Come again?

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (not for kids). Atwood writes with such skill that I’m plunged into awe. I wish I could do what she does. Her prose is poetic, yet nothing about its beauty is difficult. She raises no obstacles of ornateness, and she reminds me that story needs to come first, which comforts me: If I can tell my story straightforwardly, I’m okay.

Here are some prosaic, even mechanical things that I pay attention to when I write and when I revise. The point is to make my prose lively without shifting the focus away from my story.

I vary my sentence beginnings or at least don’t let three sentences in a row start in the same way. Two identical beginnings are acceptable (my rule). When I’m writing in first person I don’t let one sentence after another start with I. However, no rule applies all the time. Sometimes repeating a beginning sets up a beat that I like.

A critique buddy once remarked that I wasn’t avoiding the verb is, which made me self-conscious and worried. I hadn’t considered is before. Is isn’t interesting, but it is unavoidable. Now that my friend pointed out my profligate ising, I’ve been rearranging some sentences to bring more striking verbs into the act. Still, whenever I read is in a string of sentences by an author I like, I think, See, even she or he does it.

In my first submission of Writing Magic, my editor found twenty zillion appearances of the word stuff. I hadn’t noticed, maybe because I like the word, which feels friendly and informal – but I didn’t like it enough to want it to show up seven times on every page. In my latest manuscript for the Disney Fairies series, I wrote “Atop the tabletop.” I didn’t mean to do that. Good thing my editor caught it.

I’m lucky to have editors who are sensitive to word repetition, but I cultivate my own sensitivity, too. Whenever I suspect that I’m overusing a word, I type it in a list above the title of my book. Just before I submit the manuscript, I do a word search on the list. If a word appears too often I consult the thesaurus for alternatives.

On the other hand, in Peter Pan, James M. Barrie repeatedly uses the phrase “of course.” I adore Peter Pan and think Barrie a supple stylist. When I write my books about the fairies of Neverland, I connect them to Barrie by scattering “of course” with abandon.

On the other other hand, in a book about writing (I don’t remember which one), I read that extraordinary words shouldn’t appear more than once or twice in a whole book. For example, I like the word susurration, which means a whispering sound, because it’s onomatopoeic, which means it sounds like what it means. But I wouldn’t use susurration more than once in a book. The reader would notice. The word would draw attention to itself and away from the story.

(Susurration seems to be a noun without a verb form. Webster’s shows no susurrate. Susurrate appears in the OED as rare. How interesting!)

My sentences tend to be short. That’s how I write. That’s my style. See? However, when I remember, I write against type and connect independent clauses with a because or since or so, because I don’t want every sentence to be four words long. Even so, lyrical fifty-word sentences are unusual in my books.

In addition to length, I switch around my sentence structures. For example, I don’t like sentence after sentence consisting of two independent clauses connected by comma and. I prefer short sentences to that. I also dislike a series of this-comma-but-that sentences that, so I use however, though, although, or, better yet, recast the ideas entirely.

This is all a matter of taste. Some writers don’t care about any of these things. When I’m caught up in reading a story, I don’t care either, but when I’m starting a novel or returning to one and I’m not yet hypnotized, I do notice. I get annoyed. I may even ditch the book.

If you want to play around with your own repetition, examine something short that you’ve written. Look for your tics – the words you overuse, your sentence arrangements – and fiddle with them. As you continue to write your longer work, keep these ideas in mind. I don’t suggest you go back if you’re in the middle of a novel. In fact, I believe that would be a bad idea, not at all worth your time. When you finish and revise, however, look for your repetitions and ask your critique pals to look too. Have fun, and save your changes!

Between a Rock and a Can of Worms

Last Thursday, a guest came and talked to the kids in my creative-writing workshop in Brewster, New York. Our visitor was Patricia T. O’Conner (spelled correctly with an e), word maven and author of many books about English. I discovered Pat because I often listen to the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC (online or at 93.9 FM, 820 AM) and I always listen when Pat is on, which is the third Wednesday of every month at about 1:30 pm. Pat is delightful, and she and Leonard Lopate have great fun with our wild and wayward language. To the workshop kids, she discussed etymology in general, the roots of some particular words, and a few reasons for the oddities of English spelling and punctuation. She was wonderful, and the kids were, too, asking questions, taking notes, obviously fascinated.

Before she came, I wasn’t sure her presentation would fill our hour-and-a-half, which it did, but I prepared for any leftover time, just in case. In her books, Woe Is I Jr. and Woe Is I for grownups, Pat devotes most of a chapter to cliches, so I prepared a bunch of writing prompts for the kids, which I will use tomorrow, involving cliches. You get to try them out first.

