Thursday, December 26, 2013

2014 Publishing Goals

Here are a dozen journals I'd like to crack this coming year, with various levels of difficulty:

1. 3am. I've been trying to get in there for years. Not sure why I haven't.
2. North Dakota Quarterly. Very good and very hard.
3. Pithead Chapel. Online journal I've been trying to crack for a few months.
4. Permafrost. Solid online journal.
5. Southern Poetry Review. Good luck to me.
6. Idaho Review. These are getting increasingly more difficult...
7. Louisville Review. Been trying to crack this for a while.
8. North American Review. Yeah, I know.
9. Poet Lore. I did a reading at the Writers Center in Bethesda...that should count for something, right?
10. Off the Coast. Nice journal in Maine.
11. Cutbank. Been trying to crack this for years.
12. The Pinch. Been trying to crack this forever.

Of course, for me to get work into these journals, I'll have to write some short fiction and poetry, which I haven't in a while.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Some Older Poems

I've been editing a poetry manuscript, and here are some poems that didn't make the cut. A few of these are decent. Some are awful. Most were published in journals that no longer exist.


Love is not a flower. Flowers smell sweet and invite bees; love,
when it’s done right, doesn’t smell sweet at all, more of a stale musk,

that most of us wash off as soon as we gather the strength
to go for a shower. Some flowers have thorns, and sometimes love

employs similar devices; though you would like to think this was a one-time thing
you just did in college because you were experimenting,

and just because you think about it from time to time in wistful tones,
doesn’t make it unhealthy.

Flowers take months to grow, properly. Love
rarely requires more than a half hour, though flowers don’t turn

sulky backs to you whenever you get a little too excited

thinking about your third grade science teacher, Mrs. Freemont,
who wore those stockings that only came up to her knees,
and sometimes when she bent over a student’s desk, her dress
would ride up a little and you could see the tops of them,
and even though she was in her late thirties, she still had damn fine legs;
then immediately fall asleep, dreaming of deep valleys

full of dull stumps covered by water that laps just at their tips.

Love will make you breakfast, though I can’t guarantee
the quality of the coffee, and though I used to have a friend

who, when he'd been drinking, would sneak into strangers’ gardens
and eat their roses, most of us don’t consider flowers a proper meal.

Flowers require cultivation, care, and love also needs attention,
but you can’t send flowers to themselves,

to make up for last night, with the thorns.

And if love sets you sneezing,
you’d best see someone about it.

At the end of the day, when you’ve suffered abuse
enough to break anyone, love will sit you down,

with a cup of tea, to watch old movies,

something with Jimmy Stewart, or Grace Kelly; whereas flowers
will never cancel their plans and stay home to water you.

* * *
The Neighbors' Weave

The vacant lot behind our house is
a carpet laid down for birds;
a green shag swaying in the slow ceiling fan breeze.
That and the blue white toothpaste clouds
settling in the porcelain sink of the sky
remind us this is someone else's home.

Buildings, like furniture placed oddly
to hide stains in a rug,
threaten the natural feng-shui of things–
the mirrored tops of lakes are forgotten, flower
beds are placed out of sight of doorways . . .
I wonder if the birds see our neighborhood
as a series of squatter shacks.

We throw out bread that the birds don't eat,
and water blueberries that they do
in a plot that's ours for now,
but someone else's when the lease is up.

Men are pulling the carpet up in the vacant lot;
revealing a clean scrubbed floor of dirt beneath,
waiting for someone to track cement across it.

* * *

Crouched above me like a gazelle
dipping its neck to drink – your thighs –

a yellow cream. I leaned up,
clamped my mouth to your sex.

It gave you pause. Your head
lifted and froze and you didn't make a sound.

It’s good that no matter the weight of days
that press us apart,

I still know how to make you quiet.

* * *
The People Below Us

could be studying the music they listen to
so loudly. They could be filling their minds,
not just their ears. They could be discussing
philosophy as they smoke pot on their balcony.
Maybe they have cancer, maybe the meds
keep them up late and the noise of living
is all that drowns out their dying. Or maybe
it's me, drowning, studying. Maybe I am learning

* * *
This House

This house is as empty as a made bed
without her mind to imagine
the scurrying legs of ghosts
behind opened doors. I woke
to an un-ringing phone. Eleven blind steps
to the slap of skin on linoleum,
then six through the kitchen, hands
straining for the glass of the sliding door, then
the hard slap of concrete on toes tells me I’m outside.

Brittle prickles of grass, the moon
like a butter bowl, dribbling
its light down; the night tastes thick out here.
Dogs grunt sharp threats at the kids
who shove their noise at the sleeping world,
or maybe the wind sneaks unpleasant news
over the fences of their masters.

The sounds stick on my ears like pollen.
I take all of them back with me, inside
to a bed now too full
to sleep in, but with room enough to dream.

* * *

Scratching at the page of my notebook, I didn't notice
the wasp that flew in through a hole in my window screen,

until it crawled up the pillow on my bed.

Big red body, wings like hard candy, thick brown things;

I sat my notebook on the bed. The wasp crawled onto the page,
maybe hoping to make a nest from the failure

I’d been sweating over for days. It crawled three stanzas,
paused as I lifted the notebook, but there were two more to go.

I lowered the notebook,
let it crawl to the end, then I took it outside and let it go.

* * *
The Weight of Dust

Fall drops slow from the feathers
of the black birds gathered on power lines, waiting
for the last scraps of the garden,
waiting for us to taste our fair share of dust for the season.
After supper, we wander out with our evening beers
to inspect the soil, and write off the weekend to weeding.

At the store, I remember the mouse that took over
her old gloves in the storage building and buy her a new pair.

The first year we grew a garden, we averaged
about $5.00 per vegetable, with
expenses, with more deaths than Camus’ plague in Oran.
Now, most things live, most yield.

No matter what it cost, we wouldn’t set foot in the produce aisle
of the store, anymore; we’ve found that to acquire a proper pallet
one must whet it with dust and sweat.
* * *

The first day it was nothing a base with trunks twining out like branches
curling confused like days when time’s had too much to drink
Leaves the color of old girlfriends’ names forgotten so long the mind sees them
as nothing but a dull shade of regret and mauve the kind of thing
witnesses to violent crimes never remember but which writers of bad fiction
always purport great significance to in the minds of the victims

The second it was snakes swaying in the breeze of enthusiasm riding the drab
lawn like a comb over the earth’s bald spot
After the tour of the kitchen (All this will be new we’re redoing everything don’t
even look at what’s here now because it will all be different) the living room
replete with fireplace (Gas so all you have to do is flip a switch none of that messy
lighting the fire business) we finally noticed the tree outside the back
bedroom window (We’re landscaping all this all new grass) (I like the tree)
I commented for no real reason at all other than that I did

We’d seen other places one house by a very nice park we often drove to and
walked around once or twice to burn off a couple inches of guilt
Pricy was the problem quiet neighborhood (Are we quiet people?) She asked
One place out in the country had well water cows (Were those gunshots?)
I asked Then the owner showed up (You'll have to get used to me taking pot shots at skunks first thing in the mornings) (What exactly do you mean by morning?) (Oh 4:30 5) He said with a muddled look in his eyes like I’d said something suggestive about either his daughter or his truck but neither had trees

Somewhere in there it became a joshua tree though I’d never seen one
only read the liner notes of the U2 album of the same name and vaguely
remembered something about Canaan from the bible It seemed like what a
joshua tree should be wild vaguely reminiscent of an archetypal scene in a film I’d dreamed about for years I drove over after work snuck around back
thinking about the life we’d have here jushua tree in the back raised bed flower garden in the front smores over the fire porch sitting Canaan the sort of place you bore your children talking about when they go off to college

The fourth day we brought a friend to see left him standing after awhile near
the front while we laid our plans out on the air like blueprints Came back to see him talking to a neighbor about a case of domestic violence
across the street a car stolen a few days before I could tell he was mocking
us about our choice (It’s cheap) She said (You get what you pay for)

He said Back in the car on the way home I mentioned (Did you see that tree in the back?) (Yeah nice little red bud) He said I didn’t speak again for some time (The one by the park was nice) She said

* * *
4 Short Poems About Sex

My fiancé's room mate
on one of her last nights
in the apartment
told us a story
about her father
who fed his dog sausages at night,
then, once, he got drunk,
went to piss in the trees
behind his house
after feeding the dog,
and the dog, smelling the sausage
on the man's hands, enveloped
his penis, in its mouth, not doing damage
other than surprising him.

When I was fifteen,
the exterminator, in the process
of spraying the house, burst
into my bedroom, while I was
I stared
in his eyes for one moment
and he closed the door, but then
flung it back open a second later,
entered and proceeded to spray
my bedroom, while I sat rigid
covering myself with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
I’d stolen
from my brother,
until the man left, moments later
leaving the door slightly ajar.

Poor old Wesley got off work early
went home and found his wife
The next day Wesley told his boss
not to send him home early anymore.

