First Relationships

From the series Breathing Life

A young student at co-op started cleaning my table before I’d finished eating. Realizing I wasn’t moving my food, she politely said, “Excuse me; I need to wipe this table.”

I scanned my area for the usual crumbs, and there weren’t any. I told her, “All clean here!”

She hesitated, the wet wipe hanging limply from her fingers. “But I have to wash here.”

I explained to her that it was her job to wash away dirt and food, but there wasn’t any dirt or food.

She nodded and walked away, but her expression told me she was still perplexed. She was supposed to wipe down the table, and she had not done that. What to do! What to do!

We humans tend to do things because we are told to do them. This behavior begins before we have the maturity to understand the reasons behind what we do. As we get older, we begin to study the principles and concepts we live by. (The sheep-like behavior remains only if we feel pressured to conform or lack impetus to change.)

This account of the first man and woman was not written to teach Adam and Eve; it was written to teach a people who were becoming a nation. They needed to understand where they’d come from and what was expected of them. So, the Author of Genesis 2 sets down a major principle immediately after Adam makes his observation about the woman God had made.

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24

Image by Keriography. Used by permission.

Two relationships are mentioned here. Leaving father and mother refers to the parent-child relationship. The second relationship is a union between Adam and Eve.

The first man didn’t have a mom and dad to leave, and neither did the first woman. So, why does the Author record this rule right after Adam meets Eve? It’s a reminder to me that Adam and Eve are not the audience.

Every word expressed by a writer is made to say something. A writer’s challenge is to deliver a message or concept so that the reader can grasp it, examine it, and, hopefully, use it. The audience is always there in the back of the writer’s mind, the impetus for him/her to change and develop the approach to better communicate with the reader.

Reviewing what I know about the audience of Genesis 2 – a fledgling group of Hebrews who have escaped slavery in Egypt – I can gather they are undergoing a reconstruction. They are developing their own civilization, and the covenant between this first man and first woman is crucial. This marriage covenant is the cornerstone of their societal development. They are a nation establishing laws, rituals, and procedures that will be more advanced than any of the neighboring peoples around them for many centuries.

According to this passage, the marriage relationship takes precedence over the parent-child relationship. The Israelite nation under Moses was organized according to the twelve tribes of Jacob. Sons inherited tribal land from their fathers (and, in some cases, their mother’s first husband’s tribe). This land could be rented out but would always return to the family tribe. So, a son’s relationship with his father and mother was tantamount to his identity as a citizen of the nation. His relationship to his family was extremely important, but this passage makes it clear his relationship to his parents was not to eclipse the union of a man to his wife. This honor in the marriage relationship is depicted in Adam’s feelings toward Eve.

“And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

She is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. She belongs with him as he belongs with her. She is his companion in life. (Parents are not a person’s life companions, though they hold an honorable position.) Knowing she is made the same as he, his natural behavior toward her would be to treat her as he would treat himself. Her flesh is to be his flesh, meaning he would not want to harm his own body, so he would not harm hers. He would not shame himself, therefore he would not shame her. He would not deprive himself of physical and emotional care; he would not deprive her of that same care.

It’s a basic understanding of a relationship that spans millennia, and that principle is expressed in two sentences. Amazing, isn’t it?

Writing Tip Recap: A writer communicates the message best when he/she keeps in mind the audience to whom it is being written.

This is the last of the Breathing Life series. You may wonder why verse 25 of Genesis 2 is missing. After studying it, I came to the conclusion it fits perfectly with the thought flow of Genesis 3. So, I will keep that for a future series.

For a list of the posts, check the “Breathing Life” page.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

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5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined the story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi/fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction writers who are flunking the story pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things.

1. I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I become the unwilling listener. You are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one who paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

2. I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When your character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

3. I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

4. I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, that is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

5. Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there”? It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t become sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?

