Category Archives: Advice

Who are We and How do we Tell This Story? Subjective Omniscient for the First Time

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Giant Redwoods California San Francisco

In the early 20th Century, third person and first person central became the only point of view that was acceptable for fiction. Omniscient was reserved for children’s books and spy/thriller genres. To my thinking, it was the only authentic point of view, acknowledging the inescapability of our subjectivity.

Editors, teachers, and writers generally contended that omniscient narrators are authoritarian, and we’d entered a non-authoritarian, post-modern age where readers didn’t want to be told what was going on. They wanted to be the protagonist of the book and figure it out on their own. Omniscient narrators were so 19th century.

But some of my favorite 20th C. books are omniscient, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.

With the advent of hybrid genres, more people are breaking out of the mold and mixing narrators like complex cocktails. I’m seeing shifting third person and first person, changing narrative point of view with each chapter, as with There, There by Tommy Orange (about Urban native Americans in Oakland California) and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (about bi and trans people in Nigeria).

Jess Walter wrote The Cold Millions nimbly from multiple points of view, starting with first person narration from a minor character who dies before the book proper even starts, but whose death sets a wheel in motion. The rest of the novel is subjective omniscient narrator with some occasional first person narratives. The omniscient narrator and multiple perspectives seem better designed to give us a bigger story about people in a time and place. It asserts that people are part of their society and their landscape.

How to do it, though, without ill-timed info-dumps?

Walters did it seamlessly (after first person preface) with Chapter 1:

They woke on a ball field, bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Season work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps… (11).

As we see above, we get an areal view of a whole crowd of which the main characters are a part, as well as the landscape where the novel takes place. Walters has tucked backstory into the setting, which sets the stage the class warfare of 1909 in the logging, mining, and farming industries. The second paragraph introduces us to one of the two main characters, Rye:

The sun was just beginning to edge the mountains when Rye Dolan sat up, halfway down the first-base line. He looked across the field of sleeping humps, his older brother, Gig, beside him, curled a few feet from the pitchers mound (11).

Instead of action, we next go to backstory on Gig, his connections with labor unions, and a flashback to the night before that explains how they came to be sleeping on a ball field. This goes on for five pages, before we come back to the the ball field where his brother, Gig wakes up. That’s all the current-day action for the first chapter. The rest of the first chapter is backstory with flash back. It’s not until chapter two that we get real present day action with the cops descending on the hobos with “billies and bats and the handles of axes.”

I was taught the structure of chapter 1 is “a bathtub story,” (character get into a tub, thinks about stuff, and gets out. The term comes from Canadian writer Doug Glover, I believe), and that this was a boring and unacceptable way to go, yet it was the opening of what was called “one of the most captivating novels of the year” by Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. Also– I was taught that the first person appearing in the book should be the main character. Instead, it’s a peripheral character who dies. What it did for me was set the stage: here was a book where first person narrators could die. Here was a world where you thought you were the center of it, and it turned out you weren’t, which historically, is much more accurate than the traditional 21st century first person central novel.

Orange, Emezi and Walter’s narrative structure gave me permission to explore subjective omniscient and multiple narratives in my own novel-in-progress Against the Grain, about an extreme environmental activist who falls in love with the daughter of the logging tycoon clearcutting the redwoods in northern California in 1990. As I navigate this story with a huge cast of characters (including the trees themselves) and various conflicting human interests, I keep returning to Walter’s book for guidance.

So back to the question. How to give historical and biological background without creating an intrusive and unrealistic info dump such as the ones we’ve gotten used to in the TV series Bones and the various incarnations CSI?

Standout Books reminds us not to give information until the reader really needs it, when it’s relevant, or when it’s central to an immediate conflict between characters. Certainly the backstory we get in the first chapter of The Cold Millions helps to explain why hobos are amassing and sleeping in fields, but until Chapter 2, we don’t know why that matters.

