Sunday, June 18, 2017

Personify This

I’ve been blogging about literary devices.  One that I haven’t talked about yet is personification.  Personification is where you as the author describe the environment with adjectives usually used to describe a person.  It suggests human-like motivation in inanimate objects. 
Personification can be used to make things around the character into active participants.  It can be employed for humorous purposes or to make the environment seem more dangerous or friendly or however than it otherwise might.  Using this technique, one can highlight the characters’ emotions through adjectives and word choice.  Using personification makes the world around your character come alive. 

For instance, you could write “A girl walked through scary trees, but she felt protected by her red hood.”  However, this stays flat on the page.  There’s nothing too interesting about that sentence.  Listen to the difference when I use personification: “The shadow of the tree reached its long fingers toward the little girl, who felt comforted in the protective arms of her crimson hood.”  Both objects have been personified in different ways.  The tree’s shadow can’t have fingers, and it certainly isn’t actively threatening her through any human-like intent any more than the inanimate hood is seeking to help her feel protected.  But her emotions are projected onto the world around her using the vivid imagery of personification.   

Like I said, personification can also be used for humor.  Here is a rough example: “My sister thinks I’m clumsy, but I say my house likes to throw me parties.  I was walking along, and the rug jumped up to trip me and send me flying. The lamp invited me to dance, and the coffee table hugged my legs.  I passed on those partners because the ground was much more insistent but not much of a dancer.  You know, the usual."  The narrator here is turning her clumsiness into a joke through self-deprecating humor.  

How can you use personification in your book?  Are there places your humor can be enhanced through personification?  Are there places where, rather than using straightforward language, you can use the figurative and descriptive language of personification?                                                                  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Following Patterns that Work

Defining Patterns:

Over the last several months, I've been featuring ways to making any work of writing more literary.  A few weeks ago, I talked about allusion.  This is where you refer to some great work of literature as part of your essay, poem, short story, etc.  The use of allusion draws on the meaning, feeling, and cultural connections of the original piece.  Many authors go beyond allusion and, in fact, use such pieces as a model for their own works.

The most basic use of the literary patterns has become almost nearly universal among adventure stories: the hero's journey. Several decades ago, Joseph Campbell wrote several books explaining the concept of the hero a journey makes from normal world into the underworld and back, one from which he emerges master of both worlds.  Almost every adventure yarn you've read or seen recently from Pixar to Star Wars [Lucas actually had Campbell on the original set to make sure he got it right] to Harry Potter to any given Avengers story to Greek mythology follow the pattern of the hero's journey.  One of Campbell's most famous books was Hero with a Thousand Faces, based on the concept that this template is so universal that it can be placed on almost every traditional saga throughout human history.  Many of the least successful stories fall flat because they don't follow this pattern.  To learn more about this pattern, feel free to follow the link above or use Google.  You will find no shortage of explanations.  Most modern adventure stories that stand the test of time follow this format.  If you watch some of the older Disney and other movies, those that were written before Campbell's theory became so ingrained in the culture, you'll see they often meander without clear purpose.  They lack a definite model to follow and narratively fall apart.

Discovering Patterns: 

If this model is too vague for you or does not fit your genre, you can look around at classical literature and pick something that will not get you sued for copyright infringement.  Many authors turn to fairy tales since so many are familiar.  Successful authors sidestep Disney (since so much of the original tales is glossed over) and look to the older variations of tales to come up with a story that is fresh, new, and vibrant.  Say you love "Cinderella" but have something new to say about it.  You can dissect the tale, pick out the essential beats of what makes the tale work like Campbell did with mythology, and then rewrite it as a western with Cinderella as a poor farm girl coming to the big city and meeting a rancher at a hoedown.  Or you can set Cinderella in a fantasy, where the mages of the world are rich, and everyone else is poor.  She finds a way to borrow magic in order to show up at a mages' ball to woo the emperor of the land.  Or you could set her in steampunk, in post-apocalyptic America, in outer space, in the land of the mermaids, or anywhere else because you know the reader, unlike her evil stepsisters, will instinctively recognize Cinderella in whatever guise.  The magical and universal appeal of the poor, abused girl attracting the rich man at a party will carry its familiar power no matter the setting.  "Cinderella" and other tales like it have stood the test of time, through the centuries.  It will continue to stand and be recreated long after modern writers have laid down their pens.

