“Sonder” — A Delightful Concept for Writers

sonder2

My son just exposed me to a new word, which now enchants me: sonder. According to the Dictionary of the Obscure, it is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

I have always intuited this idea, but never put it to words like this. We are in this life together, but living it uniquely. It is brutish to expect that others will live their lives as we do, to have the same values and purpose as we have. How could they? Their experiences of life are distinctive to them. We must embrace this concept of individual perspective, in life and in our writing.

This concept will now more consciously inform my writing. I make it my habit to know my characters inside and out, as complete creations, not as cookie-cutter personae who simply do what I need them to do on the page. With this concept in mind, I will be more aware of how life experiences can be diametrically different for each person involved, depending on their perceptions.

In grad school, I  wrote something that I thought incredibly profound, but which my roommates and friends found remarkably inane. I think, perhaps, it was my version of “sonder”: I think everyone in the world is exactly as I am, except those who are different, warped versions of the universal type, which is me.

Okay, not quite as profound now as it seemed then. But therein lies truth. I stand by it.

 

Advertisements

Describe, Rather Than Show: We all do it

Show

A couple of months ago, as she was editing the first draft of her latest novel, author Louise Penny wrote:

In the meantime, am writing away. had to severely re-write a chapter when I realized it was all done in retrospect – described – rather than seeing it unfold. Am being vague, I know. Don’t want to give too many details. But it sometimes happens, when I have, let’s say Gamache and Beauvoir analyzing something that happened, instead of showing it happening to them. Show don’t tell. Well I made that mistake and today had to un-make it. D’oh.

See, even successful published authors must rethink their writing.

“Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard the phrase (commandment), but what does it mean?

It means to let the reader in on the action. Rather than having them read about an event in a newspaper account–“Plane Lands on One Wheel, Passengers Throw Bodies To Opposite Side to Balance Plane: A Wild West jet landed on one wheel today, safely, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain and the cooperation of the passengers”–let them be inside the plane with the passengers as the captain commands over the loudspeaker, “People, we have a situation here. Only one landing gear wheel has extended and locked. We must land, we can land, but we all have to work together to make this happen. I need everyone, and I mean everyone, to move to the left side of the plane. Men, women, and children … move. Find any empty seat, or sit on the seat of someone already in place, but get to the left side of the plane. Do it now. We have one minute til touchdown! Get over and sit and hold on, because it’s gonna get bumpy!”

Which of these renderings of the account gets your blood pumping faster, and your mind engaged in a whirlwind of thoughts? Was it the newspaper reporting of the account, or was it the in-the-moment account? I suspect it was the latter, even if you simply couldn’t accept that a captain would ask his passengers to do such a thing. You were engaged, and that means the writing was successful.

That is the difference between telling (reporting) and showing (putting the reader in the moment).

Review your writing. Do you engage your readers in the action? If not, perhaps you should try to rewrite, and Show, don’t Tell.

show2

 

Let Your Characters Speak

In my previous post, I explained that many new writers don’t know how to let their characters develop into full-blown beings. I suggested that allowing the characters to speak is an excellent way to finding out who your characters are. Here is an exercise I use with my writing clients.

What a character doesn’t say can be just as important as what the character does say. In the conversation, if a mother feels she is being manipulated by her teenage daughter, she doesn’t have to call the daughter on it, which is what many new writers would have their characters do. Instead, once she recognizes what’s going on, she might stop talking. Not say a single word. What happens then with the daughter? She can’t ask outright if she’s been discovered as a manipulator, and she won’t know whether to keep on the original track. Suddenly, her wheels are spinning in the mud. And her mother hasn’t had to say a thing. There is immediate tension there.

In the interview process, most of my students initially use the exercise to introduce their characters, almost a word-for-word recitation of their character descriptions and bios (if they’d bothered to create those before they began writing). The interviewer is simply a springboard for revealing character. Most writers are surprised when I “bleed red ink” all over their first drafts. But I explain that this hasn’t been an interview at all, in most cases, since the interviewer is simply feeding the character openings for plugging in information.

For example, here’s a common kind of exchange:

  • Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about what makes you tick?
  • Character: Well, when my parents died in a car accident when I was little, I vowed to do something with my life that would make them proud of me. That’s why I’ve started this project where we teach art to special-needs children. It’s our belief that these children need an outlet for their creativity, a way to express themselves. I can tell you stories about some of the students…..(and off the character goes, outlining her successes).

For the reader, this provides information, but there’s no drama, no tension…no interest. It’s like reading a newspaper article about something that happened. They get hearsay, but have no experience of the event.

