the page was returned to him a couple of times for redaction, and nothing worse than other pages I had seen in past yearbooks.  I told Jon that William’s page did not highlight his best qualities, but it was his page – a snapshot of how he wanted to be remembered.  I asked Jon if he had looked up what FTW meant.  He told me he hadn’t but thought it meant F__ the world.  I told him I didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed that the graphic was specific and might have some other meaning.   I told him the first quote was from a funny movie (I couldn’t remember the title when I met with him), one of those male bonding ones that William is fond of.  It was intended to be funny.  I had not seen the other quote, but it seemed to me that the other one was also intended to be humorous.  I asked Jon who would seriously fill a pillowcase full of bars of soap just to beat someone up?  According to William the line is hilarious.  However, Jon tells me the military actually does this and it was in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.”  That was news to me, news to William also.  Jon didn’t much like the picture of the poo either.  Basically, the yearbook page was a huge FAIL, and by FAIL, I mean, when things go miserably wrong in a way you did not intend.  Again no one asked William about his page or what he meant or about his “choices.”

In the brief meeting with Jean (she was in between things and had a couple of minutes) she basically said she hated all of it and FTW meant F___ the world.  She did agree to allow William to do the page over.

When I got back to my office I looked up FTW.  The FTW image William used is gamer for “for the win”  http://www.bytelove.com/bytelove-clothes/oneliners/ftw/prod_127.html

Then the page made sense to me.  It’s basically a review of the 2 video games – Modern Warfare 2 which is a great game and merits a FTW, and Call of Duty, Black Ops which is not a good game and is equal to a pile of poo.  I don’t find anything shocking about a 14 year old boy making a point with cartoon poo.  The new store Macro Polo next to my office in downtown Newburyport has a toilet in the middle of the store with plastic poo in it for $2.00 each, William tells me someone brought fake poo to a Yankee Swap.  Poo is an understandable reference to Middle Schoolers, not a cause for concern.

In short William’s page is not offensive.  It is not violent or angry.  It represents him as a gamer and someone who likes funny movies.  He was misunderstood, mainly because no one asked him about the page, and there were conclusions that were jumped to that in the end were not warranted.

Now, William is upset because he can’t have the page he wanted and because he was misunderstood, because everyone thought the worst of him and because no one asked him about the page, and because he didn’t do anything wrong, and because I had to go in and have a meeting and no one else did even though, according to William, other student pages were equally questionable.  He does try to stay out of trouble even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.

I know you have a deadline for yearbook pages.  I would like to ask if you could work with William so that he can have a page that represents him and is acceptable.  I think the context of the quotes and references was and is important to clarify his intent for the page he submitted.

Thank you for your help.

Aline Carriere

Postscript:  In my research I also learned that the term “for the win” is derived from the game show “Hollywood Squares” where at the end of each game a contestant would name a celebrity to play “for the win.”

Context Is Everything

My son, William, is 14 – the age where saying “focus” in a certain way is the height of hilarity.  So, when I received THE CALL from Jon, the Middle School Director, who without preliminaries blurted, “Your son drew a picture of a penis” the best I could muster was, “Oh?”  My mind whirled with visions of taunting, sexual harassment, worse, etc. along with “you know a penis in Egyptian hieroglyphs means life” and “he probably got that from health class.”  A penis in Middle School can be a serious matter, on the other hand it can be on par with “focus.”  Context is everything.  After oh? and a pause which was unacceptable to Jon, he asked, “Did you hear what I said?”

“Can you explain the circumstances?” I countered.  I’ve always had success with answering a question with a question.

He sighed, heavily, that kind of exasperated sigh that conveyed “why do I waste my time?” then “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.  He showed it to another student who turned it into Beth.”

More reason for concern.  No clue as to the other student’s gender and, of all my son’s teachers, Beth is the one teacher I would vote least likely to react well to a picture of penis in any situation.  I looked at the clock.  School ended for the day in less than half an hour.  “Can you tell me what happened or I can come in?  I’m five minutes away.”

“Fine.  We’ll meet with Jeanne.”  Jeanne is the principal.

“OK. I’ll be right there.”  I tidied my desk, my heart pounding as I tried to conjure the scenario that led my son to draw a penis in school such that a teacher would see it and be offended.  Thank goodness the school is only five minutes away.  When I arrived they were all waiting for me – Jeanne, Jon, and my son looking, in that way only 14- year-olds can manage well, sheepish and defiant.

I sat in the chair reserved for me across from Jeanne as Jon handed me graph paper with a crude, seemingly hastily drawn though anatomically accurate male reproductive organ.  “There’s a stick figure on the other side,” Jon added as explanation.  I turned the paper over and, indeed, there was an even more crudely drawn figure of a person that resembled the finished product of a game of hangman.  For some reason, in the category of “just in case,” I also noted that this particular stick figure did not have a penis.  If I had been a computer this would have been the point where I melted down in confusion, but the human mind is capable of amazing calisthenics when receiving information piecemeal.  Thus, bewildered at the connection, I looked up for clarification. 

THE PARTY LINE:  “The class was taking a standardized test in math (hence the graph paper – one mystery solved). William and Jack who were sitting next to each other in the back (probably not a good idea there) finished early and were passing a paper back and forth.  Beth was moderating and as she came up to them Jack held up the paper with the picture of the penis and told Beth that William drew it (nice way to throw your friend under the bus).  William did not deny it.  Beth confiscated the paper and brought it to Jon.” 

