Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 22, 2009

Tell It Slant

I know you must think I’m stuck on Stephen King. I’m really not. Actually, I’ve read little of his giant oeuvre. Most is too scary, some is too junky, plus there are so many other authors and books and stories and poems and plays and essays . . .  But, for illustrative purposes, he works well as an exemplar of master story-telling. The following is from Janet Maslin’s NY Times review of Under the Dome:

Consider the book’s step-by-step way of defining the Dome. Mr. King isn’t about to do the easy thing, which would be to give a straightforward description of what it is and how it works. Instead he offers a textbook demonstration of how to make action and explication one and the same. First step: A woodchuck on the ground and a pilot in the air named Chuck are sudden victims of the Dome’s guillotinelike slicing descent.

Second step: The book’s hero to be, a short-order cook and Iraq war veteran named Dale Barbara, looks upward. He sees the front of Chuck’s plane fall off and the back get crushed by the invisible barrier that, we now know, reaches sky high. Big sigh of relief here: Dome calamities, while definitely deadly, will not be (by Mr. King’s high standards in this area) described gruesomely at all.

Third step: Barbara, a k a Barbie, waves frantically to a stranger for help. The stranger walks right toward him — and smashes into an invisible wall. So the Dome’s extent is making itself known. Then Mr. King defines the perimeter by ticking off the various roads that lead to Chester’s Mill. “And shortly before noon on Dome Day,” he writes, now attaching a name to this calamity, “every one of them snapped closed.”

King needs to describe the dome that settles over the town. Think how less interesting it would be if he’d simply allocated a paragraph or two to a physical rendering of the thing. What he does instead is make the description active: It’s part of the plot, part of the characterization (Barbie), part of the movement of the story, part, even, of our introduction to the setting of Chester’s Mill. By the time King is done — even in our scant reading of what amounts to a precis — we are involved. We’re living the event with the characters and we’re hooked.

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant . . .”

Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 21, 2009


On Sunday, November 8 Stephen King’s new book, Under the Dome, was reviewed by James Parker on the front page of the NY Times Book Review. What a pan! On Wednesday, November 11 it was reviewed by Janet Maslin in that day’s Arts section. What a paean! Parker hates the voice of the novel; Maslin loves its humanity. Parker derides King’s multitude of cultural references; Maslin sees in them King’s “great capacity for escapist fun.” Parker calls King’s ability to pour out the pages “pulp speed”; Maslin says this book launches King out of pulp into the realm of “literary Americana.” Who is right? I haven’t read the novel but I’d wager to say neither one. Each makes a good case for his/her own point of view, and as you read each review you believe it. But the extremity of the dichotomy makes me pause. It also makes me remember my time in the theater.

A common part of the development process of any play is the staged reading. This is a performance of the play, scripts in hand, on a rudimentary set with the occasional rudimentary prop. Audience members are invited to linger afterward and comment on what they’ve seen. At one such staged reading of one of my plays a person stood up and proclaimed it the worst play he’d ever seen; he delineated every awful thing about it. As soon as he’d finished another person popped up to proclaim the play absolutely brilliant, perhaps the best play he’d ever seen; he went on to elucidate every radiant moment. Tempting as it was to agree with critiquer #2, I knew they were both wrong. The play was not trash (it went on to a full production at that same regional theater), but neither was it treasure (no MacArthur genius grant waiting in the wings). I focused my attention on the comments of all the other people whose opinions dumped the play soundly in the middle; not horrible, but not perfect.

This sort of thing happens often. It may have happened to you, particularly in a critique group where you are trying to garner information to help you proceed. My advice is to 1) realize that if the reactions are that strong in both directions, you’ve probably written something very powerful, and 2) focus on the middle ground. Focus particularly on the glitches that the majority seem to notice. Listen for the patterns that emerge. Each person might have a slightly different reaction to the glitch but if they’re all about the same basic element (or a few) you know where you need to focus your attention.

So, pan or paean? Don’t believe them. Nothing is perfect, and only on rare occasions should you junk your manuscript. Pan or paean — get to work!

Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 13, 2009


I spent all day yesterday writing and rewriting different posts about characterization:  biographical questionnaires, discussions of how personality shapes French scenes (see Post of October 18), discussions of objectives, discussions of conflicts both internal and external, explorations of how to make a character interesting (in response to a comment on my November 11th Post), and various possible exercises. None of them felt right. This morning I awoke and knew what I needed to say.

Characterization is a complex topic, and characters who are complex are the most interesting.

Characterization is complex because it affects every minute of your story. Who the person is dictates what he or she says and does. What the character says and does creates the action. Action is plot. As I’ve mentioned before (September 10th), character is plot/plot is character.

Now, if you want a really interesting character to create that plot, you’ve got to make the person complex. No reader really cares about the sweet hometown girl who really is just that. Nor does he or she care about the evil land developer who just wants to grab the family’s farm. But the sweet hometown girl who is in turmoil within as she represses her simultaneous desire to get out and her guilt at having that desire is going to grab us a little more. If the land developer isn’t just greedy but needs, deep down, to prove himself to someone who years ago rejected him, we care about him as we dislike him. Now add that the sweet girl suspects she’s not really her father’s daughter (but of course never breathes a word), and the developer knows he was in love with the girl’s mother long ago, and factor in a chilly but polite relationship between the mother and father — and you’ve got a story! All that with just a couple of deeper elements in the characterization.

So, my tip of the day is: complexity.

Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 11, 2009

Oh my gosh!

Yikes! It’s been more than a week since I’ve posted. Have to confess I went on vacation. I took my laptop, fully intending to post every day, but the blissful torpor that overcame me made that impossible. Now I’m back. Will zero in on characterization tonight or tomorrow. Sorry for the long silence!