The last night I sneaked into my father’s office
to call sex lines with Lawrence, my only
friend, on two way, listening to dirty stories, never realizing he
was doing what I
was doing until we called one
talking about a couple on a beach, pouring sand
in the girl’s ass; I started thinking
how much that would hurt, rub the skin
clean off. Then I heard Lawrence
breathing heavy.
* * *
To My Husband, When Making a Sandwich

Take the bread from the top of the fridge
and set it on the counter BEFORE opening.
Don't be afraid to use the sink.
Without spilling crumbs everywhere
remove the first two pieces
and re-close the bread using the twist-tie. Do NOT,
under ANY circumstances fold the plastic
back over the loaf, or staple it closed,
or leave it open. Use the twist-tie. That's
what it's for. If you've lost the twist-tie,
replace it from the baggie marked "Replacement
Twist-Ties," under the sink. Now, put
the bread back, open the fridge and find
the mayo. I've noticed in the past that you yell,
"where's the mayo," as you open the fridge
and that you find it just as I reach the kitchen.
Feel free to do this since you seem
to enjoy it. Now remove the mayo (notice
the squeeze bottle. DO NOT attempt to use the glass jar
of mayo, and if you would rather have mustard, I've
provided a squeeze bottle version of that too.)
The ham is in the crisper. (a crisper is a drawer
in the fridge) That 's okay if you can't find it,
I've littered single-serving baggies of ham throughout the fridge
just in case, so grab the first one
you see. CLOSE THE FRIDGE DOOR, and combine
all ingredients. Even though you know
you're on a diet, the chips are on top of the fridge
behind the bread. And for God's sake, go
and eat at the table. Do NOT stand in front
of the fridge. You're a big boy now.
And please use a napkin. When you've finished,
throw away the napkin. Do not put it
back in the napkin holder or rinse it out
or iron it; it's paper, just throw it away. Also,
please wipe the counter. I've left your sister's number
on the fridge if you have any questions.
Feel free to call her. I'll be back tomorrow.


Friday, December 13, 2013

2014 Goals

I spent the fall not writing--or rather, freelancing, writing for hire. Over the last couple weeks, I shifted gears and started writing screenplays with my writing partner. I've been going back and forth about what the next step will be for me, job-wise. So these goals might shift or be pushed back.

I learned something, not writing. I need to write. Creatively, I mean. Writing for hire doesn't cut it.

Writing Goals

I have two novel drafts I'd like to finish:
Jubal's Daughter
Untitled rice farming novel

I'll also probably write another Necro-Files book soon.

Other than that, considering that I've written either a novel or linked short story collection basically every other month for the last 3 years or so, I think I'm okay taking a break from novels for a bit.

I'd also like to put together a short story collection of my weirder stories and place it. I'd also like to write a few new stories.

I'd like to place another collection, tentatively titled Driving Around, Looking in Other People's Windows
I'd also like to write some new poems. I'm kicking around a sort of sequel to Riceland.

I've got around 20 screenplays in various stages of completion, from outline to partial drafts. I'd like to either finish them or declare them dead. I imagine I might be able to salvage half. Maybe my partner can salvage some of the others.

So those are my writing goals. In a larger sense, I'm focusing on marketing and really trying to get my work out there.

Personal Goals

I'd like to lose 50 pounds. I lost 20 over the last few months. I'd like to double down.

Family Goals

I'd like to get my daughter into a Montessori program.

That's it, for now. I've got a couple weeks to think about this.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Poetry News

I just learned that my poem "Relics" from my newest collection Riceland has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "Relics" was originally published in Bolts of Silk and ran in "The Dead Mule" as part of a small chapbook called My Mother Making Donuts. Here's the link.

This is my second Pushcart nomination this year and my tenth overall. I have no illusions that I'll win, of course. It was a pleasant surprise to be nominated. The other nomination was for a flash fiction piece called "Onions" that ran in Menacing Hedge, here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My New Poetry Collection: Riceland

My fourth poetry collection, Riceland, is now available from Unbound Content. These poems deal with my childhood on a rice farm in eastern Arkansas, with my mother's illness and death, and with the ramifications of these events for my family. This is the collection I've been working on for the last ten years, so I think it's safe to say it's my best to date. Here's what a few other people have said:

In Riceland, Bledsoe is unswerving in his depiction of the beauty, despair, and bludgeoning cruelty of life on an Arkansas farm. Be prepared—stark and startlingly revealing, these poems will sear your soul.

--Jo McDougall, author of Dirt, Satisfied With Havoc, and Daddy’s Money

C. L Bledsoe’s Riceland is full of natural wonder. Bledsoe pays attention and documents daily life with skill and cunning and we are lucky to have such a poet in our midst. At times he reminds me of Jim Harrison, in his ruthless eye for man’s connection to nature and his search for balance, in an increasingly severe world. Bledsoe writes equally well about farming, about the physical world, about place, and about family. Riceland is a book to contemplate, to help see through a true poet’s eyes and to read again for its hard-won grace and gentle wisdom.

--Corey Mesler, author of Some Identity Problems and The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores

“I know how to grow things, and I know how to kill them," writes C. L. Bledsoe in Riceland, a book set in the rice fields and dirt roads of rural Arkansas at the end of the twentieth century. Bledsoe captures the darkness, violence, and longing of a young man growing up at a time, when so many family farms, like his father's, are going under. The death of the family farm is the larger theme, but the poems about his mother--and his inability, as a child, to understand the Huntington's disease that cripples and eventually destroys her--are the heartbreaking heart of the book. In a world that makes no sense, he approaches adulthood "wishing time would stop, speed up, something." Although he tells us, after a dream of rabbit hunting on the lost farm, that "nothing could console me," there is a consolation in the dark beauty of these poems.
--Ed Madden, author of Signals and Prodigal Variations

Here's a link to the sale page:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Revision

Some jerk one time said that 90% of writing is revision, and the sad truth is that they were probably right. The first draft is where we experiment and figure out the nuts and bolts, usually, which means there’s going to be some missteps. My philosophy when it comes to writing first drafts, especially for newish writers, is throw everything at the page. Try those 37 similes on one page, try the weird perspective shifts, try every joke or description you can think of; go crazy. As Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Revision can be as simple as shaping the story or as complex as tearing it down and rebuilding it. You should be willing to try things and see if they work, in drafts and in revision. Sometimes, especially when you’re starting out as a writer, revision is a way for you to tinker and try things, but there often comes a point where you have to give up on a piece and walk away to try a new one. It can be difficult to tell when that should happen, and there are famous examples of writers revising and republishing previously published, heavily revised work (Raymond Carver stands out, for example.)
I find that revision is usually about digging the real story out from all that stuff I threw at the page and shaping it. I’ve usually got the arc of the story down; it’s usually just a question of shaping it. There have definitely been times when I gave up on a story or novel draft, walked away, and came back to revise and finish it, but usually it’s more effective to just start over, using what I’ve learned and figured out in the new draft. Digging the story out means shaping the plot, characters, really trimming back to what is absolutely essential in the piece. This requires having some faith in the reader.
Some writers revise by starting over and retyping their entire story/book/etc. Some writers print out the piece and mark it up by hand; others print it, cut it up, and rearrange the paragraphs or even sentences in this way. Personally, especially if I’ve gotten a little lost in a piece, I will outline after the fact as part of my revision process. So there are a lot of different approaches to revision.
Here are some things to consider when revising:
-Show don’t tell. This is the annoying-as-hell adage of writing instructors everywhere, but it’s accurate. Having faith in the reader means you are willing to demonstrate ideas rather than explain them. Remember that much of the reason readers read is that joy of discovery, of being able to figure things out. Don’t rob them of that, or they’ll stop reading. Whenever you’ve “dumped” any kind of information, especially a character’s feelings or motivations, go back and demonstrate them through actions, dialogue, etc. That doesn’t mean the character now says, “I’m sad.” The character demonstrates sadness, maybe by eating a gallon of ice cream while in sweat pants. One thing to keep in mind is that you won’t be able to translate every bit of information completely by showing, and that’s okay; you don’t have to. As long as you can hint at things, that’s enough.
-Less is more. Really. Subtlety is powerful. One action, one simple detail often resonate much more than a thorough description. The purpose of throwing everything at the page, as I described above, is usually to find this one detail or action or what-have-you. Once you have it, cut all the others.
-Cliches must die. Always. Making them new is okay, but it’s usually clunky. Kill them.
-Consider suggestions but trust your instincts. If you’ve workshopped a piece or had someone read it, sure, consider what they’ve said. When I was taking workshops in college, I tried absolutely every suggestion I got, unless they were just completely bonkers. So I wasn’t too arrogant to try things. But many times, I trusted my original instincts and ended up doing something different than what had been suggested. The key is to remember that other writers/students/etc. might not hit whatever problem squarely on the head. So trust your instincts since it’s your story.
-Murder your darlings. This means that sometimes, what you think is the best line or scene (your “darling”) in a piece might be the one thing that’s holding that piece back. Really. Sometimes you have to cut your favorite thing in a story. But you can always save it and try to reuse it later.

