Sunday, February 9, 2014

Singing the Bowker Blues


My latest efforts to reclaim my writing and publishing life have included setting up a new imprint with better bookkeeping. I'm planning to open separate accounts, and so forth. However, I still have two books in print under my old imprints, and I had worked with another writer on a third book that she had authored.

I went to notify Bowker that I would not be publishing any more titles under one of these old labels, and to make some requests pertaining to this other writer, with whom I was no longer working. However, I  immediately noticed that no "distributor" was listed for my own book, Teaching the Dog to Think. This seemed to me very odd to me, since that book has been out in paperback and electronically via Createspace and Amazon since the end of 2011, and the book is also available on Barnes and Noble's website, and through other online outlets (though like many Indie books the book is not available through bookstores except by special order).

Thinking that there had been a mistake, I thought I would contact Bowker to see what they would say about why Amazon or Createspace wasn't listed as my distributor. 

Interestingly, the answer came, not from Erica Ferris, with whom I had been corresponding at Bowker, but from somebody named Rhonda McKendrick, Sr. Analyst, Publishers Authority Database, ProQuest, 630 Central Avenue, New Providence, NJ  07974. This person said, in her email, and I quote:
Books In Print lists distributors, but not wholesalers (example: Apple, Kindle, Amazon, Ingram and Baker And Taylor).  Many wholesalers may offer some or all of a publisher's products for sale at any given time, but generally do not act for the publisher.

Erica Ferris at Bowker had previously told me: "Once the title has been registered in our [ISBN] system the information goes to libraries, retailers, and schools explaining to the customer information about your title."

Yes, explaining everything, apparently, except where to BUY it.  

Look, here's the thing: If my book, Teaching the Dog to Think is NOT a Book in Print, then what IS a book in print these days? 

You know this legacy publisher nonsense is really starting to frost my tea. Most book sales are made online these days, as anybody knows who reads. And if sales made via Apple, Kindle and Amazon are considered "wholesaler" sales, and are NOT listed on our ISBN listings, then how is an ISBN any kind of reference? You can look up the ISBN number, and the book presumably, but you can't see how to buy the book if you are a library, or a school, or a bookstore. 

And presumably any sales are not accounted for, on any of the sales databases, a phenomenon I have previously noted on my Twitter feed. I have made many sales on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and rarely does one ever show up on BookScan. We need good data, and we aren't getting it.     

It's like one relatively small remaining part of the legacy publishing business is telling all of the rest of us--everyone from Apple and Amazon, to digital publishers, to little Indies like me--that we don't exist, just because they say we don't. 

And now, they appear to be consolidating their control under this ProQuest name. Google appears to be dealing with these folks via its own book scanning business. I'm a big fan of Google because they have been so wonderful providing these free blogging platforms, and keeping my poems up online when they have been under attack by the hackers. (Hearts and flowers to Google!)  I'm hoping I can prevail upon the Google people to use their influence with ProQuest to help book publishing to enter the new digital age.

Companies like Bowker and Book Scan need to serve, not just a few remaining old guard publishers, but the whole publishing community, including people like me.

Update as of March 28, 2014: Sorry folks, nothing new to report. Obviously all of this is a matter of intense negotiation. I'll let you know if I hear anything new on this subject. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Writing Now: Shielding the Places Where We Live and Work


As promised, this blog post will be about shielding the spaces where we live and work using Shielding Paint. Why, one might ask, should we writers be worried about something as mundane as shielding for our home offices?

The first thing is obviously to avoid stunning--I discussed this in my last two posts. Shielding paints dilute any RF or EMF spectrum stun shots coming into your work spaces.

