Monday, March 31, 2008

My Town Monday - College Years

I spent 7 years in college - 5 as an undergraduate because I quit once, worked for 5 years then went back and had to make up for some lost time, and 2 as a graduate student. I attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Here's some general information about Carbondale culled from Wikipedia and other sources.

Carbondale is a city in Southern Illinois in the Midwest United States, is 96 miles (154 km) miles southeast of Saint Louis, Missouri. It is known mainly as the site of the main campus of Southern Illinois University. The city is located in Jackson County, Illinois. As of the 2000 census, the city had a total population of 25,597.

Carbondale was named by founder Daniel Brush, who had aspirations of developing coal mining operations in the region. By the time of the American Civil War, the area had been incorporated as a village. After the war it developed into a center of business and transportation for the region.

On April 29, 1866 one of the first formal Memorial Day observations was held at the city's Woodlawn Cemetery, with local resident General John A. Logan giving the principal address.

Southern Illinois Normal University, a major factor in Carbondale's economy, which later became known as Southern Illinois University (SIU), was founded in Carbondale in 1869. Originally a teachers' college, it now has more than 21,000 students.

The city is in an area of the state known as Little Egypt.

In addition to Southern Illinois University, the city has a variety of unique cultural institutions and enterprises (culture with "both a large and a small C"). In addition to the university's PBS and NPR broadcasting stations (WSIU), Carbondale is home to WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois, the Big Muddy Independent Media Center, two daily newspapers – the Southern Illinoisan and the university's Daily Egyptian, two weeklies (the Carbondale Times and the Nightlife) and a bi-weekly (Heartland Women).

In addition to the University Museum the curious can visit the African American Museum or the Science Center. Food shoppers are offered a unique selection that includes a Mexican grocer, two international grocers, the Neighborhood Coop, and a thriving Farmers Market. Theater-goers can see both professional and student produced plays and performances at the university's McLeod and Kleinau Theatres, or attend off-campus productions by The Stage Company. A variety of fine arts are encouraged by the Carbondale Community Arts organization.

Civic action is fomented in the city by Carbondale Conversations for Community Action (the local implementation of Study Circles). Spirituality finds expression in Carbondale in churches of a variety of Christian denominations, as well as a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, two mosques, a Jewish congregation, a Sufi community, a Hindu community, and meetings of the Southern Illinois Pagan Alliance. The Women's Center, in continuous service since its founding in 1972, was one of the first domestic violence shelters in the United States.

I'll tell you more about life as a student there in the 60's and 70's next Monday.

My Town Mondays is the brilliant idea of Travis Erwin. Please visit his blog for more bloggers participating in this fun exercise.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lesson 5 - instructor's evaluation

This assignment is about creating scenes, stringing them together, making sure each one builds on the one before and leads up to the one after.

This scene starts out with Anne arriving at the meeting hall where you create a detailed setting we can easily slip into. The light is on in the attic. As soon as possible, right away, you want to announce her goal in the scene so that we can jump on board with Anne, want what she wants, start cheering her on.

Since you’ve already opened this scene with Anne, you need to stay with her viewpoint instead of moving to Helen. You want to create one scene for one character, develop one conflict, play that conflict out to its crisis point, before introducing a new scene (different time, different setting) with another character, if it’s necessary to change viewpoints. You use asterisks to indicate a change of scene, but what constitutes a new scene is a new conflict, new setting, different time.

Helen and Jean rush into the building and encounter Anne right away. I’ve already evaluated this scene, and I’m not sure I have anything new to say. We don’t really penetrate Helen’s head much, and so there will be little emotional investment for the reader, I’m afraid. Whether you choose Anne or Helen for this entire scene, we need to know what’s at stake and what the character’s goal is in the scene.It doesn’t work to switch to Anne in the middle of the action like this. Again, this is the same scene, so it’s jarring to be inside of Helen, then suddenly inside of Anne. Can you see that at all?

Anne thrusts the door open and no one’s there. The two women are relieved, and you use asterisks to indicate another change of scene, but in reality, again, this isn’t another scene. Get rid of the asterisks. They’re not enough to cause a scene change. As I mentioned, you need to introduce a new conflict, new setting, new time in order for there to be a scene change. So far, this is all one scene, and so far, I still don’t know what’s at stake for your characters. As they start preparing for the meeting, I can’t figure out whose viewpoint we’re in.

We move to Ann. The man falls through the ceiling, but you’re in omniscient viewpoint here. We’re watching this from a distance, not inside of a character, so again, you won’t have emotional investment from the reader. The action is playing out in a vacuum, I’m afraid. Anne learns from Helen who the man is, and the scene closes as she tries to comfort her friend.

I repeated myself in this evaluation so many times about what constitutes a scene, I know I don’t need to say it again. I just want to make sure you understand why what you have here is all one scene. Let me know if you have any questions.

I bet you’re having fun writing this story. You’re good at using your sense of humor in developing your characters and their dialogue.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lesson 5 - My assignment

Assignment for Session Five: Write a series of connected scenes (no more than 2,000 words total). These may be scenes from a short story or the opening of a novel, but they should stand together as a unit, even though they are part of a larger story. Try to include a variety from the types of scenes we've studied-narrative, dialogue, action.

The day started out perfectly and went straight downhill from there. One more meeting to go. At least this meeting was a social event and she would be surrounded by friends. Damn, she thought, first one here again. I need to stop being punctual. Aw, crap! Who left the light on in the attic?

Wide stone steps rounded by thousands of feet over the last 150 years led into the beautiful old brick building. The fading sunset glowed against the windows casting mischievous shadows inside. The attic was dark again so she decided it probably wasn’t a light – just the sun reflecting off the window.

Anne shivered as she unlocked the heavy oak door. Even after 40 years attending events here, the darkened interior still gave her the creeps. She knew every inch of the upper two stories and basement but being alone made her uneasy. As she flipped on the lights, the musty old place warmed to her presence.

