The Holiday Season brings with it a panoply of emotions. Few people are indifferent about the customary celebrations. For any number of valid reasons, people either love or hate Christmas. As writers, we should do our best to note and harness these feelings to use in our writing.
How often does one experience sheer childlike delight as an adult? Pay attention to how it feels both physically and emotionally. Take notes. Store it away. Love, gratitude, faith, and the darker emotions of sadness, frustration, resentment, disappointment and the resulting anger also have their place. Analyze their causes and how they make you and those around you feel and act. Again, write it down and file it away.
Painters often take photographs to capture objects and scenes for later use in the studio. With the advent of digital cameras and smart phones, writers can, and should, do the same thing. Make a quick note, in a quiet moment, of how the subjects of these photographs make you feel. Write down your similes and metaphors as they come to mind. Don’t forget the sense of smell. It is often responsible for our strongest emotional responses.
Of course, unless you’re already branded as the family eccentric, don’t do all this writing during Christmas dinner. Find a private moment later to make a few cryptic notes. Smart phones have note-taking aps. If you absolutely can’t wait until you get home, use them to discretely record your impressions. You can fill in the details later when you remember the conversations around the table and Aunt Sue’s reaction to receiving a sweater two sizes too small in her most hated color from her sister, who certainly knows better. (Change names and details and you have a perfect conflict or climax for a short story.) Pay special attention to speech patterns and colorful expressions used by family members. Yes, you’ve heard all this for years, but have you ever paid attention well enough to reproduce these idiosyncrasies on paper?
Please remember you cannot publish photographs or names without the subjects’ consent, but you can certainly use them to inspire characters or remind you of details. Another word of caution: do not voice record anyone without their knowledge and consent. Hard feelings, even lawsuits—and, in the worst cases, criminal charges—can result.
Now. Take a deep breath and enjoy the day. No matter how you celebrate—alone with a frozen dinner in front of the TV or in a house bursting with four generations of relatives—take the time to notice the internal and external details of your experience. Your writing will benefit, and you may find yourself looking forward to a celebration you might normally dread.
I have been laid up for a few days after surgery. The doctor told me to do nothing for at least a week. By nothing he meant no dishes, laundry or cooking or working at a preschool with little ones who, if they were people yet, would be gross. So I took off work for the week and turned my bed into a cushiony castle and began writing.
Well, write I have. I have completed two children's picture books with illustrations. And more than that I have systematically sent them to agents and publishing houses.
I have received three rejection letters or rather I-am-not-taking-on-any-new-clients-at-this-time-emails which is not the same as rejection. I thanked one lady for her timely response with hugs. For her to get back so quickly and on a Sunday, she too was probably in a bed tented with a blanket and a bit under the weather.
One of the agents caught my eye with the pronouncement that she likes to shepherd books. It took me back to the two weeks I spent on a sheep farm at shearing time. If she does shepherd those books, she has to first separate the lambs from the ewes.
Because I was new and a girl, the boss sent me into the small enclosure where sheep stood pressed together. They were a heaving woolly mass. I squeezed among them trying to peer about for the little ones that had nimbly slipped into the wrong pasture. The men were elbowing each other and laughing at me. The ewes were tall and the lambs were completely covered. They had sent me on a hazing mission and I knew it. After guffawing at me they lifted up the gate and sent the sheep running into the next paddock. I caught the two lambs that had escaped and the curt nod the boss gave me was a grudging acceptance that maybe I was not completely useless after all.
In the same way, books need to be separated. There are the ewes which are complete, useful and ready for the world with a little agent-tweaking. The lambs may be cute but they aren't ready yet and need culling.
I swept the shearing shed and helped drench the lambs to remove parasites and worms. I also worked building a shearing men's quarters. I cut wood with a bandsaw, laid insulation paper and hammered like a fiend.
And from my vantage point high above the fields on top of the cinder blocks I watched the sheep. Sheep don't see well and need guiding. They cannot cross a rushing stream because if the water tosses them on their backs they get cast. Their wet wool weighs so much that once on their back they can't get up without help.
They are gentle darling creatures. I especially loved seeing them spring into the air after shearing. With their burden lifted, they leap for joy.
So I sent my lamb of a book, my precious pages that need guiding into the world to the agent who likes to shepherd. I hope she wants to nurture it further.
Now, I must wait. Something I confess that I hate to do, but there are my other lamb-books that need writing and polishing.
We held onto hope that my husband Kurt would beat this cancer. The first brain tumor appeared four years ago. The brain surgeon removed all the cancer he could see, but he had to leave a few cells near the speech center of the brain or Kurt would be unable to communicate.
My writing time turned victim to this new priority. Whereas I had been a prolific writer, I now wrote sporadically. I could have written during Kurt’s recovery from surgery, but I didn’t. He went through chemo and six weeks of radiation. I could have written in the waiting room, but I didn’t. Writing was fading into my past. Kurt’s healing was all I could think about.
Then a second and later third tumor appeared, and Kurt again underwent chemo and six weeks of radiation. Again, I could have written while in the waiting room, but I didn’t. By that time, I was starting to lose hope of continuing my writing career. Yet I continued to have hope that Kurt would be healed.
When a fourth tumor appeared, Kurt resumed chemo treatments. I sat quietly in the waiting room. I could have been writing, but I didn’t.
Four years had passed. Kurt felt good most of the time which gave us great hope. While I wrote infrequently throughout those years, during the last two months of his life his health declined fast, and writing never entered my mind. I sat with Kurt. I held his hand. I told him how much I loved him.