Shields are also important for safeguarding our work. You may not know this, but surveillance is a real issue for the contemporary writer. You don't want your work or ideas stolen before you've even finished writing them, right? And surveillance bugs are now widely available to your competition. Obviously, you aren't going to be able to ward off all surveillance. If somebody really wants to know what you're working on, they are probably going to find out. However, let's not make it easy for them. That's like leaving the house unlocked when you go out the door. And most surveillance bugs transmit on RF frequencies that are blocked by shielding paints. You can also purchase a sensitive RF meter to "sniff out" any bugs that might have been installed in your office. However, these devices are extremely sensitive and hard to use if you haven't already shielded out all of the stray RF and EMF signals coming in from outside your home, such as from radio stations and cell towers. In short, you can't really protect yourself without shielding your office.

Applying Shielding Paint: This paint may look familiar to you, once you start using it. Night clubs have long been painting their walls with shielding paint in order to keep electrical equipment guarded from static and feedback created by stray signals. However, it's a little alarming once you start painting this stuff on your walls. It's this black tarry, carbon sort of stuff, and now that my walls are painted my bedroom/office space looks like it needs a dance floor and a mirror ball. Fortunately, things are dry, and I can now begin painting everything over with regular latex paint in a more normal color. It will probably take two or three coats to cover over the black stuff. 

Issues I have encountered using Shielding Paints:

Sludgy Paint: When I first got the paint, it hadn't been properly mixed, and so I had to spend a long time stirring it. The good news is that ten minutes of steady stirring with an ordinary paint stick managed to mix the paint into a nice smooth consistency. 

Spills: I managed to spill over a small can of paint on my off-white carpet, and I just can't get the stains up. This is latex paint, meaning that it has very mild odors and should clean up well. However, black paint is black paint. If you want to protect your floors while painting, you are going to have to do a lot better than I did at protecting the floors. In the future I would invest in some heavy gauge plastic.

Falls: Probably my biggest trauma was the fall I took yesterday off a stool I was standing on. Okay, I was being really stupid. I was standing on an unsteady stool, reaching up high to paint. And this is not a terribly smart thing to do when the Whole Reason you are painting is because people are sending Stun Shots at you. I'm pretty sure I got hit by one, and the next moment I was on my back on the floor with my tail bone aching and a smashed finger. Fortunately, I have a nice deep pile carpet (with black spots on it), and except for a few bruises I was not seriously hurt. Still, I'm going to be employing a nice steady ladder from now on, and limiting my climbing as much as possible. 

Grounding: Okay, this is the one everyone hates the most in using shielding paint: The shield doesn't work unless you ground it. However, keep in mind, you are only grounding against static electricity buildup, and not using live electrical wires. So this is a safe sort of electrical grounding to do, and usually you can just do it yourself. If you have any questions, you can always call in your local electrician to check your work, and to make sure your ground is working. 

The two ways to ground inside the home are to: Hook the grounding wires to a metal water pipe under the sink (plumbing supply companies sell mounts for this); or, ground to a grounding wire in a standard three prong home wall socket. This sounds harder than it is. You can purchase the grounding kit for your paint shield at the time you purchase your paint. They come with instructions. And several companies make grounding plugs, to plug into, that you can plug into an ordinary wall socket. (Just make sure you attach your grounding wire to the Ground Prong of the plug, and Not to a Live Wire Prong (both active prongs should be blocked by a good grounding plug).

Feb. 9, 2014: One additional note--The magnetic fields cast by electrical appliances, electrical wiring, and electrical field fluctuations can be very annoying when felt by the human body. The desire is to eliminate all magnetic fields when you are trying to clean up EMF pollution. However, magnetic fields can also be extremely helpful in warding off EMF stun attacks, RF, microwave shots, and so forth. So you don't want to get rid of them entirely. In fact, you may want to increase the magnetic fields around your house.

The way to think about magnetic fields is this. You don't want them right next to where you are sitting because they feel terrible, and may have health effects. But you DO want them between you and your doors and windows, and around the perimeter of your house.

So, to sum up, magnetic fields close, bad; magnetic fields distant, good.

