Master storyteller Jennifer Manuel: Technique #001: Setting as Character!

 

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Jennifer Manuel is a gifted storyteller. In fact, not one, but two of her stories won the SIWC Storyteller Award this year ($1000 and publication!). While she’s a writer who has many tools in her toolbox, one of her strengths is using setting as a character. The time she has spent in “the farthest northern and western corners of British Columbia,” as mentioned in her bio, especially her teaching experiences in Kyuquot, has a clear influence on the tales she tells.

One of her techniques that I greatly admire is how she uses setting as a character in her writing. Let’s examine a few examples from “The Woman in the Box with the Baby.”

An eleven-year-old girl, Candice is “going to the island with the fossils to find the woman in the box with the baby because there might be treasure inside.” This line appears in the very first paragraph, and because the girl is taking a rickety canoe out there all by herself, it creates instant pathos. Readers don’t want anything terrible to happen to her. But look at the conditions she is facing:

“Whoever’s been carving that log into a boat hasn’t finished yet, so the inside is rough and shallow and barely cradles little Candice. It’s more like a narrow raft on which she sits hunched with her knobby knees ben skyward, the splashes of water from the carved paddle running in rivulets down her bare legs and bare feet. The blade of the paddle is not much wider than the handle. When Candice pulls it through the water it looks about as practical as stirring a pot of fish head soup with a needle.”

Notice the contrast between the rough, unfinished canoe, and Candice’s “bare legs and bare feet.” Also, because the canoe is not dug out completely, her knobby knees poke far out of it and the water coursing off the paddle runs down her legs. We can imagine the extreme effort she has to make in order to push forward just a little bit. The canoe and the water between her and the island are worthy antagonists.

A little later, “The wind picks up, lifting and chopping the dark ocean into triangles….It starts to rain, soaking into the girl’s sweatshirt….The canoe wobbles from side to side.”

It seems as though the elements are combining forces against her…wind and rain and what amounts to little more than a crude raft in crazy conditions that are worsening by the moment.

She’s followed by her teacher to the island, and once they both reach shore, the setting’s severity becomes even more evident:

“The tide has started to lift the boats, grinding them on the pebbles, slipping them in and out of the foamy water. The anchor chain clinks and rattles against the large rocks fractured into patterns of perfect rectangles. It tightens and slackens as the ocean tries to coax the boats away.”

The sentences above are a great example of why good writers “hear” their words in their head or even read them aloud. Let’s look at the SOUNDS in that short passage:

First of all, the tide is personified, and it’s clearly causing trouble. The cacophony—hard b’s and d’s and k’s, p’s and t’s—bring that toughness to light:BoaTs, GrinDing them on the PeBBles….The anKor chain KlinKs and raTTles aGainsT the large roKs fraKTureD inTo PaTTerns of PerfeKT reKTanGles.” I’m making the hard sounds obvious by quoting sounds and not letters, and it makes the harsh effect even more obvious, hopefully.

Now look at other sounds working together here, including the assonance and consonance of “grindING” and “slippING”; “tightENZ” and “slackENZ.” We hear “o” sounds in “the Ocean tries to cOax the bOats,” and there’s alliteration with “Patterns of Perfect” and onomatopoeia with “clinks” and “rattles.” Careful attention to sounds and sound devices can breathe life into a description, especially one involving setting. It adds to voice, and voice is achieved through careful word choice, and the voice here is one of a poet, Jennifer Manuel. (Did you notice the parallelism in her story between the “triangles of water” and “rectangles of rock”?)

Let’s look at one more example:

“Miss Royston knows she can’t stop a child willing to walk into the woods in bare feet but she can’t fail to keep a child safe either. So she climbs over the rocks, parts the dripping curtains of cedar, and steps through the tangle of shrubs into the murky light of the rainforest. Like the closing of a window, the ragged branches spring back and deaden the sounds of wind and rain behind her. In front of her, the girl treads over layers of life and decay, over Bracken ferns and the brown caps of mushrooms, over the rotten log homes of mice and chipmunks.”

See what I mean? Here, Manuel brings in the hard sounds again, together with the forest floor, the bare feet, the death and decay as the girl makes her way to find two dead bodies in a makeshift coffin. The setting grips you, tugs you into the story, holds you while you experience what the young girl experiences herself.

The setting becomes just as important as any character, and that’s quite a challenge for any writer. In the hands of master storyteller Jennifer Manuel, it’s just one of many ways she engages her audience.