How much more powerful would it be if the interview went like this:

  • Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about what makes you tick?
  • Character: Tick? That’s an odd question.
  • [I]: Is it? Isn’t there something that drives your life? Makes you who you are?
  • [C]: What do you mean?
  • [I]: Well, you’re the first twenty-five-year-old woman I’ve ever met who set up a school of art for special-needs children, working with no funds. What made you choose that as a life goal?
  • [C]: I guess it started when my parents died in an accident when I was little. I decided then to do something with my life to make them proud of me. That’s–
  • [I]: How old were you when they died?
  • [C] (taken aback a bit by the interruption): Five and a half.
  • [I]: That’s awfully young. And you knew then that you wanted your life’s work to make them proud?
  • [C]: Well, not then, of course. As you say, I was young. As I got older, I realized it was important to me.
  • [I]: Why?
  • [C]: Why? Well, doesn’t every child want their parents to be proud of them?
  • [I] (ignoring the question): Do you remember your parents?
  • [C] (pausing): Yes. Of course. Well, as well as a five-year-old can remember parents after twenty years.
  • [I]: Can you still see their faces?
  • [C]: Not really, no. I mean, I have photographs, of course. But my own memories, no. They’re more just impressions, rather than memories.
  • [I]: What impressions?
  • [C]: I remember my dad’s smile.
  • [I]: Did he smile a lot?
  • [C]: No. In fact, it was rare to see it.
  • [I]: Do you remember a particular time when he did smile?
  • [C]: Clearly. I’d painted a picture for him. It was probably horrible, as only finger-paintings can be, but it was my version of Rapunzel, with the girl’s long hair falling out of a castle window.
  • [I]: But your father liked it?
  • [C]: Yes. (She pauses.) I remember that he pulled me against his chest as he held the picture out at arm’s length to examine it, and then he kissed my cheek and smiled. If he said anything, I don’t recall. But I still see that smile.
  • [I]: In your mind’s eye?
  • [C]: Yes. And, oddly enough, every time  a parent picks up their child at the center and smiles at what they’ve drawn that day.
  • [I]: So, the therapy isn’t just for the children, is it?
  • [C]: You know, I’d never thought of it that way.

This is pretty much the same information given to the reader in both instances, but how much better do you know the character in the second example? You’ve experienced the information, not just had it handed over to you in a neat little package. Of course, the interview could have gone in several other directions, but that’s the risk and the possibility when you, as the author, allow the characters to respond truthfully to the questions asked, especially when the questions are probing, and not just lob balls to be hit out of the park.

One of my constant refrains to my writing students is this: give your characters room to breathe.

Leonard Wibberley

I’ve just rediscovered an author that I had read in my childhood, and who I now will read with greater enjoyment, I’m sure, as an adult. His name is Leonard Wibberley, and he is the author of the Mouse That Roared series of books, as well as more than a hundred other books of fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t know why, but I had a sudden hankering to read The Mouse That Roared, and so looked up Wibberley on Amazon. I had no idea he’d written so prolifically, nor about so many different subjects. Currently on my reading list are the Mouse books, about the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a small island nation that takes on the superpowers of the world, thinking that if they are defeated, the victors will take care of them, saving them from bankruptcy and ruin. As fate would have it, however, the Duchy continues to vanquish their opponents, and are stuck trying to figure out what to do next. I remember the humor of the books, and I suspect I’ll get more of the irony reading them now.

Also on my to-read list are several of his other books, among them The Quest for Excalibur, The Testament of Theophilus, The Trouble with The Irish (or the English, Depending on Your Point of View), and Ah, Julian! A Memory of Julian Brodetsky.

Wibberley also wrote numerous novels for juveniles, which I will also read, since that’s one genre in which I’m plan to write. Among my favorite “juvenile fiction” novels are April Morning, Johnny Tremain, and the Wrinkle in Time books (or anything by Madeleine L’Engle), and anything by Anthony Horowitz.

Given all the academic books I’ve been editing lately (see the Editing tab of my website: http://www.annaubrey.com), I am eagerly anticipating the time to reread many of these books, and find new ones along the way.

If you have some favorite juvenile fiction books, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Brave New Words Coming Soon

According to National Geographic magazine, there might soon be some words added to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, languages are living entities and should change over time. It appears that the time has arrived, again.

According to NatGeo, “Wide, long use is key….Fresh words or meanings are added to a database and their usage is tracked for up to ten years. If [the word] ‘cankle,’ for instance, pops up often enough [in books, magazines, newspapers, and various online sources], it may be one of the 4,000 words–out of 6,000 considered–that make the cut each year. Then it will be here to stay.”

