Writing Craze

book_and_featherAs some of you know, I have begun taking online classes in pursuit of my MFA in Creative Writing. This endeavor has pushed me to write a LOT this summer. The summer is half gone, but I have written a chapter of Aloha Spirit, started a new flying horse book, written a short story and created four separate scenes. That doesn’t count the articles, chapters, and workshop postings I’ve had to read and thoughtfully comment on. It’s exhilarating. Required classes when I used to go to college always consisted of some really dull, or dully presented, subjects. Now, however, I am immersed in something I absolutely love to do–write! So today I thought I’d post a bit from Aloha Spirit:

On May 12, 1939, we board the Matsonia, one of Matson Lines’ finest ships. Every color is vivid, from the green rim of Punch Bowl on the hill above the city to the sapphire ocean below. On the pier, brass instruments flash in the sun as the Marine band in their white uniforms plays Aloha ‘Oe, Queen Liliʻuokalani’s beautiful song of farewell. Hawai’ian girls hula nearby, their hair twisted with white pikake that gives sweetness to the air. Family and friends wave smiling goodbyes, their clothing adding dots of color to the scene.

Behind the joyous leavetaking, green palm trees sway behind the Royal Hawai’ian Hotel, also known as the Pink Lady. Waikiki’s pale cream sand stretches toward Diamond Head, majestic as always above Honolulu. On the white ship, I am so covered in fragrant leis, orange and purple and yellow and pink, I can hardly breathe. It seems like every flower in Hawai’i has given its life to send Manley and I off in style to the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

I turn to wave toward Pearl Harbor, out of sight beyond Hickam Field, in farewell to Earl, who couldn’t get away from his new job. I imagine seeing past Hickam Field, its gray runways, planes, barracks, quonset huts, and jeeps, to Pearl Harbor with its American navy ships. Over there everything is drab and businesslike.  

The smokestacks with the big blue M belch dark clouds. The ship churns water as it pulls away from the dock. Honolulu fades until I can’t make out the Pink Lady. All eyes fasten on Diamond Head, the last view of home. In keeping with tradition, we throw leis overboard as we pass the extinct volcano as a promise that we will return to the islands. We watch until Diamond Head fades to purple distance and blends into the ocean.

Narrative, Teaching Writing

Emotion in Narrative

At the beginning of the school year, I teach Personal Narrative. Students who are reluctant writers always do well in this unit because Everyone Has a Story. They learn how to take a memory with impact and turn it into a story that can impact a reader.

To begin, I ask students to remember an incident with a person close to them. Usually they choose a parent or a sibling, and the event is always a special time: fishing with Dad, snorkeling in Hawaii with family, getting lost in a mall. Wait! Getting lost isn’t a special time! The events students remember always center around great emotion: excitement, anticipation, joy, grief, or fear.

Every story has emotion, but the event they remember is really the climax of the story. For example, when we use Think of a First Time as a story prompt, many students write about the first time they rode a scary ride at Great America. They were terrified, and the terror is what they remember. Without the buildup of growing fear, the realization they can’t change their mind, the thrill of the ride itself, and getting back in line to ride it again, you don’t have a story.

So starting with the memory, I take the writer back in time to when they first heard someone suggest the ride. I never allow them to write, “I was scared.” They must convey the emotion by Showing How They Feel, what they did and how they looked, or use metaphors/similes. That’s how I get a paragraph with wide eyes, dry mouth, swallowing, nervous toe tapping, or knees knocking like trick-or-treaters at neighborhood doors on Halloween.

From that first suggestion, events move forward as the group of family or friends agrees to go on the ride, gets in line, discusses previous rides and their anticipation, gets buckled into the seat, hears the ride rev up, chugs up the first big hill, zooms down into the swirls and dives of the ride, screams, laughs, gets off the ride, and gets back in line to go again. I never allow a simple recitation of events because that results in a diary entry, not a story. Each step of the process, as listed, has emotion. The fear heightens, then there’s resignation, then delighted terror, then joy, finally eagerness to do it again. Showing the emotion of the narrator, set against the obvious confidence and eagerness of the rest of the group, is the most important part of the story.

Once students master the story arc of the emotion and can weave that into the story arc of the plot events, they begin to see themselves as real authors. They enjoy writing narratives, and they enjoy reading each others’ narratives. More importantly, I look forward to collecting a class set of narratives and sitting down to read them!

♥ On my Kindle: Walking the Dog by Linda Benson


Writing Great Beginnings

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
–Kurt Vonnegut

The beginning of a story is critically important.  It is what sells the book, makes the teacher keep reading your piece, prompts the bookstore browser to buy.  We teach students that the beginning must include characters, setting, and a problem.  Of these three, Kurt Vonnegut and I agree that the problem is the key to a good beginning.

Before you are ready to write the beginning, you need to do a lot of thinking, some writing, and a little planning.  Start with your main character.  Begin a character profile that includes gender, name, and age.  My main character in On a Wing and a Dare is Daav, a sixteen year old boy.

Get to know your character like you get to know your friends.  Explore the character’s world.  Where does he/she live?  Go to school?  What is his/her family like?  What does he/she like to do?

