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I’m reading McKee’s Story along with one of my writing partners, and we’re both finding gems. Sure, screenwriters are the intended audience, but story structure is story structure. My favorite lines so far:
“But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed” (24).
Reminds me of quantum physics. Y’know how an electron seems to know when it’s watched? And it won’t move if you’re looking at it? At least, that used to be the case, but now they’ve found a way to trap an atom in a vacuum so they can watch it jump. Kind of sad, really. No more mystery. But Truth–now that is not something you can trap in a vacuum.
Sometimes little “t’ truth can magnify big “T” Truth, but the writer must lay those words down lightly, respectfully. For example, please don’t write an overwrought scene between a victim and her abuser and expect the reader to take away anything but a grimace. Seriously. Knock that shit off.
If you want to portray abuse, and you want to use “accurate reportage,” as McKee puts it, show everything but the victim, and refrain from telling your reader what those facts mean.
For example, a living room snapshot:
A clear glass ashtray sits neatly upside down on the rug, empty, but Shelly smells cigarette smoke. No, it smells more like a barbecue, she thinks. It’s a distant scent, like it’s coming from the patio down the street, wafting through the window. The front door slams and she ducks in reflex, and suddenly the scent is up close. She hears a car peel away from the house at the same time she realizes she is sitting, naked, on a small pile of burning cigarettes.
That needs tweaking, but it should give you an idea of how you can give small details without hitting your reader over the head with angst. I think the angst is inevitable in a rough draft. Just eradicate it in your rewrites so your reader doesn’t want to stab his eyes out.
I’ll be writing about how I’m using GMC, which I got from GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon (Clean link)
I’ve begun working on my novel again, and recently had a breakthrough because of an app I found online that utilizes Dixon’s GMC. I dumped what I knew about my heroine into it, and came out with something I can work with. (I am waiting for this writer to get back to me with feedback. *ahem* ps: You did ask what character issues I’m having, Ms. Tammy.)
The GMC wizard was created by author Shawntelle Madison, and it’s on her site:
Plug your info in and go. Here’s what I got for my heroine. This is a work-in-progress, particularly the internal goal part. For some reason I wrestle with understanding that.
GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT GRID
Occupation: homeless. Previous occupation: ?
Basic Information: Sober b/c of dog Bart. Son died a few years ago & she is beset by guilt.
Eventually she will save Pax, hero’s nephew, which will release her from her self-imposed guilt-shackles.
|GOAL||forgive herself for the death of her son.||own her own house where Bart will have a yard to play in.|
|MOTIVATION||she will die on the streets if she doesn’t.||He’s been beaten before and shot after she claimed him. She wants him to be safe so she doesn’t have HIS death on her conscience, too.|
|CONFLICT||she keeps falling back on alcohol to drown out the pain.||She has no job. She’s been out of work for years. She struggles with sobriety. She has no place to shower, even, and has no idea if she even HAS any skill sets. No confidence.|
Another link I found useful has a blank GMC chart found here: http://www.midmichiganrwa.org/gmc-charts.pdf — 6 pages of character-building here. RWA stands for Romance Writers of America, and it is one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my writing.
The key is to know your characters, which means you have to sit down with each one and listen to them. If you don’t, you risk writing your character into an unbelievable situation, or you risk pushing your character into unbelievable action. For example, I know that my heroine, Diana, loves books, so while it is believable that she would be found digging in a dumpster to rescue a book, there is no way she would burn one to keep herself warm on the streets. She would burn a building first.
What would your character do/not do?
I’m re-reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this time with a close eye on her use of language.
Today I’m obsessing over this:
“We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?” (3-4)
I get the insatiability. In fact, the statement reminds me of John Twelve Hawks’ The Traveler, in which this world’s chief problem is never-ending desire. My attention is snagged by the word talent. Why does Atwood call this longing a talent? Again, I get the innate quality. I just don’t understand it being referred to as an ability, as though one were performing or creating something.
FROM THE KENYON REVIEW website:
Submissions must be 1200 words or less. There is no entry fee. Ron Carlson, celebrated author of four novels and five short story collections, will be the final judge. The Kenyon Review will publish the winning short story in the Winter 2012 issue, and the author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2011 Writers Workshop, June 18th-25th, in Gambier, Ohio.
- Writers must be 30 years of age or younger at the time of submission.
- Stories must be no more than 1200 words in length.
- One submission per entrant.
- Please do not simultaneously submit your contest entry to another magazine or contest.
- The submissions link will be active February 1st to February 28th. All work must be submitted through our electronic system. We cannot accept paper submissions.
