Writing from the Spleen

First, I have to vent my spleen at the snow we received the other day. Grrrr.

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That same day, my good friend Nancy emailed the following quote from a blog written by middle grade author Tricia Springstubb.

In singing, there are things called “head voice” and “chest voice,” and from what I gather, the ideal is to blend them together. On days when the writing doesn’t go well, it’s usually because I’m only using what I think of as my head voice. The words vibrate up there, serviceable and doing what they’re supposed to do—move this scene and plot along—but even as I write them, I know I’m going to have to revise them. My chest voice—the voice that draws from my heart—isn’t weighing in, and without it, the words are just words.

Illu_spleenAfter reading that quote, I analyzed where I fit on the voice scale and came up empty. So I have to ask if there is another choice. For example, is there a “spleen voice”? I don’t mean a voice in which you express your anger or bitterness. I mean a voice that defies categorization—an “I don’t know what I’m doing” voice.

“I don’t know what it does” also fits my knowledge about the spleen’s function. When in doubt, I usually turn to Wikipedia:

The spleen . . . is an organ found in virtually all vertebrate animals. Similar in structure to a large lymph node, it acts primarily as a blood filter.

As I learned while writing textbooks, never rely on just one source. So, I checked further. According to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s website, the spleen

Recognizes and removes old, malformed, or damaged red blood cells. When blood flows into your spleen, your spleen performs “quality control”; your red blood cells must pass through a maze of narrow passages. Healthy blood cells simply pass through the spleen and continue to circulate throughout your bloodstream. Blood cells that can’t pass the test will be broken down in your spleen by macrophages. Macrophages are large white blood cells that specialize in destroying these unhealthy red blood cells.

Haven’t you experienced those days when words simply pass through you like blood passes through the spleen? If you’re like me, in between checking your email or other time consumers, maybe you squeak out 187 words, rather than the 500 to 2000 you told yourself you would produce. You then go back and add maybe a comma before you take a sip of coffee and go back to playing a videogame—your reward for being so “productive.” On those days maybe also like me you aren’t sure if the words are serviceable or just plain rubbish. But you slap them down on the page like a house painter slaps a paintbrush against a wall and hope the result will be pleasing at some point.

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It’s great that the spleen knows which blood cells are healthy and which aren’t. I don’t always know that about my writing—hence the need for revision (quality control). As we revise, we identify the chapters or character arcs that don’t pass muster and either revise them or eliminate them from our stories. Think of this process as the editorial lymphatic system at work. Beta readers and reading a piece of writing out loud also aid in the filtering process.

Do you pay attention to whether you’re writing from your head or your heart? Why do you think a combination of both is ideal?

Spleen illustration from Wikipedia. Paint roller from freevectors.com.

Less Talk, More Love

When I was a teen, I could easily spot the adults who were uncomfortable with teens. They were the ones quickest to provide their opinions, especially if they felt my skirt was too short, my music too loud, or my opinions too vocal. I needed to be put in my place, in their opinion. So I heard statements like, “In my day, we didn’t have all the luxuries you kids have.” Or, “That’s what’s wrong with kids today.” What I thought didn’t matter. What mattered was my being told what they thought.

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My reaction was usually something along the lines of, “In your day, the Mayflower was still floating toward America, you old geezer. You don’t know anything about my day!” I quickly tuned them out, unwilling to listen to their criticism. I didn’t care what they thought. What mattered was their learning of my contempt.

See the disconnect? We call this the communication gap. Neither side was willing to listen to the other.

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I went to the Monologue Show at my nephew’s high school. I went ready to listen. This show is an annual tradition. Students who participate have to audition and provide their own material. My nephew’s monologue, which involved other students in skits, was hilarious and drew some of the night’s biggest laughs. Go ahead and say I’m biased, but had you been there, you would have noticed.

Other students’ monologues also were humorous, but several were heartbreaking. I was struck by a theme of perfectionism in the evening—students speaking about the notion of having to be perfect: perfect body, hair, and grades. This high school is one of the top high schools in the state, so perfectionism is a hot-button issue around the school. Many of the students despaired of ever measuring up to the standard of perfection set before them.

After hearing these sentiments, I thought, What have we [adults] done to these kids? Have some of our critical comments led to this?