I'm going to open comments, in case readers have ideas about other ways to guard our work and life spaces. Please leave comments!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Writing Now: Being Under Attack


I haven't posted in awhile because it has taken months to begin to reclaiming my life from some thugs who've been attacking me. You know, there's a lot involved, in reclaiming one's life, once you've been "targeted" as a writer. I will be covering some of the ins and outs of being a "Writer Now" in the coming weeks. I'm hoping to discuss everything from how to sweep for surveillance bugs to inheritance concerns for writers working online, something I'm just beginning to get a handle on myself.

Today, though, I want to talk about the thing that has really derailed me over the past few months, the thing that has made being under attack nearly unbearable. That thing is Stun Attacks. It sounds like something out of a bad Sci Fi movie, doesn't it? But it's real. And it's here to stay. And any writer who has any sort of profile online, or who is writing anything even slightly controversial, is going to meet with this threat sooner or later, as I have learned to my own mortification.

As much as I wish it would just go away, it isn't going away--at least not for me.

And so, I think it's time we all began discussing it. So let's start:

First of all, what is a "Stun Attack"?

A Stun Attack is, generally speaking, any kind of invisible attack--one you can't see--that falls into the EMF or Radio Frequency spectrum. I have two really good books that I bought from Amazon which explain the forces involved. They range from the low frequency electrical fields emitted by standard power lines up through radio, television and cell phone frequency emissions, which fall into mid-range RF, and up through the higher frequency forces like infrared and microwaves. If you want to read more about this subject, the two books I'm using are Zapped by Ann Louise Gittelman (2011) and Electromagnetic Fields by B. Blake Levitt (2007). There are other excellent books out there as well, most of which can be located via the "Also Boughts" on Amazon.

The thing that writers, all writers, need to understand is this: Somewhere along the way, hackers and gamers, and probably some rogue military contractor types, learned how to take these forces and shoot them at each other, using their cell phones and other software devices. This is particularly annoying while driving, because when one of these forces hits you, it creates a sensation of being stunned. Obviously, not a safe thing to encounter on icy New England roads in the winter. Or anywhere for that matter. Or, of course, while trying to write.

But, sadly, I have also been attacked in my own home by electrical pulses and by these sharp, nasty microwave hits. Since I'm a writer, the thugs particularly enjoy striking me in the wrists. Those hits send a pretty clear message: Stop writing, witch! Yes, the message is pretty clear when they are attacking you, even though you can't see them.

So, what is one to do? We writers can't go stumbling around the whole day, half stunned and rubbing our wrists.

Well, the short answer is Diagnosis and Shielding. We have to decipher what we are being hit with, and then shield ourselves from these attacks, in order to be able to live and work.

My work over the past several months has been about reclaiming my life from these thugs, and the very first thing I've had to do is to buy some meters so that I could see exactly what was hitting me. To detect basic EMF stun shots, I've been very happy with the meter pictured above: This is an inexpensive hand-held milliGauss meter that I bought from Amazon, and it clearly shows when stun shots are being sent my way, with a zip of light, ending in red for shots over 20 mG.

I have also been using something called a TriField Meter, Model 100 XE, which shows high magnetic fields in my home, as well as electrical currents. (More on magnetic fields in my next post--Magnetic fields are not all bad, and can actually help shield you.) This meter also claims to pick up radio frequencies and microwaves. However, the microwaves never seem to register on meters, and radio frequencies you can pick up just on a standard AM/FM radio. You tune up and down the dial between stations in order to hear any RF being sent in your direction, which will be distinguished by a loud buzzing noise.

So, once you have figured out what's coming at you, then what?

The most effective thing that I've learned to do is to turn off my iPhone and any other devices. It took me awhile to figure out that the hackers and stunners were using my devices to target me. Simply turning off my phone has made a world of difference. I am basically back to using a plug in wall phone in the house, and I only keep my cell phone with me for use when I'm headed out of the house. And until things get back to normal, I'm going to keep my cell phone turned off unless I'm actually using it.