- Winners will be announced in the late spring. You will receive an e-mail notifying you of any decisions regarding your work.
- For submissions, we accept the following file formats only:
- .PDF (Adobe Acrobat)
- .DOC (Microsoft Word)
- .RTF (Rich Text Format)
- .TXT (Microsoft Wordpad and Notepad, Apple TextEdit .
Here’s what happened when I released my stubborn hold on who I thought my characters were.
I asked my heroine why she didn’t want to run the family gun shop. (Yes, I talked to her. I was a little cautious about it because the notion’s kinda kooky, and I really didn’t want my kids to hear me talking to myself, so I whispered. LOL )
I asked, and she told me, “Look. I’m spending every day with my mom and she’s driving me nuts. I have to find the missing paperwork pronto or the ATF’s gonna shut her down and guess where she’ll be living? No way, sister. I love my mom, but I need my privacy.”
So, in the interest of showing you how I used Debra Dixon’s book, I’ll share Diana’s character info. It still needs work, but wow! After doing her GMC chart and those of three other characters, not only was I able to write my first chapter, I knew where I was going!
NAME : Diana (gun shop co-owner/teacher) Paints every spare minute she has. Mockingbird is totem
WHO SHE IS: a self-deluding paper tiger (tough on the outside, scared within)
WHAT SHE WANTS: Starter goal: has to find missing logbook. Get thru ATF audit. Bigger: Own her own art studio. Express herself via painting. Keep shop from being closed.
BECAUSE: 1. Logbook has info for ATF search phone call. 2. ATF doing audit. 3. She doesn’t want her mother living with her. 4. she wants to get back to her private life
BUT: Can’t find logbook. Her mother lost additional ppw. Her mother needs her in the gun shop. (obviously!)
INTERNAL WANTS: needs to please. Then : to know herself; to be regarded as ‘real’ artist; autonomy
BECAUSE: It’ll make her feel important; like she’s contributing something to the world; she’ll be expressing herself
BUT: She’s afraid: of failure, of creating garbage, of the unknown. She doesn’t believe she has the talent; won’t put her art on display. And she’s worried her mother won’t be able to run the shop effectively by herself.
My hero’s character info is still missing the internal want/need, but I was still able to write the first chapter because I had his external want pretty clear in my head. I’ll be tweaking both as I go.
You see how nowhere in Diana’s goals is there a wish to fall in love? Falling in love is what happens as she’s pursuing her goals. If falling in love were her goal, I think she’d be a weak and boring character. I want her to have an interesting life that she ultimately invites the hero –and the reader–into.
Same goes for the hero, Mark. His immediate desire is to plop down in his easy chair and read a book he’s been itching to read for several days but hasn’t had time for. Problem is, his 5-year-old nephew is having trouble getting to sleep because his mother’s recently been killed in an accident. It’s a simple conflict, and it will grow into something bigger as the story progresses.
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
— Martin Luther King Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I’ve been struggling with my heroine’s over-arching goal. I keep tangling external goals with internal ones. My critique partner pointed out that the one I had was too “do-able,” adding, “I think Diana needs something that she wants desperately – something that is urgent – life or death or loss that if she loses it, her life will never be the same (or someone she cherishes will never be the same) something that she will walk on water to obtain if that’s what she needs to do.”
So. A character who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live, either, and that rings true for me. Characters with something huge at stake engage the reader immediately.
While I was looking for inspiration I came across some quotes that resonate, and I’m pinning them up while I write so they’ll remind me of key character traits.