In my novel, Daav’s school gets out for the summer in May so that the town can hold the Aerial Games, a competition of flying horses.  Daav’s parents, Milav and Rheyana, run a barn full of these flying horses and they compete in the aerial dances.  Daav’s brother, Eliv, is eighteen.  Eliv rides a racing flying horse.  They all live in the town of Tremirson, the only town in the world where flying horses exist.  Thirty barns compete each year in the Aerial Games, and fans, reporters, and tourists come from all over to watch.

Okay, that covers character and setting pretty well, but Daav needs a problem or there is no novel.  he has one.  During the summer of his sixteenth year, Daav is expected to become a rider to a winged horse.  However, he is secretly afraid of heights.  Daav’s childhood friend, Kamila, also sixteen, starts dating Eliv just when Daav realizes he cares for her himself.  Then the flying horses of Tremirson begin to die and the three teenagers must flout all kinds of traditions to save them.

In this case just the fear of heights would make a nice short story, but this is a novel so the problem must be more complex.  Make sure you pick a problem that fits the length of the piece you are trying to write.  Please don’t pick a complicated issue then have aliens swoop in to fix it all.  Or just give up and write ‘to be continued.’  But those are endings, and this is about beginnings!

Once you know your character and his/her surroundings, and you know what the major problem is, and you know who will help and who will hinder progress toward solving that problem, then you can begin.

Go back and read the quote that starts this post.  As Kurt Vonnegut says, the story must start with an action.  Do not spend a page describing your character.  Do not spend a page describing the town.  This type of writing is important so that you can immerse yourself in the character’s world, but it bores a reader.  Do that kind of writing in your journal, as a warmup.  Start the story with an action scene

On a Wing and a Dare begins with Daav’s mom asking him to take her place riding in the Opening Ceremony of the Aerial Games.  He is frightened to do so but doesn’t want to let her down.  Kamila rescues him, taking Rheyana’s place on the horse but learning about Daav’s fear of heights in the process.  During the flight, an accident occurs.  (See my Projects page for the complete first chapter)

If the beginning is crafted well, the reader blows right through it into the middle…but that is another post.  What books have you read that have amazing beginnings? Post them in the comments!

On my Kindle: Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne Duprau


Show Me How You Feel

Writing teachers pace the front of the room and throw up their hands.  With great enthusiasm they proclaim, “You must SHOW your reader, not TELL them!”

Yes, that particular writing teacher is/was me.  Then I had a student ask, “But aren’t we TELLING a story?”

No, you aren’t.  Telling a story is something you do on the playground to your friends.  It goes something like this:

Yesterday I went to the mall.  I bought a pair of shoes at Nordstrom and had a Coke at the food court.  I thought about seeing a movie, but I saw Bruce with Sasha and went home.

Your friends, because they ARE your friends, listen and nod and say things like, “No way!” and “Cool!”  But your readers are not your friends.  Sometimes your reader is a teacher, who is looking for sensory details and SHOWING.  Sometimes your reader is a mom, wondering where you got the money for the new shoes.  I can’t help you with Mom, but I can help you with the SHOWING.

Start by closing your eyes and imagining yourself in the scene you are writing.  When I have the scene firmily in my mind, I ask myself what do I see? Colors, textures, and sizes are as important as people and actions.  Then what do I hear?  What do I smell?  What do I taste?  Obviously, if you aren’t eating anything you can leave out taste, or maybe you taste something abstract like fear.  Feel is a double sense.  What do I feel physically?  Temperature, hard seats, soft fabric, painful shoes, etc.  What do I feel emotionally?  This last one is the most important!  Readers will like your story if they connect to your characters.  In order to connect, they need to know what emotions your characters are feeling.

So let’s try that mall scene again, but this time let’s SHOW it instead of TELL it.

Yesterday I was so frustrated by my homework I had to escape.  I walked to the mall and escaped into the noise and confusion of the Spring Sale.  At Nordstrom, a darling pair of pink flowered sandals called to me and I couldn’t resist.  Just sliding them on my feet made me feel like a million bucks.  I paid for them and wore them out of the store, strutting past the other shoppers.  At the food court, I braved the pungent odors of fried hamburger and greasy fries to sit at a tiny table with a large icy Coke.  Crossing my legs and pointing my pink sandalled foot, I ignored the sticky ketchup spots on the table and sipped the drink through the paper straw.

I could see the marquee for the movie theaters, and a couple looked interesting.  Then I noticed him.  Bruce was at the ticket window; his broad shoulders in the jean jacket were unmistakable.  Maybe I should saunter over in my new pink sandals and see what movie Bruce was going to see.  Maybe he would look at me with those deep brown eyes and ask me to join him.  But, no!  He was with someone.  The laughing blond turned around.  Sasha?  How could he be with Sasha?  She was my best friend.  Definitely WAS.

Infuriated by the sight of my ex-friend with the guy I’d had a crush on forever, I ripped off my new sandals and shoved my feet back into my old sneakers.  Then I stomped home.

See?  You really feel it now that I’ve SHOWN you, don’t you?  You still know what happened, but now you also know a bit more about the setting and the characters.  SHOWING has the added benefit of making your stories longer and more interesting!  Go ahead, SHOW me a scene in comments.

In hardcover: Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher