Writing and Compassion

Schooling and Compassion

Today discussions about the arts and humanities can be depressing as high schools focus more on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), as tertiary institutions eliminate undergraduate requirements for proficiency in a second language, and as parents fear that their young adult’s liberal arts degree will not result in a “job.”

As a life-long reader who is attempting to become a serious writer, these decisions dismay me. While I do advocate for students studying science and math, I find even small steps taken to move young people away from the liberal arts worrisome. I believe strongly that compassion begins in a reader’s relationship with the characters in the stories they read, whether the books are written in one’s native language, in another, or in translation.

Dialogues about race or class can also be disappointing, as they often infer that no one can grasp another’s point of view. It always surprises me when someone says that readers of one “race” or gender cannot comprehend stories about a different “race” or gender. My reading would be very limited if I read only books by women with blue eyes and brown hair who speak English as a first language.

Having studied six languages (I speak two fluently and read two others fairly well while struggling mightily with the last two), I have learned that individuals are prisoners of their own languages. Some ideas simply do not translate. Some concepts exist in one culture but not in another. To truly figure out a text, it helps to be able to read it in the original. Of course, it is impossible to be fluent in all languages, but learning a second at least, gives one the realization that despite our similarities, sometimes we simply view the world differently. I advocate for second language requirements because I believe that monolingualism is not just a deficit, it is a handicap. Students who don’t read literature forego the opportunity to know another’s mind intimately. Readers who don’t read literature from other countries also suffer from a limited point of view.

Compassion for “The Other”

My reading has taught me since early childhood to empathize with others. Little Women changed my life. So did The Hardy Boys. When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, I suffered along with Janie when she was forced to marry an old man. When she fell in love with Tea Cake, I shared her folly. When I read The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, I bore the pain of a constrained life along with her. I also realized how the gossip and intrigue of the court of Japan, 1000 years ago, resembled the court of Louis XIV in France in the 17th century. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I understood his horror of the death camps during World War II—even though he is of a different generation, gender, and religion than I am.

When I read The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, the indignities suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas shook me to my core. For example, when the white European Spaniards landed in what is now Florida, they declared loudly in Spanish (to non-Spanish speaking natives) that their land now belonged to the King of Spain. Concomitantly, I read the actual history that Cabeza de Baca recorded of his exploration which extended from Florida to what is now Mexico. The number of bodies of American Natives left along his pathway was sickening. He might never have survived himself if he had not been accompanied by a Moorish slave who spoke several languages and learned to communicate with the tribes they encountered.

Compassion and the Space in Between

Literature provides a shared space where the author’s vision can touch the mind and heart of the reader. Readers’ experience of the human condition is expanded tenfold as they learn about how “the Other” lives, loves, gives birth, fights, suffers, or dies. But it is a realization of the space between us, an acknowledgment of the voids that exist in our languages, a facing up to the fact that despite our similarities, our cultures are comprised of zones that may always seem just out of our reach, locked away in words or concepts that simply do not translate into our own language. Compassion is needed in these in-between spaces, but it is most necessary in our daily lives as we walk among crowds of people who do not look or speak like “us.” When I read, despite the differences in space, time, language, and culture between myself and the characters on the page, I always experience a profound closeness, even a oneness.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of July, I have worked on clarifying the premise for my novel. I have to make it drive each scene.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been reworking the outline for my second novel because I am going to participate in RMFW’s August 2019 Novel Rama. The dates match my availability. With the comradeship and moral support of the other writers, I hope to complete 25,000 words in four days.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is August 7, 2019. This is my eighth blog of 2019. In thinking about monetizing my blog, I am weighing the value of some of my nonfiction writing. This month I met with a friend who is developing an online business. I have drafted a manual she is familiar with and would like to sell on her website. She thinks that I could market my manual on my own blog as well. I have been mulling over this monetization issue for a while but have come to no definitive conclusion.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I have continued to read about writing. One of the books that I read is by a writer whose workshop I am scheduled to attend in September at the RMFW’s Gold Conference. I like the vocabulary she uses to describe building a novel. Her approach makes more sense to me than some others I have read because she talks about characters having goals. I look forward to hearing her in person.

I also read a book by a local writer on critique groups. She suggested not only how to be an effective participant as a writer but also as a presenter of feedback to others. I am not yet ready to join a critique group but her argument for participation in such a group was persuasive.

This month I also attended my first garden party with the Denver Woman’s Press Club.  Connecting with other writers was motivating. The level of compassion for the young, mature, and elderly women in the group was palpable. Interestingly, the novels I am working on seem to match DWPC’s current theme of making the past present through writing.

