Monday, September 26, 2011

POV: First Person-John Marsden

A few years ago I took an online class through the Writer Studio that was an extraordinary learning experience. The goal was to read a small piece of a story and identify the tools the narrator used to tell the story. Exercises required us to create a similar narrator who used the same tools to tell their story as the one we had read.

I'm teaching a class on point of view at the local university's continuing education program, using a similar pattern. I thought sharing here might be helpful to you, too.

So, let's start with Australian author John Marsden's book The Night is For Hunting.
Here's the blurb from GoodReads to give you a feel for the book.

Amidst a brutal war with no end in sight, Ellie and her four remaining friends discover that their hidden refuge becomes a crowded place when they decide to care for an uncooperative crew of orphans. Things only get worse when Ellie and Homer learn that mysterious visitors have discovered their sanctuary. Has the enemy found them out? Five ordinary teens brave the worst in this electrifying continuation of their battle to stay safe and sane in a war zone that was once their home.

Chapter One begins like this:

It was hot and dusty. The sun sat up there all day without moving. It saw everything and it forgave nothing. Sometimes it seemed like you were alone in the world, you and the sun, and at those times you could understand why people in the old days feared and worshipped it.
            I hated the sun. For months on end it had no mercy. It burned everything. Everything that wasn’t covered or hidden or fed with water, it burned.
            It was mid-December and we were forty milliliters down on the monthly average. The dams looked like muddy pools, and the stock hung around in the drying mud, more interested in staying cool than in eating. Three of us were working in the yards: Dad, Quentin, and me. Quentin had been late, as usual, and that got Dad snarling. 

The tools this narrator uses:
Ellie begins with a memory. She starts with a description of the landscape, then moves to the scene occurring within that landscape and creates it with intricate details that make us feel like we’re right there with her and her father and the vet as they cull the "empty" heifers, the ones not pregnant. We don’t know immediately that it is a memory, but by the time we do, we understand what this PN has lost. She has last her parents, her friends, and life in any normal sense of the word. 

Later in Chapter one:

Other people used tranquilizers or grog or drugs I suppose, to shut out awful grey realities. I didn’t have those but I wouldn’t have taken them anyway. I clung to my daydreams, and tried to use them. They weren’t enough, not by a long way, but they were something. On the really depressing days they were all I had.
            Daydreams could be dangerous though. On my school reports teachers wrote “Needs to concentrate harder.” It didn’t bother me much back then. But in this war concentration became a matter of life and death. You missed hearing a twig break, you were dead. You ignored a truck parked off the side of the road, you were caught in a trap. You blocked out your sense that something wasn’t quite right, and the next minute you were lying on the ground with a gun pressed in your neck.
            And it wasn’t just yourself who got wiped out. You could kill your friends by not concentrating. 

The tools:
The narrator uses “you” as a substitute for “I”. It’s a device that includes the reader in the story, makes the reader feel as if s/he were there beside the PN. This device also allows Ellie to distance herself from emotions or actions she does not feel are acceptable—wanting to beat the heifer with a shovel, the death of a friend that resulted from inattention. And in those moments she reveals herself, the fact that she has done/felt these things and the fact that she is not proud of them and feels guilt as a result.

The narrator's tone is poetic and conversational, but the mood behind it, the emotion the narrator wants the reader to feel is hopeless and dark.

The purpose of all this analysis is to experiment with these same tools. Try it.

Create a first person narrator who uses a conversational tone with poetic overtones. Begin with a scene that is a memory. Use "you" to include the reader and distance the narrator from a painful situation. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Poetry Friday: Praise Poems

I'm excited to be a guest at Nancy I. Sanders' Blogzone today to talk about my latest book, Sing, Dance, Shout: 30 Days of Praise. I hope you'll stop by for the interview and stay a while to explore the blog. Nancy has been a wonderful source of information and encouragement for me in my writer's journey over the last few years. Her book, Yes! You Can...Build a Successful Writing Career is chock full of great advice.

Today is Poetry Friday and my book is about praise, I thought I would share some praise poems.

One of my favorites is "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things--
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
         For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
         And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
       With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                       Praise him.

"A Praise Song from My Mother" is a praise poem celebrating motherhood. Click here to listen to Grace Nichols, a poet from Guyana, read her lovely poem.

For more Poetry Friday, head over to Anastasia Suen's blog, Picture Book of the Day.

Monday, September 19, 2011

POV: Whose Story is This Anyway?

All writers create a persona or a storyteller to tell their tale. It’s easy to see that a first-person narrator is an invented persona, but a third-person narrator is just as much an invention of the writer’s imagination. That persona narrator is not the writer.

Understanding this distance between the writer and the narrator allows the writer room to play, room to be creative. You need not feel obligated to tell your story “exactly the way it happened.” Fiction doesn’t care about facts. It’s about artistry and drama. It's about creating a powerful emotional experience for your reader. A storyteller who is not “you” lets you experiment and take chances as you create a story.

The persona maintains distance from the characters in the story, too. A first-person narrator is closer to the characters, simply because s/he is in the story. Third-person narrators are also invented personas with personalities. Third-person narrators can look at characters from far away like a distant camera shot (see “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy); can watch them like bystanders (see The Wishing Trees by John Shors); or look over a character’s shoulder and show us the world from his perspective (see The Giver by Lois Lowry).