However, sadly, these measures have not stopped the stunning altogether. I still regularly find myself under attack. So my next line of defense has been shielding. There are a number of companies that offer shielding products, everything from RF shielding paints to metallic clothing that can help repel microwave shots.

Interestingly, ski shops also sell a variety of basic EMF  epelling hats and headgear. The snowboarders apparently have been stunning each other for awhile, out on the slopes, and so stores like REI are full of hats that have a little guy on them with electrical jolts coming out of his head.

If you are a writer, and if you have been staggering around feeling stunned, welcome to the modern era of writing. Time to get yourself one of these hats! And time for some shielding paint for your office!

More on that, in my next installment.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Art of Flashing Forward


Or, How Alice Munro Pulls Off Those Long Leaps Through Time


An interesting question came up in one of my workshops last spring, from a fiction writer. The question was about how to pull off jumps forward in time. "How do you do it?" this student asked. "Is there a trick?"

This is actually a common question, and one that usually comes from someone in my workshop who is writing from "too close" a perspective. It is certainly natural to want to do that, to be right there, up close with your characters. Writers love that feel of "immediacy." The extreme version of this is to place your prose in the present tense, which a lot of newer writers seem to want to do these days. The problem with this, though, is that it makes the act of moving through time feel very awkward and jarring. If you are firmly rooted in a single moment, it's harder to shift to another time period.

While there's no single "trick" to making leaps forward in time, the best thing you can do is to "back off" a little in terms of your temporal distance as narrator. Gaining some retrospective distance on your material makes moving around through time much easier. In fact, if you are going to be making a lot of long leaps through time, as Alice Munro often does in her stories, you will want to place your narrator (or the teller of your story) as far forward in time as possible, so that the narrator is looking well back upon events of the story.

That way, even if you leap forward ten or more years with your characters, they will still seem to be standing "in the past" as far as your narrative-perspective is concerned. This will make your leaps forward seem more natural, and more like ordinary human memory--where you might remember different events from various time periods in the past all in one thought.

Munro, you will notice, often uses a deep retrospective viewpoint to pull off her dramatic leaps forward through time, often called "flashing forward."

For great examples of such "flash forwards," check out Alice Munro's story collections. My personal favorites are Open Secrets and The Beggar Maid.

A Brief Tribute to Alice Munro


This week, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Price in Literature, a recognition that thrilled a lot of us women writers. Munro is one of the few working writers today who has really been able to capture the complexity of women's lives, our struggles for independence from our families and the orbits of men, the different stages that we go through in our lives (daughter, mother, lover, worker), and the many ways that others regard us as we go, and the demands they make upon us. Munro has explored how we often become our own worst enemies, has charted the lusts and rages that consume and distort us, and, like no one else, has captured the bewildering flow of time which has a way of leaving us dismissed and marginalized beyond a certain age, our energies dissipated by obligation, our youth and beauty spent, yet holding in our hands the cherished and priceless gifts of perspective, memory, and understanding. Nobody else has quite managed to show women as they are the way Alice Munro has. There is such respect and curiosity, and fearlessness, in her portraits of women, assets that are visible from her earliest work, which by the way she first published when she was nearly forty. I hope that Munro serves as a bracing reminder to any writer--man or woman--who hopes to capture women characters in prose, not to succumb to the lazy stereotyping of women so often seen in fiction and memoir, but rather to treat women as full human beings, the way Alice Munro has done. --Kim  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Memory in Fiction and Memoir--"Peeling the Onion"



Something I see in manuscripts I edit (and in my own writing) is how layered and difficult the issue of memory often is. Unpacking a memory, especially a childhood memory or the recollection of a traumatic event, is a bit like peeling an onion. There is, of course, the original memory you hold in your mind, which can often be spotty and full of holes. And then there are the multiple layers of interpretation that have been stacked upon that original memory over the years. The things that have been forgotten, the various embellishments. 