 

Writing and Community

Flannery O’Connor wrote in The Regional Writer in 1963, “Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking within a community.” When I read this quote, it made me think about my own writing. My first novel takes place in the 1970s. The second takes place pre-World War II. I had never really defined my stories as “community,” but this quote made me reconsider what I am writing because I am definitely writing about two entirely different communities. The 1970’s story is about young people who are bonded not only by their age but by the events happening around them. The second one is about a family, living in an isolated region of Colorado where they could not survive without their ranching neighbors. It is essential for me to figure out how to distill the language and habits within each of the communities in my novels.

Communication in Writing

Of course, writing is about communication. But communication does not just rely on words. In fact, when I was working on my dissertation years ago, I read research on the topic. Albert Mehrabian’s work in the 1970s showed that 93% of what is communicated when we are talking to someone is in our nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues refer to facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, the closeness or distance we allow between ourselves and another person, as well as to various aspects of voice—tone, rhythm, fluency, pitch, volume, or rate of speaking.  Mehrabian noted the words alone accounted for only seven percent of the meaning in an oral exchange. Naturally, much linguistic research has been carried out since then. Various projects have delineated different kinds of gestures, for example, speech illustrators, symbolic gestures, or culturally specific gestures. Now, as I pursue my aspirations of being a novelist, I wonder what these data mean for writing.

Words versus Nonverbals

A writer only has words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of print to recount a story.  The reader cannot see the writer, nor does he or she usually even think of the writer. Rather the reader gets hooked on a character. An engaged reader follows the development of that character along to the end. So, what is it exactly that hooks a reader?

If the only content that is being communicated is through words, is a writer stuck with only being able to communicate seven percent or can the writer portray nonverbal behavior effectively using words? This question has led me to read a bit differently. I have always paid attention to how authors use dialog, now I read to see how different writers describe nonverbal behaviors. I just read a short story, “Night Riding” by Candace Simar, that used effective nonverbal communication beautifully: “She fingered the asaphidity bag around her neck and held it to her nose for a deep inhalation of camphor and garlic. Perhaps it would be enough to prevent pneumonia.” The nonverbals she is describing lead the reader to infer the character’s age and knowledge of herbal medicine—both essential elements of the plot. However, if you are not part of the character’s community, you might not know what an asaphidity bag is. Thus, this writer has to integrate more details into the text.

Drawing the Reader into an Unfamiliar Community

Readers carry stereotypes in their minds. They have certain expectations for what a New Yorker might say as opposed to a Coloradan. So perhaps part of the meaning is literally carried in the community the author chooses to bring into life. I recently read a British cozy. I was fascinated with how quickly the author drew me into the Welsh community she was describing. It may be that it resonated with my memories of the small community in which I grew up because I felt a familiarity with how the characters communicated or didn’t communicate with each other. For example, I recognized the “big guy” as opposed to “little guy” descriptions. But within several pages, I was enjoying a Welsh community that I had never heard of before.

What is it that forms a community? In this case, it was isolation. It took place in a village at the foot of a large mountain (which also mirrors where I grew up). It was familiarity, the families lived there, thus they were aware of the neighborhood gossip. The author also quickly established that there were outsiders involved. Some had recently joined the community, others were victims, others who were there only to solve the mystery. The story also included community activities, known hiking trails, and shared knowledge about the mountain and its weather conditions. Thus, much of her meaning was carried through her play on the familiar contrasted with the unfamiliar.

Communicating about Community

What is it the writer wants to communicate? How does she do it? These are questions I am delving into. In my first story, I want to communicate to the reader that it is possible to find one’s way in the world despite setbacks, death, and feeling that one was born into the wrong community. My heroine has to leave home, go somewhere she had never been before, and along her path, she finds a community that is foreign to her but that becomes her home. In my second story, I want my readers to understand how difficult life was during the depression and how poverty affected one’s ability to protect one’s family. I want readers to experience the helplessness the community feels in the face of illness, lack of money, or horrible accidents.

Conversation in Community

I belong to three book clubs. One is a longstanding feminist book club. We read only books written by women, mostly fiction, but once in a while an interesting biography or social treatise. Reading these books has been mind-expanding but also comforting. We have literally read books by women from around the world. We have found that we can identify with women from all the continents. Over the years, I have observed that talking about the books in our monthly community has literally changed the women in the group. We do have a rule that each woman must explain why she chose her book. Each member, no matter how shy and unwilling to share opinions she is when she joins, has eventually found her voice and her ability to explain what she took from the book.

My second book club is also made up entirely of women, but it is more eclectic. We read a variety of novels, biographies, or nonfiction by a variety of writers. The group has no rules for interaction, so the discussions vary considerably in format. Nevertheless, as the membership has stabilized over the last four or five years, we have developed into a mutually supportive network. Conversation builds community and communities create support.

My third reading community, which I have attended for this past year, is limited to writers of fiction, memoirs, or screenplays. We dissect a novel each month. We are expected to read, take notes, and pay attention to writerly concerns as we read. The group leader does a thorough analysis of the book on several levels to share with us. It fascinates me that members choose to discuss very different aspects of what the author is trying to communicate. Reading about community, talking in community, about reading, and now writing about community is my passion.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of June, I have continued to work on editing my first novel. At the moment, I am feeling more self-conscious about my own writing. Sometimes it feels like trying to fit my left foot into my right shoe. When I get impatient with myself, I focus on doing mechanical editing for a while then I go back to the hard content work.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

I have been doing more research on the time period in which my second novel takes place. Fortunately for me, several websites have popped up that focus on the corner of Colorado that interests me. As folks post old photos, it helps me get a better feel for machinery, clothing, and activities that fit the time period.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is July 7, 2019. This is my seventh blog of 2019. This month I have been thinking about how to monetize my blog, or at least considering if it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I have read several articles and looked at various statistics. But I think for now it will remain a work in progress. I will continue to write and publish it as is for the remainder of 2019.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

This month I joined another writing group, the Denver Woman’s Press Club. The President, Anne Randolph, the author of Stories Gathered at the Kitchen Table, whom I met through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, invited me to apply for membership. My application was accepted. Joining an organization that dates from 1898 and which has supported women’s writers for 120 years is a thrilling opportunity. Minnie Reynolds, the Society Editor for the Rocky Mountain News at the time, founded the group. She also shepherded the suffrage movement in Colorado. The movement’s colors were purple, gold and white, representing the royal glory of womanhood, the crown of victory, and the purity of home and politics. Minnie Reynolds predicted that we would have a woman president in 2017! We would have had one if our current political system had chosen the purity of politics!

 

 

 

 

Scents in Fiction

Portraying the Senses in Fiction

To write captivating fiction requires the author to integrate human beings’ five developed senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling—into their prose. A vivid sensory vocabulary enlivens the text while stimulating the reader. Each sense has a positive and negative valence. Sounds may be pleasant or irritating. The ability to see may be above normal or nonexistent. To experience touch may be desired or obnoxious. Food may taste delicious or horrible. Bodies may smell alluring or rank. As I have been exploring how best to write evocatively, I have looked into terminology for the sense of smell. Odors have a powerful role to play in engaging the reader.

Environmental Scents

Wherever one grows up, the air is filled with scents that mark changes in the weather.  I spent my childhood in a valley that had a Sulphur Spring on the west end of town. If the wind was coming from the West, the unpleasant smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Natives knew it meant that a storm was blowing in. Where I live now the air that sweeps down from the mountains on the West is fresh with the scent of pine forests. But in the winter when a cold front comes down from the north, the foul stench of the feed yards 70 miles to the North East floods over the city, announcing the arrival of a polar blizzard.

If I were writing about a big city, I would have to incorporate the odors of the alleys, the smell of the diesel buses, the perfumes or aftershaves of the crowds passing by. If I were writing about the sea, the smell of the salt water, the reek of rotten fish on the beach would fill my pages. Currently, I am writing about a period when there were no buses on the streets, and very little traffic (because most people walked and families only had one car, while university students had none). A few kids bicycled. The scents I remember from this era are the perfume of lilacs in the spring, the almost aftertaste of the wet grasses after an afternoon rainstorm, the smell of dry dust swirling from the dirt roads around town on a hot summer day.

Ceremonial Scents

Certain scents are associated with the observance of rituals. Most of these rituals have something to do with religion. I remember the pleasant cinnamon candles from the Christmas Eve services of my childhood. When I was in college, I studied abroad. The fragrance of burning wax in the cathedrals in France where visitors lit votive candles to send prayers to heaven for their loved ones inspired me—a Protestant—to plunk a couple of francs in the box. My spirit felt lighter after I had placed my burning votives snuggly in the metal holders.

In my 30’s, when I felt the need for guidance, I went to a Native American shaman who smudged me with smoking sage to clear my aura. I’ve never forgotten the pungent cloud swirling around me lifting the darkness away. The decisions she helped me make that day guided me along a path that allowed me to establish a successful career. I keep a bundle of sage sitting on the mantle in my living room, just in case I need another smudging!

Later in life, I attended a New Year’s Eve ceremony at a Buddhist temple perfumed with sandalwood incense. As we sat in a circle around a fire, we chanted while tossing grains of rice into the flames. With each grain we tossed, we voiced a blessing for a person we knew. First, I blessed my family, friends, and acquaintances. When I couldn’t think of any more individuals, I sent blessings to all sentient beings. The repetition gave rise to an experience that I can only express as bliss. Much later I read that sandalwood incense opens the heart and throat chakras.