Bubble Trouble

Do you writers ever find yourself stymied by having to do things just so to get the creativity flowing? The ritual must be performed, or you end up not writing at all? My desk has this powerful, just so aura around it. (I posted a tribute of sorts to my desk in all its unsorted glory called Desktopsy.) My characters surge to the forefront of my antsy brain when I sit down in my cushy desk chair. (I wrote about my chair, too. Twice. I’m beginning to see a pattern in my blog topic choices.) When I take my place in front of my desk, I enter the word crafter’s bubble, invisible to the naked eye… and probably to the clothed eye, as well.

The boundaries of this bubble must not be breached for any reason. If the house is on fire, save yourselves! My mind is afire and must not be interrupted! For this reason I’m thinking of wearing pajamas every time I write. Just in case. They are all made of flame-retardant material now, which might come in handy. (It sure doesn’t do a bit of good for sleeping. My kids have not combusted yet, fortunately, but they do wake up sweaty and smelly in their flame-retardant jammies.)

Rituals are good and all, but this desk dependence needs adjusting. I want to take my bubble with me. It should be the slave of my quill, not the master. So, my friends, I’ve done the impossible. I am, presently, not writing at my desk. I’m writing in bed. Yes, I’m onto something here. I’m on my bed. (Ugh.) You see, I knew I’d have to spoil myself to make any true change. My Pandora RillaWriter station is playing through my ear buds, and it’s time to immerse myself in the enchanted world of King Draill and Lady Esda. I’ll let you know how it goes.

P.S. My deepest sympathies go out to all of the flame-retardant-jammied children. My legs are already feeling moist in these sticky pajama pants. 😦

Save the Dangling Characters!

I needed to read Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft by M J Wright this past week. I’ve been beating myself up lately. Here’s why:

I began a story last year in a flurry of excitement. I finished chapter 10 or 11, and the going got tough. After writing approximately 30,000 words, I started to wonder, “Is this really good? Am I wasting my time?” It was the “make or break” phase. My fear of commitment kicked in. I thought, “What if I invest in these characters, fall in love with them, and find out they aren’t who I think they are?” Weird? Maybe, but that’s how I tick. So, what did I do? I hung it up. Left it. Left my characters dangling. I don’t want to admit to you how many characters I do this to. It’s painful.

And I hate to quit. So I told myself, “You are going to finish this, even if it’s bad!” I wanted to commit to the project, to put my heart into it, but I couldn’t. I needed to know my characters were lovable, relatable. I needed feedback to continue.

None of that friend-y stuff would do. I’m talking about your best friend who reads three lines and says, “Oh, this is wonderful! You’re such a great writer! I don’t know why you’re not submitting to every publisher!” I needed the real reaction of the reader who wasn’t influenced by my wonderful personality and incredible wit. (heh)

Where could I find that? Where could I find an audience who would only pay attention to the story? If it was good, I’d know it by the following it garnered.

This is where I cracked. I gave up the dream of professionally publishing the book. I changed the story up a bit and posted it on Fanfiction, knowing I was giving it away for free. Why? Isn’t that like shooting myself in the foot? Ah, my friend, a free book is better than no book at all.

I’m deep in my latest obsession, The Kiss of the Gobboling King. It’s one of those fairytale-revisited works. It’s fun. It’s freeing. No requirements. No target audience. It’s already found a little following. Readers tell me they like Esda and Draill, so I feel safe that these characters won’t disappoint me. I can love them unreservedly. I can finish the story.

Is it written the way I imagined it, shined and polished for the bookstore shelf? No. It’s a first draft. But when I’m finished, it will be the entire first draft. That’s what matters.

When I Meet the Bad Guy

Some time ago I read a draft of a story written in the point of view of the villain. Let me say upfront that I was entirely judging this character to be in the wrong, and I wanted to explore the character’s actions. I wanted to consider the story from her perspective.

The author began with an objective voice. It was great…for the first few paragraphs. Then something happened and my interest waned. I closed the book. Later, I asked myself, “Where did that story go wrong? It started out promising!”

It doesn’t matter which character’s eyes I’m seeing the story through; for a bad guy to be, well, good, I need some questions answered.

1. When I meet Cruel Bob, I will ask him,

“What’s Your Last Name?”