Cliches survive on their power. Some, like “blanket of snow,” are just catchy ways to capture an image. But others have tremendous depth. They’re great, except for the small detail of having been way overused.

These prompts go back to my post about the whited sepulcher (WS). You can revisit it or just recall that a WS is a person who seems good but is really evil. I picked cliches that I think are meaty.

• Between a rock and a hard place. What is the rock and what is the hard place that motivates your WS? I harbor the happy idea that villains are villainous out of internal or external desperation. How does this operate in your villain? Invent a scene that shows these forces at work.

• Makes him (or her) tick. This is similar to the first prompt, but you don’t have to treat it the same way. Maybe visit the WS’s childhood and write a flashback that shows how he became bad.

• Calm before the storm. Write a scene with rising tension that reveals what sets your WS off. You may want to bring a victim into this scene.

• Can of worms. The brain of a WS is likely to be an unpleasant place. What goes on in the mind of your WS? Write what she thinks before she falls asleep or when she wakes up or when walking down the street. Consider how her thought process may be different from the thoughts of ordinary people – more chaotic, more disciplined, more or less fully formed. Pay attention to the way you think so you have a model to move away from.

• Cut to the chase. Write a tense beginning that shows your WS in action.

• 24/7. Show how your WS never has time off from his evil. Maybe his thoughts won’t give him a break. Maybe as soon as he performs one heinous act, the urge rises instantly to perform another. Maybe he ticks off his villainy the way we check off items on a shopping list. Comedy is always possible.

• World class. Show your WS getting the best of another baddie or a clever and powerful good opponent. Let your reader see what the WS’s victim (not super powerful, not extraordinarily clever) will be up against.

If your WS keeps turning into a hero, don’t worry about it. She may show her awful side eventually, or not. Just keep writing.

When you play out a cliche without using its words you freshen it up and get to the core that made it a cliche. By the way, Pat says, and I agree, that cliches are fine, sometimes great, if used well and sparingly. They’re also impossible to eschew completely, so don’t go on a witch hunt (cliche!) to eliminate every one.

Here’s a link to Pat’s scintillating website:

Have fun with the prompts and save what you write!

Facing the Music

Yesterday, I was part of a program in which one participant was evaluated by the others in a process called “Face the Music.” Over time, everyone in this program has to “face the music,” which isn’t a form of oral hazing; the evaluations are always kind.

But it started me thinking of trying this as a writing exercise. Facing the Music is different from an elevator story, in which you throw characters together in an elevator, make the elevator get stuck, and see how they respond. Of course, an elevator story doesn’t have to take place in an elevator – could be a life raft, a submarine in trouble, a hijacked airplane. In an elevator story, the tension originates from an outside source (the busted elevator) and builds because of the natures of the trapped people. In Face the Music, the tension, if there is any, arises entirely from the characters, and tension isn’t the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to learn more about your characters and possibly even find out where you’re letting them down.

So, what if I gather my characters together and make them evaluate one another? There are bunches of ways to do this: They can sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs in a gritty, charmless room, a setting you may see in a movie scene of some sort of group counseling. My characters will behave characteristically. The one who manipulates will manipulate; the compulsive truth-teller will be honest; the shy one will keep quiet.

Or I can give my characters a truth serum, so they’ll have to tell all. I can watch them react to finding out how their fellow characters really perceive them.

Or I can have them write anonymous evaluations, and I can pass the evaluations out to the respective characters. Despite the anonymity, I suspect some will still lie once the truth serum leaves their systems. With written evaluations I’ll see their handwriting and discover how they express themselves in writing. Unfortunately, in the book I’m working on now, many are illiterate.

Here’s a new idea: What if I introduce myself into the exercise? What if I’m the one evaluating my characters? I’m more than halfway through this novel, so I should know them pretty well. Oh, this is interesting! One is an underachiever. I had much higher hopes for this character. And I hate this other one, who isn’t my villain. I didn’t know that I hate him until now. He doesn’t pay much attention to my main character, who adores him, and I feel bad for her. He’s a cold fish. I absolutely like my villain, who, if he or she weren’t a killer, would be a complete delight. My main character is unfocused. I wish she’d concentrate on one thing and stick with it. The king is what he should be: selfish, unfeeling, ambitious. He gets an A+ for coming through just right.