Look at the books you’ve read most recently and ask these questions.

1. Who is the narrator? What kind of personality does s/he have? (Straightforward, unreliable, dramatic, matter of fact? Is s/he comfortable or awkward as a storyteller?
2. Is it a first, second or third-person narrator? Why is it written this way?
3. Does this narrator use direct address? Why or Why not?
4. Where is the narrator in relationship to the characters?
5. Did the PN use present tense or past? Why?

Try this: Create a persona narrator that is different from yourself. If you're a woman, try creating a narrator who is a man. If you're a quiet person, create a loud, brash storyteller. If you're a Type A personality, create a shy storyteller. Write a page or two using this narrator to tell about something that happened in your day.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Poetry Friday: September

Last night I looked for a poem that would suggest how I'm feeling with the lovely change in weather. I ran out of energy before I found what I wanted. Then, this appeared in my inbox this morning from Your Daily Poem. It's perfect. Enjoy!

And stop over at The Poem Farm where Amy is hosting the round up today.

Edge of September
Jeanie Tomasko

Again this year it comes:
the shift in the wind
that certain slant of sun
the sudden red of sumac.

Out at the lake
birdsong is less urgent,
the young can feed themselves.
In a few days
something like light
will tug on wings.

I am at home with
the downside of summer.
I take stock of the woodpile.
Night comes earlier. The space
between cricket chirps, longer.

Read the rest here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

When Natalie Goldberg finished Writing Down the Bones, she thought she had said all she had to say on the subject of writing. It is our good fortune as writers that she was mistaken. The focus in Goldberg's new book, Wild Mind, is writing practice, finding time to write, breaking through procrastination and mental blocks, finding the gems buried in what Ms. Goldberg calls the wild mind, something larger than the unconscious that encompasses the whole of life, nature, and experience.

In her short chapters, overflowing with examples and her own experiences, Goldberg encourages ten-minute spurts of "writing practice" to help writers find that "quiet place in us below our hip personality that is connected to our breath, our words..." Chapter after chapter ends with timed prompts for dipping into that quiet place. Phrases like "I'm thinking of," "I know/don't know," and "I remember." Write about something that's hard for you to talk about. Write the rebellion you feel. Stop in the middle of your sentence and write--"What I really want to say is..."

She talks about failure, about being lazy, about writing her first novel. She opens her own struggles with the writing life for us to view, to take solace in, and then goes on to give us the tools to move beyond those dilemmas in our own writing life. 

Ms. Goldberg is open with her life experiences and her Zen Buddhist beliefs. While you may not embrace her philosophy of life, she is an extraordinary writer with much to offer those of us walking beneath the "big sky" with a pen in our hand. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Poetry Friday: Jean Nordhaus

From Jean Nordhaus, this lovely poem brightened my Poetry Friday. I hope it does the same for you.

More Poetry Friday at Secrets & Sharing Soda.

Under the Sign of Isadora,

my lonely mother taught me dancing.
It was afternoon, her cleaning done.
We climbed to the carpeted room
under the roof.  Sunlight had entered
before us, warm prayer rugs unrolled
on the carpet.  We took off our shoes
and closed the door.

Whatever she did, I repeated.
When she raised her arms
to touch the sky, I lifted mine.
If she bent low, sweeping the grass
with her arms, I did the same.
I would be water. In me
she would watch herself move between past

and future, my infant steps
continuing the figures hers began

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Illiteracy at the Driver's Bureau

Last week I had to renew my driver's license. It expired on my birthday back in the middle of July, but I'm legal again. I went prepared to spend hours waiting. The last time I was there, about ten years ago as I usually renew it online, it really did take a long time. This time, however, some smart driver's license bureaucrat managed to streamline the process and I was in and out pretty quickly.

While I was waiting, a young woman sat down in the row of chairs behind me. She gently tapped me on the shoulder and said she needed my help to fill out her form. She was difficult to understand, but I finally grasped the fact that she could not read. I was stunned to run smack into illiteracy in the driver's license bureau. Once I ascertained that it was okay for me to fill out the form for her (it was a government document, so I wasn't sure) I started writing her name for her. Then they called me to the counter to have an awful picture made and my name changed to match my social security card. Another long story, but don't ever call your child by their middle name if you want them to make it through life without at least three file folders every where anyone keeps a file folder with names on it.

By the time I was done, the young lady who couldn't read had been called to the counter where the driver's bureau employee helped her fill out her form. I don't know how she was going to take the test. Do they read the driver's test to you if you can't read it yourself? How could she read road signs? They don't all have symbols, some have words.

I wish I could have talked more with her. I wonder how she manages to get through daily life. I know there are people who can't read, but I don't run into them very often. It made me realize again just how important literacy is. The image of that young woman whispering behind her hand that she needed help saddens me. It's an image that remains lodged in my mind. Maybe she will find her way into a story one day.

I hope, one day, her story includes reading.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

It's Been a Long Month

My husband broke his ankle just over a month ago. He was here, fighting with a large branch caught between the rocks. The branch won. He slipped on the rocks and went in the creek. It's a mystery to me how he managed to get back up the hill to the house. 

It's broken here. Fibula. 

For weeks now, he's been here. Except ours is green.

He gets there with this.

Like I said. It's been a long month, but we have progressed to a boot instead of a cast and are slowly making progress. I'll be back to blogging soon.