More to the point, when does my reader need to learn that giant redwoods have can live 2000 years and respire 500 gallons of water a day? In my rough draft, I’d thrown it down at the beginning of chapter where we meet the heads of Pacific Lumber out in the forest. After much deliberation, I moved it to the chapter where the main character’s father is caught in a mudslide while trying to save the trees he loves. We shall see if it works.

The adventure continues. My first novel, Blue Woman Burning, is an internal narrative, mostly third person point of view, and mostly about the life of the emotions. It feels like the right place for a novelist to start. Now, I’m enjoying the learning curve as I branch out into a novel takes place in the external world with a larger cast of characters, a broader perspective, which is not just about the internal emotional growth of my characters, but about an environmental movement, the trees, and the most important issue of our time: human caused climate change and the battle to save us and the environment from ourselves.

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Other resources on point of view:How to: The Editor’s Blog. History of: Jericho Writers.

Lâle Davidson’s novel Blue Woman Burning about a woman who’s mother magically disappeared on the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, will be published by Red Penguin Books in November of 2021. Her collection of short stories Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for 2016 and is being re-released in October via Amazon. Her stories have appeared in The North American Review, Eclectica, and Gone Lawn among others. She was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburgh Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and The Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. Her story “The Opal Maker” was named top fifty of 2015 very short fiction publications by Wigleaf.  She is a Distinguished Professor who has taught writing for 27 years at a community college where she recently received the Chancellor’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activities (2018). 

Writing Tip: Replenish

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Two Quick Editing Hacks: Remove Filters and Adjectives

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Photo by Elia Pellegrini from Unsplash

Once your story is finished, and all the big things are in place, like setting, character motivation, climax, etc. here are a few editing tips that will make your prose stronger.

  1. Get rid of the “filter” such as “she saw,” “he felt,” “she realized,” “they noticed.” This is called the filter because it filters physical detail though a perceiving consciousness and it generally has a dampening effect. It’s okay to use those terms when you have a good reason to call attention to the character’s perception rather than the physical surroundings. Generally, though, removing the filter forces you to use more active verbs, reduce the number of words, amplify the impact of the physical. Consider these transformations:
He saw a snake ripple in the grass, which startled him. The snake rippled through the grass. He jumped.
She felt like she had been here before.Had she been here before?
He realized he was never going to see his husband the same way again.He was never going to see his husband the same way again.
She fell asleep but woke up when she heard faint music.She fell asleep. Faint music woke her.

2. Use no more than one adjective in a row, and where possible replace adjectives and adverbs with strong verbs. This makes the sentence more vivid and reduces the number of words, while forcing you to construct more active sentences. Consider the following:

The house was full of the scent of fresh-baked bread.The scent of fresh-baked bread filled the house.
The car was loud as it drove by.The car roared past them.
The cats outside my window were fighting loudly all night long.Cats screamed outside my window all night long.
She saw that clouds were coming in rapidly and the sky was turning greenThe sky darkened as clouds raced in.

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Overcoming Writers Block Tip #7: Revise in Layers

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@literarylatte

#stitch with @grimmonds_studios overcoming Writer’s Block, writing in layers #writingtipsandtricks #writertok

♬ Sweden – FamilyJules
Writers can benefit from the idea of writing in layers. You don’t have to get the first paragraph perfect before moving onto the second paragraph. You can write down the broad strokes quickly without critical thought, and return later to add in detail.

Here’s the hard part. There is no particular order or steps for what you should revise in each layer. A quick Google search will reveal a variety of checklists from attention grabber to setting detail, but which do you revise first?

My advice, after you’ve gotten down the first draft, is to ask yourself, what does my character want, and in each scene are they moving toward that desire or away from it? Their movement toward their desire should be thwarted at times, and they themselves should have some trepidation or resistance to change. By the end of the story, the character should have changed, not necessarily for the better. They can go from bad to worse. They can go from stagnant to stuck forever. But there needs to be a change.