I can also have my characters evaluate me. Some will want out of the book entirely, but others will want me to make them main. They will want their wishes more indulged.

You can play Face the Music with your characters in all these ways. One way or another may prove the most useful. The form that just worked best for me was evaluating everyone myself. Now I know that I have to give my underachiever more to do, and I have to make my main character choose what she most wants to want. And I’m glad to know how strongly I feel about the character I hate. I need to decide if I want to make him more hateful or not hateful at all. Cool.

If you play Face the Music, have fun, and save what you write!

Fear of flat

When my first and excellent editor, Alix Reid, would edit my manuscripts, she used to sprinkle the word flat here and there – at random, it seemed to me. Flat was the edit I most hated to see. What’s wrong with this? I always thought and never asked. I just tried to make the flat words plumper, rounder, better. Whatever I’d written usually did get better, just because if you pay close attention to anything, you can improve it.

Now that Alix has left New York publishing, I think I finally know what she meant. A sentence like I’m scared. might warrant a flat. I’m scared is a summary statement, not specific, not very interesting. The reader might reasonably want to know how this particular character is scared–

which I find hard to express in an un-flat, original way. The other day I needed to describe a character exhibiting fear. He isn’t my POV character, so I had no access to his thoughts. I hunted for new ways to show fright by googling images of “frightened person.” My sad discovery was that we all look a lot alike when we’re scared. These are the symptoms I saw: mouth open in a scream or partially open with the lips curving down, curled hands near the neck or mouth, a lot of whites of the eyes, raised eyebrows. Then I googled “fear response,” not in images, but on the web, and read about fear. We all look much alike when we’re afraid, because the same processes are going on in the brains of all of us. The article didn’t mention the brains of trained assassins or the insane, just normal people’s. When terror strikes, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the sensory cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus get into the act. Blood rushes away from our skin (so we pale) to the muscles that can fight or carry us away. Our hearts speed up, likewise our blood pressure. This inner brouhaha causes the images I saw.

Weirdly, as I learned about fear, my heart started racing.

In just about every book I’ve written my main character’s heart has pounded once or twice. I never want to write the cliche, but I do like to terrify my characters. After scaring them a few times and writing more interesting reactions, my ingenuity runs out, and, their hearts pound. In the case of the character I mentioned before, however, since he’s not the POV character, I can’t even pound his heart, because I can’t tell from the outside what his heart is doing. I don’t have to be inside him for him to speak or scream. If he did, maybe something un-flat would come out, but he’s a stoic, silent sort. Very difficult.

It’s easier with a POV character because we do have his thoughts to work with, although in a panicky moment he doesn’t have much time to think. A lengthy rumination would slow the action and drain away the tension. But a short, surprising thought is great, if you or I or he can come up with one.

In my books about the fairies of Never Land, I have extra options. The fairies are surrounded by a halo of light – their glows – and they have wings. This is wonderful – wings flutter or freeze; a fairy drops suddenly; the glows change color or dim or flicker or go out or flare up. If only people had glows and wings or even reacted idiosyncratically: one person’s hair turning purple, another’s ears spinning, somebody else’s chin lengthening – temporary responses or permanent evidence. But these fascinating changes are beyond us. So what else is there?

One of my early jobs after college took me into unsafe neighborhoods in New York City, long before cell phones were invented. It was a job I loved, and I felt scared only when the streets were deserted. What I did then was to talk aloud to myself like a lunatic. I don’t remember my words, nothing useful, no teleporting spells. I haven’t put this fear technique of mine in a book. The right moment hasn’t come, but my compulsive speech is worth remembering.

You might find it useful to recall your own scary experiences and what you said and thought and did and felt. You could ask other people about their frightening memories and write the answers down. You can build up a stockpile of these and never go flat when your character is afraid. I think I’m going to do that. Have fun!

Going in Circles

Next week I’m going to lead a kids’ book writing workshop near Scranton, PA, at The Gathering, a readers’ and writers’ conference for adults or almost-adults (high school at least).
The theme is “There and Back Again: Time, Place and Story.” I want to tie my workshop in with the theme, so I started thinking of stories and novels that circle back to where they began. Here are a few: Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” The Great Gatsby (for grownups), Job, Peter Pan. Two of my books fall into this category: The Wish and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. I’m sure there are a zillion more by other writers. A circle is a satisfying shape.

Setting takes on special importance in these tales. For example, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” would lose much of its magic without the three avenues of trees (silver leaves first, then gold, and finally diamond); the little boats, each bearing a prince; and the island where the princes and the princesses dance. In Gatsby, New York in the 1920s is intrinsic. If you change these settings, the story itself is altered.