 

Try this:

Imagine a place with tough conditions. Now create a goal—something that will force a character to move through that space slowly. Use any or all of the techniques you’ve read about above, and WRITE THE SCENE!

GOOD NEWS at SIWC…

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Ok, my three-day SIWC nirvana is soon coming to a close (just a half-day Sunday remaining), but already it’s been amazing because…

  • I met Zsuzsi Gartner, a short story goddess whose work I admire and even teach to my students, and she blue-penciled a short story I wrote, giving excellent advice and instructions for that five-page piece of short fiction.  AND she autographed a book for me, AND I went to a POV session of hers that was very helpful and informative.
  • I met and pitched two different novels to  four agents and three of them requested full manuscripts to be sent. I have never before had an agent request a full manuscript at all at this conference, so I’ll take that as a positive sign…
  • JACK WHYTE sang on stage at the conference (“The Hippopotamus Song”), a long-time SIWC tradition.
  • I won a few books in a book draw.
  • I got Diana Gabaldon to sign two books–one for one of my Writing 12 students, and the other for a secretary at school who loves Outlander.
  • I ran into Denise Jaden, a YA author who started pitching at SIWC not long ago and since has published several books with Simon and Schuster! Some of my students read her work, so I was jazzed to meet her again.
  • Leanne Shirtliffe, who is funny as hell, writes memoir (especially mommy memoir) and puts up with me on Twitter, autographed a book for me and so did Janie Chang, who has an incredible historical fiction novel out this year with Harper Collins. The two of them were part of a panel of success stories of writers who have their publishing success due in whole or in part to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. INSPIRING!
  • Susan Pieters, who is one of three founding members of PULP Literature Press, saw me in a lineup, complimented me on my short story that won The Storyteller Award last year, and asked me to send it in to her for consideration for their pulp anthology magazine. Fantastic! I even sent the expanded novella version for them to consider, since they sometimes print works of that length.
  • I met long-time writer pals like Hector Curiel and Bonnie Jacoby and Tricia Barker and made more than a few new acquaintances too! I also ran into a writer who has placed in at least three contests WITH me–Carol Despeaux, who lives south (but not too far south) of the border.
  • Jim C. Hines, author of 40+ published short stories and nine fantasy novels, gave a memorable keynote speech on how STORIES MATTER!

I know I’m forgetting other happenings today, too, but let me tell you one thing that I know for sure:

Today, alone, was MORE than worth the cost of a three-day conference! I encourage everyone to take this one in next year, around the same time in October. And I hope to see you there, too!

Time to get ready now for the last day of the conference and then get to sleep… if I can!

2 Days Until SIWC… 2 Novel Writing Myths Debunked!

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Are you fighting with writing? For those who are daunted by penning something as long as a novel, here’s a link to an article that debunks two myths:

1. Writing a novel takes huge talent.

2. Writing a novel is difficult.

http://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-a-novel.html

It also includes a link to another site that takes you, step by step, through a process that will enable you to complete that book you’ve always dreamed of writing.

2 days to SIWC… 2 myths debunked. My work for today’s blog is done…back to writing now!

4 Days to SIWC… 4 Writing Prompts from the 4 A.M. Breakthrough

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4 Prompts from one of my favorite prompt books, The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, by Brian Kiteley

1. Write about a shopping list, as if this shopping list had much more meaning than it could possibly hold. Imagine this list found hundreds of years later and analyzed for hidden meaning (or perhaps without understanding of its original and simple meanings).

2. Imagine overhearing a conversation between two intimates—a married couple, siblings, or old friends who have weathered many fights. Your observer has happened upon these two people in the middle of a heated, emotional conversation. The person who hears this talk cannot be seen. Work at both the intensity of the words and the inarticulateness a moment like this can provoke.

3. Write a 250-word story in which you never use the same word twice—each of the 250 words is different. You may not use a variation of a word, like you’ll after you’ve already used you.

4. Write a piece of fiction over a year. Make it fifty-two sentences long. Write one sentence a week. Work on this sentence very carefully. Don’t plan the next sentence when you’re working on this one sentence. You can and should certainly look back at your previous sentences. The subject of the story should be in part the passage of one year and whatever changes this year has wrought on a handful of fictional characters.

5 days until SIWC…so here’s a 5-point plan for NANOWRIMO

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Our countdown to the best writing conference in North America–SIWC–continues….It’s only five short days away, so here is a quick, 5-point plan for some of the madness that comes in the next month during NANOWRIMO. When you’re planning a novel, here’s a quick way to think about it:

1. One-sentence NY Times Bestseller line. The one-sentence description for your book you could use when it makes it big!

2. Back cover blurb. A short description of that book in your head, with hooks to grab reader interest.

3. Character outlines–flesh out your characters so that you’ll know how they’ll behave in any situation.

4. Short synopsis. A one-page document that lists the three main sections (BME—beginning, middle, end) of your book, and details about your story that will spark reader interest.

5. List of scenes, from the beginning to the end of your novel. Even though you may stray from this plan, as better ideas come to you during the writing process, it’s good to have this list anyway, since you can insert details and hints earlier that may help explain later elements. At the very least, know where you start and where you finish. The WAY you get there may change, but at least you’ll have those two guideposts to keep you going the right direction.

6 days until SIWC… 6 sentence styles to test out in your writing

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6 days until SIWC, so here are six styles of sentences (found in recent readings!) for you to take a peek at.

Thanks Shan, Katie, Aaron, and Lena for chasing these down in your reading:

 

1. The Interrupted  Sentence

Maybe he should have stopped—showed them that he wasn’t afraid—but the muscles in his legs began running, and the bones of his feet came away from the earth. –Madeline Sonik, “The Boy Who Flew”

2. Rhetorical Question

It was probably here own unique style of whatever, so who was I to judge? –Mark Jordan Manner, “A Bit Maybe, but Probably Not”

3. The Simple Sentence

Time passes. –Veronica Gayle, “Oh Kelowna!”

4. Simple Sentence: interruption

The bench, the maroon car bench in our garden, is his home now. –Susi Lovell, “Waves”

5. The Compound-Complex Sentence

Her voice was precise, without a trace of sorrow, but she took the picture and stalked back in the bedroom angrily, as if he had not understood what she meant and did not want him looking at it anymore. –Kate Cayley, “Young Hennerly”

6. Simple Sentence: afterthought

I recite passages from my novel to him, the sexy parts. –Mark Jordan Manner, “God’s Bones”

8 Things to Do at SIWC

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The countdown is on…8 days until SIWC… so here are 8 things you can DO at SIWC…

 

1. Choose from more than 70 workshops given by authors, editors, agents, screenwriters, and social media experts.

2. Find an agent. More than a dozen to pitch to!

3. Get some editing suggestions. Sign up for a “blue pencil” session and have someone in the know critique some of your work for you.

4. Get that head shot! A photographer will be present to do head shots for any writer needing one.

5. Get an autograph from one of your favourite writers! Saturday night book-signing session.

6. Win a writing award. $4600 in prizes, at least, plus, for next year, a free pass to the winners of each category as well!

7. Network—meet and greet up to 800 other writers…people who understand your addiction to words.

8. Enjoy the banquets—food, drink and desserts to feed that other hunger!

SIWC Countdown: 9 upcoming contests…9 days until SIWC!

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The countdown to SIWC 2013 continues. 9 days until SIWC, and their contest is over for this year,  so I thought I’d put up info about 9 other interesting contests you might consider for the near future:

Lynn Manuel Children’s Fiction Contest : http://www.grasmerepublishing.com/

Creative Nonfiction Contest by carte blanche: http://carte-blanche.org/carte-blanchecnfc-society-creative-nonfiction-contest/

Bliss Carman Poetry Award: http://www.prairiefire.ca/contests/bliss-carman-poetry-award/

Malahat Open Season Awards (poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction): http://www.malahatreview.ca/contests/open_season/info.html

Orca Book’s $50 000 Story Share Contest: http://www.storysharecontest.com/categories

The Missing Slate Hallowe’en Writing Contest: http://themissingslate.com/halloween-writing-contest/

The Digital Americana 501-word writing contest: http://thedigitalamericana.com/contests/

Press 53 Award for Short Fiction: http://www.press53.com/

Glimmer Train: Family Matters: http://www.newpages.com/classifieds/litpak/pdfs/2013-09-GlimmerTrain.pdf

SIWC Countdown: 10 openings you’ll love!

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Ok, it is officially 10 days until SIWC, so I’m beginning a countdown on fighttowrite. Today, here are 10 openings I hope you’ll love:

From “Ceiling,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

When Obinze first saw her e-mail, he was sitting in the back of his Land Rover in still Lagos traffic, his jacket slung over the front seat, a rusty-haired child beggar glued to his window, a hawker pressing colorful CDs against the other window, the radio turned on low to the pidgin English news on Wazobia FM, and the gray gloom of imminent rain all around. He stared at his BlackBerry, his body suddenly rigid. First he skimmed the e-mail, dampened that it was not longer. Ceiling, kedu? I saw Amaka yesterday in New York and she said you were doing well with work, wife—and a child! Proud Papa. Congratulations. I’m still teaching and doing some research, but seriously thinking of moving back to Nigeria soon. Let’s keep in touch? Ifemelu.