Now What?
So you’ve taken some classes, but that’s over, and you’re all alone out in the big, scary world. What now? Having others read your work is essential, but it’s really, really hard to find good readers. Really, really hard. This is because very few people know how to workshop. They think suggesting a bunch of plot changes is workshopping, but it’s not. Workshopping requires a reader to at least come close to understanding what the author is trying to accomplish and then trying to help the author accomplish it, regardless of the reader’s opinion on the genre or anything else. I’ve been in a lot of workshops but encountered very few people who really knew how to do this.
Some people will try joining writing groups to find good readers, but these groups tend to lack a leader to demonstrate HOW to workshop, so they often become mutual admiration clubs. And the hard thing to realize is that praise doesn’t help a story improve. There are local groups all over the place; try Meetup or other real-world networking sites. There are online places like Fictionaut, but again, these rarely involve useful information because the other people in the groups don’t really know how to workshop. It’s a difficult process, but once you do find some people, maybe just one or two, keep in contact with them.
Another thing you might be considering is publishing. If you want to get published, you can, these days. There are 50 million online literary journals, and maybe half as many print ones, again, mostly run by people who are more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about writing. So it’s not hard. But should you? Remember, especially on the internet, there’s every likelihood that the piece you publish will still be online in five years. (There’s just as much likelihood it will disappear in a few months, of course.) Think about that. Think about how much you’ve grown as a writer in the last few months, the last year. You’d better be sure your piece is ready before you publish it because it could haunt you for a while.
As far as the process of publishing, that’s a complicated animal that would take a while to explain. If you’re talking small things: short fiction, poems, etc. you’re probably not going to get paid. You might be able to sell something to a university sponsored print journal (they’re just about the only ones who have any money to pay you) but these are highly competitive. So it can take a while. You have to be persistent. You have to have thick skin. And don’t ever pay reading fees.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Thoughts on Themes, Motifs, Symbols

A Theme is a big idea (kind of like a moral) in a piece of writing; it’s what you say when someone asks you what a book is about. A Motif is some “thing” (an image, a color, even a location, etc.) that recurs throughout a piece of writing and takes on symbolic significance because it relates to some big idea in the story. So the Themes (there can be more than one) and Motifs in stories are linked. (Don’t confuse a Motif with a MacGuffin, which is a plot device that acts as the impetus for a story but is actually fairly interchangeable. A MacGuffin is the thing that characters are looking for, usually in detective stories, but that thing could actually be just about anything, i.e. usually some kind of treasure. In the film The Maltese Falcon, the falcon is a MacGuffin. The important thing is the search for the falcon; it could actually be just about anything. A Motif is essential to the plot, on the other hand, and not interchangeable. MacGuffins come in many forms. In scifi, they’re often called “Big Dumb Objects,” for example, because the plot often revolves around some mysterious object.)
I tend to have pretty heavy themes in my writing, and early on, I frequently browbeat my readers with these ideas. Some advice I was given long ago is that themes shouldn’t be pushed; don’t go into a story thinking, “I’m going to write about _________(insert theme).” Go into a story trying to write a good story; the theme will find its own way in (because it’s on your mind). I’m a big believer that stories should reverberate beyond their own dimensions; they should have a “point,” if you will, beyond just being a story. Stories, I think, help us figure out how we should live, who we should be, and they give us insight into other lives, other ways of thinking. They are philosophical as well as entertaining. This is dangerous territory because heavy themes can easily cross over into propaganda, which can be enjoyable but usually isn’t. Some writers will be provocative for the sake of getting attention, but in today’s oversaturated culture, one has to go very far to get even a passing moment’s attention, and probably sacrifice everything meaningful about a piece of writing. (Which isn’t to say don’t be provocative, just have a point with it.) As loathe as I am to admit it, I think my old writing professor was right; themes will force their way in.
Motifs, on the other hand, are a sign of thoughtful construction; they are the ornate embellishments that help the story rise to beauty. The idea that a writer has layered elements like this into the story shows that some thought has gone into it and some skill. Symbolism, in general, helps demonstrate craftsmanship and elevates writing to the level of art. You’ll notice that every “literary” story and novel out there contains symbolic elements. Even Hemmingway, known for his spare writing, loads his short stories, especially, with symbolism. This reaches back to the beginnings of storytelling, when symbols were used to represent difficult ideas or social norms in a more easily-digestible way. (If you can’t learn the words, at least learn the tune.) But really, motifs, and symbolism in general, are just tools; they’re other ways of telling stories.
It’s kind of silly to try to dictate things like this, but regardless, I find it useful to strive for including at least one moment during a story, maybe at the end, maybe at some key moment, in which the language rises beyond the page and reaches into something profound. This is usually accomplished by symbolism, though very strong, evocative description can accomplish the job too. That powerful, resonant moment is what really sticks with a reader after the story is finished. When we think of The Great Gatsby, we think of the final few lines, Gatsby staring at the light at the end of Daisy’s dock, etc. more than anything else about it.
Motifs can be images, like the light I mentioned above in Gatsby, or objects, like water in the same novel. Motifs can also be phrases or words that are repeated, like the line “So it goes.” in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or a technique, like the retelling of scenarios, as used in The Things They Carried, in which O’Brien doubles back and retells the same handful of scenes from different characters’ perspectives.
Morifs should develop as naturally as possible; just be on the lookout for opportunities. Again, not every story needs motifs, but I do think every story needs some higher-level element, which is usually a form of symbolism. Motifs are often somewhat subtle, though not always. And Motifs should be essential; don’t make a Motif just for the sake of having one. As Chekhov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
Symbolism can be overwrought and distracting, of course. Personification is one of the worst offenders. Similes can frequently accomplish the opposite of the author’s intent; similes are supposed to give a comparison that helps define something that’s difficult to define by describing it using the qualities of something else, but it can easily shift the reader’s attention over to that other thing. Metaphor can do the same. Symbolism should be subtle to keep it from distracting the reader from the actual story. Some symbols have cultural significance and because of this are clichés. A dove, for example, represents peace; we all know that. But why does it represent peace? When a reader sees a dove in a story, they think, “That represents peace.” There is no Ah ha! moment and no real deepening of understanding in the story. The image is so familiar it’s meaningless. If anything, the reader is put off because they’ve encountered a cliché, which shows poor writing.
Again, it’s about the reader’s enjoyment of the piece, and these elements like motif, symbolism, and themes, when handled well, give the reader opportunities to be active (by noticing and then figuring them out) and give you, the writer, opportunities to tell the reader what to think without alienating them.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, October 31, 2013

In the Middle with Mystery

In the Middle with Mystery


Something I used to tell my students about fiction is that fundamentally, a short story is about the day something different happens. Often, when a novice writer begins a story (or even novels) it is with an overview of the norm for their character. Frequently, they never get beyond the normal stuff to the “something different” and they wonder why their story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. When writing teachers talk about starting in media res, they mean skipping this normal stuff and getting to the beginning of the different stuff. For example, when writing about a car wreck: instead of going through what a character has for breakfast every day before going to work, even though it might seem like you’re building up tension or expectations, start at the car wreck, which is different from usual. If there’s important information in the usual activities, you can cover it in flashback or summary later, or perhaps show the character’s attempt to return to normalcy the next day, which fails, thereby inserting tension into the normal routine. Also, starting with that break from the routine gives the story some action, some tension, and maybe some mystery, since you’ve now opened up the character’s world view. Before, everything was humdrum and the same; now, there’s a whole new world of possibly terrifying possibilities to explore.

(Another idea to keep in mind about the above scenario is believability. Extraordinary occurrences are difficult for readers to believe in a work of fiction. A tornado suddenly swooping down in the middle of a story is hard to sell to a reader. Opening or ending with these extraordinary events is much easier to swallow, since the focus of the story is now on the extraordinary event, whereas before, the event seemed to interrupt the story.)

Usually, this “normal stuff” I’m talking about isn’t necessary to the story at all. It’s a kind of clearing of the throat for a writer, or prewriting. If a story were a rap song, this would be the part where the rapper talks about how good the song he’s about to rap is going to be. Sometimes, the rapper never actually gets to the song since he’s so busy talking about how good it will be. Novice writers, also, frequently never get to the story because they expend their energy and momentum prewriting and exploring their character. This is fine to do, but it probably doesn’t belong in a story.

Similarly, writers will often open with a character (though it frequently isn’t even specified that a character is doing it) contemplating some image or idea, maybe the weather, maybe something s/he sees. There are instances where this can work effectively, I’m sure, but for the most part, it’s simply more prewriting. Get to the change, the “different,” the problem which is the source of tension as soon as possible. Another handy rule of thumb is to get to dialogue as soon as possible, as well, as in probably on the first page. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but it’s a good general idea to get your characters talking (and doing things) ASAP. It is through interaction with other characters and the environment that your characters are truly revealed.

It’s tricky because on the one hand we’re talking about tension or maybe even pacing but on the other hand we’re talking about structure (an argument could be made we’re even talking about tone). It’s important to remember that all of these things are intricately linked, and tinkering with one affects the others.


One of the most effective forms of tension comes from the reader’s expectations. Similarly, mystery is an element that will keep readers reading and is very important in a story. When I say “mystery” I don’t mean the genre, and the conventions thereof. But I do mean the same basic idea. Mystery occurs when the reader isn’t handed every piece of information, but rather has to work things out for themselves. Nothing draws a reader’s interest like mystery. But first let’s talk about how this can be a bad thing.

Mystery draws attention to an idea, and therefore, that idea will really stand out in the story. So it’s important that the idea SHOULD stand out. Weak descriptions or confusing elements may create mystery that’s unintentional. Some information should be given as quickly and simply as possible. Here’s an example: I used to hate to dump character’s names on the reader. I wanted the name to be revealed naturally, through dialogue or the like, but this wasn’t always easy to accomplish. That meant I might withhold a character’s name for several pages, so that when I did finally give it, one of two things happened: 1. the name lost all significance and the reader was probably confused about who I was talking about. 2. the character’s name became a mystery which, therefore, seemed really important, when in reality, I was just being an anal stylist. It’s much better to just bite the bullet and give the name in an obvious way immediately and then move on, unless there’s some reason to create mystery around the name. (Giving the character’s name in a natural way really soon is the best approach, of course.) Similarly, poorly described elements can be imbued with mystery for no intentional reason, which shifts their significance within the story. Of course, mystery can also go too far and a story might become obtuse, which is often off-putting for readers.

So what’s good about mystery? Mystery lets the reader play the game of putting together clues and figuring things out. This is the most significant way to indulge active readers. Allowing mystery in a story also demonstrates to the reader that the author respects and trusts the reader TO work things out, which is always a plus.