The center was one of the largest buildings in town. Once used exclusively for Masonic groups, due to rising costs it was now rented out to others for meetings and functions. It hadn’t lost its sense of purpose and the rich dark woods and thick brocade curtains created a sense of formality

She turned on the lights in the main floor dining hall and was pleased to see the tables already set with festive decorations for the post-meeting meal. Red plastic clothes held white dishes. Large pink, red and white Styrofoam hearts danced on a sea of curly ribbon in the middle of each table. Crepe paper ribbons and balloons adorned the walls and a sign saying “Happy VD” was taped over the podium. Ann dropped her packages on the table and put her head in her hands. She made a mental note to have the sign changed before some of the older members arrived.

Overhead a floorboard creaked. “I thought I was the only one here,” she said to the portrait of George Washington. She went to the bottom of the stairs and called, “Who’s there? Is someone up there?” There was no response but Ann was relieved to see Helen and Jean both pull into the parking lot.


Jean rushed to gather her packages and lock her car. “Come on, Helen. We’re late again. Anne’s going to be pissed.” She ran towards the steps flustered at their tardiness. “Helen, hurry!”

“I’m too old to hurry and we’re not that late,” said Helen. “You take things too seriously. Relax a little Besides, who cares if Anne’s pissed? When did she become the boss of us?”

“God, Helen. You’re only 62. That’s not old. Quit trying to make yourself ancient before your time,” said Jean. “Anne became the boss of us when we elected her Worthy Matron of the Chapter, remember?”

“Well, thank heavens it’s only for one year. She’s a slave driver.” Helen could sense that Jean was not in any mood for teasing, so she locked her car, ran up to Jean, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her across the parking lot, up the steps and into the building, shouting, “Hurry, hurry! Anne’s gonna kill us for being late!”

They stopped giggling when they opened the door and saw Anne standing in the hallway, arms folded across her chest, peering over her reading glasses looking stern. “All right,” she said. “Which one of you is responsible for the sign?”

Helen blushed and Jean looked innocently up at the ceiling. “Well whoever did it needs to change it before the rest of the group arrives.”

“You don’t like it?” Helen said.

Anne cracked a smile and Helen and Jean relaxed. “I love it, but something tells me a few of our members won’t appreciate your sense of humor.”

The floorboard creaked overhead again and they looked at the ceiling.

“Is someone here with you?” said Jean.

“No. I heard the same noise just before you came in, but no one answered when I called. Maybe we should go upstairs and check it out.”

“Not on your life,” said Jean. “The men’ll be here soon. They can go up there.”

“Don’t be such a sissy,” said Helen. “Let’s go see what’s going on. It’s probably just the old building making noises anyway.”

“Well, you two can go, but I’m staying here,” said Jean.

Helen and Anne started towards the wide old stairs covered with the worn burgundy runners. As Anne started up, Helen sat down on the third step and said, “Maybe we should wait.”

“Wait for what? There’s nothing up there. It’s an old building and the creaking is normal. Are you afraid?”

“Yes and you should be too.” Helen’s courage was quickly evaporating. “How can you be so calm and complacent? What if there’s an ax murderer up there?”

“What if there’s nothing up there and we wait like babies until the men come and rescue us? They’ll never let us live it down. Come on!”

“OK, but you first. I’ll be right behind you.”


The hall upstairs was dark except for the streetlight shining through the oak tree into the windows. Lemon wood polish mixed with stale wool carpet to create an old, but familiar scent. Anne knew Helen wasn’t right behind her, but knowing she was just downstairs gave her enough courage to keep going.

Hand trembling, she reached for the door. As she turned the knob another creak sounded. She froze – panic stricken.

“Anne, are you okay?” Helen yelled from downstairs.

“Fine. Everything’s fine, Helen,” Anne yelled, hoping to announce to any intruders that she wasn’t alone.

She took a deep breath, turned the handle and opened the door with such force it hit the wall on the other side with a loud bang. Quickly flipping on the lights, Anne was relieved to see – no one. Nothing was there but the empty meeting room, bathed in the glow of the new ceiling lights. She sank into the chair by the door and waited for her heart to stop pounding.

“There’s no one here, Helen. You can stop hiding now,” she shouted. “Where the hell are you? You’re supposed to be right behind me.”

Helen ran up the stairs laughing. “One of us had to stay behind to call the police.”

“Right, to report the other one was dead! Some friend you are! Well now one of us is going to have to set up the chapter room all by herself.”

“Not on your life. I’m not going back into that dark old storage locker by myself.”

Anne laughed, “Come on chicken, we’ve got work to do.”

Helen flapped her arms and exaggerated her steps as she followed Anne back to the lockers. “Bwaaaaaaaak, bak, bak, bak, bak, bak bak, bak!”


Helen started arranging the chairs and pedestals on the labyrinth rug. No matter how many times they told the caretaker how to arrange things, he always did it wrong. “I think he does this on purpose just to irritate us,” she said.

“He probably does, but at least we don’t have to lug those heavy old chairs or that huge rug out of the hallway.” Anne walked quickly through the room turning on every light, converting the darkness to the friendly warmth she associated with the place. The hall to the storage lockers was unlocked which seemed odd, but this wasn’t the first time. Anne opened the locker door and began gathering the paraphernalia to set up the chapter room. She filled the first box, took it out to Helen and returned for more.

Several items weren’t in their proper places and irritated she searched shelves and back of the locker. The sword was partially hidden behind the file cabinet but came out easily and Anne finished gathering everything and closed the door.

Other members arrived to help and Anne directed them to various tasks in the chapter room and the dining hall downstairs. The hour before the meeting was always a beehive of activity and she enjoyed watching everyone scurry around as the old building was transformed into a warm and inviting place.