As writers we need to acknowledge the imperfections in our own memories, because a claim to perfect memory simply isn't going to be credible for the reader. Also, our minds tend naturally to block out difficult or traumatic events. Here's an example of a writer sorting through the layers of a traumatic childhood memory. This is from Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, where Karr is talking about being farmed out to a neighbor family when her mother "was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous":

I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place--no matter how hard I squint--refuse to be conjured.

It is interesting to note how sensual this memory is. It was famously observed by Proust how the senses can bring back to us, unbidden, memories we might otherwise not be able to recall. In Swann's Way, Proust samples tea and a madeleine (sponge cake), and his whole boyhood town of Combray is suddenly recovered by his mind:

As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of my madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

As writers, we can look for these sensual "Proustian triggers" in our own work in order to summon the past into the present, such as with familiar smells, foods, places, and so forth. The important thing is to show the process of remembering. 

Once our original, spotty memory is unpacked, though, that is only the beginning, the core of the onion. Next there is the question of How something has been remembered. Often the way things are recalled can be influenced by current motivations, or by family myths and stories. Here's an example of this phenomenon from Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir, Fierce Attachments. In this example, Gornick's mother is telling the story of how she was fondled by her Uncle Sol, a soldier who had returned from the first World War to live with her family, when she was sixteen. 

He didn't say a word to me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me to his bed. He laid us both down on the bed, and he held me in his arms, and he began to stroke my body. Then he lifted my nightgown and he began to stroke my thigh. Suddenly he pushed me away from him and said, "Go back to your bed." I got up and went back to my bed. He never spoke one word about what happened that night, and I didn't either. (p. 8)

Each time Gornick's mother tells the story to Gornick, "it is both the same and different because each time I'm older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn't ask the last time around." Gornick says, "The first time . . . I was twenty-two and I listened silently: rapt and terrified." (p. 7) The second time she heard the story, Gornick says, she was thirty:

She repeated it nearly word for word as we were walking up Lexington Avenue . . . When she came to the end I said to her, "And you didn't say anything to him, throughout the whole time" . . . "It just seems odd not to have uttered a sound, not to have indicated your fears at all." (p. 8-9)

The third time she hears the story, Gornick is nearly forty. She says, "Ma, did it ever occur to you to ask yourself why you remained silent when Sol made his move?" Gornick's mother angrily retorts, "Are you trying to say that I liked it?" (p. 9)

Whether or not Gornick's mother liked being fondled by Uncle Sol, this example shows how malleable and subject to reinterpretation memories are, especially family stories and myths. The way we recall things can be greatly influenced by the stage of life we are going through. So, for example, a wedding might be recalled one way by a romantic young teenager, and another way by an adult woman about to enter into her own marriage.

Finally, there is the outer layer of the onion: It is often necessary in our writing to leave room in the present for those who are still standing around to account for what has happened in the past. In Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, for instance, the narrator has retold the story of his troubled brother's death (in a fight) when they were both teenagers. Maclean and his father both recall in the book what a beautiful and skilled fisherman the dead brother was, but we don't hear them discussing the brother's death until near the end of the book, and something is still missing. At last they talk about the brother's untimely death, and their discussion includes this passage:

Once my father came back with another question. "Do you think I could have helped him?" he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. "Do you think I could have helped him?" I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" . . . "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."

I guess the thing to take from this lovely passage is that the final accounting we seek of our memories often defies us. Still, it is important to ask these sorts of questions, and--when we are writing about the past--for us to show the struggle we go through to make sense of what has happened, even if--in the end--we are unsuccessful at doing so.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Point of View--Ironic Tone in Third Person



I wanted to talk this morning about point of view, and specifically about writing in an ironic or satiric tone of voice in the third person. This is an issue that has plagued some of the strongest writers in my workshops, and often surfaces during our point of view exercise, where I ask everyone to switch between writing in first person and writing in third person. If you usually write in first person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs of your work in the third person. If you usually write in third person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs in the first person. 