Oh, I know you’re thinking, Whoa, L. Marie. That’s not my fault. I don’t know those teens. Easy, there! I’m talking about adults in general, rather than you specifically. And I get it. Some of the pressure teens face is due to the system. Scholarships are hard to come by. So great scores on standardized tests like ACT and SAT gain one admission into top schools and rake in scholarships. I understand the need to make good grades. I was a high school student at one point. (Um, well after the Mayflower landed.)

But today’s students also are expected to excel in so many other areas as well: athletics; community involvement; the arts—the list goes on.

Speaking of the arts, you have only to look at reality shows like Bring It! (Lifetime Channel) and others where well-meaning parents push their kids to be the best dancers, singers, whatever. I’m not knocking helping a child to excel at an activity where he or she shows talent and a desire to excel. But living vicariously through a child is where life gets a bit dicey and the pressure starts to mount. And in a world where talent is weighed and measured and bought and sold, well, teens are expected to bring it, even if they don’t want to.

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Let’s move on to the notion of looking perfect—an aspect of several of the evening’s monologues. We live in a culture saturated by visuals: billboards, commercials, magazines, ads popping up on our computer screens, smartphones gaining one instant access to the Internet. And let’s not forget the sites where you can upload images—Snapchat, Instagram, and others; places where thigh gap is measured and beauty displayed and dissected.

Teens live so much of their lives through social media. This prompted my next horrified observation as I listened to some of the monologues: What have they [teens] done to themselves?

We all know the horrors of peer pressure and the desperate desire to measure up. You can only push someone so far before that person reacts. Some snap under the pressure. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also been there.

So now my question is, what will we adults do? Okay, I get that maybe you don’t desire this responsibility. Maybe there are no teens in your life. But those of us with teens in our lives or who write for teens have an opportunity to help make a difference.

We don’t have to be those adults who talk at teens by telling them how much they’re failing us and society or demanding that they exceed unrealistic expectations. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a suggestion to hold back on discipline or to stop prodding a kid who wants to slack off and play videogames all day. This means knowing a teen’s potential and helping him or her to achieve it, without having a hidden agenda (like forcing a child to live out your dream).

Also, we can be honest with them about our own struggles, instead of pretending we have it all together and they’d better get with the program, especially if we don’t hold ourselves to this standard. We can write about their struggles without moralizing them. Above all, we can listen to and love them. The world can be a cold place for those struggling to find their way. We can provide a warm place, even if just for a little while, and invite them to come in out of the cold.

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Teens photo from lakesideconnect.com. Bring It! photo from rollingout.com. Heart from healthticket.blogspot.com.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

I’ll bet you know that the title of this post is a variation on lines from Robert Burns’s poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough.” And you also know that the title of John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men, came from the same poem. Go, you.

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Burns and Steinbeck

The lines from Burns’s poem actually go like this:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

I thought about those lines when I headed out to my car the other day, and saw the feral cat sitting on top of the grass/weed heap near my parking space. Why do I call him the feral cat? I live in a no pet building. This orange tabby—abandoned by someone undoubtedly—has adopted my building as his home base, though he lives outside. (And yes, I sometimes feed him.)

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Somewhere in this photo is a cat if you look really hard. . . .

For a small rodent or a bird, it’s never a good sign when a cat sits so still and his eyes are open. I believe Feral Cat waited for a mouse or a bird to appear. After all, this is the same cat who months ago toyed with a mouse in my parking space just as I pulled up to park in it. The cat would allow the mouse to run a short distance, then would pounce on it. He did this over and over. Finally after a few tense minutes with me sitting there fuming, the cat grabbed the mouse and ran off. (For those of you who like mice, sorry. I was not about to get between that cat and that mouse.)

With that memory in mind, I cringed when I saw the predator hunched on the hill. By the time I scrambled to take a few photos, the mouse or whatever the cat waited for still hadn’t arrived. The best laid plans, as they say. So he settled down to stare at me and possibly roll his eyes at my clumsy attempts at photography (see above). I was a bit relieved. I didn’t relish watching him attack another a mouse.

Speaking of the best laid plans, what prompted this post, besides the fact that I still have yet to give away the Shadowfell series by Juliet Marillier (see interview; this is due to spam-bots who posted as fans and real fans who now already own the books), is the fact that I’m frustrated by my progress (or lack thereof) in my novel revision and, to a degree, in life. I had hoped to be finished with my revision, or at least around page 250 or 300. I haven’t even reached page 200! The best laid plans . . .