Revolting Odors for Unpleasant Scenes

Fiction, of course, requires virtuosity in scents beyond the comforting or the ceremonial. A writer must master the vocabulary for odors that fall on the unpleasant side of the continuum—death, rot, mustiness, mold, oil fields, barnyards, mucky ponds, body odor. This vocabulary ranges from amusing to disgusting. I like the words the British use for strong unpleasant odors, such as pong as in the “pong of unwashed laundry.” Or frowsty, as in a “frowsty, moldy basement.” When I checked for malodorous words, I found about 60, so writers have many words to choose from to create a particularly malodorous scene.

Scents and Memory

As A la recherche du temps perdu taught us, scents stimulate memory. Anyone who is an aficionado of literature knows about Proust’s madeleines. I suspect that is why madeleines are available—much to my delight—at all the Starbucks I visit. They certainly were common nowhere but in France in my youth. For me, it is the scent of cinnamon rolls that sends my memory on a happy ride. My mother was a superb baker. As I crested the hill on the road to my house when I was a child on the way home from school, the elixir of her cinnamon rolls caused my pace to quicken. To this day, my mouth waters when someone mentions cinnamon rolls. My experience, along with Proust’s, suggests that writers can delve into their own pasts to create memorable experiences for their readers.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of May, I have attempted to assure that the scenes I have drafted are animated with emotion, not just events. During my first draft, I definitely focused more on events in which my characters could be interacting with each other. This is an arduous process.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

During RMFW’s NovelRama, I worked on the first draft of my second novel. I used Marc LeBlanc’s “Eight Kinds of Fun” to stimulate my imagination. It worked. In four days, I generated drafts of 16 different chapters. In May, I used this personal experience as the basis of a workshop for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I shared my understanding of Marc LeBlanc’s model with the group. Then, I gave them a handout to help them sketch out ideas for their own novels. The participants were delighted with the insights they had into their own creative work. I intend to keep using this technique to reinvigorate myself when I am stuck.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is June 7, 2019. This is my sixth blog of 2019. Almost half of 2019 has slipped away. Writing my blog has impacted my own reading. As I work on “emotion” as a driver for reader interest, I am paying close attention to how other authors put their scenes together. Since I am not writing an action novel, the emotional content in my own has to be more subtle. Finding a balance is tricky.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As a current member of the Steering Committee for the Boulder Writers Alliance, I attended the Program Subcommittee meeting in May to consolidate plans for our programming for next year. The group is diverse. We all learn from each other. One mechanism of group development that fascinates me is how the content of the various BWA workshops has become the lingua franca of the group.

 

Sartorial Concerns in Fiction

Sartorial Vocabulary

Dress, clothes, costumes, tailoring, patching, mending, sewing, weaving, stitching, knitting, embroidering, crocheting are all terms within the sartorial category required to write fiction. Even though the words themselves don’t vary, their manifestation changes from year to year, from period to period, from country to country. Thus, thinking about the description of how characters are dressed in a novel requires thought, research, and attention to detail. Tiny Tim could not possibly be dressed like Harry Potter although they are both English. Leia could not be dressed like Rapunzel even though they are both princesses. In Outlander, how Claire and Jamie are dressed changes dramatically as they flit between countries, cultures, and centuries.

Sartorial Points to Keep in Mind

Every novel is set in a time period, whether it be the past, present, future, or even a parallel time frame in science fiction. If the writer is dealing with the past or present, being accurate about the clothing individuals wear is essential. If the novel is set in a future period, authors can be more playful and creative about their character’s attire. In fantasy and science fiction, they have the liberty to create new sartorial trends—which may appear at the next Met Gala!

Accuracy and descriptiveness depend on gender, age, class, culture, jobs, education, and of course, the personality of the characters. A good example of a quick and dirty class distinction is beautifully done by Tommy Orange in There There, when he describes Bill Davis as wearing “light blue latex gloves … and [holding] a clearish-gray garbage bag.” The reader understands that Bill is a janitor.

Integrating Sartorial Elements into Your Descriptions

Accuracy requires research. Because our memories are feeble, it is important to make use of local library or museum collections, the web, photo albums your parents had, or photo albums you have kept for yourself. We forget how much fashions change or what folks were wearing during a certain period. For example, when I look back at old photos, I am even surprised by what I was wearing at the time.

Sartorial Faux Pas

It is important not to make blunders in describing apparel. Mistakes could cover any egregious mismatches of the categories named above. For example, in the 1970s, the time of the “flower children,” embroidered flowers were common decorations on bell-bottom blue jeans. The other day, I saw a twenty-first-century version, but the flowers were made from iron-on patches.  This would have been a terrible faux pas for a true hippy.