Anne stood at the podium and thought how lucky she was to be there. The meeting went well and everyone was thoroughly entertained by the story of the creaking building and Helen’s imitation of a chicken. It was almost time for refreshments and the smell of Pearl’s freshly baked brownies wafted through the air tempting everyone. Anne was pleased her day was ending on a positive note.

The Conductress closed the Bible and Anne said, “I now declare Peony Chapter #333 closed.” With that she rapped the gavel on the dais and a man crashed through the ceiling, bounced off the altar and landed on the floor in front of it like a beanbag.

Everyone sat in stunned silence for a few seconds before Mary Moran started screaming and ran from the room. Several cell phones appeared until Don Waters announced he was calling 911. John McKee, an EMT, quickly ran to the man and pronounced him dead causing two women to faint. The members moved away from the body, but couldn’t take their eyes off him and speculation about his identity ran rampant through the room.

Marion Sutton – who was partially blind and somewhat deaf – kept yelling, “What’s going on? What’s going on? Somebody tell me what happened!”

Her daughter, Dena, quietly explained the situation and Marion looked very puzzled. “What’s wrong Mom?”

“Was he a member?”


“Was he a member?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t recognize him.”

“Then what’s he doing in our Chapter room. Only members are supposed to be in the Chapter room? What’s he doing here?”

“Mom, the Bible is closed.”

“Well, I suppose it’s okay then.”

By this time Anne regained her composure enough to clear the room and ask everyone to wait downstairs in the dining hall until the police arrived. She knew the police would want to talk to everyone.

As he left, Worthy Patron Harry said, “I sure hope they can find Mary Moran. She’ll be half way to Tacoma by now.”

Anne noticed Helen was standing at the altar looking at the body with tears in her eyes. “Helen, what’s wrong? Do you know him?”

“It’s Jim Ferguson, that retired software guy who moved here about 8 months ago. What a waste.”

“What do you mean by that, Helen? Was he a friend of yours.”

“Not really a friend - just an acquaintance. He lived down the street from me. We used to see each other in passing quite a bit and I was hoping …..well, he was one of the few decent single men around my age left in this town. Do you know how hard it is to find decent single men around my age in this town?”

Anne put her arm around Helen’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Oh, I see. That sucks!”

Monday, March 24, 2008


Today - March 25th
is my bloggiversary!

One year old!

Please help yourself to a piece of cake!
I started this blog because I thought you had to have a blog to respond to Miss Snark. I lurked on her site for months before I dared respond and ask a question. I even entered one of her contests and was thrilled to receive the "Best Suck-Up" award. Thanks to Miss Snark, I've had the opportunity to "meet" people in many different countries and have made some wonderful new friends. I miss Miss Snark and Killer Yapp!

My Town Monday - the teen years

Peoria High School.

Where I spent 4 of the most miserable years of my life.

Enough said!

Lesson 5 – Plots – Part 2

As mentioned in my last post, a scene must have a beginning, middle and end. They liken it to an average workday. You begin by getting up, bathing, dressing, eating, and heading to work.
The middle is your work or school. The end is going home, relaxing, eating, TV, family or friends and then bed. Some days are more interesting, exciting and fulfilling than others. It’s the same with a scene.

The beginning of a scene has only one mission – to hook the reader and make them want to continue reading. There are several places to begin a scene.

Begin in the middle – in medias res.
Basically this means that you first grab the reader’s interest and make them care before you give them all the intricate details. Begin with the action that causes all the reaction. You can also begin immediately after the action that sets the story in motion – i.e. “At least nothing was broken.”

Begin with dialogue
This is a variation on the above. The advantage is that the reader is stepping into something ongoing; therefore there is already an established momentum to sweep them along. There is also the suspense of figuring out the context of the conversation. It’s an interesting and subtle way to present characterization quickly.

Kicking off the scene with dialogue creates immediate momentum and interest because we want to know more about the situation that prompts the dialogue. It also enables the author to deliver characterization, background information, plot conflict and more – all while the reader is distracted by the flow of conversation.

The jump cut
The first line is some action or line of dialogue which has nothing to do with the previous scene even though we’re with the same characters. This can create a sense of suspense because the reader wants to know what happened between the time the last scene ended and this one began.

The big promise opening
Another technique for beginning a scene is to make a promise about what the scene will do. The greater the impact of the claim, the greater the reader’s interest in the scene. Examples of big claims would be:

“When I opened the door I had no idea this was the beginning of the day that would destroy my life.”

“What Anne did next changed everything she’d ever believed about men.”

It’s a “nothing will ever be the same” type opening.

Beginning at the beginning
Our text points out that many beginning writers use this technique poorly, using it out of laziness or because they don’t know there are other options. First you need to clarify where the beginning really is.

1. Setting.
You might begin with a description of the setting if the setting itself is a crucial character in the story or scene. He uses an example from Snow Falling on Cedars in which setting is used to do more than establish the weather; it also underscores the theme of the book.

2. Time
Begin based on the time of day rather than the location. The danger of the “I woke to the blast from the clock radio,” type of opening is that it’s been done so often it’s almost a cliché and needs to be revitalized to hold the attention of the reader. The details need to create interest and suspense. The advantage is that it immediately plunges the reader into a character’s life and world. Seeing them wake up and how they start their day shows us rather than tells us how they live and feel.

3. Action
Another beginning is to introduce us to the action that causes the plot. For example, you might open with a car crash. Your story might not be about the crash itself, but how the crash affected the people who saw it or were involved in it.

The buddy system
Basically, this is introducing a character through another character. You begin a scene with someone describing another character – usually the main character. A major advantage to this technique is that it builds immediate interest about the character being discussed. You can use this technique to reveal another aspect of the main character in each new scene from the narrator’s POV. Having a sidekick tell the story – like Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories – keeps the suspense heightened because we aren’t allowed inside the main character’s head.

