3 posts categorized "Claire's Writing Class"

August 11, 2016

Characterization Handout

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Characterization (“Xtr” = “Character”)

STEP ONE: FIND YOUR XTR’S SPINE

Essential building blocks: these are the things you should know about your character.

  1. Physical appearance as it affects personality and how other Xtrs respond to this Xtr.
  2. Cultural background, especially if this xtr lives in a world with more than one culture.
  3. Family background as it affects personality, limitations, etc.
  4. Upbringing and education as it affects personality, ability, how other Xtrs respond (“education” means a great deal more than school. It can mean training and areas of knowledge and expertise, etc.)
  5. What does this character do? This means job, vocation, calling, passion, as well as the role the xtr fills in his/her community.
  6. What are his/her strengths and how are they shown?
  7. Why does he/she have these particular strengths?
  8. What are his/her flaws and how are they manifested?
  9. Why does he/she have these particular flaws?
  10. What drives him/her? What does he/she want from life?
  11. What does this xtr fear? What are his/her “issues”?

A Xtr’s SPINE is his/her central, operating elements of personality. “Operating” means that they’re important to the story, they work in the story. For example, Neo (from The Matrix) may have had a shoe fetish, but it doesn’t operate in the story, so it’s not part of his spine. When you’re through figuring these things (above) out, you (and your reader) should have no trouble describing your character's SPINE in three or four items. 

e.g.:

  • Neo is a computer genius, he has intuition about the nature of reality, he is obsessive about discovering the truth, he is physically and morally courageous
  • Frodo (from Lord of the Rings) is a comfortable homebody, he loves the Shire with a passion, his only talents are courage and a strong moral compass

STEP TWO: FIND YOUR XTR’S MOTIVE FORCE

  1. A Character is a creature or object that reflects and acts. A Protagonist is a Character whose action drives the action of the whole story (there will be other characters in your story who act, but their action doesn’t drive the story. E.g.: The Oracle in The Matrix tells people important things but it’s Neo who makes the story happen.
  2. In step one you thought about what drove your Xtr, what s/he wanted from life. Which one or combination of these desires is strong enough for a Xtr. to act upon?
  3. Xtrs do not exist in a vacuum, they live in a world. Some of their desires will be fulfilled by their world, and some blocked. It is the blocked desire that, to be fulfilled, requires action. Which of your Xtr’s desires interacts with his/her world in such a way that requires action? This will be his/her MOTIVE FORCE.

MOTIVE FORCE = desire that requires action

e.g.:

  • Neo wants to learn the truth about reality but the matrix keeps reality away. This drives him to seek out Morpheus, take the blue pill and exit the world of the matrix.
  • Frodo wants a quiet life in the Shire. This is threatened by the black riders searching for the ring. His desire to preserve the Shire drives him to set out to destroy the ring.

STEP THREE: REVEAL YOUR XTR IN THE TEXT

You can’t just sit down and tell everything about your xtr and have that operate. Your reader has to know your xtr, but s/he also has to feel and see and intuit your xtr to become really engaged. You can’t give away your xtr, you must reveal your xtr. (i.e. you can’t make your reader passive, you have to entice them to dig a little.) There are several methods of revealing character. Keep an eye out for these as you read. Not all writers use all of these in every story, and often, they are manipulated in interesting ways.

Methods of revealing Xtr:

  1. Exposition: telling about your character

    Snorfle was a strong smark from the forests of Lagoo. His parents had died when he was small and he had raised himself. He was much respected. More than anything, he wanted to avenge his parents’ death.

  2. Description: describing your character physically or otherwise

    Snorfle had three small eyes in the back of his head and a lot of hair around his neck. The females especially loved his slime-green claws and the way they all curved so gracefully to the right. They also loved his beautiful manners over a fresh carcass and the intense way he pounded its skull to jelly.

  3. Action: what your character does in a large and small sense

    Upon learning the name of his parents’ murderer, Snorfle fell into a green funk for three weeks and refused all food – even girl-eyeballs, his favorite. He sat in a corner of his cave and didn’t move, except for whapping his tail against the floor. In the end, he decided to go on a quest to find the murderer and place sharp sticks in every available murderer orifice.