Costuming must match the time and place or it is jarring. I recall a famous movie about a gay cowboy. The clothes he wore were completely wrong from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in a ranching community in the West at the time the film was supposed to be situated. The character dressed more like a farmer from the Midwest. As you write, you want your readers to be able to imagine your characters in a believable way. You don’t want them to be critiquing your sartorial mistakes as they read, so do your homework and write accurately.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of April, I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ full-day Education Event. Panels included “Finding Your Unique Writing Approach,” “Self-Publishing,” and “Marketing for Writers.” A one-on-one with Corinne O’Flynn, who helped me lay out the equivalent of an elevator speech on the novel I am currently editing, was elucidating. I also took a two-week online course with RMFW on writing a synopsis. The instructor, Sharon Mignerey, provided excellent materials and thoughtful feedback. Before I started the class, I couldn’t fathom that drafting a synopsis would help me tighten up my plotline, but it certainly did. Now I feel more energized about approaching my editing.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

While I was doing my homework for my synopsis class, I added on—just for myself—some practice at writing a synopsis for my second novel. Working on the draft synopsis showed me where my plot holes are, so back to the drawing board I go.

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is May 7, 2019. This is my fifth blog of 2019. At the RMFW Education event, I had to chuckle when one of the panelists, Angie Hodapp, exclaimed, “We don’t need any more blogs on writing!” Perhaps writing this blog is indeed an exercise in staring at my own navel. Nevertheless, it is helping me to formulate my own thoughts and explore the issues I am grappling with as I attempt to create a story. Setting myself a posting deadline for the blog has also helped me keep on task with my goals.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

At the RMFW Education Event, I met some fascinating writers. Listening to them discuss the pros and cons of pen names, self or traditional publishing, or critique groups expanded my own mental forays into creating a career as a writer for myself. Additionally, our Boulder Writers Alliance spring workshop this month featured Professor Polly E. Bugros McLean who discussed her “on-the-ground” research for Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High.  Listening to Professor McLean made me realize how much research I still need to carry out for my second novel. I’m going to have to hit the road!

 

 

Moods and Modes for Writers

Mood in the Arts

Writers, musicians, and artists all concern themselves with mood, as do, of course, philosophers and psychologists. But what does “mood” mean? It is usually given three definitions: a temporary state of mind; a general impression produced by a predominant quality or characteristic; or a prevailing quality, as of thought, behavior, or attitude. Thus, a character may speak angrily then calm down; a crowd may seem joyous or threatening to a character, or the threat of a storm may make your protagonist cower under cover.

Historically, philosophers, physicians, and psychologists have shown their fascination with mood, connecting it to temperament and behavior. The Greeks discussed the “humors” or “temperaments” which they thought were based on bodily fluids, which in turn they believed caused certain behaviors, creating the categories of sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. These categories could be used to build different character types. Think about the caring characters, the practical characters, the testy characters, and the sad characters in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

For musicians, mood depends on the key the piece is written in, the tempo, and the dynamics, that is, differences in sound. For example, Carl Nielson’s symphony, “The Four Temperaments” was deliberately constructed to evoke four kinds of emotional responses. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” similarly associates the four temperaments with spring, summer, fall, and winter.  Cinema goes even farther, amplifying mood in the story and on the screen with the mood in the soundtrack to create different emotional reactions in viewers as the scenes progress. The theme from “Star Wars” was written in G major, a happy key, and appears at the beginning and the end, sounding both hopeful and triumphant.

Theories Related to Mood

The Meyers-Briggs Inventory has been used in various settings, including work, school, and other organizations. Keirsey’s reworking of the MBTI in his book, “Please Understand Me,” is an interesting model for writers as it creates four major categories: artisan (promoter, crafter, performer, composer), guardian (supervisor, inspector, provider, protector), rational (field marshal, mastermind, inventor, architect) and idealist (teacher, counselor, champion, healer). It is evident that these categories could easily become characters in a novel. Keirsey’s more recent book, “Personology” (2010), includes intentions, abilities, and interests in his theory of personality, which would give writers even more food for thought.

Writers Must Understand Mode as well as Mood

Grammatically, writers have to be able to use mood knowledgeably to create the world their characters inhabit psychologically. The grammatical term for mood is “mode” which references the state of mind of the speaker as the speaker is constructing what he or she says. For writers, mode naturally determines the form of the verb used. Is the character stating a fact? Asking a question? Giving an order? Making a wish? Or thinking hypothetically or conditionally? Thus, the state of mind is always portrayed by the author’s choice of verb form and can be used to portray the underlying mood or attitude of the character in question. A strong character will use the indicative mode more than any other. A bossy character might use the imperative mode in an excessive amount of interactions. A character who is afraid of reality or is rather shifty could overuse the conditional.

Mood and Fiction

Mood impacts various aspects of fiction. We all know the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” The writer sets the mood of the story with a reference to the absence of light and the threat of a storm. Humans often feel unsafe in the dark. They are often afraid of storms. The reader knows that something bad is about to happen. Despite the fact that this phrase has become cliché and has been lampooned, writers need to think about how to cast the mood of their stories, avoiding the melodramatic or the mundane.