Character description
1. Self description
Because the character is describing herself, the reader recognizes that we can’t always trust her opinions. They can be unreliable and have a skewed perspective, but it shows us what they think and feel about themselves.

2. Third-person POV description
This reveals more of the author’s judgment of the character.

Dream sequences
The advice here is that unless the dream is integral to the story, don’t open with it. You can get the reader all excited and swept up in the story only to find out it’s not true. Then they’ll be disappointed and probably angry at such a cheap trick. The lesson says writers usually use this technique because they can’t think of a legitimately interesting way to open the scene without this gimmick.

Final thoughts on beginnings
If you aren’t sure of your beginning, they recommend trying several different approaches until you get the one that feels right to you.

A good opening must compel the writer as much as the reader. It must force the reader to wonder what will happen next.

There’s a lot to this lesson. More later.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lesson 5 – Plot - Part 1

The first 2 paragraphs of our reading assignment (about 90 pages this week) surprised me because they describe a plot as “what happens in the story.” It’s the events that take place and has nothing to do with theme or meaning or how the characters feel – only their actions. They use this example from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: An adolescent boy is thrown out of prep school, makes his way back to New York, confronts various people, and has a nervous breakdown. That’s it. Those are the main plot points.

There are specific events that occur to move those main plot points forward. A good plot surprises – not with cheap twists and silly reversals, but with a variety of possible actions resulting from a variety of complex human emotions. The writer’s challenge is to make the plot twists natural and come from the characters needs and desires. They must have proper motivation and not be arbitrary.

Conflict is the fuel that drives the plot forward. Without it, there is no story. There are two kinds of conflict – internal and external. Internal conflict is a personality flaw that prevents a character from achieving whatever goal he’s after. Pride is a good example. An external conflict is like an avalanche that blocks the road and prevents the character from going somewhere. External conflicts can be symbolic representations of internal conflicts. The example given is of a man who says he wants to meet his father but can’t because of a critical meeting that could save his failing business. The failing business could be caused by his pride which is keeping his father from him.

Elements of a plot:
· Introduction
Introduces: characters, core conflict, setting, tone
· Antecedent Action
Explanation of events prior to the opening of story to provide clarity. This could include background information about the characters or the situation.

· Suspense
Suspense can be created by showing the audience something in such a way that they know it will become a major factor later (for example, showing a destroyed spaceship in Alien foreshadows the trouble this crew will face).
· Conflict
The establishment of a genuinely felt conflict creates a natural suspense quotient. The higher the stakes concerning this outcome, the more the reader is involved.
· Reversal
This is the dramatic turning point. It occurs when the protagonist discovers that the outcome of all his/her plans is not what he/she had expected. It can occur by coincidence, but is better if it occurs by design of other characters, or as the result of something the protagonist did. An example of the latter: Early in the story the hero is a cad and unceremoniously dumps his girlfriend. Later he grows and becomes a nice guy, meets a girl, plans to get married. Right before the wedding, the dumped ex-girlfriend returns to tell the new girlfriend some awful secret about the hero's past, threatening the pending nuptials.
· Climax
This is not the end of the story, but rather that point in the story at which the rest of the events become inevitable. Technically, it is the end of the middle.

3. END
· Catastrophe and Dénouement
The catastrophe in tragedy/drama is where the protagonist or someone close to him dies. More commonly, it is the point in the story where it looks as if all is lost. The denouement is the tying up of loose ends.

All of the plot elements are made up of scenes. There can be thousands of scenes in a novel. The scenes can be composed of dialogue, action and/or narration. Each scene has its own beginning, middle and end. How you write scenes and string them together depends on what you are writing.

What makes a scene memorable are those moments so powerful they catch the reader off-guard and stay in their memory long after the book is back on the shelf. The writers job is to make even the most predictable scene an unexpected experience for the reader by elevating it through fresh dialogue, unusual situations or a unique and wonderful voice.

They advise writers who have sudden ideas for unique scenes in off-beat settings to go ahead and write them. Later you can ask the crucial questions. Why is it here? What do I hope to accomplish with it? How can I best utilize this odd setting? You can then transform the great idea into a fully realized scene, rich with nuance, texture, character and theme.

Though every scene has a purpose or focus, the best scenes achieve this subtlety through misdirection. The reader is looking at one hand while you manipulate them with the other. This is especially important if the scene exists merely to deliver information.

A scene is like a single member of a family. It is loved for its own individuality, but its greatest power is its contribution to the larger group. First concentrate on the elements that make the scene work on its own as an isolated mini-story, then judge each scene’s effectiveness by how much it contributes to the whole work.

A scene should do two or more of these four things: 1. advance the plot, 2. develop the characters, 3. illustrate the theme, 4.contribute to suspense. They recommend reading each scene again when you’re finished and completing the following sentences:

1. The Plot Focus:
The purpose of this scene is to _____________

2. The Character Focus:
When the reader finishes this scene, they should feel __________

3. The Theme Focus:
When the reader finishes this scene, they should think ____________

4. The Suspense Focus:
When the reader finishes this scene, they should wonder _________________

If you can’t complete at least two of these sentences to your satisfaction, the scene either needs work or needs to be cut.

Look for Part 2 soon and as always, remember this is just a synopsis of about 90 pages of material.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New shoe inspired epiphany

Purchasing new shoes isn’t a momentous event for me. I love shoes and have far more than necessary. I can carry the same purse for years, but shoes are my downfall. A couple of years ago a new brand caught my attention – Sofft. They’re stylish and comfortable – a happy combination. Now several pairs grace my shoe racks and finding a new style to purchase fills me with glee. Sofft shoes aren’t expensive, but they aren’t cheap either - usually about $90 a pair and worth every penny because they’re well constructed and use good materials.

Here is my latest pair:
The other day I looked down at my feet – stunning in my new shoes – and was overcome by the realization of how lucky I am.