When he passed away, hope passed with him. I vowed I would be sad forever. Being sad certainly did not include resuming my writing career. Sadness destroyed hope.
After Kurt died, I had to buy cemetery plots. We hadn’t even done that because of the hope we held that he was going to beat brain cancer. My daughters helped me locate a beautiful burial spot under a tall oak tree.
Then, I needed to choose a headstone. I looked through a brochure and found a double heart, black granite headstone. I fell in love with the marker and added a personal touch to its design. Besides our names and dates appearing on the stone, I included our occupations. What a great tribute that would be! Kurt was an artist, so I asked for an artist’s palette and paintbrushes along with the word “artist” to be engraved by his name. An open book and fountain pen along with the word “writer” were to be engraved by my name.
Now that Kurt was gone, there was plenty of time to write but there was no desire or inspiration. I had vowed to be sad forever and that allowed no room for creativity.
The day arrived when the headstone was finished and set into place at the cemetery. Tears filled my eyes as I stood by his grave. There was his name carved in granite. The headstone made it real. There was no hope. Kurt was not returning.
Eventually, my eyes focused on the word “writer” engraved above my name. How could I not write? My occupation was in plain view for everyone visiting the cemetery.
A few days later, a story my mother had relayed to me came to mind, and I wrote and submitted it as an “as told to” story. The following week, an editor from a publication that had published numerous stories of mine invited me to write a story for an upcoming theme.
Yes, I will be forever sad that Kurt is gone, but I realize that sadness does not mean my writing career had to end. My occupation has returned with new hope that I will remain inspired the rest of my life. After all, “writer” is engraved on my headstone for all to see—and for me to live up to.
Tremendous opportunities exist in first person writing. In short stories, this personal point of view can make work stand out when being evaluated by a publisher. Intimacy is established from the first sentence.
When done well, the first person narrative allows readers to become the ‘I’ character. It affords the writer freedom to indulge in emotional roller-coaster rides and lyrical descriptions of scenes that would be considered overwritten from any other viewpoint.
When the narrator is also the embodiment of evil, a rare occurrence, it is a highly effective technique. In the same way that traffic can become grid-locked by motorists gawking at an accident scene, so too is the reader captivated by the mind of the villain.
We plunge into the story, our disdain growing with each heinous demonstration of flawed character, and search for an answer to how the main character can think or act in such a manner. In a nutshell, the reader wants to know why? However, in order to ensure reader satisfaction, the writer must balance the tale with heroes. We cannot allow the darker side to go unchallenged. The reader wants good to win over evil.
Imagine the story of Little Red Riding Hood written from the wolf’s point of view. The poor old guy is just plain hungry and the forest is his supermarket. The woodsman who saves our little heroine has been chopping down trees indiscriminately, causing the fauna to scatter. The pickings are meager and suddenly, out of nowhere, providence seems to deliver a meal wearing a red cloak. The wolf can’t believe his luck, but understands human prey is more challenging than the rabbits he once devoured. Surely, even a wolf has a right to survive, and so the deception to lure his dinner to grandma’s bedside begins.
The story ends with his tragic death, exactly as written in its original form, but the reader experiences both relief that the little girl survived, mixed with understanding and a sense of sorrow for the hungry wolf. Yes, the wolf must have the last word. The story ends when he dies.
Another rarely used first-person perspective is that of an unreliable narrator. In this case, the writer fools the reader into believing everything the main character is saying, doing and feeling is true, only to discover he is misguided, mentally ill or a manipulator who lies to himself about his own actions or responsibility for the crisis in the story. When used in flash fiction, this point of view can add to the drama when the closing twist is revealed.
The traditional ‘I/ME’ first person narrator is standard in memoirs and autobiographies. When used in fiction, it short-cuts the character introduction by giving the writer an easy and immediate access to the protagonist’s thoughts. While the benefits of this intimacy are evident, two major challenges trip up many writers.
A writer cannot report what is going on in another character’s head. Other characters’ thoughts need to be broadcast using dialogue or qualified by behavior. The main character must explain how he knows something or he must describe an expression or action he observes that allows him to reach that conclusion. Two lines of dialogue that might be used during an argument might look like this:
“I know you’re angry with me,” I said.
“You have no idea what I’m thinking,” John said. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
The writer MUST put words in John’s mouth before the reader is going to accept what his reaction may be.
Everything in the story must reflect what the main character senses, sees or hears. I might imagine what John thinks and am entitled to speculate, but I don’t know. But if John throws his plate across the room or slams his fist on the table, his actions indicate to everyone that John is angry.
If something is happening elsewhere, unseen by the first-person character, it can’t be included unless someone reports the incident. One way to overcome this issue might be worded in a variation of the following:
I wasn’t aware that John was having an affair, nor that we were financially insolvent until rumours began and my best friend told me what she’d seen hours before our fight.
The writer can then go on to detail the information without dialogue, presenting the conversation as fact but, again, it must be filtered through the person telling the story.
Monotony is deadly in any story, but it is a major obstacle in writing first person point of view. The author must avoid the overuse of the word I at the beginning of sentences. On the up-side, the writer’s awareness and conscientious effort to rephrase sentences to avoid this trap usually leads to much better writing.
The intimacy of a first-person story creates a connection readers experience, often akin to being welcomed into the writer's private sanctuary--well worth the added effort. Hero, heroine, villain or interested bystander, the first person point of view is well worth exploring.
N.K. Wagner is the Executive Editor and Publisher of Page & Spine.