Along circular story lines, I’ve come up with three prompts that workshop participants, and you, too, can choose among. Any of them can be written at any level, from picture book to young adult, or even old adult. Here they are:

• Your main character sets out, taking his or her dog (or other animal or creature) for a morning or evening or after-school walk. What happens? What sets off the adventure? How does he or she get home again?

Consider where your main character lives. In a city? On a farm? In a suburban subdivision? If you choose a city, dog-walking in Los Angeles is going to be different from dog-walking in New York City. What if your main character’s parents work and live in Disneyland? What would dog-walking there be like? If this is a fantasy, your main character could be walking a young hydra from rock to rock in a swamp inhabited by I-don’t-know-whats.

Also think about period. Nowadays, people in many places are required by law to pick up after their dogs. That wasn’t always true. Dog-walking itself is probably a relatively new activity. I suspect people in the middle ages didn’t do it. I can’t imagine George Washington walking his Pomeranian (if he had one), but maybe he did.

• Something terrible (serious terrible or funny terrible or fantastical terrible) has happened at your main character’s school. The event could have happened to everyone or just to the main character or another character. The main character has to return to school afterward.

What kind of school might this be? Private or public? 300 students or 3,000? A high school? Elementary? A martial arts school? I’m trying not to write these words, but they’re fighting their way out: A school for wizards?

When is it? Today? 200 years ago? A school of the future? A particular period in the history of an invented world?

• A run of upheavals has upset your main character’s household. They could include the death of a pet, the removal of a grandparent to a nursing home or a grandparent moving in, an elder sibling going off to college, or anything else. The main character wants to return things to the way they were. How does he or she go about achieving this? What happens?

This one is different from the others, because the main character, rather than the author, sets out to make the circle. Maybe it won’t go that way. But maybe you can try to get it there and see what happens, which should be interesting. Again, think about setting and period . Also, think about the kind of family your main character is part of.

Although a circular story ends where it began, the main character is usually changed by what happens in the middle. Frodo, for example, is quite a different hobbit when he returns from Mordor. But your main character may not change, and the story can still be wonderful. If she isn’t transformed, she may be stuck in whatever character flaw set the story in motion. Nothing has budged her out of stasis, and this may be a tragedy. Or she may be a character the reader wants preserved as she was. Wendy changes by the end of Peter Pan, but Peter doesn’t, and we don’t want him to. We love him as he is, conceited and lighter than air.

If you try one of these prompts (or more than one), and your story doesn’t want to circle, don’t force it. Go where it takes you. I never thought about the circularity of The Wish until I started preparing for the conference–

which has always been great, with interesting ideas and people and good conversation and excellent food, although the accommodations are a little Spartan. It’s late in the day, but if you want to come, slots may still be available. I’d love to have you in my workshop, even though you already know what we’ll be doing. There are other fascinating workshops as well. Here’s the link to the conference website:

Anyway, if you try the prompts, have fun, and save what you write!

Watch yourself

My sister-in-law Betsy, an amazing potter, left for a pottery workshop a few days ago. Before going, she told me she especially looked forward to the lack of distractions there. She said that at home she rarely makes it to her studio before 1:00 pm. Once there, she puts off leaving even to go to the bathroom for fear of being sucked in again by her telephone, her emails, her dogs.

Lots of us get sidetracked from what we most want to do. Years ago, I took many painting and drawing classes from many teachers. When I’d enter the classroom for the first session, the easels would butt against one another – a throng of easels, a multitude of students. The third session would be roomier. Near the end of the semester, plenty of space, just five or six remaining students.

Sometimes I numbered among the missing. I wasn’t lucky with art teachers. I found only one who really suited me, and, after two years, she moved away. She was a great teacher, but even her classes lost students.

Eventually I discovered that I’m a writer. I took a lot of writing classes, too, and was luckier with my teachers. In these classes, attendance also shrank.

Some people won’t even start a class. They eternally intend to write or paint or take singing lessons but don’t, for one temporary reason after another. I think it’s really fear that gets in the way. They can’t bring themselves to enter art’s scary gladiatorial arena, where one’s deepest self lurks behind every door.

I don’t believe in a collective unconscious or an ocean of creativity that we all share. I have my ocean, and you have yours, and we swim alone. Or maybe a cloud would a better metaphor, because when I write I feel like I’m shaping wisps of fog, and I have no idea what I’m doing or how, and sometimes I succeed, and wow! that is fabulous, and sometimes nothing happens.

If only we were born clutching a golden key that fit a tiny brass keyhole behind our left ear, and we could just insert the key, turn, and wind up our artistry.

Here’s a poem I wrote last winter about my writing process:

How I Write a Book Very Slowly

Type a sentence. Check Wikipedia
for the history of backgammon.
Look up the meaning of dewlap.
Realize I need to fix something
near the beginning. Find the spot.
Type in the revision, which comes
quickly. It’s much easier to write
back there in Chapter One, where
I know what’s going on. My email pings!
Expedia wants me to fly to Belize.
Delete Expedia’s message. Return
to the latest moment in my manuscript.
Reread the last three paragraphs.
Edit them, even though I suspect
I will delete the entire episode.
Write an awkward sentence. Try it seven
ways until it is no longer awkward.
Wish I’d slept better last night. Wish
I knew who my culprit is going to be.
Put my head down on my desk. Lift my head.
Walk to the window. Stare out at the snow.
Wonder if the hydrangea will flower again.
Return to my desk. Write four words.

You may not be like me. You may write steadily every day from 5:00 am till 3:00 pm. Or you may have a daily page count that you always achieve, because otherwise you have to migrate to tundra inhabited only by caribou. You are a miracle.

Not me. I’m always fumbling. I like to observe myself in action and inaction, because I’m interested in the mystery and I do get more done when I’m self-aware.

So that’s the prompt. Just watch yourself for a week or a month. Don’t change anything. Make no judgments.

If you’re a start-and-stop writer like I am, see what gets you started and what gives you permission to stop. Or maybe you charge ahead, but you can’t stand to look at what you’ve written. Or you rewrite every sentence so many times that you can’t move forward because you keep going back. Or you need a deadline to shove you along, and then your pent-up inventiveness pours out.

Observe yourself as if you were a wild creature in its natural habitat. Marvel at yourself. Have fun. If you write anything, save it.

Along with everything else, I hope I’ve gotten you curious about Betsy’s pottery. Here’s a link to her website:

Taking notes

When I write a novel, I lean on notes. This post is a description of how I use them. Maybe you’ll find something helpful here or a method you want to stay away from. Or maybe you already do just as I do.

At the start of a writing session (on my computer), I always open both my manuscript and my notes, and I toggle back and forth. If the story is going well, I don’t write many notes, but if it’s not, writing them is proof that I’m still writing and not just goofing off, even though my story isn’t advancing.

If I’ve written an awkward sentence in the manuscript, I copy it into notes, rewrite it, copy it in notes again and again, so I don’t lose a version, till I’m satisfied or till I decide the original wasn’t bad after all or till I think I just have to live with what I’ve got.

To come up with a character name or a place name, I list possibilities from a baby naming book or an atlas or my own arcane sources, then arrange and rearrange the list, narrowing my choices.

In the mystery I’m writing now, Elody, my heroine, is an aspiring actress who’s been given the chance to perform at a feast. Thespians in the kingdom of Lepai draw on fairy tales and Greek myths for their plays. When Elody wasn’t sure what to perform, I listed options for her. After consulting my mythology book and a few books of fairy tales, I found a fairy tale that had parallels with the main story I was telling, which gave Elody the chance to paraphrase Hamlet and speculate that her performance might “catch the conscience” of the villain. That was fun, but I never would have gotten it without notes.

A minstrel sings before Elody’s turn comes. I didn’t write a complete song for her, but I made up the refrain. Here are my notes for the refrain, to give you an idea. Out of the notes I pulled what I needed:

Be he huge
Be he fierce as a beast
be he three trees tall
be he broad as a bushel of barrels
be his teeth as sharp as daggers
his eyes as piercing as pikes
his head as hard as iron
his fists as
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

Be the giant
three trees tall
and three trees wide
with teeth as sharp as daggers
eyes as piercing as pikes
head as hard as iron
fists like battering rams
falling as fast as hailstones
May he roar and rampage
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

face as terrible as
face as ugly as entrails
face as frightening as
rock slide/frightful

I’ve let you see the repetitions because that’s the process. It’s messy.

When I’m far along in a novel, I often get confused, so then I list plot threads in notes to remind myself of everything I’m juggling. Sometimes I list future events as far ahead as I can see. This is like outlining, except that my future events never cover the whole span of a story.