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 28, 2009

Unconscious? Good

In “backstage,” Robert Olen Butler gives advice to a young writer:

After writing a dozen full-length plays, forty-four short stories, and five novels that didn’t get published he finally realized that the problem was that he was writing from his head. “I was writing from ideas. I was willing the work into being. I was failing to let my work generate itself from my unconscious, from the place where I dream. When at last I came to understand that I was basically looking in the wrong place in myself for my stories and novels, I finally started to write — and publish — the work that articulates my deepest sense of the human condition.” The result, as we all know, has been superb.

So, as Butler says, if you want your writing to be good, write “from your deepest white-hot center, from the place where you dream . . .”

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 26, 2009

Time and Structure

In a master class at last June’s NJ SCBWI Conference the esteemed children’s book author Richard Peck talked about the need to shape one’s story around a particular time span. For example, one week every August for ten years, or, a kid at a new school from the day after Labor Day to Christmas. He asserted, “The young want shape.”

I will assert, the writer wants shape too. The writer needs shape. But shape is something you must create, and that’s not easy. Anchoring your book to the element of time can help.

As those who have been reading this blog know, I’m working on the outline of a middle grade novel. I wrote the whole book once several years ago and I’ve been fiddling with it on and off since then. Mainly, I’ve stabbed away at new drafts to no avail; all I ever accomplished was different versions of “not quite right.” But now I’m forcing myself to do a detailed outline and boy, is that making a difference. All kinds of missteps keep popping into focus. New ones blink on to light my path. The most recent was the gut knowledge that the shape wasn’t serving the character’s journey or the theme. What to do? I was at a loss. Then I thought of Richard Peck. Bingo. My story is now confined to twenty-four hours in the life of the protagonist. Not only does this help the energy of the story — a crisis that the boy is determined to resolve — but it makes the turning point work. That’s what factoring in time did for me.

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 25, 2009


I can’t tell you the number of students who have moaned to me over rewriting. They’re disappointed that their stories aren’t perfect first “vomit draft” out of the bag, and then they don’t want to do the work of rewriting. As Philip Roth told Tina Brown (, “the book really comes to life in the rewriting.” He rewrites each novel many times. Saul Bellow, Nobel prize winner, was known to rewrite a story 50 times or more. In an interview with Lorrie Moore in, she tells how she rewrites as she goes, “every single sentence. Hence the slowness.” Writing is not fast. Writing is work. Writing is rewriting. Period.

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 24, 2009

Outlines/Plot: an exercise

Outlines can be tough. That’s because story structure can be tough.  A lot of things are going to happen to your protagonist. She’s going to have many “uh oh” moments that push her to do the next thing she must do. Which of those things is the one pivotal event after which she can never go back to what she was at the beginning of the story? It’s frequently no easy task to figure that out.

In the case of The Wizard of Oz, for example, some might argue that just landing in Oz and needing to find her way home is going to change Dorothy. How could it not? Well, true in a way, but how it changes Dorothy is the subject of the tale, and the plot is structured around that. Dorothy starts as an innocent farm girl from Kansas, powerless at home, and ends, having vanquished evil, with her knowledge that she’s powerful and always has been. How different would the story be if the Wizard had just sent her home when she asked?

That’s the exercise. Outline a revised plot with the beginning just as you know it (Dorothy on the farm in Kansas) and the ending being the Wizard sending her home. What will the pivotal event be that will change her forever? How will other events in the story as we know it need to be different leading up to the Turn and following the Turn? You’ll find you have a whole new story. Who knows? Maybe it will be great. Maybe it will be the start of a new book (characters’ names changed) for you!

(For more on plot structure search my blog for previous posts, especially, though not exclusively, September 6.)

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 23, 2009

Outline? Not necessarily

I just finished watching Tina Brown’s interview with Philip Roth on Discussing his writing process, Brown asks Roth if he writes a first “vomit draft.” He chuckles at the phrase and concurs that yes, he writes a first vomit draft and sometimes several more. “I want to get the story down and I want to know what happens. I write my way into my knowledge of the story.”

So, there you go, another way to do it. Of course Roth is the reigning master of the American novel and I feel pretty certain that he’s not writing his way into the correct structure of the book, but rather into his own understanding of what his story has to say about what it means to be human. But maybe a vomit draft will work for you. For me, I’ll keep plugging away at my middle grade outline.

Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 19, 2009

Characterization: Externalize

A piece of fiction that’s all in a character’s head is rarely successful. Samuel Beckett could do it, but for the rest of us it’s an approach fraught with peril.  “I feel so distraught.” “He thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.”  “Where would he go, what would he do, how would he live now that he’d lost his job?” Clunk. It’s the classic telling rather than showing, and it frequently presents itself in the false guise of characterization.

What characters think cannot substitute for what they do. And what they feel cannot merely be reported; it must in some way be manifest.

Cruising the internet I recently came across a brief description (where? by whom? I don’t know) of a recent TV sitcom episode. The main character is engaged to be married (or in a serious relationship; again, I don’t remember) and an old girlfriend appears on the scene who is drop-dead gorgeous. The guy is beside himself. He has to choose! But he can’t choose! So what happens? He gets constipated. This is the external manifestation of his internal state. He’s in an emotional bind, so he gets physically bound up. His internal state has been externalized, and much to the benefit of the sitcom where it serves as the necessary running joke of the episode.

Now this is a pretty crude (as in, lacking finesse) example, but it serves to make the point. The great American poet Williams Carlos Williams famously said, “No ideas but in things.” What he meant was, if you ground your writing in the immediate, concrete world you will have a much more powerful work. Your reader will live your character’s feelings with him; your reader will even live your ideas. Live. That’s what’s key. Living within the immediate reality of a novel is what keeps the pages turning.

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