Several questions arise for writers about the use of mood and mode. How do I personally handle them? How do I describe scenes, actions, and conversations? How do I hit just the right note and avoid cacophony? How do I create a memorable sentence? A haunting scene? An unforgettable beginning and ending—not subject to parody by professors and critiques. And, finally, how do I stay in a writing mood and mode?

Writing Goals for 2019

This year, my goals are to:

1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of March, I have been reading for structure. As I read “There There” by Tommy Orange, I focused on how he used quotations to set the theme and sub-themes of the novel. As I edit my first novel, I have been incorporating some quotations. Now I have a better idea about how to use them more effectively.

2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

For four days in March, I participated in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ NovelRama. This collaborative, or perhaps I should say concurrent, writing event takes place online via Facebook. Experienced writers provide guidance and encouragement in four-hour blocks throughout the day. They set up timed writing sprints, post videos of themselves, and post amusing llama memes.  The goal was for each participating writer to write 6,250 words each day and finish with a grand total of 25,000. I had never before tried such a task. I didn’t think I could do it. But I did. My grand total was 25,436. I amazed myself. Best of all, I drafted 16 chapters of my second novel, finishing 86 pages. At this point, I have accomplished almost one-third of my December 7th goal. Additionally, when I looked back to compare my NovelRama total to my last year’s total for the same period, I discovered that I had written 20 pages more in four days than I had written from January to March 7, 2018!

3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is April 7, 2019. This is my fourth blog of 2019. Having to write and publish a blog each month is forcing me to think more deeply and read more widely about fiction writing and how to wield the tools I need to build a good story.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

I continue to meet more writers through the Boulder Writers Alliance. One of the most helpful experiences I am engaged in is our BWA Book Club for Writers, led by Gary Alan McBride. Our discussions illuminate how each reader experiences the novel in a different way. Each one’s unique perspectives contribute to a better general understanding of the novel in question.

 

 

Flora and Fauna in Fiction

Goddesses and Nature

Flora and fauna are two of my best friends. The two categories have always amused me because they sound like women’s names, and, in fact, are. Flora was originally the name of the Greek goddess of plants, flowers, and fertility. The internet lists about 75 famous (or notorious) women named Flora. The biological meaning refers to the types of plants found in a particular geographic region. Thus, the flora of Madagascar is so rare that more than 80 percent of the plants are found only on the island, including species of orchids, palms, and baobabs. The flora of Colorado includes native species as well, some of my favorite are kinnikinnick, blue columbines, and wood roses.

“Fauna” is much less popular as a name even though it too was the name of a goddess of fertility. When I checked naming sites for feminine names, Fauna was very unpopular. In fact, in 2017 it ranked a low 20,000 (with number one being most popular). It has moved up a bit, perhaps due to Fauna Hodel, the mystery writer. In Madagascar, the fauna is also unique—lemurs with their long tails, sometimes ringed in black and white, and their cousins the soft white sifakas—definitely evoke one’s curiosity. In Colorado, while most of our wild animals are common to the west, we do have a unique squirrel, a species of Abert, which looks like a little pointed ear black devil when it peers down from a pine tree.

Plants and Animals in Colorado

Despite my digression into the names of goddesses and the flora and fauna of Madagascar, my concern with plants and animals is how to depict them in my novels which take place in Colorado. Naturally, they can make a story resonate with an authentic sense of place, creating familiarity or exoticism, or even, in the case of fauns creating an imaginary world. Needless to say, to create verisimilitude, authors must be careful to represent flora and fauna accurately when necessary to describe a region. Even with the spread of species to new habitats, one must be careful because some plants and animals simply don’t occur in some regions. Moreover, the number and variety of plants and animals differ depending on the era one is describing.

I am currently writing about two very different areas of Colorado which keeps me on my toes. Fortunately, I have spent time in both. Having grown up in the mountains, I always feel slightly uneasy when I am in a geographically flat area such as Oklahoma. I feel as though I might fall off the earth. Both landscapes I am writing about are dramatic but in different ways. One is in the Foothills of the Front Range where the Rockies tumble down to crash in waves on the Great Plains. The other is more than 300 miles away in Northwestern Colorado near Dinosaur National Monument.

Flora of the Front Range

The Front Range flora tempers the harshness of the mountains. The winds that drop over the mountains ruffle the trees and grasses as they descend. I could simply describe Front Range Flora with color terms because they vary so much depending on the season of the year. But I could also focus on sound. Most importantly, for accuracy, I need to learn the names, at least the common names, of the plants that paint the canvas my characters inhabit.