There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where the guy, named Guy, knows he’s going to die because he has no last name. He panics because he has no hobbies, no love interest, no back story, nothing. He knows he’ll be the first to go. As Captain James Hook would say, this is “bad form” for any villain who is going to be around for a while.

Leroux’s Phantom was given great context, both in the revelation of his past and in his residence under the Opera House. [Scan of still of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Cruel Bob’s a cardboard character (aka, the two-dimensional chump) who needs context, or he won’t matter to me. I want to know his temperament, his tendencies, his surroundings–anything that will help me understand who he is right when I meet him. I want to relate to him, if only to roundly hate him.

Even a drunken, violent character has his times when I can see the struggling person inside. The manipulative liar has his weak moments, when I see his doubts creep in. He’s still the bad guy, but a bad guy with a human element.

2. I will ask that devious Madame Vitriol,

“What’s Your Problem?”

In real life, it would be much easier if people would go around with “bad guy” and “good guy” signs, but in reality everyone chooses what he/she will be. They have a past and a reason for doing what they do. It’s often the motivation from their past that helped create their present path. We all have a motive. What is the catalyst for your baddie’s behavior?

The scene where Willoughby cuts off a lock of Marianne’s hair. John Willoughby was by nature a man moved by the moment, and by nurture he could afford to live recklessly. [By Hugh Thomson. (A scan from the book Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
For a writer, motives become characters in themselves. A trickster can make a bad motive look like it’s good, and, sometimes, even a character with a good motive can behave in a bad way. So, tell me about those interesting events early on in Madame’s life that changed her. This helps me to better understand her and want to keep reading.

3. Then I will ask Mr. Eville von Furioso,

“Do You Come With Commentary?”

There are characters who are clearly wrong in what they do and think, but an author who uses the narrative to harp on this is really doing the reader a disservice. The story I mentioned at the beginning of the post is a good example. The author didn’t keep the objectivism. The emotion welled up before my eyes as the lines progressed. At first, the character waited patiently, set things in order, considered the merits of her work, etc. Then the phrases and words changed. Her ‘lip curled in disgust,’ she ‘ordered,’ and she ‘demanded.’ The author’s perspective took over the story.

I don’t want to be told your baddie is cruel, manipulative, delusional, misguided, or fiendish. This isn’t persuading me, it’s hitting me over the head with a thick Board of Obvious. What if each book drew a bright highlighter through the bad guy’s every action by using adjectives with negative connotations? What if each encounter with that character was weighted down with biased phrases? A good story should give me the pieces to help me draw that conclusion for myself.

In life I have to exercise my critical thinking skills to protect myself because the world has some people who are not nice living in it. Those who have the greatest influence on the way I think are the ones I’ve come to know personally. When I meet a real, living mean person, who is sometimes warmly sympathetic and sometimes cold and heartless, I have to learn to see past emotions and realize when that person is doing something wrong.

The book characters who mimic real-life people are the ones with whom I become emotionally attached. Mr. von F can’t resonate if he comes with the author’s complimentary “view my character this way” specs. I won’t remember him. So, please, leave the Board of Obvious at home and help me work my way through Eville’s schemes organically.

Being a fan of the character-based novel, I’m looking for a good bad guy. He/She must have (1) Context, (2) Motive, and (3) No Complimentary Commentary. I’m not saying the world would be a better place if authors did this, but I can think of a few books that would be better books.

“Fat.” There, I Said It.

I have two copies of the first book in The Bobbsey Twins series. One is a 1961 edition, and the other is from 1989. My kids and I found, while reading along with these two versions, that an adjective from the nicknames of the youngest set of Bobbsey twins had been removed. Flossie is nicknamed “my fat little fairy” by her father, and Fred has the loving epitaph, “fat little fireman.” “Fat” was completely missing in the 1989 version.

“The Bobbsey twins were very busy that morning. They were all seated around the dining-room table, making houses and furnishing them…” By Carla Pettigrew Hufstedler [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
After the kids and I discovered this, we had a good laugh. The connotation of “fat” in the U.S. is much different from its harmless meaning fifty years ago. How about centuries ago? Wasn’t fatness a desired quality during the Renaissance? One risked being considered impoverished and easily susceptible to disease without a healthy display of bulk.