  4. Gestures and mannerisms: the very small actions that distinguish a character

    Snorfle had a habit of picking his snout, putting the results on his tail, and flicking them across the lake into the trees. Or: Snorfle read the notice, skritching his underscales as he read.

  5. Dialogue: a way of establishing voice as well as the character’s modes of interaction with others.

    “Too Small!” Snorfle shouted. “Snorfle don’t eat small humans!”

    “Calm down,” Weedy said. “We can still eat it.”

    “No! I am Snorfle! No small humans! If Snorfle eats small humans then Snorfle won’t have big humans to eat!”

    “I know,” Weedy said, sighing and releasing the human. “You’re a conservationist. You’ve told me. Many times.”

  6. Thoughts: a direct line into the character’s brain

    Snorfle tried to look like he was listening to Weedy, but he only wanted to squeeze her scaly yoohoos. They were so … juicy. She was female, why should he not squeeze them? Oh, yes, because she would hurt him. Better not. Better look like he was listening.

  7. Narrative voice: Only when the story is told by the character – a first person narrator.

    I am Snorfle. Hear my tale! I come from the forest. You do not. Listen to me or die!

December 19, 2015

Revision Processes

Again, I thought this might be useful to some folks, so I'm posting it here.

Many beginning writers don’t revise effectively because they don’t know how. Revision is half of writing however (and half the fun! No, really!) The first or rough draft of a piece is you tapping into your subconscious and allowing it to spill out onto the page with guidance, but without interference, from your conscious mind. Writing doesn’t end there, though.

Once your subconscious has had its first say, it’s time to get your conscious mind involved in manipulating the material at hand. Subsequent revisions are an interplay between your conscious understanding of the craft of fiction, and your subconscious and what it wants to say. The trick is not to let the one or the other have too much control, but to balance the two.

Put another way, revision is “re” “vision”, looking at your work again. Here are some ways to look:

