Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Significance

In my day job I teach students how to write nearly every sort of paper they'll need for college. We cover six different writing situations throughout the year, the first one being a reflective essay from the point of view of the observer. Today in class the importance of finding significance for your writing came up and on my way home, I thought over what we discussed in class and realized it applies to writing fiction as well as non-fiction.


Each time you create a scene or a bit of business between your characters, it pretty much is assumed that scene or bit of business has a purpose. That it's important in one way or another. That purpose might not show up until much later in the novel, but it has to show up. For example, crime novels drop little crumbs of information throughout the entire story. Only at the end does the lead detective put them all together and give them meaning when he/she identifies the criminal.

I'm currently working on a fantasy novel, one I've been writing off and on for decades. Early on there's a scene where my young protagonist has spent his first night away from everything he's ever known and gets himself into a small bit of trouble. Very small. So insignificant I almost cut the scene.

But in discussing  this scene with my husband, I discovered he had a very different take on what was happening. What, to me, seemed to be just a little fun piece of my story, provided important character information to him. With that short, one-page scene, he understood right away the enormity of what the character was about to undertake -- and just how unprepared the character was for what was to come.*

In other words, determining a scene's purpose not only helps the reader, but helps the writer to a deeper understanding of where the character is coming from and where they need to grow.

The "So what?" factor

This was the sticking point with my students' today. So you're going to write about a particular event in your life. So what? Why should I care? Why should I spend my time reading whatever it is you end up writing about?

Good questions for fiction writers, too.

Readers should never shrug their shoulders and say, "So what? Who cares what happens to these characters?" As the creator/author/writer of the story, it's your job to MAKE them care. Write scenes that are significant, not only to the characters, but to the reader as well.

And that leads to:

Identifying with the character

Have you ever read a book and said of a character, "That's me! That's my life!" or "That happened to me. I know exactly how he/she feels!"

That's an author who not only found purpose for her characters and given you what you need to not even think the so-what question, but who has also imbued that character with enough believe-ability, enough plausibility, that you totally identify with him or her. The characters have significance and so do their actions.

Significance. Meaning. Weight. Worth. Importance. All synonyms with good characters and good scenes.

Over the next few weeks we'll take each of these in depth but for now, take a look at the activity below and see how you can start putting this to work for you right away.


Pull out your current work-in-progress and identify the significance of every scene. Break it down. What should readers learn from that scene: Is the plot moved forward or are important character traits established? Both of these are important and can give the reader significant information. Make a chart like the one below (optional: include another column and put P for plot and C for character significance)



B. wakes up under a wasp’s nest*
Shows how unprepared he is for life on his own

If you can't find ANY significance for the scene, ask yourself: does this scene really belong in the story? Why is it here if it has no purpose?

Why do this? Because if you don't, some college kid is going to do it for you...or worse, some reviewer. The LAST thing you want people writing about your work is, "This story has no point"!!!

For NaNoWriMo writers:

If you're a plotter and getting your ducks in a row for November, start plotting your scenes and finding the significance now. That way, come those thirty days, you won't waste time on scenes that aren't important.

If you're a pantser (like me), this will be an activity you'll want to come back to in December when you edit. Ideally you're doing it as you go, at least in your head (using those metacognitive** skills). For now, take a look at your current wip to better understand your own processes.

(Sidenote: use the links if you're not sure what those terms mean. They link to previous workshops on those approaches)

*Same scene in both examples
** Writers tend to call metacognition by a different name: the internal editor

Take care and let me know what you're working on in the comments!


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gearing up

NaNoWriMo begins in seven weeks. Are you ready?

November has become where writers of every level from beginner to well-published throw caution to the wind and attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in a single month. Most of these writers have day jobs and can't afford to take the time off so they cram as much writing as they can into every available minute during the four weeks of November - and many succeed in hitting that arbitrary mark.

