Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

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There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

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  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.

Craft: Finding your characters

I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE

  • Date of birth: when and where were they born?
  • Astrology! Why not, eh?
  • What do they like to eat, drink?
  • Favorite clothes
  • Favorite music
  • What do they do on their time off?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Who was a best friend and why?
  • What mischief did they get upto?
  • How far did they get in school?
  • What are the priorities? The goals?
  • What are they scared of doing?
  • Being?
  • What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
  • To others?
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • A memory from pre-teens
  • A memory from teens
  • From twenties
  • What will they sacrifice for dreams?

Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?

Writer’s Craft: On writing essays

On Essays – Notes from a class by Alexander Chee

From an afternoon spent talking about writing fiction and essays, these are some of the thoughts that held with me. There are many ways to write essays, many forms, and as such there is no right or wrong way. In my opinion that is. Here then are some questions and suggestions to help you as you write your own.

  • Research your home town, when was it founded? Why? Famous for? Population? Changes in demographic? Architecture?
  • Your life in that town was within the life of that town, they affect each other
  • Context, know the context of each essay, story
  • Place your experiences within the historical context of place and time
  • Treat yourself as a subject, step outside and look from that perspective
  • Forensics of self: dig deep, ask others, interview people from that time or event
  • Memory is shaped by words so look for emails and letters you wrote at the time
  • How much do you want to open up and risk in the essay?
  • What are your obsessions?
  • Are you writing about what you read about? Are passionate about?
  • Examine your verb choices, circle them, make them dynamic, specific, detailed
  • Write in response to what you search online
  • Write in response to your dreams
  • What moves you? Angers you? Delights?
  • You will unconsciously know what form it will take on the page, trust the essay and subject
  • Read things that will explode your sense of possibility
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Dialogue, sit in a café and write down verbatim random conversations to notice the variety of rhythms, cadences, syntax unique to each person
  • Face your inner critic, deal with it, and carry on.
  • Trust yourself. Write.

 

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.

Writer’s Craft: Revision

A few suggestions for revision. It’s the biggest challenge to me, or rather it has been. This last year though, I’ve found the process less overwhelming. Breaking it down into parts, into giving myself a different focus each run-through takes the pressure off and makes it more enjoyable. What do I mean? I’ll pick one of these points in the list below, and look for that idea alone. Read the essay looking at verbs specifically, what did I overuse? Which verbs could be more dynamic?

Or for settings, I’ll read the novel chapter by chapter focusing solely on the settings, the physical descriptions of rooms, landscapes, homes, streets or towns. I’ll look for ways to capture the sense of the place, the sight, sound, textures and influences on that space.
I’m working one aspect at a time, there’s less pressure and it’s easier for me to find the details lacking or needed. This list is my way of approaching revision. I hope it helps you too.

  • First line: what does it do? Cut it, try again
  • Physical descriptions of people, the narrator, everyone, give the visuals as soon as possible even if indirectly to let the reader imagine what you see.
  • Context and physical settings: let the reader know where the story is set.
  • When, where, why, who: give information so the reader trusts you and then they’ll go with you anywhere.
  • Risks: raise the stakes constantly
  • Choices: give the characters choices and unpredictable responses
  • Find the magical moments of change, shifts, ideas, memories, actions
  • Go with your instincts
  • Generate new ideas when in a good mood
  • Edit when cranky
  • Verbs: highlight your verbs for a page or two and you’ll see which ones could be made more active, interesting, unusual – within reason though. Said/ thought etc are needed, a simple identifying verb also has its own place.
  • What is the story within the story? (the situation and the plot with the plot being the process or goals or development of the protagonist)
  • What secrets are lingering underneath the spoken?
  • What will she sacrifice to reach her own goals?
  • Will she give up her own dreams for another?
  • What’s the fear?
  • Active choices: stay engaged and less at the mercy of life, let her take action
  • Stay physical, keep the characters doing, acting on their worlds, moving, changing, shifting on the physical realm
  • Senses: address them all
  • Backstory: understand each character’s back story whether it’s mentioned or not
  • Motivations, drive, goals, intentions: ask what each one wants and why
  • Trust the story to tell itself, especially on the first draft, write it out, let it out
  • Contrast the mundane with the mad
  • Remember your stuff: when she mentioned a favourite shirt, or a mug, or a person, come back to those details, use them later on.
  • Go deeper into the psyche of each character
  • Rhythms and musicality, repetitions, refrains, use the language to set up a movement with your words and not only the storyline
  • Surface tension: what’s going on behind the main conversation?
  • Uneasy pairings: actions and unexpected emotions eg a nice swim and screaming fit at the public pool.
  • Chronic and acute situations: Chronic is the ongoing longer lasting situation and the acute is what drives the action in that very specific moment
  • Specificity: if you refer to a bus, call it by number or route name
  • Expectations: set up point of view, characters, setting etc quickly
  • Scene: mess with the predictable and those expectations
  • Stain: what then lingers from that scene or interaction?
  • Escalation: character driven, keep building the tension or drama with how your characters work or avoid their own stories
  • Dialogue: each voice has its own syntax, words, rhythms
  • Names: full names give authority and weight
  • Movement: find the grand movement forward as well as the little whirls and loops within
  • Set designer: write as if you are directing the playhouse, the stage, and moves of each one who steps on your stage. Claim it and enjoy the details.
  • Tenses: check consistency
  • Is the reader in the story or being told a story?
  • Use music to influence your rhythms when writing, create a musical playlist for the era or culture you’re writing about. Immerse yourself in those sounds
  • Research the slang, politics, news, weather, culture of the time period
  • Tension: drives the story without it, oh well, who cares, right?
  • Storyboards: write up what happens and when, see what can be moved, or to check the flow of actions, steps, tension, what’s missing?
  • Breathe in, hold it, hold it, hold it, release = Act One, Two, and Three
  • Sentances: vary length, tone, rhythms, paragraphs, white space.
  • Physicality of characters: who do they move in their own bodies? In their clothes?
  • Faces, bodies: be specific, really see each character, the shine of skin, greasy hair, frizzy or dried with split ends? Get into those details
  • Backstory: be juicy and play with their backgrounds
  • What if: add absurd ideas, fabulist, magiacl, trippy. Play with it
  • Threads and throughlines: feel them, create them, follow them
  • Wordplay: it’s your language so mix and match your images to suit your sense of play
  • Bird’s eye view: what’s going on around the main characters?
  • Add more weirdness.
  • Oh, and ENJOY YOURSELF!