Next, you might come back and ask yourself if you have externalized the conflict. The conflict shouldn’t happen all inside their heads or via thought. Instead of having someone think about how annoying a friend is, have the friend come in and do something that annoys them. Also, the resolution shouldn’t be a mere change in thinking-it should be prompted by some external action or event. In Jane Eyre, she doesn’t just decide to return to Rochester at the end, she hears his voice calling her.

When you’ve got your structure, come back and take a look at setting and gesture. Do you have enough? Is the setting doing double duty? Is it relevant? Is it creating mood, developing character, or underscoring a theme?

Next you move to line editing. Here you ask yourself if you are using too many adjectives, or strong enough verbs. I have some editing hacks I’ll share with you in another post.

Finally you proofread. This, for me is the most boring part, because you actually have to stop reading for plot and read only for comma errors, spelling errors, etc. But it has to be done, more than once, and preferably after a break from it all. I always need other readers to help me find my errors. I can proofread three times and not see an error until I come back to it weeks later.

Well, that’s enough for today. Please feel free to add your own comments and tips below.

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Replace or Revamp Clichés

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  • I was thunderstruck
  • Her skin was sunkissed
  • His eyes were bigger than his stomach
  • She was always there for him.
  • He loved her to the moon and back.
  • A chill went down her spine
  • His heart broke
  • He was broken
  • At the end of the day…

A lot of writers would rather be caught dead than caught writing clichés, yet a lot of novice writers don’t realize they’re using them– or actually think they are good. There are many reasons for this. First, we internalize language we like, and uncovering a memory can feel like an invention, second, if you haven’t read a lot, you may not realize how often the phrase has been used, and third, an awful lot of cliché cards and mass market fiction make money.

The problem with cliches (aside from going up in a puff of smoke or being obliterated by the writing police) is that they don’t move people. To the person reading their 105th romance novel, they can be comforting (as when her breast heaves and he gruffly kisses her), but for everyone else it rings hollow and can ruin a good plot.

However, there’s no need to crawl under rock in shame when you write in cliché. Clichés can be place holders when writing a rough draft. Highlight it, keep going, and come back later and meditate on the scene, feel it from the inside, and search for a new way to express it.

A quick fix is to revamp a cliché. “My heart breaks” is old and tired. But “My heart breaks like a stick” (borrowed from a poem I need to track down).

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaewke Emezi is full of inventive similes that help us feel in a new way. Contrast, for example “She ran like the wind,” with “She moved like the ground was falling away beneath her feet, the future running toward her” (Emezi).

Some feel as if they simply cannot come up with new simile or metaphr. If so, try some writing prompts to loosen up, and realize it takes time. Sometimes I’ll write out fifteen different descriptions before I settle on the exact wording or image.

If you suspect something is cliché, ask a friend or search the phrase in Google. If it shows up even once, it’s probably a cliché. It’s always good to be in a writing group or have friends read your work, and above all, keep reading.

Comment below, and let me know if you can’t see the above video without downloading the Tiktok app! I’ve put another version here just in case.

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Describing Oranges: Writing Metaphor

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Metaphor is a natural human invention. We all do it. But some people have forgotten how to do it intentionally and originally. “Sun-kissed skin” is a common metaphor, now a cliché. “I was thunderstruck” is such a common metaphor we don’t even think of it as metaphor. “We’re just chilling,” is a metaphor that has lost its element of surprise but is effective.

This exercise will help you conjure vivid vivid metaphor AND learn about the power of synesthesia. Some of the questions were inspired by Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, an invaluable book, written all the way back in 1973!

Synesthesia is actually a neuro-a-typical condition some people have, where the their senses are cross-wired. For example, they might hear sounds when they see colors or vice versa. It can be a mild condition that enhances writing, or can be extreme and disabling. For writers, it’s a great way to create an ethereal, other worldly, altered state sensation. Give yourself at least 35 minutes to try this. If doing it in class, pause between steps to have students share to assure them when they are on a productive track and steer them when they aren’t.