Every year I (unofficially) participate in the fun although I have yet to reach the target goal. At least, reach it during the month of November. I start out with great intentions and two weeks in, grades are due and I've spent the last five days reading senior papers. Then Thanksgiving comes and my time is not my own. Too many commitments and too little time :).

But let's make that promise together. This year we will devote every waking moment not otherwise assigned to writing a novel. To getting 50K new words down on paper (or at least onto the computer). We will post our numbers and encourage each other and get darn close if not over our goal! This is OUR year and we are going to do it!

So today's workshop is really preparing for that month-long event. Get out your calendars and clear them now. Write NaNoWriMo in big letters over the word "November." Start letting your friends and family know that, while you might be in the house, you're really going "away" for the month and that you'll have a great big surprise for them on the 30th.

Go on now, go get your ducks in a row so that you're ready. Drop a tip in the jar and shoo!


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Writing workshops starting up again

I know, I know. I took a week longer than I said I would. I forgot that my day job started up again last Tuesday (I'm a teacher and that was the first day of school). Should've turned the calendar to see that.

So it's a new school year, the calendar that's run my life for the past fifty-two years (both before the desk and behind it*). Other people run on a fiscal calendar that extends from July 1st to June 31st. Still others rule their lives by other calendars - religious or cultural calendars come to mind.

Our calendars dictate our days to a great extent. In early times, most people simply lived by the seasons, not having any numbering system in place to keep track of the passing of time. As scientific knowledge grew to be a part of civilizations, the days of our lives became more and more important. With the dawn of the Industrial Age and the rise of Big Business, keeping track of hours worked and days on task became even more rigid.

Today most people wouldn't think of leaving home without first consulting a calendar, either a paper one hanging by a desk or a digital one on one's smartphone. In our house, We live and die by the calendar on the fridge. Everyone's work schedules go there, doctor's appointments, book signings, art show openings, birthdays, holidays, special occasions. You will often hear me say, "If it isn't on the calendar, it doesn't exist."

And it's true. In 21st century America we schedule, re-schedule and over-schedule our days, and have for a long time.

Sidestory: I took today off because of a dentist appointment. As I was driving home, the sun was shining and it was a beautiful late summer day. But the light looked different than it had just two weeks ago. Over the summer I'm out and about during the day all the time. I know what a summer day looks like.

But I don't know what a late summer day looks like. Well, I do, but only on the weekends. So, as I drove, I thought to myself, "It looks like a Saturday out here."

The reality, however, is that it looks like an ordinary late summer day. But I work inside during the week. For seventeen years I worked in a room with no windows. Then I moved to a room with a few, but there was an old Quonset-style greenhouse just outside, so I couldn't see much. For the past few years I've taught in a room with a beautiful bank of windows--that overlook a courtyard. So I don't see how the light plays differently at the end of summer except on the weekends. Hence, today "looked" like a Saturday to me.

And that, of course, got me to thinking about my writing and how my characters might think about their days. If I've given them a job where they work inside, how would the light affect them on the weekends? What about their calendars? Do they live and die by an electronic one? a paper one? Are their days their own or do they have to march to a dictated schedule?

And that, my dear writers, is today's assignment. Take a look at your current work-in-progress or the notes for the story you're about to write. Ask those same questions of your characters. How are they influenced by the passing of time? Do they count days? Even though this is my last year of teaching, I'm not yet counting down the days. Ask me again in April, though, and you'll probably get a different answer.

Keep that in mind. A character's answer might change throughout the story. What was important at the start might no longer be important at the end (which is an entirely different workshop!), but it also applies to how they track time. Are they ruled by their calendars? Do they "build in" spontaneity? Or do they just let things happen?

Grab your writing journal and make notes about your characters and their approach to time. Above all, have fun with this!

Yes, I'm retiring in a year and soon this blog will need to be self-sufficient. Drop a tip to help it keep going!

* I wrote poems about those days here, among other topics. :)