Applying Patterns:

If fairy tales don't work for you, look to Shakespeare or Jane Austen or any other major author whose work has proven sticking power and see what makes their tale tick.  Take it apart.  Figure out what events have to happen for the reader to recognize the tale.  What characters do you need for the reader to understand what you're doing and for you to draw on the power of the original tale?  If you don't want to base your entire story on their model, pick a section of their story.  Your story may start out as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Pride and Prejudice or something entirely new.  This may sound like the formula for fanfiction for some people.  But fanfiction mostly uses someone else's tale, someone else's characters, and simply poses the question, "What if?" It is largely derivative.  Using a model transforms the basic pattern of the narrative into something familiar but new, something traditional but also uniquely your own.

If you have already started to write a tale, look carefully at what you have written.  Is there a section of your narrative that you can transform and make more powerful through use of a model like this?  If you haven't started a tale, look at your favorite classical works of literature.  What can you reshape and revitalize in your own voice?  Have fun with it.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Choosing Point of View

Choosing your perspective:

I've been writing a series on how to make your writing more literary.  This particular step is critical no matter how literary you want your piece to be.  From personal experience, I can tell you that you want to choose a point of view from which to write your piece as early in the process as possible.  After I'd written two novels in one perspective, I was told by multiple people that it did not work and should be from another point of view.  Making the change with an entire manuscript is tedious and frustrating because it's one of those changes that can't be easily done with a "replace all" kind of option.  There are just too many I's and me's that have nothing to do with perspective.  It's, therefore, most critical that you make this decision quickly, preferably before one word appears on the page. 

Third-Person Omniscient:
The most archaic option--and one that very rarely works anymore--is 3rd-person omniscient.  This is where you write from outside the text and know everything about everyone.  If you read a book from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years or more, chances are, that is the perspective the author is using.  This is the kind where the narrator can tell you about what this character is thinking then what another is thinking then what another is thinking with the detachment of someone who knows but isn't part of the story.  This has become increasingly rare in modern books.  Readers aren't used to it and tend not to like it.  It's fairly impersonal and emotionally distant.  A lot of great works of classical literature are written using this perspective, but I wouldn't recommend trying it now.  You may have a hard time getting published.  

Third-Person Limited:
The most common perspective is third-personal limited.  Think Harry Potter.  Your narrator follows one character around and tells you what he or she thinks, feels, and experiences.  Most modern literature is in either this perspective or first-person because it's personal, humanizing, and easy to relate to. There are two major options here.  You can either stick with one perspective only--like the Harry Potter books--or you can do what writers call "head hopping" from perspective to perspective.  If you're using third person limited with just one character, you have to find a way to show anything that goes on outside his immediate experience from his point of view.  J.K. Rowling does this by showing what Voldemort or others are doing via visions and dreams.  Harry doesn't personally view these events, but he knows what is going on through supernatural means.  If your story is not supernatural, you could use something like news, social media, phone calls, rumors, or some other device to show what is going on outside his immediate experience.  
If you're going to use limited perspective but through multiple character's eyes, you'll solve the problem of the limited knowledge but create a host of other things to consider.  You'll want to give careful consideration to how head hopping will occur and how many characters you want to use.  You're still showing each character's perspective, and only their perspective, at any given time.  A big no-no is to hop to someone else's head and back again in the same section, chapter, or--worse yet--paragraph or sentence, e.g. "She looked at him and saw how handsome he was, and he looked back and saw how beautiful she was."   It's a sure sign of a novice to hop heads in the middle of a paragraph.  It often takes away all sense of suspense when you know everything about everyone all the time.   I read a romance novel like that, and there was no mystery or romance to it.  I knew everything everyone was thinking all the time.  It's best to keep one chapter or section to one narrator.  Some people can successfully hop to stranger's heads for just one section then back to main characters' heads then off to some bystander's head.  However, it's usually clearest and most sensical to a reader if you choose a finite number of heads--two or three, maybe four--and just alternate sections, possibly chapters.   It's usually best as well to choose the character who has the most emotional stake in the events.  If it doesn't work one way, you can always rewrite that segment and see if another character's eyes improve an important segment. 