What Will You Give Up To Write?

It’s a great question to ask yourself. What will you give up? What will you sacrifice? Are you hungry enough? Hungry enough to be a writer?

It’s a question we’re asked in the MFA program. Are we hungry enough? Do we care enough? There’s a spark, a flame in us, there has to be. We all moved to Montpelier for this graduate school, for the chance to study in a Writing and Publishing MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But can we maintain it? Keep going? We’re adults here, it’s up to us. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing. It’s as simple as that. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing.

Literary citizenship comes up to, how we interact within the writing community. At clown school, I remember being reminded that it was more important to be consistent, to show up than it was to be a genius. If we were difficult, if we just took without giving back, our reputation took us down regardless of what we created.

I see it here too. Who cares and is generous with the other students. Who goes out of their way to help, give thoughtful feedback when asked, in short, who shows up for others. Seeing how we are (mostly) being there for each other is incredible, we’re in this together. We all want to become better writers. We need each other. We learn from each other. This community is ours for the rest of our writing lives. It’s important.

Yet, the truth is we are alone. No one makes me get up early to write. No one demands me that I edit and revise my prose. No one stands in the corner, tut-tutting when I stare out the window or look at Facebook or drift off.

No one but me. I’m here. I moved 2400 miles. My friends and family are far away. I’m here at my desk. It’s eleven on a Sunday morning and I’ve written a new sketch/ prose poem, revised three others, edited a book review, and started editing a travel essay someone has sent for publication on Wanderlust. I might go for a walk again soon but not yet, I’m caught up in the daily focus of writing. Reading is later in the day, not yet, not now, I’ll get to that later on.

So what did I give up to be here? To live as I have for years? Especially for the last 18 months with no income but what comes from writing and editing. It was a good question from Sean Prentiss, a good lecture from Julianna Baggott. It’s lingered in me this week. In no particular order, this is a list of what I’ve given up, so far.

  • new clothes
  • routines
  • netflix
  • new music
  • new books
  • boots that fit properly
  • organic food
  • going out to restaurants
  • furniture
  • a new car
  • going to movies
  • heating
  • home upgrades
  • hairstyles
  • motels and hotels
  • a full pantry
  • my home in Bromsgrove
  • my home in Madrid
  • family
  • friends
  • lovers
  • kids
  • and boredom

You see, it’s time to live up to my potential. I’m hungry. I want to claim my place in the writers’ community. Let me know how I can help. I’ll be there. One way or another, I want to give back. I am here. I’m not giving up, not now.

Call For Submissions

 

Wanderlust Journal is looking for travel narratives and stories from the road, all those explorations in landscape and environment.  Wanderlust Journal  has an ongoing curiosity into how travel changes us, the reasons we leave home, and what we experience. We’re looking for new voices and emerging writers to publish. Why? There is a shortage of quality places focused on these travel essays.

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Do you have something to say? Well written and evocative of something more than just a personal experience that takes the reader to see the world in new ways? We’d love to hear you.

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Unfortunately, we are currently unable to provide payment for publication in Wanderlust Journal. One of our long term goals is to reach that point. We have no university funding, grants, scholarships, subscriptions, or memberships. The $5 submission fees only cover the Submittable website and our own. We are volunteers, the readers, editors, publishers. This is a work of love for a good story.

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Wanderlust Journal – click here for more information. Thanks!