If a plot idea knocks on my brain and the story isn’t ready for it yet, I put it in my notes and highlight it with the yellow highlighter on my toolbar, so I can find it again. Occasionally, I copy the highlighted bits into a separate document, to avoid hunting through 135 single-spaced pages – really! – of notes to locate them.

At those happy moments when I’ve figured something out or done a nice piece of writing I celebrate – in my notes. When I’m bummed and convinced I’ll never finish my story, I complain and moan and carry on. Sometimes I use bad words. If my books were people, notes would be their journals.

A novel that doesn’t give me much trouble won’t have 135 pages of notes, but I doubt I’ve ever gotten away with fewer than fifty. When the notes are longer than the book, the book was a miserable, horrible, uncooperative monster, like Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the third Disney fairy book, which even now doesn’t have a settled title, although I finished writing months ago.

Notes, however, are never miserable monsters. They are freedom. In the manuscript itself go the shaped sentences, the chosen words, the paced chapters. In notes go the incomplete thoughts, the lousy ideas and the good ones – the eggshells of writing. A finished book is a cake with chocolate or blue or whatever-you-like icing and the title written on top in perfect handwriting. Notes are the messy kitchen where the cake was baked. No cake without the kitchen, and I – or you – never have to clean up afterward. Hooray for notes!

I Spy

10:30 am, commuter train to New York City: Before sitting next to me, a stranger set his briefcase down on the seat so that it flopped partway onto my lap. He didn’t move it until I looked at him balefully. Then he apologized and repositioned it. Once seated, he sipped from a styrofoam cup of coffee or chai latte or whatever, then placed the cup on the floor, continuing to reach down occasionally and sip again. I’m keeping an eye on the cup. My nice cloth backpack, also on the floor, will stink forever if the cup topples and the whatever spills.

By the way, I’m typing these words with this stranger inches away, and I have no fear that he will look. Only we writers are nosy enough to care what our train neighbors do.

He just pulled his Wall Street Journal out of its plastic sheath and stuffed the plastic wrap behind him into the crack between the seat bottom and the seat back. I am almost certainly getting off the train before he does, so I won’t see if he removes the plastic when he stands up, but I am willing to bet he won’t. Ditto for the styrofoam cup. Maybe I’ll find them on my return trip. Or maybe before I leave I’ll be crazy enough to tell him to take his trash with him.

A few other details, because I don’t want you mis-imagining: gray suit, pale blue-and-white striped shirt, blue-patterned tie, shiny black shoes, gray hair cut short, probably in his fifties, tall, fit. When he was speaking on his blackberry a minute ago, very terse, soft-spoken, thank heaven.

Later, back home, in my office, hour irrelevant: I did get off the train before the stranger, and I issued no warnings. But there was a morning when I scolded someone. It’s a little embarrassing.

My routine when I take the train is to meditate and then to write, but often I fall asleep – especially delicious, the sleep that follows meditation. I was snoozing happily one day, when two men approached my seat. Through my fog, I heard them discussing, loudly, where to sit. (The train wasn’t crowded.) They decided to put themselves across the aisle from each other so that, they said, their legs wouldn’t be cramped. One sat next to me, I suppose because I’m too small to cramp anybody’s anything. For a few minutes the two exchanged loud pleasantries then lapsed into silence, which did me no good since I was wide awake.

I was absurdly angry but too cowardly to want an extended argument, so I waited till my stop came to tell the man next to me that he’d been rude and explain why. His response was that I should do my sleeping in bed at night. No remorse. No apology. And maybe he was right.

The point, of course, is character development. I could invent the lives of these three men. I could put them together and see how they rub against one another. (They just happened to be men, no special significance.)

While walking through New York City today I saw a man (male again) in a business suit and a cotton billed cap. What was up with a suit and a cap? I can speculate: Maybe he has 365 hats, all in different styles, and wears a fresh one every day. He throws each one away at night because by now it’s (ta da) old hat.

But if he’d sat next to me on the train I would have had more fodder for my guessing. People in close quarters tend to reveal themselves. On the train they talk on cell phones, ease out of shoes that pinch, play solitaire on their computers, leaf through magazines or read serious novels, and occasionally start an actual conversation.

So you might try cramming your characters together – in an elevator, a closet, a bank vault – and seeing how they react. You don’t have to work this into your story; you can do it on the side. A character who’s been holding out on you might reveal her inner nature if she’s trapped with three strangers in the back of a truck.