The last common point of view is first-person.  This can be even more emotionally charged and intense than even the most personal third-person narrative.  You're actually in that person's skull for the duration of the story.  Everything is through his/her eyes alone.  This limits the writer in the same way third-person limited with one narrator does but to a greater degree.  The reader only knows what the narrator knows.  It's possible to write this kind of perspective in such a way as to show your character is unreliable, but that can be tricky.  If successful, however, you can truly impress even the most discerning reader.  In order to figure out how it's done, it's usually best to read several first-person unreliable narrations to see how the author clues the reader in that the narrator can't be trusted.  Another limiting factor is this rarely works well if you have multiple protagonists.  I tried it, and it didn't work for me.  However, The Help pulls it off to critical acclaim.  Anything I say here has exceptions.  These are just rules of thumb.  

Before you launch fully into writing a novel, I'd experiment with perspectives.  Research which is the best match for your story and your characters.  Try one for a chapter.  If it's not working, rewrite that chapter.  Don't be me.  Figure out what works before it's too late.    

Sunday, May 14, 2017


I've been writing about what makes a piece literary.  One important literary device is careful use of sensory imagery.  Imagery should be used to emphasize and elaborate on significant moments.  If you describe every little thing as your character walks down a hallway, your reader will be so tired of overwhelming amounts of detail that he or she won't be very interested in your story by the time you take them into the room with the actual murder victim and start describing that.  Say an author wants to make sure his reader doesn't miss a moment.  He figures the more description, the better readers will like it.  So he writes, "The shaggy, smelly, dark man with a slow, sluggish, tired trudge carried his large, heavy, leather-shod feet through a cluttered, long, cherry wood hallway and through the tall, brown, oversized door." He may not realize it's just too much.  I have read a book recently that was descriptive as to be what writers call "purple." The author described every moment of the entire book with such detail that very little happened.  I found it boring.  If an author occasionally writes a paragraph that is lavish with detail, it's okay if that scene is important.  It would be better if the author simply wrote description sparingly.  For instance, if that same author wrote the following, it would be much better.  "The shaggy man walked through a cluttered hallway to a wooden door."  The reader gets the idea without being so tired of detail that she's stopped reading.  

It's also possible to go too far the other way, to write in such a spare fashion so as to bore readers on the other end.  Such writing shows the bare facts of the events but does not transport or take the reader there.  Even spare literary authors like Ernest Hemingway use some description.  He said of his description, "I take great pains with my work, pruning and revising with a tireless hand. I have the welfare of my creations very much at heart. I cut them with infinite care, and burnish them until they become brilliant. What many another writer would be content to leave in massive proportions, I polish into a tiny gem." And that is the key to great, literary writing: balance.  You need description, but it should be carefully crafted and trimmed so as to be just enough but not too much.  Now go and impress the world with your careful detail.  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Loss at the Center of Literature

I've been exploring the idea of making your work, any writing you do, more literary.  Have you noticed that much of literature is about loss?  So many storylines start with the memory of past loss.  Main characters flash back to losses of children, parents, spouses, etc.  Alexandre Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo begins with and centers on a plot by his friends to take everything from him, and the rest of the story deals with what he does as a reaction to loss.  Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Taran Wanderer and so many other stories start with an orphan who is forced to find his/her way in the world because of the death of both parents.  Most novels or series of novels, such as Harry Potter, based on Joseph Cambell's hero's journey pattern feature a father's (or father figure's) death as does Shakespeare's Hamlet.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Emma, "Cinderella," and other tales have a single father making mistakes as he tries to raise children alone.  The evil stepmother is such a common trope in fairy tales and other literature because loss of spouses has been such a common experience.