As with any writing prompts on my site, you are welcome to use them in class, just please mention my name and provide a link to my work. Thanks!

DIRECTIONS (Reserve at least 35 minutes. 60 minutes if sharing)

Take a piece of fruit–oranges are good, but strawberries also work well. Slice it up and distribute. It’s important not to try to do this from memory, but to have the physical object in front of you.

Step 1: Objective Observation and Description ~5 minutes

Describe the fruit physically using all five senses. Keep pen to paper for the entire five minutes. Try to see this orange in a way that you’ve never seen it before. Do not write what you think about it, only what you physically perceive. Avoid metaphor here. Just be a scientist logging what you observe with all senses.

  • Look and describe it in extreme physical detail
  • Touch it and describe
  • Listen to it and describe (twist the rind, taste and listen)
  • Smell it and describe
  • Taste it and describe

Step 2: Free-Association, a Brainstorming Session ~ 5 minutes

Write everything that oranges make you think of. What do you associate them with? This is a a very quick brainstorming exercises exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing; you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.

Step 3: Create Metaphor-Brainstorming and Selecting ~7 minutes

You are now being asked to free-associate like in Step 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with, keep brainstorming until you find certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it. When you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah,” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly. Be selective, but don’t be overly selective. If you stall, throw something down and move to the next question.

  1. Smell it. How does the smell move inside your nose? (I love this, because scent is VERY evocative of other emotions, but also hard to describe concretely. This is a great workaround… does it bubble, fizz, explode, creep…?
  2. Smell it. If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?
  3. Taste it. If the taste was an event (party, conference, church service, battle, etc…) what kind of event would it be?
  4. Look at it: What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?
  5. Imagine: If this fruit was a building (office building, Guggenheim Museum, hut, etc…) what kind of building would it be? And if you went inside this building, what would it be like?
  6. Free-Associate: If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather, what kind of weather would it be?
  7. Feel it. Focus on the feel/texture of this fruit. If the feeling or texture was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?
  8. Listen to it: When you bend the skin next to your ear (watch your eyes!) or when you chew on the fruit, what does it sound does it sound like? What other things sound like this?
  9. Imagine: If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?
  10. If this was a form of transportation, what would it be? Train, plain, ox-cart? What would it feel like to ride it?

See? Who needs drugs. All the benefits and none of the side effects.

Step 4: Read and Select ~ 2 minutes

Read over this mad scribble and underline anything you like. Don’t try to pick out things that relate or make sense, you’re just looking for the most vivid nuggets, the things you wrote that truly surprised you, that maybe don’t even sound like you.

Step 5: Revise and Shape ~10 minutes

Fashion some kind of statement about oranges in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations. From that, you could turn it into flash fiction or poetry, using line breaks. Try to find the revelation buried in the piece, the moment when something is discovered, or a leap of association is made that is particularly thought provoking. Put that at the end of the piece. Voila!

Resources:

To learn more about synesthesia, watch this video Seeing Sound and search Ted.com for others.

Examples of metaphors:

...an eagle
was perched on a jag of burnt pine,
insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms
of his shoulders...   - Robinson Jeffers
Summer was slack
a dog chain with it's dog gone... - Michael Chitwood
Examples of synesthesia:
The oriole, a charred and singing coal
still burns aloud among the monuments... - Amy Clampitt
The dark hills at evening in the west
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors underground  - Edwin Arlington Robinson

Please comment below- adding ideas, links to other prompts or letting me know how it went!

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Overcoming Writer’s Block Tip #6: Write What You Want to Write When You Want to Write It!

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Photo by Suhash Villuri on Unsplash

Sometimes, when writing a story, we get bogged down by the erroneous notion that we should write in order, from beginning to end. We may have an idea for the ending, but can’t figure out how to start, so we sit and wrack our brains, staring at the ceiling.

