23 April 2018

Psychic Distance

In the beginning of drafting a short novel, I have to consider different options of point of view and narrative space, as well as their pros and cons. To brush up what I have learned on this topic, here are a quick review and some examples. Hope this will help you in your reading and writing.

Outside POV: Panoramic view

  •  Dramatic or Playwright POV

Excerpt from Hills Like White Elephants by E. Hemingway:

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

The girl did not say anything.

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’

‘Then what will we do afterwards?’

‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’ ‘What makes you think so?’

‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’

Combination of Inside & Outside POV: Panning Out and Closeups

  •  Omniscient

 Grapes of Wrath Chapter 7, page 77-78:

“A lot and a house large enough for a desk and chair and a blue book. Sheaf of contracts, dog-eared, held with paper clips, and a neat pile of unused contracts. Pen- keep it full, keep it working… Owners with rolled up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses…”

“Lookin’ for a car? What did you have in mind? See anything attracts you? I‘m dry. How about a little snort of good stuff? Come on, while your wife’s looking’ at that La Salle. You don‘t want no La Salle. Bearings shot. Uses to much oil. Got a Lincoln ‘24. There‘s a car. Run forever. Make her into a truck.”

*This also includes Direct Internal Monologue (the car dealers) Many, many shifts of temporal and psychic distance in this book

From War and Peace by Tolstoy:

“When Boris came into the Rostov’s dining room, Natasha was up in her room. Hearing of his arrival she almost ran down to the drawing room, red in the face and radiant with a more than friendly smile.

Boris was still thinking of the little Natasha he had known four years ago dressed in a short frock, with brilliant black eyes darting out form under her curls, all wild whoops and girlish giggles, so when he saw a totally different Natasha coming into the room he was quite taken aback, and the surprise and delight showed on his face. Natasha was thrilled to see him looking like that.”

  •  Limited Omniscient

From “To Build a Fire” by Jack London:

“…Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious…”

  •   Diminishing First Person

From The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald:

“…One autumn night, five years before, they [Gatsby & Daisy] had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete…”

Inside POV: Only Close-ups

  • First person: most fall into this internal
  • Third person: 2 kinds— A) Interior monologue:

From The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen:

“She had to catch her train. As a woman whose utter dependability was the keystone of her family life she was not willing to return to the country, to her husband, her little boys, and her sister, without the objects she had come up to fetch. Resuming work at the chest she set about making up a number of parcels in a rapid, fumbling-decisive way. These, with her shopping parcels, would be too much to carry; these meant a taxi—at the thought of the taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I’ll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off . . . She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.”

B) Stream of Consciousness:

From James Joyce Ulysses:

“He walked on. Where is my hat, by the way? Must have put it back on the peg. Or hanging up on the floor. Funny I don’t remember that. Hallstand too full. Four umbrellas, her raincloak. Picking up the letters. Drago’s shopbell ringing. Queer I was just thinking that moment…”

28 August 2017

Creating Lively Characters

The two main characters, the mother and the daughter, in the prose poem Girl by Jamaica Kincaid come alive and believable for me. Both of them have preferences, wants, conflicts, histories, flaws, and surprises. The mother wants her coming-of-age daughter to grow up as a proper and respectable woman based on her own life experiences and wisdom. From her long lists of advice and folk knowledge – how to make abortion-inducing medicine, how to deal with men and relationships, and how to fit into the community, I can sense a complicated life she has lived. Stemming from a deep love and natural motherly protection for her daughter, her advice nonetheless sounds smothering and oppressive, like many mothers do. Her worry and frustration about her daughter becoming a “slut” create conflicts within herself and with her rebellious daughter. The mother surprises me though as not just a typical caring, practical and suffocating mother when she tells her daughter: “this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you.” This suggests that the mother was once a spirited and rebellious young girl herself.

The daughter in the story defies her mother by interjecting objections to her non-stop worrying and scolding. The daughter’s raised voices, only twice and in italics in the text, catch me off-guard and let me see her nature of rebellion. I can imagine and see her life as living with such an over-bearing mother. She does not go to the church, and she wants to live on her own terms. I do not see the daughter’s flaws unless I count teenage angst and rebellion as such, which I do not as they are part of a growing up experience for most of us.

The story has a unique structure with no conventional beginning, middle and end, and this leads to no character change for both protagonists. After reading it, I wonder how the conflict between the mother and the daughter has evolved, and if either of them undergoes any transformation. I think there are opportunities for the lists to go on more to indicate such changes and to make the story to have a even more satisfying closure for readers.

18 July 2017

Story Structure and Theme: “Pigeons at Daybreak”

In Anita Desai’s short story, Pigeons at Daybreak, the author uses the following elements of structure to draw readers into its fictional world and prompt them to keep turning the pages.

While the story proceeds in a linear fashion in time, from noon on a hot summer day to dawn the next day, there are two flashbacks when the tension and conflict are escalated. One takes place when Otima suggested carrying her husband Mr. Basu to the rooftop terrace with their neighbor’s help to relieve the dire situation of his illness with asthma and no electric ceiling fan that night, Mr. Basu recalled the fight with their quarrelsome neighbors on the terrace many years ago. Another one occurs when Mr. Basu was led to the terrace, he recalled a brief yet meaningful moment with his grandson looking at the pigeons on the terrace. Both flashbacks add depth to the structure as they let readers peep into the back story and a pre-existing world. While the first flashback adds more tension to the plot, the second one introduces one of the themes of the story: the simple beauty and delight in the humdrum and dreary of daily life.