If literature doesn't start with loss, it often centers around characters trying to avoid loss of some sort, whether it be through death or some other means.  Shakespearean tragedies are built on the theme of impending loss.  Adventure stories have main characters grappling with the risk of death on a regular basis.  Pride and Prejudice centers on fear of loss of home and livelihood. Jane Eyre's central theme of loss extends not just to her loss of parents and childhood friend but also to her loss of home after home, hope for the future after hope for the future.   Loss is at the center of what makes literature powerful because loss is at the center of human experience.  Past loss can also make a character more understandable.  If a character cares about or has cared about someone and has experienced or experiences a broken heart, we often feel for that character because we, too, have been through loss.  We see some piece of ourselves in those characters.

So it's time to consider your own characters.  What loss have they experienced before your novel begins?  How does that make her/him more understandable and empathetic to readers?  Remember that any presentation of loss should feel like it could have happened.  It should feel real to the reader, whether they've experienced that kind of loss or not.  If you simply say a person has lost a child, but yet that character doesn't behave as would someone who has lost a child, those readers who have lost a child will not like your story or character at all.  It will feel wrong, contrived.  Loss should have an impact on the character and, thereby, on the story.  

Is your character in danger of loss?  What is at stake through the story?  How does that play into or echo loss they've already experienced?  If nothing feels like it's at stake for your character, why should the reader care?  Look at loss as it is handled in your favorite literary works.  How can you handle this theme likewise?   Best of luck.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


What is a symbol?

My blog recently has been all about how to make your writing, any writing, more literary.  One of the key literary devices that can elevate a piece from just a story to something above that, something more meaningful, is the use of symbolism.  Symbolism is where one thing--say, a fish, a snake, a tree, or a lamb--can represent something deeper and more culturally significant.  All of the aforementioned items are used within the Bible to reference the divine.  The symbol of a snake in the Old Testament appears in the story of a brass serpent used as an object of healing, one which many consider a foreshadowing and reference to the story of Jesus.  The medical symbol of the crossed snakes references this same symbol while also alluding to Hermes in Greek mythology.  Yet at the same time, a serpent is also used in the Old Testament to represent the devil.  Say you want to make a character, a doctor, who is mysterious and could be either evil or good.  You associate this symbol of the crossed snakes with him to make him seem noble and good, someone seeking to heal.  Yet there's also something else snakelike about him, and these snake symbols seem more sinister and are somehow associated with temptation, an apple, and a fruit.  You have now used commonly understood cultural symbols to make this doctor both confusing and intriguing.  Is he a healer?  Is he bent on your main character's downfall?  How did you do this?  By use of symbolism.

Examples of Literary Symbols

A symbol is most often an object that means more than what it seems at face value.  Let's consider Hester Prynn's badge in Nathaniel Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter.  At first blush, it seems to be simply a letter.  What's in a letter?  To the characters in the book, it's a badge, a brand to show that she is a fallen woman.  The red marks her as a scarlet woman, a whore undeserving of membership in the regular community.  Yet at the same time, the A sets her free to become what she wants.  It frees her from the regular constraints of a very restrictive society.  It sets her apart and makes her both special and unique.  It ceases to be just a letter and becomes a symbol of the outsider.  In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the white whale is a symbol of the power of nature.  Most characters in the novel self-destruct when they joust that mysterious and insurmountable power.  One could discuss the phallic nature of both harpoon and whale and see this novel as the ultimate masculine face-off, the moral being that man cannot withstand the power of nature.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, a pair of glasses on a billboard seem like just an image, yet they come to symbolize the all-seeing eye of God, which sees and judges society and finds it wanting.  Great authors know and use the power of simple symbols that represent so much more than just a simple object.

How can you use symbols? 

If you want to consider symbolism, look at the meaning of color in your books.  Let's consider the image of a blanket.  You say, "Wait.  But a blanket is just a blanket, right?"  Oh, but in a literary book, whether it be a sci fi, fantasy, romance, or something else with literary overtones, a blanket can be so much more. In your text, you can suggest a blue blanket represents depression, sadness, and loss with its color.  You can hint that a person hiding under that blanket is so steeped in sadness that he can't face the world and seeks to hide under a blue blanket.  Say you want the blanket to be yellow.  You suggest this character is reminded of all things bright and sunny, of his mother, of her warm embrace, every time he looks at the yellow blanket she gave him.  Now she's gone, that yellow blanket represents all that is light and happy in the world as the rest of the universe grows cold and ugly.  He would die to save that yellow blanket because it's all he has of her.  Say the blanket is red.  It was steeped in the man's people's blood.  He tries to get rid of it, burn it, but it will not disappear.  Everywhere he looks, he's haunted by the image of that blanket that speaks to him of death.  He goes mad because he can't handle the depth of pain held in that one red blanket.  Say the blanket is white.  He has become a serial killer but misses the innocence he had.  The blanket represents the innocence he seeks to destroy because he can't handle that anyone can be as innocent as he was when he was hurt by someone he loved.  One blanket can be a symbol for so much more.

Pick an item.  Find out how you can make it a symbol.  How can you turn it into something beyond just what it is at face value?  Consider how that can add meaning to your whole book or story.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Compelling Voice

I've been writing about how to turn any piece into something more literary.  This week, I will explore how to make any writing more compelling, so that your meaningful prose can find its readers.  This may seem basic and obvious to a lot of writers, but I teach beginning writing.  I know a lot of people write with a passive, static voice instinctively.  Good writing is intentional, each word chosen for its meaning and power.  In order to keep a reader interested enough to get to your brilliant allusions, foreshadowing, etc., they have to read on.  If you put readers to sleep on page one, this cannot happen.

Mistake 1. Passive Voice: A passive voice shows the object as the main noun in a sentence.  "This sentence was written by me."  I'm doing the writing, yet I get sort of lost in a dull, passive sentence.  Such sentences get old quickly.
Correction:  In order to write in active tense, make sure the sentence starts with the active noun, as in, "I wrote the sentence."

Mistake 2. Static Sentences: I may have all the interesting nouns in my story taking charge of their own sentences, but action verbs need to do the heavy lifting.  Otherwise, my fiction can still get dry.  You can dry out your writing with heavy use of "to be" verbs (is, are, were, was, have been, will be).  These words express a state of being but don't show anything actually happening.  Even great works of literature can sound fairly static to the modern ear.  I love Jane Austen's works, but she came from a time in which one commonly used "to be" verbs as a matter of course:  "A lady's imagination is very rapid;"  "There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends;" and "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"  If you tried to write with so many "to be" verbs now, your reader would get bored in a hurry.  
Correction:  Seek out strong action verbs (except with dialogue tags; an editor's podcast I heard explained about the need to stick to said, asked,shouted, and whispered in order to write like a professional.)  I will rewrite Austen's sentences above to make them more active.  "Her imagination explored this new suggestion and turned it into a full-blown plan."  "I devoted myself to serving my friends."  "My joy soared with the intricacy of the words."  Note:  If a writer focuses on making "to be" verbs a rare occurrence, each one maintains its potency.   The state of being becomes important and draws attention to itself in a positive way. 

Mistake 3. Making up for dull verbs with adverbs and adjectives:  Stephen King took J.K. Rowling to task for a plethora of adverbs that appear throughout the first four or so books.  The first time I read those books through, I didn't notice so much.  By the second time around, those words jumped off the page like a 3D image.  They drove me nuts.  I'm reading a book series right now that is charming except that they use adverbs as dull, wordy crutches.  The occasional adverb is okay, but most of them can be cut for crisper, more potent writing.  Adjectives can be powerful but only when used sparingly.  
Correction: Cut adverbs and trim adjectives to no more than one per noun.  Later in the Harry Potter series, Rowling seemed to have caught the message.  Her writing got so much more subtle and professional when she focused more on powerful nouns and verbs.  

Mistake 4: Monotony:  It's easy to write with the same sentence structure again and again, with the same noun-subject combination and roughly the same length of sentences.       If you catch yourself writing the same sentence structure again and again,, it's time to switch it up.  

Go through your manuscript right now and make sure your sentences are varied and contain an active verb without a lot of adjectives and adverbs.  Your prose will come alive.