I’m here to tell you that the writing police won’t arrest you if you write the end or the middle first! You may leave the ending at the beginning or write the story working back from the end. The key here is to follow the energy. Ignore the voice that says “You should do X first.” Instead, follow the voice that says, “I’m excited to do Y.”

I wrote the climax of the novel right after I wrote the opening paragraphs because the inspiration struck. Later, as I approached the end of the novel, I became more and more worried about whether I could pull off the ending. When I finally came to it, I re-read the climax I had written almost a year before. I ended up revising it, but that first draft gave me the courage to hammer out a new ending.

When I began my second novel, I started by inventing my own theory about ghosts. I didn’t even have a plot. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. In the past I might have bogged down with despair, telling myself all kinds of untrue things. But I was having so much fun writing it, so I kept going, even though I didn’t know what it was or where it would lead. Later, I was glad it was written, because it had become boring to me. Instead I was all about plot, and as I was sorting out my character’s interactions with ghosts, I was glad to have my supernatural rules mapped out.

Here’s a Corollary: Digressions are Maps. Even if you are writing things that are digressions or not that interesting as scenes, write them anyway, because you need to write them in order to understand your plot or your character. You can always take them out later. Every once in a while, a student will hand me a story that starts with a long summary of the world the story is set in. Instead of telling them, “You did this wrong,” I tell them, “These first pages are your notes, your sketch. It’s important you wrote them, but the reader doesn’t need to read them. You can jump in with the action.

Happy writing!

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Describing Faces: Significant Detail

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Most novice writers, when describing their characters, mention only hair and eye color and figure they’re done. However, hair and eye color are the least telling aspects of a person. You don’t have to tell us a lot about how your character looks, but give us some physical details that set them apart from other people and somehow symbolize their character, such as a wide mouth for someone who is expressive and has lavish appetites, or a Roman nose for someone who has that certain gravitas.What we mean by significant detail, is detail that does double duty, that tells us how a person looks as well as how they feel or behave, what kind of personality they have. The length of their eyelashes or color their hat is irrelevant when they are setting by a hospital bed watching their mother die of cancer. However, their bitten fingernails or dark circles under their eyes are significant.

A good way to develop your ability to describe people is to practice. I’ve composed a series of faces, paired only by similarity of hair and eye color to show you how DIFFERENT people of the same hair and eye color look.

Directions: Spend 60 seconds per slide. Quickly write down what distinguishes one face from the other by describing one or both faces using concrete detail about the shape and composition of face and features. Think about the spacing of the nose or eyebrows, or about the shape of the chin or forehead. Do NOT use judgement words (such as pretty, handsome, ugly, mean) or make assessments about personality. Simply describe what you SEE. This can be hard, at first. Try one or two slides with your writing group or in class. Compare notes, then continue. If you get stuck, try some of the metaphors from the sites below.

URL:

500 Ways to Describe Faces: While I don’t hold with everything said on this site, it has some great ideas in the first three sections for face shape, colors and animal metaphors. For this exercise, avoid the opinion adjectives like (“frank” or “cheerful”). This is not a permanent ban, just a temporary one until you get a handle on really seeing and describing the physical.

Don’t stop practicing here. Keep a notebook with you or use your phone note taker, and when you’re standing in line at the store or sitting in a coffee shop, do some people watching and try to jot down one or two significant and distinguishing physical traits of the people in front of you. If you find you are always describing chins and noses, force yourself to notice different traits like forearms and feet.

Happy writing!

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Is it Okay to Use True Stories to Make Fiction?

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This it TikTok post that relates to yesterday’s post.

@lalette.a.tete

New Country, New School, New Reality, the truth in fiction at laledavidson.com#booktok #indiebookstore #writertok

♬ original sound – Lale Davidson, (she, her)

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Tips on Writing Dialogue

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Here are three quick tips on dialogue. No comments on my stellar acting, please! If you can’t watch this video, try this:

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