I’d also hoped I would at least be at a point in my life where I made the kind of dough (money for those who aren’t familiar with the colloquial term dough) that allowed me to book a trip to Rome for research and not blink an eye at the expense. Um, nope. Not even close. The best laid plans . . .

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I wasn’t one of those kids who had a plan for her life along the lines of, “When I grow up, I wanna be a supermodel, a CEO, an astronaut, and a pirate.” I was too busy breaking things at home, writing stories, and daydreaming. See? I’m the ultimate pantser, even in life. Having a plan would be like outlining. After my days as an undergraduate, I also didn’t have a ready-made plan for my life other than “get a job.” It’s interesting how “get a job” later turned into “keep a job” in a steadily tightening economy. Soon, the plan to “get a job” returned when “keep a job” wasn’t exactly feasible. The best laid plans . . .

Often plans have to make way for new plans. (Like my plan for having this post up on Thursday. It didn’t happen obviously.) The word flexible comes to mind—the need to be flexible in this time of plans made and plans unmade.

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Somehow, flexibility seemed easier when I was eight years old, and my only complaint was that my parents wouldn’t take my brothers and me to McDonald’s (always my plan). Instead of being flexible—rolling with life’s changes, life’s disappointments, life’s that-cat-is-in-my-parking-space again—I feel like a pretzel, instead of someone gracefully bending back like the woman above. But I keep trying, keep bending, keep making those plans that might have to be unmade.

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At least I’m thankful for one thing: I’m not a mouse hiding in that grass heap with a cat sitting on top waiting for me to make a move.

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Have your best laid plans ever been overturned? How did you stay flexible?

Mouse and Robert Burns painting from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads. Yoga photo from womenshealthmag.com. Pretzel from sweetclipart.com. Colosseum from photo from 2.bp.blogspot.com.

Why I Need Fairy Tales

4042-fairy-tale-castle-1920x1200-fantasy-wallpaperHaving watched the one zillionth romance movie on the Hallmark Channel the other day, I thought about fairy tales. After all, with plots like (1) an office worker bee gaining a promotion to vice president of her company after pitching her great idea to the right person (yet while failing to notice the scrumptious guy in her office who has a major crush on her); (2) a woman winding up married to a famous actor (who turns out to be wonderfully grounded) after she gets drunk one night; or (3) a woman whose adorable son is dying to match her up with his hot soldier pen pal, you’re looking at the modern equivalent of a fairy tale. Yep. Sounds like Once Upon a Time all right. And I don’t mean the Once Upon a Time show based on fairy tales.

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444388I’m not going to get all Bruno Bettelheim on you with an in-depth study of fairy tales, so congratulate yourself on dodging that bullet. (Bettelheim, a noted child psychologist, wrote a seminal work on fairy tales. Read it awhile ago.) I’ve said it before on this blog that I grew up reading fairy tales. So I naturally gravitate to stories with a fairy tale bent. But lately, with friends and family members going through tough times, and finding myself in the same boat, I crave fairy tales even more.

Some might see this longing as escapism. I can see the point. Maybe you can too when the bottom drops out of your life or when trust is broken in some way. At those times, life is more of a horror story than a fairy tale.

Speaking of trust, I recently saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Some view superhero movies as the modern equivalent of fairy tales, since fairy tales encompass more than just stories about fairies. But this movie was hardly a fairy tale. The theme of trust was hammered home throughout the film. I won’t give any spoilers, so you can stop cringing. If you’ve seen the movie (I recommend it), you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll also agree that there’s something appealing about a guy who just wants to do the right thing. (I won’t say who that is, so you can stop glaring at me since technically this is not a spoiler.)

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Yet when my friend and I left the theater, still discussing how much we liked the movie and how hot Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson in the film) are (and my goodness, they are), I still felt a bit somber as I thought about the issue of trust. But my mood had more to do with the breaking of trust which happened recently in a family I know. Since they’re close friends of mine, I hurt because they do.

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Anthony Mackie (left) and Chris Evans just chillin’

So, yeah, I think about fairy tales. Sure, some of them seem contrived or formulaic. But it’s nice to know that some stories have a happy ending. And on a hard day, maybe reading a fairy tale is just what the doctor ordered.