  1. Put the piece away. Yes, don’t look at it for a while. At least two weeks. Don’t think about it. Then, come back with a fresh eye.
  2. Save Drafts!!!!: Give yourself the freedom to experiment with drafts by saving each draft into a different file. That way, if you experiment with something that is disastrous, you still have the previous draft to go back to.
  3. Writing towards the life. The first time you read a piece after taking a break, when it's feeling fresh to you again, mark the places where the story seems to go flat, and also mark the hotspots, the places where things seem to take off, or get exciting, or get your juices flowing. The flat places will need to be cut, or rewritten, or cut, or contracted, or cut, or reconceptualized, or cut. Did I mention that you can cut them? Look at what's left (the hotspots.) If the story isn't finished, or needs development still, then start writing again in the middle of a hotspot and let it take you where it will.
  4. Craft Analyses: Go through your story several times, each time concentrating on a different element of craft. (you don’t need to do all of these, just pick the ones you need the most help on. For example you can: 
      1. do a plot or narrative arc revision by analyzing how the piece establishes conflict, builds tension over a series of events, and then climaxes the tension and resolves the conflict. Or by analyzing how the piece doesn’t do this and why not and what it does instead. You might find that a subplot with a comic character draws reader attention too much away from the central conflict. You delete that subplot, folding the comic character back into the central action. Interestingly enough, that comic character suddenly adds a new and essential scene to the story that resolves other problems you didn’t know how to resolve.
      2. look at which events you chose to tell about and which you chose to dramatize in a scene and ask yourself if you really chose the most dramatic or important scenes to dramatize. You can also look at the structure of the piece here in terms of scene and summary and ask yourself if you’ve chosen the best order in which to place your incidents and flashbacks. (Most pacing issues will be with narrative arc or with scene structure.)
      3. do a characterization revision by looking over all the ways in which you develop character in this piece: description, voice in dialogue, action and gesture, thought. You might find that your antagonist’s character is described at the beginning but pretty much ignored throughout the rest of the piece. This results in her being flat and not at all frightening, which in turn detracts from the tension. You add scenes and gestures to muscle up her characterization and rewrite her dialogue to suggest subtly what her motivations might be.
      4. look at the world and find the things that you left out and fill these in the negative spaces around the scenes, especially sensual elements like smells and sounds, or cultural elements.
      5. look at narrator, p.o.v. and voice and ask yourself how the choices you’ve made affect the piece. You might want to try writing a new draft changing the narrator or changing the pov. It might work or it might not, but you might consider trying it.
      6. look at flow of language and rhythm and rewrite passages that are bumpy or uneven. Or maybe rearrange paragraphs so that the flow of ideas or events becomes more jagged and staccato.
      7. look at pacing and expand sections that are too short or contract sections that are too long; speed up or slow down sections. (Note: only expand short sections if you have more to say there. NEVER add padding. Usually pacing issues are issues of you not having developed the other craft aspects sufficiently—especially structure. So once you've done that, you won't have a pacing problem anymore.)
  5. Off-page: Figure out what you don’t know about your characters, situation, etc. (Why does Jenny distrust men? What was her relationship with her father? If Chris’ grandfather was a miner, did he die of silicosis? Does Chris remember this?) Go “off the page” of the actual story text and write (crappy) backstory, or (crappy) character sketches or (crappy) prologues or epilogues to the actual story or (crappy) scenes that happen “offstage” in your story. Give yourself permission to write crappily and to never look at what you’re writing again. Writing off-page is purely for content, purely to give you a way back in to your story, and to give you more insight into your characters and situation. Once you’ve done all the off-page stuff, go back into your story and rewrite it.
  6. Experiment: Go nuts. Rewrite the whole thing from the point of view of a Martian or a worm on the family compost heap or a fly on the wall. Try adding the word “red” to every sentence. Rewrite it in second person, past perfect, passive voice, questions only, all run-on sentences, with no adjectives, without the verb “to be”, translated into pig Latin. Imagine that every paragraph is a poem and rewrite accordingly, with line breaks. Knock yourself out, but save your previous draft.
  7. Elevator Cut: Sit down and try to write an “elevator speech” description of your story (this is what you are able to tell a stranger in an elevator before s/he gets off. This will be what you can say in about half a minute.) Then go through your story and cut out everything that doesn’t directly feed into your elevator summary. If you find later that you needed it after all, you can put it back in. Cut words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, passages. Cut, cut, cut! Then go back in and sew up the hole your cut left. Make sure that each sentence, each paragraph, transitions smoothly or well into the next.
  8. Complete rewrite: This should be your last draft. Print out the current draft of your story. Sitting with the print out in your lap, completely rewrite the story from beginning to end. Do not permit yourself to cut and paste from the last version. If you want to use a passage, retype it. Try to do this all in one sitting. Don’t allow the draft in your lap to dictate the story to you. By this time, the story should be pretty clear in your head (not on paper.) Only refer to it when you don’t know where you’re going next. This is to smooth out the prose of a later draft that has been through several revisions and might be looking a little like Frankenstein. This also gives your subconscious another crack at inserting details and images. Do this for a later draft.
  9. Editing: Go obsessively through your MS looking for clichés, words, phrases, and lines that aren’t quite. Correct them. Rinse, repeat. Don’t be fooled, though, this is not revision; this is editing. Don’t do this first, do it last. LAST!

November 27, 2015

Claire's Writing Workshop Guidelines

For some reason, I've been having this discussion a lot lately with folks who are teaching and/or participating in writing workshops. I've brought up my own rules for conducting workshops several times, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to someone if I posted these.

For those of you who need qualifications: I have an MFA in fiction writing from SF State, have published some short stories and a short collection of stories, and have run two nonprofit community writing programs. I've participated in about 17 workshops (in my BFA and MFA programs, in adult community writing workshops, and at Clarion West) as a student and conducted about 15 of them as an instructor: as a TA at SF State, as an artist in residence at a high school, and in adult community workshops. 