Again, not everything should be a mystery. Often, minor though significant details (like the character’s name…) should be given soon and clearly. But major ideas, especially big themes, probably shouldn’t be stated. This is where mystery is most effective. A character’s true motivations and desires can definitely stand to have a touch of mystery, though these should be things a reader CAN discern. Remember: mystery simply means being subtle, not completely withholding information.

-CL Bledsoe

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Style

This is something, up with which, I will not put.
-Winston Churchill, to an editor attempting to change one of Churchill’s sentences that ended with a preposition.

When most of us think of style, one of two things comes to mind: either Isaac Hays in his gold caddy singing the theme song to Shaft or Strunk and White’s atrocious writing style guide. When I say style, regarding the writing of fiction, I mean a little bit of both—though let’s put aside Strunk and White and focus on grammar and style guidelines that actually work. “Style” in fiction writing really refers to several elements, including diction, the author’s voice, clarity of expression, and sunglasses. Gold ones. Worn at night.

So let’s talk about Strunk and White, briefly. The thing about grammar rules that they screwed up and that a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is that grammar rules should make sense. Each one serves a very specific purpose, though their approaches may be individualized; each one is trying to help the writer achieve clarity of expression. That’s it. Grammar rules exist to help you make sense to the reader as clearly as possible. So if the rule doesn’t make sense, it probably wasn’t explained well, probably because whoever explained it to you didn’t understand the rule’s actual purpose, probably because they learned the rule from Stunk and White. I’m not just being cute, here; Strunk and White have done real damage to style by their confusing and often contradictory advice. My advice is to always abide by the rule of what expresses your intended meaning most clearly, regardless of any other rule or suggestion. (Remember that most of the writers who are generally recognized as brilliant tend to have fairly idiosyncratic writing styles, i.e. their writing breaks established rules or simply create their own.) (Grammar rules are, also, based on popular usage, believe it or not. Or rather, they change based on popular usage, in much the same way as language, itself, changes. But again, we’re not trying to be avant garde, simply clear.)

So when Strunk and White say don’t ever use passive voice, you don’t have to use semicolons to link two complete sentences if they’re short, all these fuzzy rules, ignore them. Sure, passive voice is often unclear, but sometimes it works. So do what works in that situation. Be precise. Understand what the rules truly mean. If you do that, you won’t have to break them very often, but when you do, it will matter.

**Blues for the Oxford Comma, An Aside

Nothing brings writers and humanities educators to blows as quickly as an argument about the Oxford Comma. I have no idea why this is such an affecting issue; I just know that they’re wrong. In all seriousness, let’s examine it: the Oxford Comma (or serial comma) is the comma placed (or not placed) before the conjunction in a list. So: I went to the store for bread, milk, and eggs. People with a journalism background will say it’s unnecessary because the conjunction separates the items and performs the same duty as the comma would. This isn’t exactly true. Commas separate. Conjunctions join, even in a negative sense. So eliminating that last comma joins the last two items in the list. (Kind of like saying: I went to the store for bread, as well as milk and eggs. “Milk and eggs” are linked more closely, in this sentence, than bread. But why? That’s never made clear.) The counterargument to this is that readers are big boys and can figure out what the writer meant. Well sure, of course they can, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sloppy writing. Proponents of this argument are admitting that they don’t value precision in their writing, and that’s not something I’m prepared to do, personally. I’m not saying I’m a perfectionist, but I do attempt to say what I mean as exactly as possible.

Most style guides argue for the serial comma, unless they’re geared towards journalism. Excising that serial comma was first done to save space. That’s the only reason, really. Space matters in a printed newspaper column. Okay, let’s give them that one. I could mention that printed newspapers are going the way of the cassette tape or Myspace profiles, but I’ll let that go. This idea of precision is what’s important, here. The missing serial comma might make an astute reader pause for the tiniest millisecond, but that matters. (Also, the idea that most readers won’t notice is insulting to readers and frankly shows a real disconnect from the audience.) The reader isn’t so much confused as s/he has her faith in the writer shaken. And, again, the argument against the serial comma is simply an argument for laziness.***

So now that we’ve established that grammar rules should help us say exactly what we mean, let’s talk about diction, itself. Word choice is, like, so important and stuff. Like totally. Diction helps writers accomplish just about everything in a story. And poor diction gets in the way of doing this. Word choice in a story establishes a tone for the piece. If it’s in first person, the narrator “chooses” the words, so those words must reflect his/her background, education, social status, etc. If they don’t, the story fails. Even if the story is in second or third person, it’s probably a fairly close POV, which means the language should still reflect the POV character’s background, education, etc. etc. at least somewhat. The more the diction does reflect the POV character’s milieu, the more cohesive the story will seem to the reader. (This is a subtle thing. You can tell the reader “This takes place in Savannah, Georgia,” but that really means practically nothing. Using word choice to make the story truly feel like Savannah, Georgia, is much more effective.) This attention to detail is, really and truly, one of the things that separate a novice from an expert writer. Remember that, as a writer, you’re trying to create a captivating world, a dream that the reader can get lost in, so that world needs to draw them in. Word choice is one of the primary ways to do it.

Of course, this means you have to know a whole hell of a lot about your characters, right? Well, sort of. You have to bluff the reader into thinking you do, anyway, and do it convincingly enough that they think they know a lot about the characters too. This is all about details and sunglasses. (See how I brought those back?)

A man enters the examination room wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. He glances at the patient sitting on an examination table, sees that she’s overweight, and sneers a little, almost unconsciously, before returning his gaze to his charts.

Okay, let’s examine this snippet. First, it looks like a doctor, so we’re halfway there. Next, see how he behaves. He’s arrogant, lacking in a certain amount of humanity. It’s not that surprising that a doctor might exhibit these qualities, since doctors do deal with life and death frequently, after all. I could’ve given all sorts of details and doctor jargon to try to make this believable, but instead, I went straight for character development, which is much more effective. Frankly, I know very little about medicine, but I know people. When they say “write what you know” that’s what they mean. Writers know people. Write people. The reader doesn’t really care about whether the “doctor” in the snippet knows how to use the stethoscope properly.

* * *

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Tension

I’m a teepee. I’m a Wigwam. Stop it; You’re Two Tents.

I had written numerous stories, attempted a couple of disastrous novel drafts, and studied writing for quite some time before I really understood what tension was. It had been explained to me repeatedly throughout school in various English classes and even a few creative writing classes, but it was only when I finally wrote a story that really utilized tension, only when I felt the tug of the current of tension pulling my story towards its conclusion, that I truly understood how important tension was. I don’t remember what story I was actually writing, but once I felt that pull, I had an epiphany. Suddenly, the piece I was writing was actually a story, as opposed to just being a sketch, an experiment.

Tension has to do with expectation on the part of the reader. In its purest form, tension drives the reader on; the reader is hooked and simply cannot stop reading because s/he HAS TO KNOW what happens next. Tension keeps the pages turning, and that’s the A#1 goal of a writer. (Some might argue this when it comes to post-modernist writing, but I disagree with that argument. Very experimental, even openly antagonistic writers are still attempting to connect to an audience, it just might be a very specific audience. Even anti-writing attempts to pull the reader forward through shared mockery.) Tension comes from a few very specific places. Fundamentally, tension arises from the plot. A character has a problem, a need, a desire. That character tries to address that issue, but there are obstacles in the way of his/her success. The question of how and if s/he will be able to overcome those obstacles creates tension.

But obstacles aren’t enough. And too many obstacles which appear random won’t keep the reader reading. The obstacles should be organic, which means they arise from the plot. In a down-to-earth sense, that means they should’ve been hinted at in some way. Perhaps they represent a theme that has been established. And, of course, they should be interesting. (Remember that if the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they won’t really care about the obstacles. They might even root for the obstacles rather than your characters.)

**There is a certain genre of stories that follow this pattern of thinking in which the protagonist is intended to be disliked by the reader. These are usually comedies. The problem with these stories is that a different kind of unintended tension can occur. The tension can then come from the reader’s expectation and hope that the character fails, the infamous scheudenfreude. This is really a lose-lose situation because on the one hand, if your character doesn’t fail, then the reader is disappointed, but if the character does fail, the reader is still disappointed because now the reader feels a little bit like a schmuck. There’s no real emotional payoff, here. These kinds of stories are very difficult to pull off. Lolita is a good example of one that works. The reader begins to realize at a certain point that the narrator is a despicable human being, but he’s so convincing that we forget, sometimes, and are sucked in by his charm, and, of course, he lies about how terrible he is. (This is rather a postmodern book because the tension is more between the reader and the author than the story itself, in some ways. Or maybe the tension is between the reader and himself.) (Of course it can be very fun to see a despicable character suffer for a moment. The film Bullets Over Broadway is a good example. When Jennifer Tilley’s character is finally shot, we laugh and cheer because she’s been ruining the story for so long. But she isn’t the main character.)**

But what we’re dancing around, here, is the question: what gives tension that realistic feel? To use film as an example, we’ve all seen action films in which there are many explosions, obstacles abound, and yet we care not one bit. Why? Well first, we have to have that likeable character so we, as readers, care whether the character overcomes his/her obstacles. There are lots of ways to achieve this and remember that even a scoundrel can be enjoyable to read. Then, we need established themes. These are the concerns of the story, what it’s really about. The novel High Fidelity is the story of a man who runs a record shop who decides to investigate all of his past relationships in order to see what went wrong and whether there are any commonalities. He’s an obsessive character, obviously, and a collector, so obstacles can easily arise from these themes. Music is a motif which can be explored to produce more obstacles. Love and human relationships are what the story’s really about, of course, and the idea of hiding from true connections. These themes are established early on and explored throughout. The book is also funny, which isn’t exactly tension but keeps the reader going a bit, and the obsessiveness of the character (especially regarding music) is interesting, which also keeps the reader going a bit.