620574I found a quote at this site, which expresses how I feel. Fairy tales

awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life & to evoke profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process, which can be altered and changed to compensate for the lack of power, wealth, and pleasure that most people experience.

The quote comes from a book I haven’t yet read, which was edited by Jack Zipes. (See reference below.) I can relate to feeling powerless in certain situations.

Fairy tales remind us that life can be better. In fairy tales, good triumphs and evil is vanquished. Peasant maids are found by wandering princes. Younger sons who are belittled by villanous older brothers wind up vindicated and worthy of the hands of princesses. Sad circumstances are overturned. J. R. R. Tolkien developed a term for the latter: eucatastrophe, which means “the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom” (Wikipedia).

I don’t know about you, but I could use a little eucatastrophe in my life. It doesn’t have to wait till the end of my story though. In the meantime, I’ll read fairy tales or watch them unfold on the screen. Like chocolate, sometimes I just need ’em.

What, if any, is your favorite fairy tale? Why is it your favorite?

Zipes, Jack. “Cross-Cultural Connections and the Contamination of the Classical Fairy Tale” in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, ed. Jack Zipes. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2001, 845-868.

Book covers from Goodreads. Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie photo form tmiblogger.wordpress.com. Captain America: The Winter Soldier poster from Wikipedia. Fairy tale castle from desktopwallpapers4.me. Once Upon a Time logo from abcallaccess.com.

Where Are the Good Guys?

BaileySpur4XAngoraBlendFurFetlCowboyHatWhiteThe other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?

As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)

Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.

In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.

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Glinda

Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)

I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?

Robert-Downey-Jr-Iron-Man-3I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
 
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Black Widow

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Zuko

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Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)

Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.

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Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)

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Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)

I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.

It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?

Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.

That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.

More Valuable?

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, all you needed to do to make my day was to hand me an inflated balloon. Didn’t matter what color. Just hand me one and I’d be happy. And when it would pop, as inevitably it would since I was the kind of kid who quickly popped balloons or broke things because of my less-than-gentle grasp, I would be devastated. But for those moments of having that balloon, all was right with the world.

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What is it about a balloon that brings such joy? The fact that they float? Their roundness when inflated? I dunno, but I’m done trying to analyze the appeal. Let’s just leave chalk them up to fun, okay?

While pondering the issue with balloons, I couldn’t help segueing to the issue of humor in a story. I’ve pondered this issue many times, because I’ve had conversations about the subject over the years. These conversations raised the following questions: Are serious stories more valuable than humorous stories? Is the entertainment factor of a humorous story equal to that of the entertainment value of a balloon—here today and probably popped tomorrow? In other words, not long lasting?

By now, you might be calling for my head for daring to equate humorous writing with balloons. Rest assured—that is not my assessment. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I’ve been thinking about the subject. Part of the reason for my pondering comes from conversations in which I’ve heard unfavorable comparisons made between humorous writing and writing of a more serious nature with humor writing deemed as the lower life form. I’ve also been told that you’re not a “real” writer unless you write War and Peace, Antigone, or something else of a serious nature.

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I’ve heard similar thoughts uttered about graphic novels and picture books—basically that their brevity of text and higher ratio of pictures (the nature of both types of books) make them entertaining but not as valuable as, say, Ulysses.

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I think we all know that such comments are subjective, rather than constructive. Anyone who has ever written a graphic novel or a picture book knows how difficult it is to write a good one. Because of the marriage of text and images, every word has to be chosen carefully.

Same with humor. Don’t believe me? Then read something by Dave Barry, David Sedaris, or Tina Fey.

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The funny thing is (and yes that pun was intended) humor is sometimes discounted, because the value of laughter is discounted. But you have only to Google laughter is good medicine to find many videos on the medicinal value of laughter.

I’ve had bouts of depression over the years. At those times, I often turned to books written by this guy:

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Sir Terence David John Pratchett or Terry Pratchett

At those times, books with a somber tone would have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. Even when the cloud lifted, I turned to Terry’s books. Many have a gorgeous combination of humor and pathos—not an easy combination to get right.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tragedy. Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m totally loving Babylon 5, a series created by J. Michael Straczynski that I somehow missed in the 90s and can now see, thanks to Netflix. It has a wonderful combination of humor and agonizing tragedy. Season 2 is heartbreaking!