I have:
· a spacious and comfortable home that will be paid off in about 5 years,
· a great job working for nice people who treat me well and value my opinion,
· a sweet, goofy dog who adores me,
· wonderful friends and neighbors,
· money in the bank,
· no debt besides my mortgage,
· membership in an organization full of good, happy people,
· and 9 pairs of Sofft shoes (along with shoes from many other brands.)

I’m not rich, but I’m not poor.
I don’t live in a mansion, but I’m not homeless.
I don’t eat steak and lobster very often, but I’m not hungry.
When I’m sick, I can go to a doctor.
I live alone, but I’m never lonely.
I have the ability to help those less fortunate, and I do.
I don’t shop in Beverly Hills, but I wear Sofft shoes.

I am a very lucky woman!

Sometimes the smallest moments can evoke the biggest epiphanies – like looking down at your new shoes.

Have you had any epiphanies lately?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Famous author thaws out in Seattle!

Guess who came to see me today and let me drive her around?

Lesson 4 - Instructor's comments

We’re in Anne’s first-person point of view as the first scene opens. Anne is curious about the noise above her head, but then Helen and Jean arrive. Does the reader already know what the sign says? If not, it seems you should tell us here, since it’s the focus of their dialogue. The women hear the noise above them, and Anne tells the others she’d like to go check it out. Now, we’re in first person, so you can easily go inside of Anne’s head to let the reader in on what she thinks the noise might be. Jean’s chicken, and so Helen and Anne head up the stairs. Helen stops, changing her mind. The dialogue is working here as they go back and forth about whether they should keep going or not. The narrative works, too, as Helen opens the door and turns on the light. What’s missing for me is Anne’s internal dialogue. The advantage of the first person point of view is that we get to be up close and personal with the viewpoint character as she thinks about her goal in the scene, the obstacles that come at her to keep her from achieving it, her thoughts and feelings about the other characters. This is where much of the tension comes into a scene of dialogue—what the character’s thinking that she can’t say out loud.

In the second passage, we’re in Helen’s third-person point of view. I mean, you’ve headed up the scene with that, but as I start reading, there’s no way I would know that. How about entering Helen’s head, so that the reader can experience the action from inside of Helen? What’s important to her in this scene? When in a point of view, we’re inside. Helen can’t see her own face blushing, so instead of showing her face to the reader, reveal her thoughts about Anne’s question about the sign. What is she thinking when they hear the noise? The scene proceeds much as it did before. The only part that’s really different is a line or two inside of Helen’s head as she watches Anne go upstairs. She feels a tinge of guilt. This is the only time you go inside of her so that we can tell that this is her viewpoint. So I’d just like to suggest that whether you’re writing in first or third-person point of view, you make sure to penetrate the character’s head as this is how you reveal to the reader whose viewpoint we’re in. It’s how the character thinks and observes the situation and the other characters. It’s how he perceives himself. This is how the reader gets to know the character from the inside out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lesson 4 - assignment

Caveat: I realize this may be boring for some of you because I’m using the same people and scene repeatedly, but this course is about the fundamentals of writing. Right now I’m just trying to learn techniques to make me a better writer so the plot and story is secondary.

Assignment for Session Four:
Write a 500-word first-person scene that presents a conversation (and related action) between two or three characters. In this scene, the first-person narrator will be your POV character. Then, rewrite the same scene in limited third-person POV, using a different viewpoint character (indicate to your instructor which character is the viewpoint character). Make changes that would be appropriate to the new POV character's perspective, but keep the essential details the same.

First Person - Anne as viewpoint character:

A floorboard creaked over my head. I walked to the bottom of the stairs and called, “Who’s there? Is someone up there?” There was no response but the big front door opened and I was relieved to see Helen and Jean.

“All right. Which one of you is responsible for the sign?”

Helen blushed and Jean looked innocently up at the ceiling. “Well whoever did it needs to change it before the rest of the group arrives.”

“You don’t like it?” Helen said.

“I love it, but something tells me a few of our members won’t appreciate your sense of humor.”

The floorboard creaked overhead again and all three of us looked at the ceiling.

“Is someone here with you?” said Jean.

“No. I heard the same noise just before you came in, but no one answered when I called. Maybe we should go upstairs and check it out.”

“Not on your life,” said Jean. “The men will be here soon. They can go up there.”

“Don’t be such a sissy,” said Helen. “Let’s go see what’s going on. It’s probably just the old building making noises anyway.”

“Well, you two can go, but I’m staying here,” said Jean.

Helen and I started towards the wide old stairs covered with the worn burgundy runners. As we started up, Helen sat down on the third step and said, “Maybe we should wait.”

“Wait for what? There’s nothing up there. It’s an old building and the creaking is normal. Are you afraid?”

“Yes and you should be too. How can you be so calm and complacent? What if there’s an ax murderer up there?”

“What if there’s nothing up there and we wait like babies until the men come and rescue us? They’ll never let us live it down. Come on!”

“OK, but you first. I’ll be right behind you.”

I could feel her holding back watching me climb the stairs, but since I made such a point of being brave my pride wouldn’t let me stop. At the top of the stairs, I hesitated in the darkened foyer. An involuntary shudder swept over me as I approached the door to the musty lodge room and my heart was beating wildly. I took a deep breath, opened the door and quickly flipped on the lights. “See, there’s no one here,” I said turning around. “Helen, where the hell are you? You’re supposed to be right behind me.”

Helen came running up the stairs laughing. “One of us had to stay behind to call the police.”

“Right. And now one of us is going to have to set up the chapter room all by herself.”

“Not on your life. I’m not going back into that dark old storage locker by myself.”

I sighed and laughed. “Come on chicken.”

Third Person Limited - Helen as viewpoint character:

Jean ran up the steps out of breath from rushing. “We’re late again. Anne’s going to be pissed.”