“We know he’s not a bad boy. We’re disappointed.”  Jeanne said.  “He knows it’s not appropriate to draw a penis in school.  He has apologized to Beth.”

“Some of the girls could have seen it and we’re always concerned about possible sexual harassment.  We want everyone to feel comfortable.”  Jon added.

I nodded my agreement while he continued, “and we felt that this needed to be addressed promptly because there was another incident with Beth earlier in the day.”

“Oh, good, another incident,” I thought and looked at William who was now hanging his head down from sadness, embarrassment or mirth, I couldn’t tell.

When I looked back to Jon, he continued, “At lunch Beth sat with William and his friends and mentioned how she was having a busy day and said something like, “I’m doing too many things at once I feel like I have A- …, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?” obviously referring to ADD and William said, “A-S-S?””

Jon said this with a straight face so I didn’t burst out laughing like I wanted to, proud of my clever boy and wondering what Beth was doing sitting with a bunch of 8th grade boys making light of a serious condition anyway.  I swallowed and ventured a glance at William who looked at me with an expression that said, in that way only 14-year-olds can manage well, “was I supposed to let an opportunity like that go by?”

Quickly recovering and embracing the gravity of the situation, I said, “Thank you for calling me in.  I’m sure William understands that it’s not appropriate to do what he did.”  I wanted to ask about the stick figure on the other side of the paper, but my curiosity was overwhelmed by the desire to end the conference, and time flies when you’re listening to riveting stories about your child.

I shook hands with Jon and Jeanne and gathered my recalcitrant son for the ride home.  I made it all the way to the end of the school driveway before saying, in that way only mothers can manage well, “Well?”

 THE REST OF THE STORY:  “OK. So me and Jack (I wanted to correct “Jack and I” but decided facts were more important than grammar at that moment) had finished the test and had to wait for the other kids to finish, so he took a piece of graph paper that we had to figure out the problems and drew a stick figure and handed it to me and said, “here, I drew a picture of you” so I turned it over and drew a picture of “you know” and handed it back to him and said, “here, I drew a picture of YOU.””

I laughed then in spite of the near disaster averted.  I told you, context is everything.  My son was not a budding pervert (or artist).  He is just a 14-year-old boy living in that world such beings inhabit, where they somehow understand each other and tolerate the rest of us who can only guess or remember what that world was like.  I marveled at my son who allowed me a glimpse of that world again and the way he ruled within its confines.

“Beth wasn’t supposed to see it,” he finished.

“I’m sure she wasn’t.”

Longing For The Right Word

     Last night I finally got to writing after dinner and the words were not flowing.  I was tired and preoccupied thinking about work, ie. the day job.  I was developing a scene and it was like squeezing the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, and then it happened, I wrote the word “longingly.”  Now “longingly” by itself is not a bad word, but my character was not looking at him longingly, sure longingly was in there but what she really had were mixed feelings and she was longing not particularly for him, but for someone or something.  She was lonely and confused and “longingly” didn’t cut it.

     Now what to do.  I am a firm believer in “done is better than perfect,” let me rephrase that “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT,”  and I was tired, and the words were not flying from the fingertips.  But “longingly” sat there mocking me.  It was wrong, it wasn’t even done, and I couldn’t lie to myself enough to pretend it was done or that I would go back later to fix it.  I hated it; not only an adverb, but an adverb of mythical proportions.  

     I rewrote the scene, without “longingly.”  I went back and did what all the books and writers say to do which is show don’t tell and I even surprised myself.  My character was grateful that I did not impose on her something she did not feel and she rewarded me.  I like when characters do that.  And I learned that the only way I can keep going is to stay honest.  Otherwise, I will end up with something I hate and, likely, a lot of adverbs.

I’m Gonna Let Me Finish . . .

     I am interrupting my story/essay posts with an update.  I never thought I would post an update because I have never had anything to update UNTIL NOW!  (If you don’t like updates then please browse the other posts that @WriteStep thought were OUTSTANDING! )

     Since starting #novelpi with @merrileefaber on Twitter on Sept. 5th, I have written 35 days in a row and 32,396 words of what I like to call my #wip.  (I have picked up all these new expressions and hashtags and I sprinkle them around like new vocabulary words I’m not quite sure how to pronounce or use in a sentence. (Especially, W00t!))

         As you may or may not know, the #wip is a trashy romance novel with pirates and Victorian like erotica (see True Calling), even though the Golden Age of piracy when the story takes place was in the early-1700’s and the Victorian era, well, was not.  So far I have Captains named Hutchins and Scott, ships called the “Much Ado” and the “Merrilee,”  colorful characters Don, Collin and Morris.  Hey, when I’m in the moment and need a name nothing beats Twitter (I got the idea from @jchutchins. If you don’t want your name used, you should let me know).   I have done research because even when writing trash I’m a nerd and I need to know about bow lines, sails, masts, spars, gundecks, cannons, navigation, flags, oh, and there’s a pirate trial or two.  (I have become a pirate dilettante with just enough knowledge to irritate those that actually know about this stuff. If David Cordingly ever reads this book he will likely cringe more than once).

         What I have learned about writing so far – I don’t have to write chronologically; it gets easier as the story gets going; characters really do assert themselves; it doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to get done; writing every day works but takes time; and it’s fun. Last week, as I was writing I thought, “I have always wanted to read this book,” with something like glee. (Which is good because since Sept. 5th I have not watched TV and have missed “Glee” which I am informed (via Twitter) is OUTSTANDING!)

          You may now return to your regularly scheduled program. I #amwriting.