In my train anecdotes I was a character too. Coffee-or-tea man this morning could have been deducing about me too. What would he have learned (without reading from my laptop)? He could have seen without reading that I was writing prose, not making entries onto a spreadsheet, that I wore jeans rather than business attire, even that I think ahead, because I took out my subway Metrocard before leaving the train.

Watch yourself from the outside for a day. Spy on yourself just as you may spy on other people. What are your characteristic behaviors? Our own personality leaks into our fictional characters no matter what we do, but this time make it conscious. Deliberately give a character a characteristic that belongs to you. Put her into a confined place and use that characteristic to get her into trouble.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Writer Revealed

Here’s a confession: I’ve been writing poetry on the sly, not just poetry, but poetry for grownups, emotional poetry, with little held back. Some poems are lighthearted, some intellectual, but most follow my obsessions: aging, death, fairytales, family history, and my mother. You would make discoveries about me if you read these poems, although not so much that you could be blindfolded and pick me out at a party!

This is a cheerful-ish poem. Kids can read it too, maybe best at Halloween. Truncated means shortened, like a skull’s nose is. Lurid means gruesome. If you don’t know what gruesome means, look it up. You’ll be glad you did.


I bought a wooden skull in Mexico City, big
as my own skull, weighs over a pound and a half.
I have no clue what my own brainless skull will weigh.
This skull’s home, where it doesn’t live (ha, ha, yuk, yuk),
is my bookcase. I could hang it from the ceiling,
but it’s better recessed. Its eye and ear sockets
are bright red inside, red up its truncated nose,
red outlining the mouth and each widely spaced tooth
(ten of them), pink blush on its cheekbones and blush
on its scalp where a Mohawk would be, a black line
across the eye ridge and circling the ear sockets,
flirty eyelashes, squiggles drooling down the chin,
stippled stubble under the cheekbones. The jaw, once
articulated, is stuck, but I can chatter
the teeth. If you can’t picture it, I can say it’s
lurid but likable. I named it Death, Mister
Death or Missus Death, hard to tell which, its gleeful,
gap-toothy grin alive while it croons, Come to me.

End of poem. You’ve learned about something in my office. The skull makes me happy. It’s the funny side of death

Fiction reveals the author too, although not in such a direct way as my poems do. I used to read a lot of science fiction. One of my favorites was Robert Heinlein. Looking back, I’m aware of themes in his books, of government, an individual’s relation to society and authority, and group cohesion. I wonder if his friends could detect these interests without reading his novels and short stories.

In some of his books, Frank Herbert was into group-think and hive mentality, which he portrayed in a gossamer style that fascinated me. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov seems Herbert’s opposite: logic over emotion, disciplined plotting, full of surprises, but no confusion.

The books of all three are worth sampling. Heinlein wrote for children as well as for adults. If you’re under thirteen, I’d say, stick to his children’s books. In my recollection, Herbert and Asimov are fine for kids ten and up, but check with a parent or a librarian to be sure.

These writers are dead. However, if we could know them, live with them for a while as a guest, we might nod and say Ah ha! I get it. If we could watch each of the three of them brushing his teeth on You Tube, we might see confirmation of what we find in their books. Would Asimov be systematic (front side of the upper teeth first every time, back of the upper teeth next) and fast (he was an astonishingly prolific writer)? I imagine Heinlein talking with toothpaste in his mouth, and his brush is a contraption he invented. Herbert brushes with his entire household. If I were living there, the bathroom counter would be long. I would line up with Herbert, his wife, and two sons. After a few strokes, we would automatically and unconsciously be up-and-downing in unison.

What can you learn about yourself from your stories? Well, are you a conscious writer? Do you figure out in advance what your theme, perhaps your moral, will be and then work your story around it? Even if you do, what creeps in and infuses the ideas without your knowledge?

Do you write about a character who wants something that is hard to get and shape your story out of your character’s approach to obstacles? What kind of main character appeals to you? What kind of obstacles?

Are you pulled into a story idea, first and foremost, as I am? How do you play with the idea? What kind of characters do you build to fill the roles your story calls for?

I’m convinced that no matter how we writers approach writing stories, our deepest feelings get into the act. We can’t avoid lowering a net, often without meaning to, deep into the quiet lake of our – whatever – mind, spirit, subconscious, soul, emotions. Strange fish swim into our stories, stir the plot with their swishing tails, light the water scape with their incandescent scales, and let us enter behind their strange eyes, where we see colors not visible to merely human vision.