Another major factor to consider is tone. An attack by beautiful, unmarried ninjas throwing sharpened CDs probably wouldn’t work in High Fidelity because it violates the tone of the story, the milieu of the novel’s world, even though it includes the motif of music and possibly the theme of love, eventually. (And yet we see this kind of sloppy writing in movies all the time.) When we write a story, we create certain rules, mostly borrowed from real life (gravity, people die when they’re shot in the head, etc.). When these rules are violated, it throws off the reader’s understanding of the world of the book, and it kind of ruins the story. If the rules don’t matter, why should I care? But it isn’t as obvious as breaking fundamental rules (like gravity suddenly doesn’t apply); breaking the tone ruins the story for the reader, also. The clearest example of this occurs in period writing. Approaching a period piece without observing the intellectual, philosophical, social, technological, etc. sensibilities of that period destroys a story’s credibility. One little slipup can ruin it for a reader. And these slipups are often intended to create tension.

A Brief Interlude Dealing with Postmodernism

To understand postmodernism, we have to understand modernism. Essentially, modernism involves experimentation in form, tone, approach, etc. in order to entertain the reader. A modernist text might include different forms of writing (a stage script within a story, for example). These forays usually arise from the plot, though; they aren’t simply random, and they are really intended to enhance the story. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. It often utilizes formal invention, but its purpose is more intellectual than modernism. In postmodernism, the tension arises between the reader and the story’s form, rather than necessarily from the actual story. There are other characteristics of postmodernism we’ll gloss over, such as the convention that postmodernism usually tells the reader how to read the story. So if we examine Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire we see, formally, an introduction, a long poem, and, following the poem, a long series of endnotes. The poem, itself, is fairly straightforward, and if we believe it, the introduction is also fairly straightforward. It’s in the footnotes that the true story arises, and the reader begins to question the “author’s” veracity. It also depends on what order we read the sections in as to how we perceive the story. Ultimately, the question becomes who wrote the poem, who wrote the endnotes, and how are they related? The tension, here, comes from the reader’s trust of the author and the story. It’s a kind of game, a puzzle, this story, and the tension comes for the reader in whether or not we can solve the puzzle. The story, itself, becomes secondary (mostly because we don’t believe it anyway). But let us not forget that even in this highly experimental masterpiece of fiction, there is still tension. The reader is propelled forward by the mystery of the book (more so than he would’ve been if the story was presented in a more linear, straightforward fashion).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ryan Bradley's The Waiting Tide Blog tour

Ryan Bradley is touring blogs for his new book The Waiting Tide. For Murder Your Darlings, he interviewed himself...

RWB: We talk a lot, but it's nice to have you here in this formal setting.

RWB: Thanks, it's a pleasure.

RWB: I'll dive right in. You write a lot about sex, both in your fiction and nonfiction, but you insist that there's a difference between writing erotica and writing that includes sex. Is there really a difference?

RWB: There's a difference to me. I write about sex because sex is a basic part of being human. We all have bodies and the vast majority of us (above a certain age) have sex actively or have had sex. It's probably the most universal human experience beyond something like breathing. We all think about it in one way or another. Even people who have chosen abstinence are thinking about sex, maybe not the same way, but the choice not to have sex is still an issue around sex. I don't think it's something we should be shy or ashamed about. But I think the biggest difference between writing about sex and writing erotica is that erotica approaches sex as fantasy, whereas I try to write about sex as a reality.

RWB: The Waiting Tide, which is an homage to Pablo Neruda, is very sensual and passionate. Your fiction is quite different. Even the book's publisher was surprised when he first read the collection. How do you reconcile the two?

RWB: Do they have to be reconciled? Aren't we all multi-facted people? My fiction tends to be more aggressive and volatile because of the stories I'm telling. It's hard to write a story about tragic life circumstances, violence, human frailty, whatever, without being more raw. When I write poetry I'm trying to explore something else, it's less about telling a specific story than dealing with a particular moment, thought, or feeling.

RWB: As someone who writes poetry (I'm sure we feel similarly about the label of "poet") you're faced constantly with the decline of interest in the form. Why do you think poetry is ignored and/or disliked, and why do you think it's important that people continue writing and publishing poetry?

RWB: Poetry is a hard sell. It hasn't always been that way, but it's hard to imagine it ever becoming a mainstream thing again. Which means that we have to embrace the niche nature it has developed. But I think poetry is misunderstood on a fundamental level. People have preconceived notions of what poetry is and they dismiss it without really exploring it. There's poetry out there for everyone, just a lot of people don't seek it out. But it is integral, I think, that poetry be fostered as much as possible. It's tough when you see the sales side of poetry, which I've seen as a writer and as a publisher, but that can't be a deterrent. In fact, as a publisher it makes me want to publish more poetry. Because damned if I'll let sales sway what I think is important. Poetry is important for so many reasons, one of which being that it teaches us a lot, not just about the content of individual poems, but about writing. You want to learn economy of language? Poetry is a good place. Jonathan Franzen could learn a lot about editing by studying some poetry.

RWB: Now Franzen’s going to have you killed.

RWB: He’ll never see this, he’s afraid of the internet.

RWB: Good point.

RWB: It’s been a while since you wrote a poem. What’s up with that?

RWB: My writing comes in segments. When I’m writing fiction I have a hard time switching gears to poetry and vice versa. But I also took a number of months off from writing most anything except for occasional essays.

RWB: So, you’ve been writing some fiction again? Any details you can share?

RWB: Thanks for that shameless setup to let me discuss something new. I just finished a novella called Winterswim. It’s set in my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. I turned it into the publisher it was written for, so now I’m just hanging tough waiting for word on whether or not they like it enough to publish it.

RWB: Sweet. Before we end this I asked some friends to come up with questions they might ask you to ask yourself. So let’s do a little lightning round. First up, one of your coworkers wants to know why you eat a bagel with peanut butter for lunch every day?

RWB: It’s an obsessive compulsive thing. I have a lot of food related compulsions and I go in cycles with lunches. Sometimes I eat the same lunch for years.

RWB: Weirdo. A friend on Facebook asks: In every writers life there is a turning point. A moment when cumulative events push a work from obscurity to greatness. When do you think that point will be for you? Is that a hard date or are you willing to fudge it a week or two?

RWB: I thought it was going to be like five years ago. At least. The world is having a hard time catching up to how famous I am in my head.

RWB: What’s up with that? Seriously! Anyhow, your publisher’s publicity intern would like to know why your poems are so saucy.

RWB: The saucy stuff is what makes life worth living.

RWB: Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for doing this, man.

RWB: No problem, it was a blast. See you later.

* * *

Ryan W. Bradley has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, managed an independent children's bookstore, and now designs book covers. He is the author of a story collection, PRIZE WINNERS (Artistically Declined Press, 2011) and a poetry collection, MILE ZERO (ADP, 2013). He also co-authored the collaborative poetry collection, YOU ARE JAGUAR (ADP, 2012) with David Tomaloff. His novel, CODE FOR FAILURE was recently re-released by Civil Coping Mechanisms. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Plot

Plot is what happens in a story, as in the series of events that create (hopefully) a pattern of progression leading to a conclusion in the story. To examine it further, let’s break it down to the basic building blocks of a story. A character has a problem. Obstacles get in the way of him/her addressing the problem. The major obstacle is presented by the antagonist, either consciously or unconsciously. The journey, the progression of steps the protagonist undertakes to address this problem is the plot. Usually, these steps take place in scenes (“scenes” are located actions, or actions that take place in specific, defined locations. These locations might be described thoroughly or partially, depending on their relevance to the plot).

As the series of actions progresses, the plot traditionally intensifies. Tension helps keep the reader interested in a story, but it’s not the only thing that does so. (Also, there are certain stories in which the plot doesn’t intensify. This is a kind of experiment, done purposefully, and is often less fulfilling for many readers. Basically, in these instances, the tension of the story comes from the experiment, not the plot.) By tension, I mean the obstacles the protagonist faces become more difficult to overcome. At the same time, the protagonist’s need to address the problem also intensifies. This is also called Rising Action. (The tension comes for the reader in the question of whether the protagonist will be able to overcome these obstacles and address his/her problem.) As the plot intensifies, as the protagonist’s efforts intensify, the plot rises to an ending, a conclusion which is surprising but inevitable.

Traditionally, going back to Aristotle, the accepted form of a plot is one that has three parts: a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning, the protagonist is introduced. In the middle, the problem is introduced and the protagonist struggles with the obstacle/s. Finally, in the end the protagonist reaches some conclusion with his/her problem, and we have the resolution. The more recent structure we’re probably all familiar with from film and the like is the five act structure, which is similar to Aristotle’s form but more developed. The most familiar version of this is probably the ABDCE form: Action, so we begin en media res (“in the middle”). Think of a horror movie which opens with the monster dispatching some unlucky, fornicating teenagers. B is for Backstory, which gives the reader some information on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story. Development reveals the problem the protagonist must overcome and moves him/her towards it. Climax is when things come to a head. This is when the protagonist faces the final obstacle and either overcomes or doesn’t or…some variation thereof. This leaves us with the Ending. This is our denouement in which the story is essentially over, but things have to be wrapped up. Maybe there are some small plot threads that need to be resolved. Maybe the reader would just like to know what happens next. These are just basic forms that might get you thinking about structure; don’t feel obliged to follow them. Bear in mind that especially the ABDCE form is very common, and therefore predictable. There are many variations on structure. Basically, the story often determines its own structure, but knowing the basics can help with that.

