Monthly Archives: June 2011

Holding Up a Mirror

Two years ago I assistant taught a fiction-writing class at my local community college. When faced with a character-description assignment, a lot of students asked, “How do I describe a first-person narrator?” Without having the character look in a mirror, of course. The students seemed really stumped.

Now the easy answer is to have the character describe him- or herself. As in this excerpt from “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke:

About my looks: I was tall and skinny as a kid, but with a big head. I looked like a vertical matchstick. … My face is the most prominent thing about me: it’s red, and sometimes it looks healthy and windburned and full of what you might call life, and sometimes it just looks enflamed.

(The description goes on for a while longer.)

But it doesn’t always seem right for a character to describe him- or herself. I mean, how many of us would really want to do that if we were narrating our own lives?

In that case, a lot of writers employ a sort of mirror technique, without the actual mirror: They have the point-of-view character describe another character, and through the description we get a sense of how the character sees him- or herself. Passages like these appear in the opening chapters of “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and “Prep.”

Although the example below, from “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, is in the third person, I think it does the job nicely. The point-of-view character is missing one ear. He hides that fact by wearing a scarf wound tightly around his head. Here he’s buying a shawerma sandwich:

As the Turkish shawerma man sharpened his long knife, Turad gazed at his clean, finely defined ear, which glowed red in the light and heat of the flames. The Turkish shawerma man swaggered proudly showing off his beautiful ear as he carved tender slices from the huge cone-shaped column of chicken wrapped around the spit, piled them up with his spoon, added some fries, and spread a dollop of mayonnaise on the bread. His other ear glowed with every jolt of his body, thanks to the strong light of the halogen lamp that was positioned just above his head and the pile of chicken. And all the time the Turk was singing a sad song in a language Turad could not understand; he just kept staring at that captivating left ear as he wondered about the secret of the sad singing. How on earth could someone who possessed such a wonderfully perfect ear be sad?

I’d want that shawerma if the rest of the description weren’t so … creepy.

The point is, sometimes character descriptions, whether of the person narrating or of another character, can do more than show readers physical characteristics. In the same way that descriptions of setting can establish a mood, descriptions of characters can tell us how a character feels about him- or herself.

Advertisements

Why Write a Novel 2

In this season of summer movie sequels, it seems like a good time to follow up on the post I wrote last year in which I mused about my reasons for writing a novel.

Although I’m still some months away from querying agents, I’m starting to think about that phase of novel birthing. I’ve been doing research on what makes a good query, reading agents’ blogs, trying to become more knowledgeable about the book industry. No one’s ever hid from me the fact that selling a novel and making a living (or even a fraction of a living) as an author are both really tough to do. I’ve known that from the beginning. It just seemed best not to worry about that fact incessantly while I was working on my book.

But the more I learn now, the more the reality hits home. Here’s the common wisdom: Publishing is a rough road. So write because you love it.

The thing is, I don’t think loving writing is enough to sustain me on this journey. If I were writing just for the love of writing, I’d put my pages in a box or on a thumb drive and be perfectly content. I think the point I’m trying to make in a circuitous way is that for many of us “aspiring,” “emerging,” or what-have-you writers, love of writing is fundamental. (That’s not true for everyone, but probably for a good chunk of writers.) The fantasies that we could make a living doing what we love every day and that we could have an audience for our work are secondary.

But sometimes, it’s true, those secondary things trump the fundamental in our minds. If only someone would notice me and give me a nice chunk of money, I could quit my day job and write.

In order to banish that fantasy and get down to the brass tacks of writing, actually doing what we love, I think we need something more. A sense that we want to be challenged. A sense that we want to set a goal and accomplish it. A driving passion for a particular story. A need to be heard. A little bit of craziness.

In that way, committing to write a novel is sort of like getting married. Love sets the foundation, but it takes a lot more — including the crazy conviction that you can beat the odds — to make a strong marriage.

What do y’all think?

Insomnia

Last night I lay awake for four hours.

One of the things that kept my mind thrumming and my body from falling asleep: A story decided to write itself in my head. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t complain. But I’m tired. And I still have to write the story down.