I developed these guidelines out of my experience being fruitlessly (and endlessly) workshopped as a student, and wanting better for my students. There are plenty of instructors out there who run a good workshop and do it differently from how I do it. But this is what works for me and -- based on apparent impact and student feedback -- for my students.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

So, without further ado:

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CLAIRE'S WORKSHOP GUIDELINES

 What it is:

Workshopping writing is a process of gathering a group of people to read and discuss a writer’s work. The workshop process is intended to give the writer assistance in completing their piece through:

  • An outside perspective; a reader’s perspective
  • Multiple points of view on their work
  • Dispassionate (though never objective!) analytical assistance

How it works in my class:

  1. Everyone will have one week to read the pieces that they will workshop
  2. While reading, the reader will make notes in the margins (or using “track changes”) about what they are experiencing as they read. Note: boredom, confusion, excitement, pleasure, questions raised by the text, etc.
  3. After reading, the reader will write up an analysis of the piece using the tools we learned in this class.
  4. The reader will bring both the marked up manuscript and the analysis to the workshop class and give them to the writer afterwards.
  5. During the workshop session for that piece, the readers will discuss with one another their analyses of the piece. The participants should feel free to disagree and debate with one another, using concrete examples from the piece.

What to talk about in workshop:

Your written critiques and our workshop sessions will address the issues outlined below. We will be using the craft elements in the lessons (characterization, world-building, conflict, story arc, POV/voice) to talk about the following:

  1. Where is the power, heat, fire, life in the piece coming from?  What makes it feel alive, rather than inert?
  2. What is this piece literally about? What's the story? What did you get and what didn't you get?
  3. What is the writer trying to do with this piece? Is it a meditation on a particular theme?  a raging good story? an experiment with forms? 
  4. What techniques and strategies is the writer using to get at her theme or purpose? Talk about the craft elements of the piece (structure, character, dialogue, action, voice, etc.) 
  5. What are the advantages to the writer's strategy, and how can the disadvantages be avoided? (Please note: this is not an opportunity for you to tell the writer how you would have written the piece or what you would prefer to read or to encourage the writer to change her strategy.  This is a place for you to discuss the disadvantages of the writer’s chosen strategy and help him find ways to turn these into advantages.) 

Rules:

Workshopping is a difficult and unnatural process. Effective workshopping is a skill that must be learned. The process outlined below may seem awkward or counterintuitive to you.  Please trust this process and try it out.

  • No evaluative statements: these are sentences using the phrases I liked, I didn’t like, … was good, … was working, wasn’t working, etc.  Instead, please
    • make observations.  These are sentences that simply state what is there.  So, instead of I liked how you used dialogue to reveal character say You used dialogue to reveal character.  This showed us the characters in speech and action, rather than telling us in exposition, which can be awkward.  Instead of Your sarcastic tone wasn’t working for me say, The tone of the piece was sarcastic.  This can be disadvantageous if it alienates a reader who takes the theme seriously, but if your intention is to distance the reader from the action, this can be an effective tool.
    • ask questions.  Rephrase a criticism into a question about why the thing you didn’t like had to be that way.  Instead of I didn’t like the stop-and-start rhythm of the piece ask Why did you choose to break up the flow of rhythm in the piece? Was this deliberate?
  • No orders: don’t tell the writer what to do in phrases like You should or I suggest that you or Why don’t you try.  You are not here to rewrite the piece for the writer.  Period. You are here to:
    • reflect what you received from your reading back at the writer so that they know what their readers are understanding and what they aren't understanding. So tell them what you got without evaluative framing.
    • reflect what you understand of writing craft back at the writer, so that the writers can distance themselves from their work enough to place their work in the context of the overall discipline. So do this for them: take what you know about the craft, and use it to analyze the work. Remind them of the effect certain tactics tend to have; the advantages and disadvantages.
  • THE WRITER WILL NOT SPEAK. PERIOD. The whole point of writing is to "speak" to an audience that is dislocated from you in space and time. This means you do not get to stand over your audience's shoulder and tell them what they missed. They get it from your writing, or not at all. Thus, in the workshop, writers do not speak. You can ask specific questions at the end, but no explanations!
  • All work will be treated as fiction: which means that even if you are actually writing about yourself in first person, using your own name, we will still treat that character as a character … because it is a character in a story and not actually you. We will also be using the Law of Fictional Plausibility (see world-building handout), which states that if something doesn't feel plausible told in a story, then it doesn't matter whether or not it actually happened in real life.

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