Fauna of the Front Range

As for the fauna, I know most of the common names of the animals on the Front Range, although specific species elude me. The most visible wild animals on the Front Range have always been the hawks, vultures, and bats as they circle high in the sky at different times of the day. While walking or riding horses in the Foothills, I have often seen coyotes, bears, or deer, and on occasion a bobcat. At times I have seen foxes, raccoons, and rabbits play in my yard. And, most amusingly, a very large bear left a huge pile of “fertilizer” in my flower garden last summer which resulted in my flowers developing extraordinarily large blossoms. Moose and cougars are common nowadays in this area, they even occasionally walk right down our street, while during the time period I am writing about they simply were not around. In the past, I used to hike and jog on the trails alone and was never surprised by anything but a chipmunk.

North Western Colorado

The other landscape I am writing about is in the northwestern part of the state. During the early part of the twentieth century, it had meadows with tall grasses in the bottoms below the low dry mesas. But since the Great Depression, it has been an arid and rocky desert. The light there is so bright it hurts your eyes. Most of the mesas are light-colored—shifting only from white to grey to a pale yellow—and very dry. Even the bushes are dry and light grey with a hint of lavender most of the year. Dry creeks beds, surprisingly, are scattered with very colorful stones that have been washed down from the mountains in the distance. The parched surface is dotted with bits of skeletons—mostly sheep and other small critters. If I take a walk, I have to watch out for rattlers. Only after the springtime rains do the flowers appear.

These different landscapes with their different flora and fauna definitely call for different kinds of stories. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “All creative art must rise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place.” Writing—like the flora and fauna it describes—grows and flourishes in a distinctive environment.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019. During the month of February, I have been reading about point of view and paying closer attention to the POV used in novels I have been reading.  I am finding that “editing” involves rewriting and experimenting. Thus, I have tried rewriting from a different point of view, just to see if the story flows better.
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019. I worked on the outline and characters for my second novel and discussed it with a kindred spirit. I reread my notes and began to sketch in some scenes.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019. Today is March 7, 2019. This is my third blog of 2019. Blogging about my writing process approximates having someone to talk to as I proceed. It helps me to think about different approaches and what I need to focus on to write solidly.
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing. This month I read a blog that is written by editors who edit for writers and others who serve as ghostwriters, as well as several blogs by members of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group. Fortunately for me, the Boulder Writers Alliance offered a workshop, led by Caitlin Berve of Ignited Ink Writing, on point of view this month. During the workshop, Caitlin asked us to write. I took the opportunity to rethink a scene from a completely different point of view. It was a good exercise. It helped me see the scene better. My BWA writers’ groups have also developed into social groups during happy hours which is a very nice way to relax after a hard day of writing.

The Pleasure of Writing

Emotions on and off the Page

Emotions manifest in a dual sense in fiction. The characters emote, while readers empathize with or reject the passions expressed on the page as they read. Thus, emotion is a tool that writers must wield sagely at all times regardless of their genre. Roland Barthes, who wrote Le Plaisir du Texte (translated as The Pleasure of the Text), delineated the difference between what he called readerly and writerly texts. He explains that the former elicits pleasure for the reader because it is simply pleasant to read. The latter stimulates “juouissance” (intense pleasure) which in French means intense pleasure at the intellectual, moral, physical, or material levels. For example, reading gives the reader the pleasure of knowing and learning. Figuring out the meanings or understories of the text is satisfying to the reader. Reading the text may give the reader sensual pleasure. Or the book itself may give the reader the pleasure of possession. Thus, from Barthes’ analysis, the writerly text is more stimulating than is the readerly text because it operates at different levels. Something unexpected in a writerly text forces the reader to engage more deeply. Writers then are challenged to create an emotional tenor in their stories that grabs the reader’s attention while stimulating them to think or react sensually. The intensity may be experienced by the protagonists themselves or the emotional tenor of the story could be inherent in the plot or the genre of the novel itself.

Emotions in Different Genres

As I have thought about different genres, I realized they can be divided by the emotions they elicit. The major genres are mythology (awe), tragedy (grief), fantasy (wonder), mystery (intrigue), adventure (excitement), and science fiction (astonishment).

Myth

Because mythology is a sacred form that features gods and goddesses who engage in exemplary or sometimes terrifying deeds, the characters exhibit awe, fear, guilt, regret, power, anger, or human frailty. The reader’s experience tends to reflect the characters’ experience with the addition of a sense of injustice at humans’ defenselessness—imagine being raped by a swan!

Tragedy

Tragedies tell the tale of human suffering. The characters usually have a human flaw that begins their demise. They express strong emotions such as hatred, jealousy, lust, anger or in the case of Antigone, love for her brothers. Their readers experience horror at what happens, sadness at the death of the innocent, and repulsion directed at the villain.

Fantasy

In fantasy just about anything can happen because magic exists. The fantasy world is created rather than realistic. The emotions vary depending on the storyline. The characters experience love and hate, fear and joy, the excitement of adventure or the boredom of home. The fantasy novelist must be able to stimulate readers’ suspension of disbelief. For it to work, the readers must happily tumble, like Alice, into a setting with characters that are not real and a world that is not possible. The emotions the readers experience tend to reflect those of the characters, even as they remind themselves, “Well this isn’t really real.” In a good fantasy, the reader’s reading pleasure results from delight with the wonder of the fantasy world itself.

Mystery

Mysteries require that the author provide a hook to grab the reader’s attention. They also have to involve the reader actively in trying to solve the mystery, while throwing in misleading clues to throw the reader off track. The intrigue of mystery creates suspense. The reader must identify with the protagonist enough to be anxious or worried about what is going to happen, literally holding their breath as threats or dangers come to a climax. The reader must enjoy the same physical release as Sherlock when then the mystery is solved. Thus, the mystery seems to hold the elements of a writerly text in the ways that it engages the reader’s thought process, even though it might not engage literary critics in the same way.

Adventure

In novels that fit into the genre of adventure, the characters take action. They do things that normal folks don’t engage in; there are ups and downs. They experience some type of trauma but manage to survive. The characters’ emotions rise and fall in line with their adventures, moving from calm to excitement, from excitement to worry, from worry to terror, from terror to achievement, and finally relief.

I just read an adventure novel that falls into a new genre—climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow by Bill Liggett, the heroine is a woman scientist who discovers an unlikely occurrence high on a glacier. Because of the setting and the threats of global warming, exciting adventures and traumatic deaths occur. It seems to me that most adventures would fall under Barthes readerly texts label because they are a pleasant read. However, cli-fi definitely stimulates the reader to consider how to solve current climate issues so it may move into the writerly realm.

Science Fiction

As a genre, science fiction creates an unknown world in which all aspects of society—gender, roles, technology, biology, finance—operate differently than in our daily lives. However, in science fiction emotion tends to work similarly to other genres. The characters experience emotions in reaction to the world around them or as in Star Trek, some characters, Data, for example, do not experience or understand human emotions at all because they are robots or cyborgs or some type of alien. The reader experiences many emotions including astonishment, surprise, delight, disgust, horror, or even disbelief. I do think the attraction of science fiction, if it is well written, is related to Barthes discussion of the writerly text. It does make the reader think. It forces the reader to react. I recall reading Wool by Hugh Howey. It triggered an incredible range of emotions in me—most of which were on the dark emotional side. The situation in the story was horrifying, which brings me to the question of what does emotion have to do with plot.

Emotion and Plot

In Wool, I think the plot drove my emotions. People were trapped physically because they were unaware of the reality of their situation. Emotionally some characters were resigned; others rebelliously tried to get out. Their rebellion drives the plot while drawing the reader along. The plot creates a sense of claustrophobia in the reader, so the reader experiences deeply what the characters experience. Wool adds a whole new meaning to Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the “man in hole” plotline!

Clarifying the Genre of My Novel

Curiously, I am not intrigued by writing in any of the genres discussed above. Although I think any good read has a bit of each in it. The book I am working on seems to fall under the category of literary fiction, although I don’t know if I can achieve a literary complexity of writing. It is a modern Bildungsroman about a young woman coming into her own.

Based on my experience, I would add a third level to the discussion of emotions: the emotion of the writer as she writes. I read somewhere if the story makes the author cry when she writes it, it is likely to make the reader cry. What this means to me is that the story must above all have a sense of authenticity. The emotions that fill its pages must be unavoidable. The novelist really must do something besides stare at her own navel. The story must be engaging enough to stimulate the reader’s plaisir du texte.

As I edit my draft this year, that will be my challenge—to make sure that as a writer I infuse the text with authentic scenes, while drawing the reader into my characters’ lives. I want my readers to laugh, to cry, and to rise to the challenges that occur in their own lives as my main character does.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019. For the month of January, I had the delightful company of my daughter and grandson which kept me busy. I decided to continue reworking my outline to assure that the storyline unfolds without repetition or without skipping something important. I had to split a couple of chapters. I also deleted one unnecessary part. I woke up last night dreaming I was writing a new story which is a pretty good signal from my brain that I need to get back to my writing. I’m finding the pull between creativity and paying attention to the structure to be a challenge.
  2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019. I have the first draft of my outline done, but it has holes. I don’t have the complete flow of the story in mind so I feel a bit as though I am playing chess: moving the players around to see in which directions they can move.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019.  This is my second blog of 2019—typing that date still makes my heart stop. I cannot believe we are already 19 years into the 21st century. Blogging for me continues to be a learning experience. It also helps me keep tabs on my progress.
  4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing. My networking in 2018 was fruitful. I am now sitting on the Steering Committee of the Boulder Writers Alliance. My job is to help with programming and to give input into the strategic plan. I also joined a second BWA small group of writers who analyze a novel each month. It has already helped me analyze my own writing even though I have attended only two sessions.