I don’t know what I’ve really been writing about until after I’ve finished a book, which serves the book well. If I understand what’s going on, I’m likely to shape events to follow the underlying thread, and then predictability results. Usually my books are about problems I haven’t been able to resolve (like obedience). Writing the book doesn’t fix anything. I’m still too obedient, but now I’m more aware.

Of course, the meaning I discover eventually is often entirely different from the meaning my readers come up with.

This isn’t a writing prompt; it’s a return-to-the-scene-of the-crime prompt. Reread a few of your stories, or just think them over. Consider what meaning they have for you, what you may be telling yourself. Ask friends to say what they derive from your stories. An unacceptable answer is that you write well or don’t write well. You want to know how the story added to their understanding of you and of themselves. This is hard, so don’t push if they come up with nothing, and don’t conclude that your stories have no depth, just keep the question in your mind. Ask other people. If your curiosity grows, make a pest of yourself. When you write your next story, after it’s finished and you’ve been away from it for a month or so, go back to it and ask yourself the same question. Have fun!

Getting funny

My happiest writing moments are when I’m writing something funny. I’m happy reading, too, when what I’m reading is funny, although maybe not happiest. I adore a good book in all its aspects.

Writing funny means keeping an eye out for opportunities. We writers make our characters miserable, and one of misery’s faces is humor. After our mother died, my sister and I flew to Florida to sell Mom’s condominium. We rented a car, and I backed into a police car. That was pretty funny.

So was the time I smashed up a coworker’s brand-new car in the office parking lot on my first day on the job. (And confessed, naturally.)

One of my earliest dates, when I was about fifteen, was with a boy who stood about six foot three. I’ve never made it to five feet. We went to a museum, and afterward, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he held my hand, which I had to reach up to grasp. For blocks, people pointed and laughed. I didn’t laugh along, but we were funny.

When I was even younger I loved the verse about Ooey Gooey. I used to repeat it to myself over and over with a mixture of horror and delight. For those of you who missed the sad saga, it’s this:

Ooey Gooey was a worm,
a mighty worm was he.
Crawled out on the railroad track,
the train he did not see.
Ooey gooey!

Death at its silliest.

Mark Twain said, Humor is tragedy plus time. I agree, although I wouldn’t agree that all humor is tragedy based. Some humor is clever and some is goofy without a hint of darkness, and there may be more ways to be both comical and sunny that I can’t think of right now. But to stay on the tragic side, I’d suggest two additional equations. One is, Humor is tragedy plus willingness. In an awful situation, if we’re open to laughter, it will leap out – and provide lovely relief. My friend Joan, who had a brain injury, sometimes thinks it’s funny that she can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. She’s not horrified, she’s amused.

The second equation, a geometrical one, is, Humor is tragedy turned on its side. Take “Hansel and Gretel,” one of the least funny fairytales out there, although there’s a lot of competition. For anyone who doesn’t know the tale, Hansel and Gretel’s parents want to leave their children in the woods and let them starve to death. There’s nothing lighthearted about that.

Or is there?

Suppose Mrs. Hansel-and-Gretel says to Mr. H&G, “If we move the children out of their room in the cellar and into the forest, we’ll have more space for our colony of giant slugs.” And Mr. H&G says, “Superb idea, dear, and I can conduct my colorful mold experiments down there, too.”

The pain of being unwanted flips over. Being left behind by Mr. and Mrs. H&G is probably a step up in the world.

It can get funnier if Hansel and Gretel know what their parents are up to. Suppose the first day they case the gingerbread house without nibbling. Suppose they follow the stones home only because Hansel left his stuffed rat behind.

Then, of course, the bumbling witch will be lots of fun. And the ending even more so, with Hansel and Gretel deciding to stay in the gingerbread house. Gretel says, “We won’t make the same mistakes as the witch.” Hansel replies, “How many children do you think we’ll catch today?”

Gross, maybe, but I think it’s funny, and of course humor is personal – in case you’ve soaked seven hankies reading this.

Sometimes it’s a stretch. Back to auto mishaps. I once walked away from a car accident that could have been very bad. Luckily the span of highway I was on was empty at that moment. I was unhurt, and no one else was involved. How to make that into comedy? The only thing that comes to mind is to personalize the road and the guardrail. If the road is ticklish and the guardrail grumpy, possibilities start to emerge.

So here’s a prompt: Make a tragedy or a misery funny. Try “The Little Mermaid” (not the movie version) or King Lear. Or delve into history, which abounds with misery. Rewrite the destruction of Pompeii or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which is in my distant family history. Have fun, and save what you write.