I think the brain-writing session (Is that a good word to call it? Thought-writing? Someone help me out here …) was brought on both by a 60 Minutes episode I saw the other night, which reminded me of a topic I’d tried to deal with in a short story five years ago, and by this NYT Magazine article about Amanda Hocking, self-publishing (and now mainstream-publishing) phenom (link thanks to Leslie of Work-in-Progress, a great writing blog). In the article, Hocking says that it takes her two to four weeks to write a novel. Uh. She explains:

But I say that and people are like, “Whoa, that’s fast.” And it is. But the series I sold to St. Martin’s, for example, I’ve been really working on it in my head for over a year. So by the time I sit down to write, it’s already written.

Edward P. James has said something similar about “The Known World,” a novel I love. He was writing it in his head for ten years, and then when he lost his job, he set the book down in a matter of months.

These anecdotes are awesome. But of course, many of us don’t have the time or brain space to think a story, let alone a novel, all the way through. Fifteen minutes in the shower to ruminate on a story or chapter is usually a luxury for me. Of course, that’s mostly my fault. No one is forcing me at gunpoint to have a busy life, although it may feel that way sometimes.

Several times last night I told myself I should just get up and turn on my computer and type the story. But it was kind of cool (if also annoying) to have the story writing and rewriting itself in my head. After all, isn’t that how many of us started out as fiction writers, when we were kids?

Now here’s to hoping the story seems as good on the page as it did in my mind!

I’m the Muslim in ‘My Best Friend Is Muslim’

I want to talk about a website I came across recently, My Best Friend Is Muslim. (I particularly like this post and this post.)

When I discovered the site, I promptly told my two best buds about it. One of them is Protestant, the other is, uh, a spiritual vegetarian with a Christian background?

Which demonstrates the obvious: For every non-Muslim whose best friend is Muslim, there’s a Muslim whose best friend is not Muslim. And the benefits of such relationships go both ways.

I know I can’t take full credit for my friends being more tolerant and more knowledgeable about Islam than many other people are, or for their knowing that Muslims’ preferred pronunciation of Muslim doesn’t sound like “muslin.” But I take a little credit.

And I credit my many non-Muslim friends with making me a more tolerant person, too. Someone who understands that not all Christians believe the same things, that atheists have values, that I share more in common with some progressive Jews than with some conservative Muslims.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that one person (or one story) that introduces someone to a different religion or culture or way of being can change that someone’s views. Sure, tolerance by proximity is a fairly slow way to change the world, and it doesn’t always work — there are plenty of people who love and respect a Muslim, or gay person, or Jewish person, or black person, or Asian person, or other kind of person and still hold on to hatred for the group that person comes from. And no matter how energetically writers try to bust stereotypes, they won’t always succeed in busting them for every reader. But the idea that I could change one person’s mind about Muslims because they met me or read something I wrote — well that idea just makes me happy and optimistic.

Maybe even optimistic enough to think I should introduce myself to the Republican presidential candidates.

And I’m also here to encourage Muslim folks, especially those not in the United States (where it’s sort of impossible not to know non-Muslims), to talk about their non-Muslim friends and about how important those friendships have been to them. Let’s make an effort to introduce other Muslims to non-Muslims.

Because Republican presidential candidates (minus Mitt Romney) aren’t the only haters in the world. And sometimes people are intolerant simply because they were never given the chance not to be.

P.S. Back in May, I promised y’all a post about the structure of novels. I swear, it’s mostly written in my head and will make it to the blog soon. Really!

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The stages of rewriting or revising a novel chapter:

  1. Elation at finishing previous chapter. Conviction that this one will be easier.
  2. Slow realization that this chapter has more and stickier problems than you realized.
  3. Panic and insomnia.
  4. Inspiration and slow return of confidence.
  5. Possible mini cycle:
    1. Slow realization that the solution you thought of won’t quite work.
    2. Brief bout of panic and insomnia.
    3. Re-inspiration and return of confidence.
  6. Elation at finishing chapter. Conviction that the next one will be easier.