“I know,” said Helen, “but I’m too old to run and we’re not that late.”

“God, Helen. You’re only 62. That’s not old. Quit trying to make yourself ancient before your time.”

Opening the door they could see Anne standing in the hallway, arms folded across her chest, peering over her reading glasses. “All right,” she said. “Which one of you is responsible for the sign?”

Helen blushed and Jean looked innocently up at the ceiling. “Well whoever did it needs to change it before the rest of the group arrives.”

“You don’t like it?” Helen said.

“I love it, but something tells me a few of our members won’t appreciate your sense of humor.”

The floorboard creaked overhead again and they looked at the ceiling.

“Is someone here with you?” said Jean.

“No. I heard the same noise just before you came in, but no one answered when I called. Maybe we should go upstairs and check it out.”

“Not on your life,” said Jean. “The men will be here soon. They can go up there.”

“Don’t be such a sissy,” said Helen. “Let’s go see what’s going on. It’s probably just the old building making noises anyway.”

“Well, you two can go, but I’m staying here,” said Jean.

Helen and Anne started towards the wide old stairs covered with the worn burgundy runners. Anne started up, but Helen sat down on the third step and said, “Maybe we should wait.”

“Wait for what? There’s nothing up there. It’s an old building and the creaking is normal. Are you afraid?”

“Yes and you should be too. How can you be so calm and complacent? What if there’s an ax murderer up there?”

“What if there’s nothing up there and we wait like babies until the men come and rescue us? They’ll never let us live it down. Come on!”

“OK, but you first. I’ll be right behind you.”

Helen watched Anne go upstairs and followed one slow step at a time. She heard her in the foyer upstairs and felt a slight tinge of guilt for not being braver and more supportive. She was relieved to see the light go on and hear Anne call, “See, there’s no one here. Helen, where the hell are you? You’re supposed to be right behind me.”

Helen ran up the stairs laughing. “One of us had to stay behind to call the police.”

“Right. And now one of us is going to have to set up the chapter room all by herself.”

“Not on your life. I’m not going back into that dark old storage locker by myself.”

Anne sighed and laughed. “Come on chicken.”

“Bwaaaaaaaak, bak, bak, bak, bak, bak bak, bak!”

Any comments or critiques are welcome and appreciated.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Can you help?

One of our blogging buddies is in trouble. Please read this post for details.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lesson 4 - Dialogue

Again, this is a synopsis of about 50 pages of reading, but here are the highpoints.

The Function of Dialogue in Fiction
Dialogue is simply characters speaking aloud. It has many advantages:

1. Immediacy. Dialogue intensifies a scene by making it more immediate and lively. Generally, readers are more involved in the story if they experience the events and conversations rather than have someone tell them about them later.

2. Characterization. Dialogue is an excellent method of revealing character. When you hear the character's own words, it's easier to understand what kind of person he or she is. The way in which people speak reveals how interesting/ educated/funny/unhappy/etc. they are.

3. Information. It serves as a shorthand way of delivering information to the readers. Unloading background or character information in the middle of a story is called an info dump. Even if the information is crucial to understanding the character or for the plot of the story, it usually stops the momentum of the story. However, when such information is presented in dialogue, the momentum can be maintained. The conversation delivering the info is a misdirection, meaning you get the reader involved in the conversation and then slip the crucial info in without them noticing.

Writing Realistic Dialogue
There's a big difference between "realistic" and "real." In life, real is everything that happens to you during the entire day. A story takes the essence of that same day, but cuts out the boring parts. Same thing in dialogue. In real life, when most people speak they meander, repeat themselves, pause, digress, say "uh" and "um" a lot.

The writer tries to duplicate the rhythm of real speech, but cleans it up by cutting out the boring parts. Good dialogue isn't reality, it's "heightened reality."

General Rules of Dialogue Usage

There are some general rules about dialogue to keep in mind:

1. Start a new paragraph with each new speaker.

2. Don't put thoughts in quotes, it confuses the reader as to which lines are being spoken and which are being thought. Use underlining or italics to indicate a character's thoughts without attribution (Like that's really going to happen) or simply include a tag that indicates thought (Like that's really going to happen, he thought).

3. Terminal punctuation (commas, periods, question marks) goes inside the quotation marks.

4. Beginning writers sometimes wait until the end of a long speech to add the tag line. If you are going to use a tag line, do so as soon as stylistically possible. If you wait too long, the reader won't know who the speaker is until the end, and not knowing distracts the reader from what is being said.

5. Avoid using too many tags. This includes padding with a lot of description or gestures. Sometimes the dialogue must flow without interruption, with minimal tags. If only two characters are speaking, you can let several lines go without any tags.

6. Avoid adverbs in the tag lines (i.e., "Stop!" she shouted urgently.) The characters urgency is implied in the dialogue and by the fact that she shouted. The adverb distracts the reader.

7. Keep your tags simple. The longer and more elaborate the tag line, the more the actual dialogue becomes smothered.

8. Don't overuse names when characters address each other: "Hi, Jim, how are you?" "Fine, Sam." "Say, Jim, is that a new watch?" "No, Sam, same old one." This constant use of their names makes the dialogue stiff and robotic-sounding.

Quotation Marks
First, they are used to enclose words and phrases to which special attention needs to be drawn. If a word is used out of context or in some other unusual way, such as to include a slang word in formal writing, or when it is being used sarcastically, it should appear in quotes:

"Of" is an ambiguous preposition, for it can mean "from" or "by."

Yeah, it was a "happy" occasion, all right, if you like being humiliated in public!

He really is quite a "square" fellow.

In the first sentence we've used prepositions as nouns, which is allowable only if we put them in quotation marks. Sentence two involves sarcasm; that is, a meaning that is exactly opposite of what is said. You put "happy" in quotation marks because you want to be sure the reader catches the irony (in much the same way a speaker will make "air quotes" with his hands to make sure the audience understands the intended sarcasm). The final sentence uses quotes to insert a slang expression into a more formal context; omitting the quotes would make it seem that the writer was using informal language inappropriately.