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I’m reminded of this passage from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: . . . a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4

Sometimes a heartbreaking story or angsty poetry “speaks” to me. Other times, a laugh-out-loud-funny book is just what I need. So I can’t value one over the other, because they both meet a need at a particular time.

Getting back to the balloon, there’s a time for them too. While recovering from an illness or surgery over the years, nothing heartened me more than a cheerful balloon floating above my bed. There are some things, you never let go of. Balloons are one of those joys I never outgrew.

If you like John Cleese, click here for a great video on laughter. (And no, it’s not a Monty Python video. Sorry.)

Balloons from happypartyidea.com. Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads. Babylon 5 image from brainstomping.wordpress.com.

Energize!

I like to be entertained. I also like looking at this guy.

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Theo James

And since I recently saw an entertaining movie with this guy (Divergent, directed by Neil Burger), well, that’s even better.

But this post isn’t about that movie or Theo James. (Sorry to disappoint. But at least you have a picture.) It’s not even about Star Trek, though the title of course is a command from that series. As I said, I like to be entertained. Writing is a form of entertainment for me. Consequently, I often write blog posts or scenes off the top of my head that I find entertaining without thinking about whether anyone else might agree. Yes, I’m one of those sad people who love to laugh at their own corny jokes. As I draft a novel, ideas for scenes pop into my head thusly: It would be fun to add a bank robbery scene here. So I write the scene and chortle away.

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12088345But as I began the process of reading through and revising my novel, some of the scenes I thought were entertaining seemed less so. In fact, my energy waned just reading them, so I found myself turning to Plants vs. Zombies or email. I didn’t understand why, until I started reading The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. Alderson states the issue succinctly:

A scene that shows the character achieving a short-term goal but that fails to transition effectively to the next scene dissipates the story’s energy. It’s like stepping on a stair that’s missing. The reader knows instinctively that something’s wrong, sighs, and puts down the book. (Alderson 45)

What’s sad is that I put down my own book. Trust me when I say that as much work as crocheting is, I never stop in the middle of a project to check my email or play a round of Plants vs. Zombies. My crocheting projects are too absorbing, and I know how everything fits together. If I decided to add exta stitches for my own entertainment (like adding extra scenes to a story), I would throw the whole pattern off. (By the way, here’s my latest. I’m still making shoes. My life has become a living version of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”)

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So, I get it now. Some scenes have no purpose, because they don’t really further the plot of the novel. They’re just distractions like Theo James above.

Alderson has other advice for fixing problem scenes. I highly recommend that you get her book. I don’t want to give all her tips away, because that wouldn’t be fair to Martha.

I think you know instinctively the scenes that energize your story and those that drain the life out of it. During the draft phase, my pulse quickened as I approached certain scenes involving certain characters. But one character’s scenes consistently gave me fits, because I didn’t really know her all that well. I found myself coming up with fantastic, plotty ideas like the bank robbery scene I alluded to earlier (and I didn’t actually involve her in a bank robbery; that was just an example) to make her part of the story seem more interesting. Silly me. I need to invest the time to get to know her, to find out what’s interesting about her and how she would react in situations, so that her scenes have the energy of instinct. Even if she stood there washing dishes, my knowledge of how she ticks, and how that dishwashing fits her emotional arc, would invest the story with energy and purpose. But that dishwashing scene needs to be strong enough to lead into the next scene—to be the cause that leads to an effect like ripples on a pond.

It’s also like driving. I don’t have to think about how to do it or what I should do in a certain situation. I move by instinct. If I turn the wheel a certain way, I can expect a certain outcome. Same with my characters in a scene. If I know that character A is the jealous type, I need to show that somehow, as well as the consequences of a jealous reaction in a follow-up scene. I can’t have her suddenly robbing banks in the middle of all of that jealousy just to inject excitement. Instead, I could probably turn that bank robbery scene into a short story. But it needs to be cut from the novel.

So much to do! But making my story tighter gives it more energy . . . and me as well.

measuring-tape-around-waist-410x290

Speaking of robbery, I couldn’t resist leaving you with this image:

snowman_robbery

Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011. Print.

Theo James photo from zimbio.com. Tape measure photo from prevention.com/food. Book cover from Goodreads. Bank robber image from lostinidaho.me. Snowman robbery image from jobspapa.com/robber-clip-art.html.