I often assign this exercise because the writers in my workshops are frequently writing rather autobiographical fiction, and I find that making them switch viewpoints can help establish a wider stance and "sense of perspective" upon the world they are creating. However, the more ironic, first person writers always have trouble with this exercise, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss why that is, and to get out a few examples of writers who have successfully used an ironic or "snarky" tone of voice. 


We are all used to the ironic or self-deprecating first person voice. To take a famous example, here's a snippet from the opening of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 
Now we should be able to perform our "exercise" on this passage, right? Just convert from first person to third person. But watch what happens when we do: 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but [I don't feel like going into it][or][he wouldn't want us going into it] if you want to know the truth. 
The trouble with this paragraph is that when you move from first to third person, you move from a narrator who is the same as the character, to a third person off-screen narrator who is not the same person as the character, and who now in fact sounds like he's "making fun" of the character.  

This can actually be a problem any time you write a bit ironically in the third person. The reader may begin to feel as if the narrator is beating up unfairly on the characters. The reader may also begin to question, who is this off-screen persona/voice who has all of these strong opinions? 


With a light touch, this sense of an opinionated off-stage voice may be quite pleasurable. However, handled badly (as in my example above), such a voice can leave the reader perplexed and struggling. 

Let's look at a couple of examples where writers have successfully used an ironic or snarky tone of voice in the third person:


Our first example is from the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
And so we go on to follow this mannered courtship drama. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, a witty, ironic tone is fully in evidence--so it can be done in the third person. Next, while Mrs. Bennet's character will certainly come in for some rather unkind examination during the course of the novel, she is largely allowed enough rope to hang herself, and Austen generally takes a light and sympathetic tone with Mrs. B, and with all of her characters, and you never feel as if she's flogging anyone as in my example above. 

I think this point of sympathy is an important one. Narrators need generally to be sympathetic with their characters, though not in the sense of believing everything they say, but rather in the sense of being searching and curious about their situation. The narrator needs to find the difficulties of the characters worthy of serious, if playful, examination.

Here's another example, from an author who plays it closer to the line--This is a snippet from the opening of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which becomes a full-on social satire, and probably goes to the limit of how much fun you can make of characters without losing interest in them:
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid. Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.
Clearly there is a risk here of losing the reader--If Franzen does not step in and humanize these characters quickly (which, in fact, he does), we readers might start to say to ourselves, look, these characters are so pathetic, why should I care about them? So there is a delicate line we are treading here as writers. How much irony you think you can get away with must, in the end, be an intuitive decision as you write. And some of it is clearly a matter of taste. I personally love Franzen's writing, but I sometimes hear others complaining that his tone is "too much" for them. 


A couple more quick examples before I quit. Writers sometimes resort to the second person for an ironic or satiric tone of voice, and here's an example--A passage from the opening of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
The point about using second person is that it really writes like a subset of first person. You don't feel the presence of an ironic offscreen narrator as you do in third. Rather, for the reader, it is more like being asked to step into the shoes of the first person narrator. And the oddness of being in second person emphasizes the ironic tone and the strangeness of the situation. So second person can work well in this way. 


A final example, to show that in the third person it is important to distinguish between the narrator's ironic tone and character inflection, which is a very different thing. Sometimes the narrator can have a fairly neutral tone, but the character herself is being ironic. This is essentially a matter of distance: Are we up close with the character? Or farther out with the narrator and watching the character? You need to be clear about what distance you are working at in the third person. To illustrate, here's an example from the opening of Alice Munro's short story, "Royal Beatings" from her collection, The Beggar Maid, where Munro negotiates this relationship between narrator description and character attitude.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating. The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than her need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
Munro's narrator is reporting fairly neutrally, but the report is inflected with wonderful character attitude. 


I hope these examples help clarify this difficult issue. Happy writing everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dialogue--Big Issues Come Out Over Small Things



We have had interesting discussions in my workshops about the way big issues tend to come out over small things in fictional dialogue. I want to elaborate a bit more on this subject, because it comes up a lot. The example I use in my classes is of a fictional mother and son pulling up to a fast-food drive-through window. The mother thinks the son is gaining weight and she is concerned about his health. The son, being a hungry teenager, wants to order the super-sized meal. As I was saying in class, the mother would usually broach her "agenda" gingerly: "Oh, honey, you aren't really that hungry are you? Why don't you just get the regular size fries." And the son might respond: "Trust me, Mom. I really do want the super-size dinner. I'm hungry."

The point here is that the big issue--the issue of the son's weight and health--tends not to come out in a direct way. This is simply a matter of social convention and of the niceties with which our personal interactions are conducted. People have to live together, right? And so we try to gently nudge each other in the "right direction" (meaning the direction we want them to go), rather than waging a battle at every turn. 

We tend not to start with: "If you keep eating like that, son, you're going to turn into a fat pig." Or even, "Son, I'd like to talk to you if I could. You have been putting on weight, and from now on I think you should think about cutting back on your fast-food consumption." There's likely to be a lot more dancing around the issue before the fictional characters ever get to anything that direct.

The beauty of having a dialogue run in an oblique way like this, is that it also opens up a lot of other interesting possibilities besides the son's health and eating habits that may be brewing under the scene. Such as the amount of control the mother exercises over the son's life, and the son's need to break free and make his own decisions. 

As writers, we need to be alert to these various emerging agendas and to emotional nuances that may be revealed as our dialogue progresses. At first the mother might seem genuinely concerned about the son's health, but then gradually we begin to detect that this concern disguises an overriding controlling nature, and that's really what the son is reacting to. In fact, the son may be overeating to prove a point.

I think of dialogue as having both "global" and "local" weather. The local weather is governed by the immediate agendas of the characters. The son wants a larger meal because he's hungry; the mother wants him to get the smaller meal. However, there's also a "global weather" operating behind the scenes, the "jet stream" if you will. These are the bigger issues of character dynamics and nuance that we can detect developing moment to moment as we write.  

Here we may find larger motivations such as control issues. Or, profound emotional nuances that make our characters seem more human. In our example, we might begin to see the mother's well-meaning attempts to "help," and then her resignation and sadness that her son has rejected her efforts, and her defeat that he's probably turning out all wrong and it's all her fault. We might also see the son's burgeoning rebellion and anger, his need to be his own man, his silent, inflamed victory as he chews through the greasy fries, occasionally glaring at his mother.

Note here all of the different nuanced emotions coming out step by step as the scene runs and the global push and pull between these characters: The attempts to help, resignation, sadness, defeat, rebellion, anger, victory, etc. These feelings won't all come out at once, but must be doled out by the writer as the dialogue runs, slowly revealing to the reader all of the various emotional complexities at play, the true affections, the hard truths, the self-interests of each character. 

In fact, you can think of scene--and specifically of dialogue--as a string of such emotional "moments," strung together like pearls on a string, one cascading into the next. Sometimes these moments will come across naturally as the scene runs, but often we can underscore them by forcing nuances like these into character gestures and facial expressions within the scene. So, for example, at some point in the conversation the mother might sigh with resignation. Or the son might chomp his fries in victory. Use of gestures can be very helpful in pulling more emotional depth out of our scenes.

At the end of our class discussion, someone asked me, "So, do the big issues always have to come out in small ways? Can't they ever come out directly?" Good question. 

I certainly did not mean to suggest that there can never be direct discussion of a big issue between characters, or perhaps even a big fight. Sometimes the mother and son may need to have at each other: "You are turning into a fat pig" and "Get off my back, mom." They just don't usually start out that way.