A second use of quotation marks involves titles. Use them in the following instances:
-short artistic works (poems, songs, television and radio programs)
-titles of individual courses of study (but not areas)
-short stories
-articles in magazines
-any literary piece that is not bound as a book

Quotes and Dialogue
Quotation marks are used to indicate direct quotations and dialogue. Whenever you are putting the speaker's actual words on the page, use quotation marks; when you are merely telling your reader what someone said, don't use quotation marks.

Now here are three very important rules about punctuation with quotation marks:
1. Periods and commas always occur inside quotation marks:
2. Semicolons and colons always occur outside quotation marks:
3. Question and exclamation marks may occur inside or outside quotation marks, depending on the meaning of the sentence:

Varying the location of the attribution can also change the stress of the sentence. In a long quote or line of dialogue, using an interrupting attribution can remind the reader who is speaking, or serve to reinforce the main ideas of a quote by separating them and making each more distinct.

His manager said, "The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field."

"The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field," his manager said.

"The trouble with John," his manager said, "is his lack of education in the field."

The two main ideas in this sentence are "the trouble with John" and "his lack of education in the field." The third sentence is perhaps the most forceful because by breaking up the manager's statement, equal weight is given to both parts.

To prevent the reader from being confused about who is speaking, each change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph because it makes it easy for the reader to keep track of who is speaking because of the way the dialogue is separated for each speaker.

The final rule involves quotations within quotations. For such internal quotations, use the apostrophe, sometimes called a single quote when used in this way:
"That's fine by me," Father cautioned, "but remember what Grandma used to say: 'Early to bed, early to rise. . .

I hope you all find this useful. Again, this is not my work but a massive cut and past of some of the most important parts of the lessons. In a day or 2 I'll post my assignment for this lesson.

Monday, March 10, 2008

My Town Monday - Anna, IL

In our small town, everyone knew each other and there were no secrets, a fact that would make life somewhat unpleasant occasionally. You couldn’t get away with anything.

It was safe for us to wander around. You could walk almost anywhere, cutting through the fields and your neighbors’ yards, and never worry. There were very few fences. If we wandered too far, someone would call our parents and let them know where we were in case they were looking for us. Mom never locked her car. In fact, she never even took the keys out of it. It would sit in front of the house or a store unlocked with the windows down and the keys in the ignition, and no one ever touched it.

As a child growing up in this environment, my existence was uncomplicated and uncluttered. Life was simple and carefree. There was nothing to worry about and I was free to let my imagination run wild. We had a small library made from limestone quarried in a neighboring town where I spent hours reading and dreaming.
We had three TV stations starting with CBS in the early 50’s, NBC a year or 2 later and ABC a year after that. They broadcast from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Paducah, Kentucky and Harrisburg, Illinois. I was always disappointed when 10:30 rolled around and the National Anthem played and the test pattern appeared. Of course, we had to have a huge antenna attached to our roof and if the weather was bad, so was the reception.

Most of our radio stations were small and played country music with lots of talk and local news. But at night when everything was still, you could get the rock and roll stations from St. Louis 100 miles away. Rock and roll was taboo at first, but gradually it was accepted, especially after Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan.

Going to the movies was a real adventure – in the summer at the local drive-in and the rest of the year at the Rodgers Theater in town. My favorites were romantic comedies, musicals, science fiction and Westerns. And of course, I loved the cartoons. It wasn’t all good though. Bambi totally traumatized me and I was so terrified by Psycho and Murders at the Rue Morgue I haven’t been able to go to a horror movie since. I’m a movie and book wimp. We had a party line on the phone. That sometimes made life interesting unless my Mom caught me listening in on their conversations. My Dad owned a local car dealership at the time and his phone number at work was 405. But when I wanted to talk to him, I just picked up the phone and told the operator that I wanted to talk to my Daddy and she connected me without even asking who I was. It was like magic to me. I thought that was how everyone lived.

Occasionally something really special would happen. The Circus came to town and we got to see all the lions, tigers, bears and elephants up close. We would watch the performers and dream of the day when we would join the circus and go on tour as famous acts with our faces on posters – thrilling the crowds. Once the Harlem Globetrotters came and performed at the local high school. I actually got to see Meadowlark Lemon and his teammates put on a very funny show and soundly beat the other team. It was incredibly exciting and everyone in town talked about it for months.

We had a corner grocery store down the street from home – just a little place. We always went there for candy and ice cream bars. They had all the wonderful penny candies in jars and a nickel or dime would buy enough tiny soda bottles or candy lips to keep us happy for hours. If we didn’t have any money, they just put it on our account and either we paid the next time we were in or our parents paid.

We went to grade school from Kindergarten through 5th grade, then you went with all the medium sized kids to Anna Jr. High. There were 2 elementary schools in town and I went to Davie. It was a 3 story brick building with a big central hall and stairwell. The restrooms were in the basement, there were 2 first grade and 2 second grade classrooms on the first floor and 2 third and 2 fourth grade classrooms on the second floor. An addition in the early 50’s housed the Kindergarten and 5th grade classrooms and a new gymnasium that doubled as a cafeteria and auditorium for performances. The building is now a bed and breakfast and all the classrooms are suites.

At the other end of town was the Anna State Hospital (now PC named the Clyde Choate Mental Health and Development Center.) Originally it housed the insane and just about anyone else who couldn’t care for themselves. The father of a friend was the head of it at the time and they had a huge apartment on the top floor of the central building. We never felt unsafe there. For years afterwards when I told people I was from Anna they always asked which end of town.

This post has been brought to you by Travis Erwin's "My Town Mondays". Check his site for more blogs offering information on their home towns.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Some new symbols

Warning: If you're easily offended, you might want to skip this post. However, if you're in the mood for a silly and irreverent laugh, keep reading.