Among the words being considered are:

beer jacket: the supposed insulating effect created by being drunk

cankle: thick ankle

earworm: a catchy tune that gets stuck in your head

face palm: an expression of exasperation or disbelief (palm goes to face)

guy liner: eyeliner for men

wibble: the trembling of the lower lip just shy from actual crying

xenolexica: a state of grave confusion when faced with unusual words

As a wordsmith, I particularly enjoy the last one! As a writer who tries to stay current, I realize that I need to keep tabs on today’s living language. It’s getting harder and harder, as new technology forces new words into our living lexicon. But I try to stay relevant. And now, I shall dip.

The Power of Words

Today, there are so many people–politicians, actors, athletes, university presidents, etc.–who stand before their audiences and pontificate on whatever subject is near and dear to them. So many times, my eyes just glaze over as I try to listen, generally because they beat an idea to death, and use too many words to do it. It’s not simply a matter of telling your audience what you’re going to say, saying it, and then telling them what you said. That is painful enough, but they also have to repeat the ideas from several view points, just in case you missed it the first time.

Then I read some of the great speeches of the past. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 comes to mind, an excerpt of which I quote:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Are we not living today this very conflict of which Washington spoke? And how succinct was his warning. What politician or pundit today could be so powerful, so forceful, in so few words?

And then we have Abraham Lincoln, who wrote almost in sound bites, his wisdom thus easily recalled, as in the Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Or Mohandas Gandhi, speaking of Christianity:

“A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”

Who do you know today who speaks with such clarity and simplicity?

I have been editing two books recently, one a work of fiction and the other of non-fiction. Worlds apart in subject and in writing style. The fiction book would be better as a screenplay, since the novelist writes dialogue better than he writes narrative. But both are blessedly brief. He doesn’t overwrite (except when he uses a thesaurus instead of his own vocabulary, which then brings the author into the story…which is a major blunder).

The non-fiction writer is writing a theology book, and with each sentence was attempting to address every possible argument that sentence. It was extremely draining to try to read. I understood his reasons, but was able to convince him that his sentences were too dense, that if he ever hopes to have the tome read completely, he had to lighten the load of every sentence. Taking my advice, he edited and pared, and the result has been striking. His insights leap off of the page now, freed from the burden of unnecessary words.

As you write, read. Read literature and famous speeches, and notice how the authors have made their language work for them. As Mark Twain said, write as though you must pay for the words you use. A typical Twain thought, carved to the bone and yet full-figured:

“Anger is an acid that can to more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

Plot Device

There is a fun film called “Plot Device,” which every new writer, and any writer feeling a sense of stagnation or disinterest, should watch. Watch, and then play this game that I thought of as I watched the film.

Here’s the short film, “Plot Device.” Watch and enjoy.

Now, how do we apply this to writing? Too often, I encounter writers who know where they want their stories to go, but must force the stories along that pre-determined path, insisting on following the story arc even when the characters and developing storyline resist.

To these writers, I say, step back and be prepare to be surprised. As in the film, just see where pushing the Plot Device button might take you. You could be pleasantly surprised. Granted, you could be horrified, as the hero is from time to time in the film, but, like him, you still have the option of hitting the button again and taking a different tack.

Be willing to try something new, something unexpected, in your writing. Without some surprises, you writing will be humdrum and predictable. In other words, your stories will fail.

So, you’re writing a love story, between a young man and a young woman. You want them to meet, encounter some obstacles, and eventually end up together. Great. But the story’s been done. It’s going to take something special to keep your readers interested. Otherwise, yawn. Closing the book.

Let’s hit the Plot Device button. Wait a minute, she isn’t young after all! She’s actually several hundred years old, and uses a serum to keep herself youthful and appealing. What will our hero do now? Will he run from her, frightened of what he doesn’t understand, or will he try to understand her, and grow to love her more, finally devoting himself to her in marriage?

Or, push the Plot Device button again, and he is actually a serial husband, marrying women in different cities around the nation, or the world. The reader finds out, but does the wife? If she does, how does she react? How will you keep the reader interested in this multi-wedder while also maintaining our interest in and compassion for the wife, or wives?

Hit Plot Device again. The lovers have just met, but are doomed to die before they can spend their life together. Oops, nope, that was “Titanic.”

Hit Plot Device again. Just as they are about to be married, the wife falls down a mine shaft (during a picnic) and he dies trying to save her. But she falls in love with one of the rescue workers, so the reader doesn’t feel too bad. Okay, so that’s for a romance novel, where we keep everybody happy.

But it’s as easy as that. If your story isn’t flowing as freely as it should, try using your own Plot Device button, shaking things up, rattling your characters, and getting your creative juices flowing.

Push the Plot Device button. Uh-oh, hadn’t you killed that spider in the cupboard earlier this morning?….