My kids are slender. They are all good eaters, but I have a child who tends to lose weight easily when she’s sick. I’m always trying to plump her up with cheese and spoonfuls of peanut butter. She often requests to melt the peanut butter with chocolate chips. That works for me.

Sometimes she will ask me if a food she enjoys will help her get fat.

“Mom, are these Kippers good for making me fat?”

“Mom, can we get those Little Debbie domino brownies at the store?”

I can’t stand those.

She knows it, so she adds, “I think they will help me get fat.”

In our fat-phobic society, a nickname like “my fat little fairy” or “my fat little fireman” is tottering on abusive language. If you use a similar phrase as a term of endearment, you might be blamed for your child’s years of therapy. So, don’t do that. Just stick to something noncommittal, like “nice” or “sweet.”

What about using “fat” as a writer? Do you find you avoid certain words and phrases merely because they could be offensive to that reader whose pet pug is going to need a dog whisperer because you didn’t think anything of naming your main character’s dog Pudgy Purple Pug? Or have you ever wondered what harmless adjectives, names, or even ideals might be offensive in later years?

No, never.

I don’t either. Not at all.

Stone Doors, Forts, and Flutes

On the Beersheba Springs side of Savage Gulf, there is a huge gap in the ridge of the Cumberland Plateau known as Stone Door. Before they were called Native Americans :), the Indians carved out steps through this breach. It is quite impressive.

I read somewhere—and I can’t find it now—that the Indians who crossed the Stone Door used it as a migratory route every year. This is what piqued my interest. For two years, I searched online for pictures of this Stone Door. I couldn’t find any that comprehensively depicted it, and now I know why. The gap is just twisty enough that you can’t get it all in one shot.

Stone Door at Savage Gulf
Stone Door at Savage Gulf

There are pictures of the gap from the sky. There are pictures at the entrance of the Stone Door and at the bottom. But seeing the whole thing is something you can’t experience through a photo.

Obviously, there are many things you can’t experience about this place from looking at a photo. There’s a cave-like coolness between the walls of stone, only you’re in an open corridor with rock on both sides of you reaching high, high above. There are places where the steps take you beside a flat slab of stone where you can rest; and, if you’re lucky like me, you’ll find a few friendly creepy crawlies that have come to rest there, too.

That ledge under my hand is Creepy-Crawly Central.
That ledge under my hand is Creepy-Crawly Central.

Miles southwest of Beersheba Springs is a place called Old Stone Fort, where the Indians created mounds that surround a 50-acre plot of land situated in the fork of two rivers. It was an excellent place in terms of defense, but there isn’t any evidence that it was used that way. At the opening, the mounds are narrowed and parallel, so that the sun’s position could be utilized at sunrise during the summer solstice. We hiked the one-and-a-quarter-mile diameter of the mounds; and when we came back to the entrance, Zeke from the museum was giving a small talk about some of the pastimes of the Indians. I wasn’t really interested, and would’ve walked on, but he picked up something that looked like a wooden recorder and began to play.

“Oh, let’s listen!” I said, and we walked over. That’s when I recorded this:

After he finished playing, he told a story of a young Indian warrior who excelled in the hunt. He liked a girl in the camp, but she never seemed to notice him. For her, he learned to run the fastest, outrunning all the other warriors. No one could outshine him. But she was not impressed. He was heartbroken and went to the stream to soothe his sorrows with the music of the waters. While he sat there, he heard a strange and beautiful melody he had never heard before. He listened and searched, and, finally, he found the source of the music. The sticks of cane growing in the water had been broken, and the birds had pecked holes along them to get to the bugs that were living inside the wooden tubes. The wind was blowing through their hollow centers, creating the notes he’d been hearing! He learned to make his own flute from the cane and practiced for many days. One morning, he sat outside the girl’s tent and played a song for her. She came out of her tent, for she was impressed. And that was how she came to love him, and how we got the flute!

I just love legends like that! Don’t you?

So, what do stone doors, Indian mounds, and legends have to do with my book? Sorry; that would be giving away too much.