From “Housewifely Arts,” by Megan Mayhew Bergman

I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change light bulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make a pie crust and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawlspace with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.

 

From “A Bridge Under Water,” by Tom Bissell

“So,” he said, after having vacuumed up a plate of penne all’arrabiata, drunk in three swallows a glass of Nero D’Avola, and single-handedly consumed half a basket of breadsticks, “do you want to hit another church or see the Borghese Gallery?”

 

 From “La Vita Nuova,” by Allegra Goodman

The day her fiancé left, Amanda went walking in the Colonial cemetery off Garden Street. The gravestones were so worn that she could hardly read them. They were melting away into the weedy grass. You are a very dark person, her fiancé had said.

 

From “Gurov in Manhattan,” by Ehud Havazelet

On a January Day, a little before nine in the morning, this was the situation: Sokolov, fifty-two, lecturer in Russian literature at Lehman College in the Bronx, two years post-transplant for leukemia, stood on Riverside Drive looking north to Canada, while Lermontov, his suffering aged wolfhound, tried with trembling exertions to relieve himself, looking south toward New Orleans. The day was cold, scrubbed clear, one of the January days in New York that slice through you and deride your hopes that winter will ever open its fist. The vet, a young woman with auburn hair braided and an althlete’s bony litheness, the kind who caught Solokov’s eye (the kind whose eye he used to catch—alas, no longer), told him dogs Lermontov’s size were lucky to reach ten, eleven. If, as Sokolov said, he was thirteen, it was a miracle, and she smiled at the dog tenderly while Sokolov (she didn’t know him) thought sourly that only the carelessly youthful and naïve (the healthy) could have the gall to think surviving is blessing enough.

 

From “The Sleep,” by Caitlin Horrocks

 

The snow came early that first year, and so heavy that when Albert Rasmussen invited the whole town over, we had to park around the corner from his unplowed street. We staggered through the drifts, across the lawns, down the neat sidewalks where a few of Al’s neighbors owned snowblowers. Mr. Kajaamaki and the Lutven boys were still out huffing and puffing with shovels. We waved as we passed, and they nodded.

 

From “Soldier of Fortune,” by Bret Anthony Johnston

Her name was Holly Hensley, and except for the two years when her father was transferred to a naval base in Florida, her family lived across the street from mine. This was on Beechwood Drive, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Our parents held garage sales together, threw hurricane parties, went floundering in the shallow, bottle-green water under the causeway. If the Hensleys were working overtime and Holly was staying late for pep-squad practice—which meant grinding against Julio Chavez in the back seat of his Skylark—my mother would pick up Holly’s younger brother from daycare and watch him until they got home. Sam had been born while they were living in Florida. (“My old man got one past the goalie,” Holly liked to say. “There’s nothing more disgusting.”) In 1986, the year everything happened at Hensley house, Sam was three. Holly was eighteen, a senior at King High School, and I was a freshman, awkward and shy and helpless with love.

 

From “Foster,” by Claire Keegan

 

Early on a Sunday, after first mass in Clonegal, my father instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford toward the coast, where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot August day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh, where my father lost our red shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew, where the man who won her sold her not long afterward. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes. I shake the plaits out of my hair and lie flat on the back seat, looking up through the rear window. I wonder what it will be like, this place belonging to the Kinsellas. I see a tall woman standing over me, making me drink milk still hot from the cow. I see another, less likely version of her, in an apron, pouring pancake batter into a frying pan, asking would I like another, the way my mother sometimes does when she is in good humor. The man will be her size. He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields. I wonder if they live in an old farmhouse or a new bungalow, whether they will have an outhouse or an indoor bathroom with a toilet and running water.

 

From “The Dungeon Master,” by Sam Lipsyte

 

The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon Master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda.

 

From “Property,” by Elizabeth McCracken

 

The ad should have said, For rent, six-room hovel. Quarter-filled Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle in living room, sandy sheets throughout, lingering smell.

Or, Wanted: gullible tenant for small house, must possess appreciation for chipped pottery, mid-1960s abstract silk-screened canvases, mouse-nibbled books on Georgia O’Keeffe.

Or, Available June 1—shithole.