Diana, my heroine, is a frustrated artist (painter) who runs a gun shop with her mother. A quote for her is from Bernard Shaw:
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
And these: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”— Maya Angelou
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
“One must pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while still alive.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
My bad guy, as yet un-named, has this one:
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Mark, my hero, has these:
“In the years afterward, I fled whenever somebody began to understand me. That has subsided. But one thing remained: I don’t want anybody to understand me completely. I want to go through life unknown. The blindness of others is my safety and my freedom.” — Pascal Mercier
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”— Confucius
Ultimately, this one will apply: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” — Maya Angelou
One that will apply throughout the story:
“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”— Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
And this one reminds me of different ways to illustrate character:
“Your handwriting. The way you walk. Which china pattern you choose. It’s all giving you away. Everything you do shows your hand. Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.”— Chuck Palahniuk
A Twist of the Grave
Anne Enright’s narrator in The Gathering, Veronica Hegarty, initially seems to be a petty, bitter woman, a woman who’s lost her way in a gaggle of siblings. She vibrates with anger over past hurts, and it seems she’s embarking on a journey to wallow in those hurts. She doesn’t seem to know her true north, and her musings come across like gropes in the dark. She is obviously grieving over her brother, Liam’s, suicide, and she reveals that she is not “properly alive” (80); that, like her former lover, Michael Weiss, she merely exists. The difference between them, she says, is that he chose “just to exist [to] see what came his way” (81). Most striking is her rage at her mother for bearing so many children, which the reader may, at first, interpret to actually be anger that her mother doesn’t know her name. This notion is dispelled when Veronica inwardly erupts after dealing with the undertaker. She considers her “child-battered body [and is] proud of it…for the people that came out of it, feeding the grave. Feeding the grave!” (79) A-ha, says the reader. This, then, is a story about grief. But no—and yes. Yes; Veronica moves through the stages of grieving; she speaks of her memories and current experiences as though she is remembering them right now, going back and retracing the memory if she realizes she doesn’t have it right, or if she is lying to herself and the reader, and Enright presents the story as though it were a dialogue between two close friends. However, Veronica is also on a quest for the truth of her past, for the truth, period, for, as she says, the dead require it. Her quest begins in a haze of denial, not just regarding the fact of Liam’s death, but regarding their shared past; it begins with feeding the grave and ends with cam reilige, a twist of the grave that unexpectedly and ironically offers hope.
After Veronica breaks the news of Liam’s death to her mother, she muses about her grandmother’s romance with Lambert Nugent. Here, she says, is where the seeds of Liam’s death were strewn. She concocts a story about Ada’s and Nugent’s first encounter, and it isn’t until she’s moved through this short tale to the end that the reader realizes that she’s invented it, and then the reader wonders why. It seems odd, and it creates a surreal sense that the narrator is about to lead us on a labyrinthine path to nowhere. Can Veronica be trusted to tell us the truth about anything? This surreal quality is embedded throughout the entire narrative, and for good reason: this is how the mind works when working through the grieving process, and we are there with Veronica each step of the way.
Veronica brings us home to her husband, whom she alternately despises and loves. She’s almost apologetic about this, but defiantly honest. Her mind jumps to other childhood experiences, then it’s back in the present, dealing with everyday minutiae and funeral arrangements, then it’s back in the past again. And she ruefully acknowledges that she sucks: “If someone sucks, then they are the worst possible type,” she says, then she ends up “sitting still while the loud world passes by, with a long coffee spoon in my mouth, sucking” (83).
Veronica’s persistence in rooting out old memories is a means to survive. “This is how we all survive,” she says. “We default to the oldest scar” (97). But as it turns out, Veronica’s oldest scar does not lie in Ada’s past but in her own, although she believes it is Liam’s wound: at first she remembers seeing Liam molested by Nugent, but later on the memory turns out to be her own. Again, there is a surreal quality to the memory, and neither the reader nor Veronica is certain whose memory it is. Perhaps the memory belongs to Veronica, Liam, and Kitty, since all three of them lived in the house where the abuse occurred. Perhaps, in fact, it belonged to all of the children. This is left to the reader to decide.
In the beginning, Veronica is railing against her mother’s incessant breeding, and it seems this is her wild grief talking. She’s just lost her brother, and is now faced with both her own mortality and that of her siblings. In the end, however, Enright tantalizes the reader with the possibility that Veronica may either be pregnant or would welcome it. This is ironic because of Veronica’s refusal to attend the funeral of another relative when she was pregnant with her first-born, Rebecca; she was afraid of cam reilige, the twist of the grave, because it could have a decidedly negative effect on her baby. That Veronica is now “falling into [her] life” after dealing with Liam’s death is indeed, a twist of the grave.
I went to Debra Dixon‘s talk at the monthly meeting of San Diego’s chapter of RWA. My novel has been stuck in chapter one because I haven’t properly charted out the GMC of the characters. Today I’m charting three characters:
heroine’s mother: Betsy.
GMC stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Dixon says the ideas she presents are not new, but I think her book’s the only one of its kind. You can find it here: http://www.gryphonbooksforwriters.com/home/gmc.htm
Finally realized that the reason I’ve been struggling with Diana and Betsy is that their relationship is enmeshed. Funny how characters try to tell you things and you just don’t listen.
this story’s been wanting to come out its own way and I’ve been trying to force it into a tiny box.
Diana is not talking to me, but Mark has spilled his guts, and so has Betsy.
Susie Salmon, the latest young murder victim of her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, tells of her own death thus: “When you begin to go over the edge, life receding from you as a boat recedes inevitably from shore, you hold on to death tightly, like a rope that will transport you and you swing on it, hoping only to land away from you are.”