4 Common Problems with Plot:

1. There is none. The piece is a character study with no rising action. This means that the protagonist lacks clear motivation, so there’s no problem to overcome, or the importance of the problem isn’t spelled out. There is also likely no antagonist representing a clear obstacle. This can be subtle; the protagonist’s need to overcome whatever obstacle just might not be clearly explained.

2. There’s too much. The piece is all action with no introspection, so the reader doesn’t get a clear understanding of the characters beyond basic human drives. I can’t help but think of action movies, whose characters are usually flat. Die Hard is a good example of an action movie that avoids this, however; John McClane is a cop, so when the terrorists take over the building, he’s compelled to act. Also, he’s having some marriage problems, so the fact that his wife is held hostage is another huge problem for him. These ideas are developed throughout the movie, so even though we end up with an over-the-top explode-a-rama, we still have an idea who the main character actually is. Of course, on the flipside, I can’t help but think of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels in which characters might stop in the middle of a battle to discuss historical war strategies, which is, of course, absurd and breaks the rising tension. (And then one of them steps on a twig when trying to be sneaky…)

3. The actions/obstacles veer from a true progression towards the conclusion. This means there are unnecessary and distracting elements in the story which take the reader away from the protagonist’s struggle with the obstacle. The Shaggy Dog Story is an example of this, in which a lot of information is given but it doesn’t really add up to a story. This tends to be an unpleasant read. Of course, the greatest, most successful example of this would probably be Laurence Sterne’s epic, hilarious The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is a post-modern novel written before modernism in which the narrator attempts to share his life’s story but never gets beyond the age of four or so due to his constant digressions. In these digressions, he manages to thoroughly characterize his family and several neighbors, and manages the whole thing with a great deal of humor. I give this example to demonstrate that any rule of writing is meant to be broken, but it must be broken very well to pay off.

4. Something’s missing. Finally, the progression isn’t complete. The reader is unsure how we got to this point in the story. I could list any number of action movies as examples of this, again. One common version of this form is the Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the Machine.” (This refers back to the descent of a god in Greek tragedies—the god descended from a machine onto the stage to solve whatever problem was happening on stage). This is a story in which we have all this buildup, and then suddenly, from nowhere, a character comes in and solves all the problems at the last minute, which means that everything we’ve been reading up to this point has been unnecessary, i.e. pointless. This tends to piss off the reader.

Tips for Plot:

1. Don’t force it but don’t forget it.
-Try to let the plot develop naturally but don’t forget that the reader appreciates there being a plot.

2. Outline after the fact.
-This can help, once you’ve finished a draft, to make sure there aren’t any extraneous scenes or missing scenes. Many writers will jot an outline before they write, and that’s fine if that’s how you work. Most writers then ignore that outline while they actually write, preferring to let the story develop naturally. Going back after you’ve finished a draft and just jotting down a quick list of scenes and what they accomplish can help with revision.

3. Complications
-An enjoyable story needs complications (obstacles) but these shouldn’t be forced. They should also be paced so that they are satisfying for the reader. Trivial complications will feel forced, whereas too strong of a complication too soon can come off as overwhelming.

4. The conclusion should be surprising but inevitable.
This is a little harder to define. The ending should be inevitable because you’ve been building to it the entire story, but it should also still be somewhat surprising because it isn’t totally obvious. If there’s truly something at stake for the protagonist, then his/her final decision/action could, theoretically, “go either way.” Again, this is a difficult concept to state clearly, but it’s important for the ending to be satisfying.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: POV


Point of View (POV) in fiction refers to the perspective from which a story is told. There are three basic types of point of view, first person, second person, and third person, and each of these have subtypes. First person POV means that a character in the story tells the story. This offers an opportunity for the author to really revel in the character’s voice and share a great deal of information about that character, subtly. The character’s word choices, the things s/he chooses to share, and the things s/he actually notices all tell the reader a lot about that character. There are two types of first person POV: omniscient and limited. First person omniscient POV means the narrator has access to information that s/he wouldn’t normally have, especially information only other characters might have, such as their thoughts and feelings. This usually implies that the author has some connection to the narrator, or maybe is the narrator, though there can be ways to work around this. Usually, though, first person omniscient is a difficult POV to pull off because the reader often finds it unbelievable that the narrator would have access to certain information. There are ways to work around this, of course. First person limited means that a character narrates the story but only has access to information that s/he would normally have. This can be an especially “limiting” perspective because the only information really available to the reader is that which the narrator knows. On the flip side, this can add mystery and be used to further characterization, and it does usually add believability to the story.

It’s tempting for novice writers to always use first person because of the inherent benefits, but it shouldn’t be overused. Because of its limitations, it can be alienating and even annoying to the reader. And if the narrator doesn’t have a distinctive voice, first person perspective is kind of wasted. If the voice isn’t distinctive, the writer should use third person and take advantage of the opportunities that offers.

Second person POV is an oft-maligned, little understood perspective. Instead of the “I” used in first person POV, second person uses “you.” This POV addresses the reader. This can be unsettling to many readers and is therefore rarely used. Probably the most successful usage has been in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for young people. There have been many novels, also, written in second person (Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney), though it’s rare for these to achieve mainstream success, and many other novels will lapse into second person occasionally, especially in dialogue. Colloquially, we often will use second person in dialogue when telling stories: “You work all day and get home to a dirty house and a bunch of ungrateful kids…” The thing to understand about second person narration is that it basically acts as a kind of colloquial first person, usually. When the narrator (or storyteller) says “you” s/he really means “I.” As with first and third person POVs, second person can be limited and omniscient but it has the same limitations and/or advantages of first or third person limited and omniscient. Second person creates a distinctive feel in a piece of writing, and because of that, if handled well, it can be very engaging, once the reader gets over the shock of its strangeness.

Third person POV is probably the most common POV. Basically, there is no narrator, or the author is the narrator. A third person limited POV is the most common. Often, it follows a character closely though it doesn’t delve into his/her thoughts. This is called a “close third” POV. Currently, this is accepted as the most realistic POV. Close third allows a fairly close narration, even slipping quite close to first person at times, and also allows the author to add details that the POV character wouldn’t necessarily know, usually handled in a third person POV description of another character’s actions, but is limited by not being omniscient. Third person omniscient is rarely used these days but was quite popular in centuries past. One of the main reasons it has fallen out of favor, other than the lack of believability, is that it often verged on solipsism for the author. Authors tended to ramble, when using this POV, which also turned off readers. It has been done beautifully, of course. It’s important to remember that these are all guidelines, not rules, and that anything is possible to do well. But there are reasons things are usually done certain ways.

Now let’s talk about who is actually doing the narrating. There are two main characters in 99% of stories, the characters between whom a problem exists, which is what the story is really about. More on this later. These characters are known as the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is the one with the problem; the antagonist is the one in the way. Sometimes the protagonist is referred to as the “hero” of the story, but this is a little too simplistic. For one reason, the protagonist might not be a hero; s/he might be deeply flawed or in the wrong or what have you. In Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, anyone would have a hard time labeling Humbert Humbert a “hero” but he is most assuredly the protagonist. He’s also the narrator, which is a quick and dirty but not always reliable way to figure out who the protagonist is. (Jay Gatsby is the protagonist in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, though Nick, his neighbor, is the narrator.) But often the narrator is the protagonist. The antagonist, on the other hand, is the person (or sometimes place) that gets in the way of the protagonist solving his/her problem. Some refer to this as the “villain” but that’s also a pretty limited view. The antagonist isn’t always bad and isn’t always trying to make things difficult for the protagonist, and maybe isn’t even aware what’s happening. Life, as they assay, is complicated and so is fiction. And one thing to remember when talking about characters in a story is that every character thinks s/he is the hero. Very, very rarely does anyone do things for nefarious reasons, really. Even then, it’s usually mitigated by all sorts of other complicated motivations. This is good because readers don’t really like obvious, stock characters or situations, but it means more work for us.

There are also a couple types of narration we haven’t touched on: unreliable vs. reliable. Reliable narration means the reader trusts the narrator’s perspective and doesn’t doubt the veracity of what the narrator says. This can be complicated, if we delve too deeply. Remember the lesson of Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (often confused with “Roshomon”) or Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, both of which feature seemingly reliable narrators who offer differing, at times contradictory, versions of events; basically, it’s difficult to pin down reality because it’s filtered through the senses and experiences of its observers. But let’s not go too deep since we didn’t bring our shovels. The other end of the spectrum is the unreliable narrator. This is someone who, for whichever reasons, the reader doesn’t trust. Usually, this distrust grows over the course of the story or novel and is the basis for some big reveal on which the plot is hinged. The possible drawback to unreliable narrators is that the reader can be put off by this. It calls into question the reality of the story and this can be off-putting. And so, to be done well, unreliability in a narrator must be mitigated and clear, many would say.