 

Writing scale from The Pocket Muse

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          Just like musicians believe in practicing scales as a way of preparing, staying in tune with the music, and connecting to something familiar, I’m a firm believer that writers can get going and create new work, even when they feel blocked, by using a writing scale, or prompt. I call them starters, and I get them from everywhere–other people’s writing, writing prompt books, newspaper headlines–anything to get the pen and ideas flowing.

Here’s one from The Pocket Muse, by Monica Wood:

Someone has left a note on a car windshield.

Try this:

There could be many reasons for the note. A hit-and-run accident where the driver HAD to leave before the owner of the car returned. A love-struck secret admirer. A stalker who adds: I’ve decided to make you my next victim.

Whatever idea you choose to go with, or whatever you come up with yourself, write the scene where these two people eventually MEET!

An important character to add for your protagonist

 

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          Ok, in my last post, I promised the next one would deal with a character you want to add in for your protagonist. There are actually TWO that I’ll talk about. Think positives and negatives. For a muscle to get stronger, it has to push against something, a heavy weight. This weight is the “guardian of the portal,” according to Joseph Conrad (and as mentioned in Linda Lappin’s article, “Your Journey to Hell and Back”).

          This must be a formidable foe…with a weakness. There must be, of course, some way to get past this person or item that’s preventing your hero from reaching his or her quest. Don’t make it too easy, and by all means, don’t let your hero be successful on the very first attempt. Repeated defeat means that your character will have to get smarter, and this is where the next character comes in–

          The helper or guide.

          The biggest mistake writers make is thinking that this helper or guide is just out there, waiting to help, looking for an opportunity to make someone’s life better. They are completely altruistic, totally good, and only looking out for others.

          Boring.

          What if the person your protagonist needs help for is actually an enemy? What if they both need to defeat the guardian because they want the same thing? Maybe they grudgingly agree to work together, but once they get past the guardian, they’re in conflict with each other over the final prize. More conflict, more tension, and messier (a good mess), because now, these are people who would have worked together and HELPED each other.

Try this:

Create an obstacle or villain that BOTH your protagonist and his or her enemy need to get past. Descrbe it in detail and make it fearsome, troublesome, a real thorn in the side. Think of a weakness that may not be automatically obvious, something TWO characters could never do alone. (Side note: I recently did this with a children’s chapter book I’m writing: Galaxy Girls: Fire and Water Do Mix! The two young female superheroes, Pyra and Hydra, alone can’t defeat their dreaded enemy, the Buzzinator. But together, they use their powers to produce super-hot steam, which is the key to reaching and defeating this pest. This is just to show that the technique can work for everything from children’s chapter books to high fantasy novels, and everything in between!)

Katabasis and your narrative fiction

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          In Linda Lappin’s article, “Your Journey to Hell and Back,” in the September 2013 edition of The Writer, she returns to Joseph Campbell’s classic text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to discuss KATABASIS:

According to Campbell, in myths fairy tales and fictional narratives of mythic resonance, the hero’s or heroine’s descent to the underworld is often preceded by a “call to initiation” and separation from family and home environment. This going down into, or “katabasis” in Greek, entails journeying into the depths of the earth or the depths of oneself. It is a time of solitude and doubt, mourning and danger, anguish, fear, alienation, often estrangement from what we hold most dear: our sense of who we are.

          If you’re a writer, and chances are that if you’re reading this, you are, katabasis is not a difficult concept to understand. After all, writers are just “a little different,” aren’t we? The world doesn’t understand someone who may sweat and toil over work that may never see a paycheck. Now, usually that doesn’t completely separate us from our family and friends, but writing always comes down to you, the writer and your work, so that very activity does create a rift between you and the world, if only for a period of time each day. And to be certain, your right-brain creative mind separates you from a left-brain, “logical” world as well.

          Instead of dwelling on that as a negative, let’s turn it around and USE it to strengthen your fiction:

Try this:

          Think of a person you know who is VERY tied to a social network and to family and friends. That person LIVES FOR these other people. Then picture a moment where that all comes crashing down. The character learns that she is not the person she thought she was–or maybe a close friend or relative (even a parent) isn’t, and has been living a lie (at least has been telling her one) for YEARS. Her parents didn’t meet the way she thought they did, or they have careers she’s unaware of, or she was adopted, or her best friend is just using her because of her popularity, or the boyfriend she BREATHES has a terrible secret she knew nothing about…

          Then write a scene that shows her totally immersed in her “old self,” leading up to the moment of discovery when all that she thought she knew comes crashing down around her.

Coming tomorrow: An important character to create for your protagonist!