She describes being raped by Harvey in a similar fashion, her prose evocative yet tightly written, and allows the reader to fill in the blanks. Sebold never resorts to hand-wringing or drippy narrative, which is all the more striking when one considers that she writes from her own experience as a rape survivor.
Sebold manages to fashion a very dark subject into a light story; she captures the detached spirit-sense very well. In fact, the over-riding atmosphere of the story is reminiscent of a person’s dissociative state.
It is interesting to note that Sebold bristles at the notion that “The Lovely Bones is “working out” her rape…. In an interview, she says, “First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you’re a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something ‘therapeutic’ – oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you!”
She continues, “OK, there aren’t that many women who come out and say they’ve been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you’re a rape victim, they decide that’s all you are.” (Viner)
On the one hand, the novel does seem to be an exorcism to a degree. The further along I read, the more convinced I was that the author had had a traumatic experience because of Susie’s detachment; Sebold captured the tone perfectly. On the other hand, Susie was supposed to be detached; she was dead.
Also interesting is the concept of a personal heaven Sebold portrays in the novel. The concept itself invites the reader to speculate on her own heaven, but Susie’s heaven seems vague, perhaps because she doesn’t know what she wants. She does seem to feel some responsibility for the world she left behind, as shown in her reflection of the time she’d held the bottle in which her father was building a ship: “And I would wait for him, recognizing the tension of that moment when the world in the bottle depended, solely, on me.”
This rings the chime of “victim’s guilt,” that shame that’s embedded in abuse survivors. That bell tolls in the like-minded reader, binding her to Susie—and perhaps to Sebold as well.
In terms of plot structure, the novel had some difficult moments for me. I was unable to suspend disbelief when Susie possessed Ruth’s body and Ray immediately knew it was her. How could he have known her? They’d only barely started exploring each other when Susie was murdered.
Furthermore, it was disturbing to witness a victim perpetrate what constituted rape on another female, with or without Ruth’s implied consent. Throughout the novel Susie narrates sensations she feels in others’ bodies, and to an extent this is acceptable.
When, for example, she tells of feeling the kisses her mother feels on her neck from the detective, the reader understands that this is her mother, that the lost child would of course seek to feel through her. She is “follow[ing] the physical to try to understand things that were impossible to comprehend” (273).
Susie detaches herself somewhat from the lovemaking, unlike what she does when Ruth and Ray had sex. Whereas her mother “had her own moonlit skin” (197) Ruth disappeared and Susie took over. She tells of feeling “every sensation…but …could not see Ruth” (300).
If there is any question about Ruth’s supposed acquiescence, it is dispelled when Susie tells of feeling Ruth struggling inside the body with her. “It was lust and rage yearning upward” (301). Ruth made way for Susie—after all, Susie had “willed” it, and apparently the reader is supposed to cheer for Susie getting that last one thing she wanted.
She “had been given a gift” (302) and flowers were being thrown at Ruth Connors feet. Afterward, Susie pinches herself and feels nothing, and the reader is taken back to when she was raped and murdered; the sense of dissociation is strong here, and while, yes, she is leaving Ruth’s body, the description is eerily similar to that of the rape.
I would also have liked to see more development of the problem of the mother’s abandonment. The only time we see consequences is when Buckley is antagonistic toward the mother when she returns home, and even that is barely addressed.
The fact is that the mother left her surviving children, communicating via the occasional cheery post-card, during a time when they needed her and no one really holds her accountable.
In spite of these troubling issues, Sebold’s story is engaging and compulsively readable and her personal history adds to its poignancy. Nevertheless, I am baffled at the critical acclaim this story received. Is it because Susie emerged as a triumphant survivor and was able to move on?
It’s disquieting that no one mentions how Susie mirrors her own abuse, and no reviewer seems to be bothered by the rather lame reunion of the mother with the remaining family. I found no mention anywhere of either of these issues, only praise for the story. This in itself feels dissociative and unreal, like I see a dragon in the living room and everyone else is walking around it but pretending it’s not there.
Overall, the story doesn’t ring with the honesty that, say, Amy Hempel’s stories do. How can there be truth if the characters don’t fully reside within their own skins? Susie spends nearly the whole tale suspended above the other characters, and she has no real grasp of her “own” heaven.
Sebold denies the connection between the story and her own experience, yet the story itself points to it, simply by virtue of things not quite being worked out. So while the style and the lack of melodrama are both laudable, the story reads like an ill-conceived fantasy by a person who’s trying to make sense of her own trauma. And I wonder what it is about our collective narrative that we applaud Susie’s perpetuation of victimization. Is it okay because she was a victim herself? Is this the only way she could find her heaven? I wonder how Ruth feels about that.