Getting back to that perspective idea, it’s important to realize that any perspective in a story is influenced by something. Even a third person narration is influenced by the writer’s own preconceptions, choices, etc. The key is to be aware in order to allow these choices to be purposeful.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Dialogue


One mistake new writers often make is devaluing dialogue. They think that the story is in the setting, the scene descriptions, etc., and dialogue is simply a placeholder, a means to an end. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Dialogue can include setting information, characterization, etc. Dialogue can move a story and make it real in ways no other element can really accomplish. Dialogue lets you show rather than tell. When characters speak and act/react, they become real to the reader. Dialogue builds tension and drama and furthers the plot. Dialogue reveals character through what’s said, or what isn’t said. And dialogue breaks up a story and helps it flow. A good rule of thumb is that dialogue needs to begin fairly quickly into a story, say by the bottom of the first page in a longer piece. So let’s explore it to see how it does all these wonderful things (and even makes toast!).

First off, what is it? Dialogue is a verbal exchange between characters. (A monologue occurs when one character speaks to her/himself or addresses the audience, which, in playwriting, is called an aside.) What is the purpose of dialogue? Here’s the kicker, because dialogue is a Jack of All Trades. The main purpose fledgling writers see for dialogue is delivering information, either about a character or a scene, basically to propel the plot forward in an explicative sense. Let’s examine that. I challenge you to find any random book or short story (preferably a good one). Pick a page and read the dialogue. How many lines of dialogue do you see that actually explicate the plot or setting or even character descriptions? Not many. (Probably more about character descriptions or setting and none or very few about plot.) Why is that? Well, because it’s boring and clunky to read. Imagine reading a horror story and seeing a character say, “Gosh, don’t go into that abandoned house, Maurice; I heard that it’s haunted by the ghost of a murder victim.” Even something as simple as sharing a character’s name in dialogue can be clunky. Think about how many times, in real life, we address people we know by their names. Not that often unless there’s some extenuating circumstance. The reader sees these kinds of information dumps as lazy and even insulting. The writer is saying that s/he doesn’t trust the reader enough to pick up on any subtler clues or just doesn’t know how to share this info in a smoother way.

So dialogue needs to give information to the reader without actually explicitly stating it. Dialogue should also perform several tasks simultaneously, and if it doesn’t, it needs to be cut or revised (because it’s clunky, boring, and taking up space). Probably the biggest thing dialogue does is characterize the speaker. This can be through speech patterns, accents, word choice, or all sorts of ways. It should share some information about plot, setting, character, etc. but not explicitly. Let us not forget the importance of mystery and allowing the reader to play the game of figuring things out for themselves. Think about it like this: imagine having a conversation with someone who restates obvious ideas and information. Soon, you will begin to think this person is mentally deficient. Another danger of poorly constructed dialogue is the “tennis match” effect. I like to think of this as dialogue that gets away from the writer. It goes back and forth between characters without actually accomplishing anything. Here’s an example:
“Hey, Jill,” Del said, smiling.
“Hey, Del,” Jill replied, smiling back. “How are you?”
“I’m good. How are you?” Del asked.
“I’m okay. I’m just a little worried that I’m an alien,” Jill said nervously.
“I don’t think you’re an alien. I just think you need to eat more fruit,” Del said, patting her on the head.

Much of this could be cut because it accomplishes so little and is clunky. Also, the dialogue is mostly unconnected to a scene; there aren’t a lot of physical descriptions to really round out the scene. Here’s a better version:

“Hey.” Jill looked up from her desk to see Del approach across the faded carpet. “So, um, how are you?” The concern in Del’s eyes was a comfort to Jill.
“I, um…” Jill looked around. No one else in the office seemed to be paying attention. “I think, you know.” She laughed and looked into Del’s eyes. “I’m a little worried that I’m an alien.”
Del laughed. “I don’t think you’re an alien.” She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder and squeezed. “You just need to eat more fruit.”

Of course, on the flipside we have the monologue. This occurs when a character goes on and on, usually dumping info of some type. It’s unrealistic because if a person monologued like this for realz, we’d all turn and walk away from them.

One of the real keys, here, is the idea of economy. When writing dialogue, don’t start at the beginning. Start where something important is said. And end the same way.

(But dialogue can relate conflict without it being an info dump. This is because conflict reflects some fairly broad-stroke emotions, and it’s easy to relate big emotions through dialogue without boring the reader. This is good, because without these kinds of emotions, dialogue can end up being pretty boring and seem unfocused. )

Dialogue should also flow. There are all sorts of tricks to help write believable dialogue and only a few of them border on misdemeanors. But the thing to realize about realistic dialogue is that it isn’t. We are boring and often annoying when we talk. Really. Think about it. We speak in incomplete sentences all the time. We make inside jokes and half-references that would confuse most readers. We pause and stumble, stutter and make all sorts of mistakes when we speak, and we communicate nonverbally much more than we realize. The key to writing good, believable dialogue isn’t so much about capturing real conversations as cleaning them up, giving them some structure and more pleasing cadences, while implying realism enough to fool the reader without annoying them. This is tricky, because this is only a little piece of what dialogue requires.

Let’s talk about identifiers. Most writers agree on this: the purpose of an identifier (s/he said) is to identify who is talking. That’s it. Identifiers shouldn’t add any more information to the mix. Identifiers, also, become practically invisible, in the way a period does. So that means don’t get fancy. Identifiers that stop the reader slow down dialogue, and the pacing and rhythm of dialogue is so important that this is a real no-no.

So when do we use dialogue? Getting characters moving and interacting, specifically talking, is pretty much the best way to give readers a feel for who the characters are. And dialogue tends to be interesting to read, especially if it’s well-done, not only because it tends to characterize and give info, but because dialogue can really help with pacing (it’s a nice respite from descriptions). Dialogue can share a lot of information, but something you might’ve realized with all this talk of subtlety is that it takes a while to get things across when you’re avoiding info dumps. Explication is quick, but playing out ideas in scene, especially dialogue, can take a while.

Some warnings: phonetic spellings can be a good characterization device but they can also annoy the hell out of people. Theoretically, if you craft your character’s diction well enough, the accent should be apparent without all that fancy spelling, or misspelling. Basically, less is more. This is true of accents or vocal tics. (My overly elaborate example: I had a playwriting class with a guy who wrote a 2-page phonetic monologue from the POV of a schizophrenic stutterer. The prof. made the guy read the thing aloud to us. It was torture, and by the end of it, we all understood several things completely. He had captured the tone and milieu of the character, sure, but it was also interminable.) Vocal tics like a stutter or an accent can do a lot of work, but if overdone, they can also come off as forced.

Having said this, characters should be differentiated through dialogue. A child speaks differently from an elderly person. A southerner speaks differently from a northerner. Again, if handled well, these differences, not only in cadence, but in word choice, can be extremely effective. (Also, watch out for clichés!)

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nuts and Bolts: What We Talk About When We Talk About Setting

I grew up on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River Delta, one of the poorest places in the country, in the 80s, when family farms were growing scarce as ivory billed woodpeckers. It was all rice fields and mosquitoes, flat land stretching further than you could squint. The state was ranked 50th in the country in education and first in crystal meth labs. My father and most of his friends were war veterans, hard men who drank and swore and spent much of their time playing practical jokes on each other. My childhood friends grew up to be drug dealers, criminals, or generally shiftless because of the scarcity of opportunities, except for a handful who left the state as soon as they graduated high school and never looked back. No matter how far I travel, geographically or socioeconomically, even though I now live and work at an east coast boarding school, I am still tethered to the milieu of the place of my birth and childhood. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs of DC. Her father was a pipe organ builder from German stock with big hands that could seemingly crush a brick, but whose delicate disposition leaned more towards arpeggio runs and the tedium of building and repairing complex and ancient machinery. Whereas mine was a childhood of seclusion and ruralness, hers was one of exploration, namely of the international culture unique to DC city life. In a similar way, she was shaped by aspects of the locale of her childhood which will forever color any reaction she has to any situation. We both live in the same place, now, but our interpretations and reactions to even innocuous things are often wildly different because of our vastly different backgrounds.

In an interview with Tamler Sommers (collected in A Very Bad Wizard) the philosopher Galen Strawsen argues that freewill, as we popularly consider it, is an illusion. The crux of his quite convincing argument is that even though we are usually free to choose whichever direction or option we’d prefer in a given situation, the choice we will make is based on qualities, characteristics, preconceptions, experiences, etc. which have all been borne of a certain set of circumstances (where we come from, when we grew up, how we were raised, etc.). This set of circumstances, which is quite complex, mind you, determines how we will react/choose in any given situation. And even though we’ve left one situation behind, our reactions and preconceptions are still colored by our experiences, even in new situations.

To put it simply, we are the sum of our experiences. When it comes to writing characters, they are, likewise, the sum of their experiences (since they do represent human beings) and these experiences are tied in to location. Therefore, in fiction, setting isn’t just a location, though it is also a location. Or rather, location is complex because a lot of details come with the location. Though it may seem like I’ve moved beyond “setting” I would argue that all of these details I’ve referenced (and probably more) are all necessary to create a strong setting. Geographical location, historical period, cultural aspects, and socioeconomic details are all important elements of setting, and there are more details we could include. Family history could be linked to setting if it’s linked to a place. (This can get pretty complicated.)

So this seems like an awful lot of trouble, and you might be saying; why should I bother? Well, a strong setting helps establish the mood (an upbeat setting can frame an upbeat story or a downbeat story that’s at odds with the setting, adding a bit of tension) and gives context to the story, since setting influences the characters so much. Setting can also tell the readers a lot about who the characters are. A really strong setting can act as a character itself, which adds another level to the story. Since setting has so much influence on characters’ motivations, a strong setting helps characterize and also adds believability to the story. This adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the story because the lushness helps them get inside the story.