A friend sent me some new symbols to add to my emoticons - you know all those little things we add to the ends of sentences like:

:) or :~) = a smile

:( or :~( = a frown

My friend calls these symbols "assicons"

Here we go:

(_!_) = regular ass

(__!__) = fat ass

(!) = tight ass

(_*_) = sore ass

{_!_} = swishy ass

(_o_) = an ass that's been around

(_x_) = kiss my ass

(_X_) = leave my ass alone

(_zzz_) = tired ass

(_E=mc2_) = smart ass

(_$_) = money coming out of your ass

and (_?_) = dumb ass

Which one will you use first?

Monday, March 3, 2008

My Town Monday

I was born in a very small town in rural southern Illinois in what was once referred to as Bloody Williamson County. It was the scene of violence, massacres, KKK activities and gangster wars from the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Fortunately things were peaceful by the time I arrived, but the façade of the hospital still bore bullet scars fired during one particularly nasty siege. I wasn’t supposed to be born there, but the hospital in the town where my parents lived burned down and it took a while to rebuild things there.

When I was 6 months old, we moved to another small southern Illinois town - 25 miles from the Mississippi river, 30 miles from the Ohio River, situated in the rolling foothills of the Ozarks with forests and lakes everywhere. At 4,400 people we were one of the biggest towns in the area. Our claims to fame were the state mental hospital and the Bunny Bread factory.

In the spring the countryside was a plethora of color. The acres of budding apple and peach orchards were breathtaking and the fragrance of their lovely pink and white blossoms filled the air and promised delicious fruit in the fall. Wildflowers grew everywhere and fields of happy daffodils greeted you. It was a wonderful time of year.

Summers were incredibly hot and humid. We were lucky because we had huge trees to shade the house and a window-mounted air conditioner. When we were home, we pulled down the shades on the sunny side of the house, closed all the windows and doors and let that sucker run on high. For cooler days or nights, we had a big attic fan to keep the air circulating. But we were used to the conditions so the weather never stopped us from living our daily lives.

Tornados were common during the summer. You always knew when they were coming because everything would get deathly silent - the birds wouldn’t sing and the air would be absolutely still. Like clockwork, the sirens blared and we ran into the fields to watch the funnel clouds go by on their way to strike one of the neighboring towns. For some reason they never hit us, so as kids we didn’t worry about them. Even so, during the school year we had tornado drills where we would all go into the hallways and duck and cover.

Late summer was the time to harvest the orchards. The peaches in southern Illinois seemed sweeter and juicier than anywhere else in the world. We stopped at roadside stands and bought baskets of them and the owners always gave us samples. Then we gorged on delicious peach pies or cobblers. Sometimes we canned or froze them to be enjoyed later. Because we had orchards close to our house, I always managed to sneak in and eat my fill of peaches straight from the trees. They were and still are my favorite fruit.

This was also the time for the county fair – a very big event in our town. There were rides, animals, exhibits, demolition derbies, trotting races, entertainment and lots of good food and events to keep everyone’s minds off the impending start of the new school year. By fair standards, this was a very small one, but it sure seemed big to us growing up.
Autumn was always beautiful. We had lots of deciduous trees that turned brilliant colors. When the leaves fell off, we raked them into huge piles then ran and jumped on them like they were gigantic pillows. Autumn was always my favorite because my birthday was in early October. I was just under the cutoff for school, thus always one of the youngest in my class. I started Kindergarten when I was four.

Winters were usually mild. On the extremely rare occasions when it did snow, we pulled out our rusty sleds or cardboard boxes and went hurtling down the hills and then built snowmen before it had a chance to melt. That usually only lasted a few days. Everything stopped when it snowed because it was such a rare occurrence and there was no equipment to clear the roads.

It wasn't a fancy town, but it was where I grew up.

ETA: This post has been brought to you by Travis Erwin's "My Town Mondays". Check his site for more blogs offering up information on their home towns.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Instructors comments on lesson three

This assignment is about characterization, how you reveal who Anne is as a person through narration, dialogue and action.

In this first passage, it’s not just narration about Anne that we’re looking for, it’s narration that provides specific details of her appearance, her background or how she thinks about other characters, her life situation, her goals, etc. Much of this passage is you, the author, TELLING us about Anne, instead of getting into Anne’s head and letting her reveal herself to the reader. Our lecture addresses this. How about putting Anne in a scene and showing us her fashionable navy pants and her matching cardigan as she moves around the setting? Instead of TELLING us about her “hard emotional shell,” how about SHOWING us as she thinks about another character or a situation in her life? Again, instead of TELLING us about how she’s a reliable worker, SHOW us. This isn’t to be a profile, it’s to put Anne in a scene and let the narration come from inside of her as the viewpoint character. And when narrating, you want to focus on just one aspect of who a character is, the aspect that is relevant to the conflict in the scene that you’re developing.
In the dialogue study, what’s important is what Anne says and how she says it. What I see here right away is Anne’s courage. She’s not willing to act like a “girl,” waiting to be rescued by a “boy.” Her dialogue continues to speak of her courage until the end of the scene. She’s also able to tease her friend without putting her down. She doesn’t take things too seriously. What strikes me is that her heart IS beating wildly, and so she does have fear that she’s willing to feel but also to overcome as she moves into the musty room.

In the action scene, I’m looking for gestures, movements, mannerisms, facial expressions, not just meaningless action. Remember, this is about characterization. She needs the room to feel warm again, and so she turns on the lights. You mention her irritation as she finds items out of place. Would you say that her efforts to align the chairs is characteristic of her need to be organized? Is this significant? I want you to think consciously about Anne’s actions, so that we can begin to visualize this character.

I'm still trying to figure out what I did wrong based on the assignment. And once again, I feel......