Creating a strong setting involves using specific details, details which give the illusion of familiarity. As we discussed with characterization, setting can be related by stating it directly (i.e. “He lived in the wilds of northern Montana.”) or by sharing details indirectly, more like hinting at things (tell me what a moose smells like up close). As with characterization, direct setting can be necessary sometimes, but indirect setting tends to be much more effective.

So let’s go back to that idea of the specific details that give the illusion of familiarity. How does a writer get these details to add them to a story? Research? (I googled moose and Montana before I typed that bit above because I didn’t even know if moose lived in Montana.) Sometimes, but one of the mistakes some writers make is over researching setting and throwing in all these details which make the setting believable but also overpower the actual story (Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay comes to mind. Chabon describes advertisements in magazines of the time with very specific details that are totally irrelevant, for example). Also, these can be tedious to read. So research can be good, sure, but you’ll find that most writers research more to give themselves a feel for a particular setting rather than to find a lot of details to incorporate into a story. It’s all about finding the few choice details that map out a setting without becoming tedious. (That’s good because it’s easier to fake.) I like to think of it as something like sketching. When sketching a human face, for example, an artist doesn’t try to capture each and every detail; rather, s/he might only add a few strategically placed details to give the illusion of having captured every detail. The eye fills in the rest once it’s been convinced of the illusion of the face by those few details. This is an important idea because a writer can research for months and not ever find those choice details which create the illusion of familiarity. Another analogy would be to consider the establishing shot in film. When a director wants to show that this particular scene is in Paris, how does he do it? He shows a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Done. Print. Move on. This is a bit clichéd, but the idea is sound. In writing, that choice detail is very effective and also sometimes very difficult.

Some people will say the only way to really discover these details is to have firsthand experience with a particular setting. Those people don’t really understand the whole “writing” thing (as in “making stuff up”). It takes a trained eye to recognize these details. And it is difficult. But the right few details really do mean the difference between a rich, evocative setting and just a description of where a story takes place. Think about how you might describe your house, for example. Is it one story tall? Ranch style? An apartment? How many windows on the front? What’s the square footage? Now think about how many stories you’ve read that include any of this information in a description of a house. I’m betting none or almost none, or these details are given incidentally but quickly forgotten. The real description is the cobweb in the corner on the peeling paint of the porch or the oak tree in the front yard—not so much what kind of tree it as, but the fact that a pigeon nested in it ten years ago but was chased from the nest by crows and your daughter tried to rescue the eggs, leaving them under a lamp in her room, but none of them hatched. The reader doesn’t know the dimensions of the house but knows it was a home, now. (And the reader doesn’t really care about the dimensions, to be honest.)

*Something else you might notice is that these descriptions I just gave do multiple jobs. They relate specific pertinent details (an oak tree, peeling paint) but they also share an emotional inventory of the place and hint at certain behaviors of the characters. It’s a good rule of thumb that any element in a story should serve multiple purposes. A bit of dialogue should not only relate some piece of information but also characterize the speaker and maybe give some setting info as well (an accent can tell us we’re in a certain region of the country or world, for example). The same is true for setting. Each detail in a story should serve at least two functions, preferably three or more. This is true of characterization, dialogue, and any other element. If it doesn’t, if it’s only serving one purpose, it probably can be cut or needs to be tweaked to make it carry its fair share.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

In much the same way that the basic building block of life is the cell, or of matter the subatomic particle, the basic element of story is character. We all know what a character is, but the question is how to represent one in storytelling. There are two basic types of characterization: Direct and Indirect. I’ll get to Indirect a bit later, but let’s start with Direct. Direct characterization occurs when the author directly tells the reader information about a character. Pretty straightforward. Sometimes, direct characterization is used because of space constraints or pacing or the like, but keep in mind that direct characterization, when overused, can become tedious to read. So limit its use except where strictly necessary, and be sure to make it as salient and interesting as possible. The closest popular mode of direct characterization that comes to mind, for me, is the voice over in film, especially in noir film (based, of course, on noir detective novels like those of Raymond Chandler). In these novels, the narrator often addresses the reader, and therefore describes characters directly. But the narrator also reveals quite a bit about himself through his word choice and through the details he chooses to share, so that the direct characterization of other, often minor, characters also acts as an indirect characterization of the narrator, and other major characters are characterized more fully in other ways.

What I’m getting at, here, is the major flaw of direct characterization, which is that it can be boring because it dumbs-down the story. The reader reads not in order to take in a writer’s brilliant word choice, like a dictionary-sponge, but rather to solve the puzzle of the story. This “puzzle” might be as straightforward as whodunit? Or it might be more subtle, like Will this character make the “right” decision? Will John Stay With Marsha? etc. But within this puzzle there are many, smaller puzzles, or perhaps pieces, like Who is this character (Who is John? Who is Marsha)? which help add to the reader’s understanding of the character’s actions. (That was a mouthful!) The reader must understand who the characters really are, why they behave the way they do (not just how they will behave, but WHY) and then, the reader can get to that big question of the story, which is how will this particular character behave in this particular situation, and is it surprising? But understand: this is all a kind of game for the reader. It’s fun to figure these things out, to accrue bits of characterization and piece them all together into an idea or image of a character, and then watch that character reach the breaking point (the decision-making point) AND STILL BE SURPRISED at the character’s decision! (I bet you didn’t realize you were working so hard when you read something!) So you don’t want to rob the reader of actually enjoying your writing!

But the writer doesn’t have to do ALL this work, which would be tremendous. Characters are based on people, and, as the saying goes, people are the same the world over. As writers, we can rely that our readers will recognize our characters as being similar enough to people they’ve met that they’ll “go with us” and fill in the gaps we leave. (The danger, here, is relying on clichéd or overly familiar characters, or “types.” Many writers and critics will argue that a “type” is okay in a minor character because the writer needs that character to be recognizable but can’t devote a lot of space to them. I’m on a fence about this. Of course, a great writer can take a minor character and make them really stand out, and a good writer can take a clichéd or familiar character and make them seem “new” by perhaps taking some clichéd quality and pushing it to absurdity, as Twain does with Pap, the abusive drunk, in Huck Finn (which I assume you’ve all read); Pap is such a bad man, that he revels in his badness and becomes genuinely funny because of it. Take, for example, his advice: “Take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. ” This is hilarious, of course, because of the idea of Pap not only waxing philosophical with life advice, but having a friend with whom he would share anything. But this is a discussion I’ll have to sideline for the moment. Everyone will agree that a major character cannot be a clichéd or familiar type if you want the story to be enjoyable.)

So how do we create memorable and enjoyable characters? Mostly by using indirect characterization. Indirect characterization involves the description of characters accomplished subtly, either through their actions and reactions, and the reactions of others to them. The way a character reacts to something another character says, the things a character chooses to share with the reader, even; there are all sorts of little methods of indirect characterization. When it’s done well, we, the reader, end up with a clear understanding of who the character is (what the character wants) without ever really being told this. Think of the aforementioned Huck Finn. Twain spends little time directly describing Huck, but we have a very clear idea of Huck’s desires, his age, where he’s from, his socioeconomic status, his profound intelligence, etc. Similarly, consider Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, who is in the midst of a mental breakdown but who is actually working towards something profoundly important about life, but most of what we’re told is how he just doesn’t want to grow up. Now, it’s easier to accomplish these kinds of memorable characters when first-person narration is used because the reader becomes intimately familiar with the character’s voice, but it’s also quite doable with third person or even second person narration. So let’s examine what it is about these characters that captivates us so we can see how best to use indirect characterization:
-A strong voice. As I’ve mentioned, through the character’s dialogue we, the reader, can determine all sorts of info about the character. His/her word choice might reveal an accent or regional indicators as well as age indicators, socioeconomic indicators, time period, etc. The things s/he chooses to say can tell us a lot about personality, as well, as will the way s/he says things. Flaws as well as positive qualities can be shared in this way quite effectively.
-A clear sense of their desires. Again, this shouldn’t be dumped on the reader. It should grow organically from complications in the plot. The character needs some clearly established goal which is difficult to accomplish. The harder the character tries to accomplish this goal, the more we understand how important it is. Also, the character’s reactions to these hardships helps the reader understand who the character really is, and refines our understanding of the character. To return to Huck Finn, we know that Huck wants to escape society because his dad is an abusive drunk, the widow is kind of mean and limits his personal freedom, etc. (Of course, Huck is on a journey of self-discovery and moral growth, and instead of hitting the reader over the head with this, Twain couches it in simple terms of friendship: Huck has to decide whether he wants to do right by his friend or follow society’s laws, but Twain never deigns to preach to us, the reader, about this. He lets Huck work it all out.)
-Physical attributes. Writers often rely on direct characterization in order to share physical attributes (and even a character’s name) but this can be done indirectly. Frankly, it’s difficult to do this directly without it coming off as a little heavy and forced. Other characters can accomplish this by commenting on appearance.

In order to create memorable, enjoyable characters (and let me clarify that a truly vile, evil character can be pretty enjoyable, again, think of Pap from Huck Finn, who is frankly hilarious, though most of us would probably vote to have him locked up for life or put to death if we could.) we have to understand these elements of our characters. We have to know the background info so that we can use it to shape our characters’ dialogue and reactions. Research can help with this, though to be honest our lives are research. Most writers will base characters on themselves, since that’s a lot easier to do, but eventually you want to break out of this. Of course, literature is full of badly-drawn characters. Think of Hemmingway or Updike when they attempt female characters, for example. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, but I think it’s important to “listen” to your characters. Don’t force your values on a character if it doesn’t work for that particular situation. Remember: the easiest way to ensure that the reader has fun with your story is if you have fun with it.

-CL Bledsoe