These flashbacks happen naturally as the events in the story flow in “a sequence of causally related events”, or “narrative profluence” as identified by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction”. The story starts with Otima reading news to Mr. Basu at lunch, and it proceeds from there to their argument about the news, the news of power outage that night, Mr. Basu’s anxiety and fear of not being able to get through the night without the electric fan, his genuine illness at night, Otima’s attempt to solve the crisis, the failing of that attempt, and to the resolution – electricity switched on earlier and cool morning providing relief to both Otima and Mr. Basu. One thing leads to another, and the coherence and clarity of the structure keep readers focused to find out what would happen next.

The rising tensions in the narrative also urge readers to turn the pages. When the news of power outage broke out, the story shifts to a higher gear of tension for both characters. Mr. Basu “gasped fearfully… and already his diaphragm seemed to cave in…” and Otima “put the papers away and rose with a sigh of irritation and anxiety.” The tension rises to climax when Mr. Basu was carried out to the open terrace, and that seemed not solving the issue at hand. He sobbed, could not find any comfort or ease, “his heavy body sank into it as into a hammock… that he could not turn on that wobbling net in which he was caught like some dying fish, gasping for air.” Otima “lost the lightheartedness…” and was exhausted. “Finally she gave up and collapsed onto her own string bed…”

The story’s resolution brings changes to Mr. Basu and his wife as both see light when the cooling morning comes. Otima saw light in their flat by surprise as the electricity was turned on earlier and this brought relief and energy back to her. Mr.Basu was relieved by the morning breeze, and morning light – “as delicate and sweet as the breeze itself…”

The characters’ slice of daily life and its ordeal in one afternoon and night bring out the themes of the story: old age, illness, marriage, holding on, break-through, and perhaps the most present ones – day and night, darkness and light. The story reaches its crisis point at night and the crisis is resolved at dawn. The cycle of day and night and the contrast of darkness and light are universal. The title of the story hints at the theme of light, and the story ends with the recurring symbol of pigeons “caught the light as they rose, turned brighter till they turned at last into crystals, into prisms of light.”

The story of “Pigeons at Daybreak” reminds me of a title of Eugene O’Neill’s play: “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, or the reversal of it: “Long Night’s Journey into Dawn”.

20 February 2017

Diction and Syntax

Twelve o’clock. Formality had been rubbed off, everybody was being their own age or under. Everybody being modern. Cigarettes burning like fireflies on a summer night. A Charleston contest with a great laundry show. Hey! Hey! Powder gone, but a lively prettiness taking its place. A wealthy woman in the foolish forties giggling on the shoulder of a twenty-year old. He is amusing himself by giving her what he calls a good sheiking as they dance around. They are bumping and she is panting a laugh at every bump. Business man near fifty dancing with a sweet young thing with a short dress and her knees roughed.

This excerpt is from a short story titled The Back Room by Zora Neale Hurston. It portrays a vivid party scene in New York’s Harlem district in the 1920s. The author’s word choices give the reader a sense of time and place and its intoxicated, gay and rowdy atmosphere: Twelve o’clock, modern, Cigarettes burning, fireflies, Powder gone, A Charleston contest, giggling, amusing, sheiking, bumping, panting, roughed.  The syntax works together with the semantics that “Formality had been rubbed off” as most sentences are incomplete and deviating from their standard structures. The parallel phrases, such as “Everybody being…”, “Cigarettes burning…”, “prettiness taking its place.”, “A woman… giggling”, foreground the scene and bring it alive on the page. The tense shifts from the past in the beginning, “everybody was being their own age or under”, to the present towards the end, “He is amusing himself…”. Then it changes to the past again after the zoomed-in dance scene of the business man and the young girl and the zoomed-out group scene a few short paragraphs later: “Crowd grows noisier. Cocktails [ajplenty. Punch bowl always full. Good food, good liquor, pretty women, goodlooking men, and Lilya was in the center of it all with Bill…”. The variation of the tenses highlights the night scene and makes the setting real and urgent for the reader.

The rhythm of the excerpt mimics the fast-paced rag-time jazz to which Charleston was danced in the 20s. Short fragmented sentences vary with long ones creating a rich dynamic tempo for the reader. For example, one word sentences “Hey! Hey!” are followed by longer ones. Through the deliberate use of rhythm, syntax, and diction, the author creates a historical and social setting and background for the story. This helps the reader better understand the protagonist’s dilemma (a middle-aged society woman losing her beauty and youth in a fast changing and relentlessly biased upper class) and empathize with the questionable choices she has to make for survival.



To further illustrate the expressive effect of diction and syntax, I am attaching a  brilliant writing student’s response to this discussion:

“The quick tempo created by the rhythm of the choppy sentences fits the jazz scene of 1920’s New York City.  In this case, the syntax of the sentences contributes as much to the setting as do the semantics.  Imagine, if you will, the same passage penned by Edgar Allan Poe:

Upon the somber stroke of midnight, far from the burning lights cast upon the city by the towers of Manhattan and huddled in the back parlor of a Harlem manor, I found myself immersed in festivity so opposite my melancholy ennui I could not help but abandon formality.  Amidst the smoke of cigarettes and the cacophony of thumping rhythms, I joined in a round of the Charleston with a mad woman of leisure.  Twice my age, she irreverently exposed her undergarments while kicking up her legs, an inebriated smile plastered on her grotesque face besmudged with fading makeup. “


30 January 2017

Read Like a Writer

Reading for pleasure is how I usually read. I read for information from New York Times, from articles my Facebook friends post that seem interesting or funny, and stories that hook me and provide escape from my daily grind. I do not ask questions. If I like what I read, I’d simply say: wow, that is great, and move on. Sometimes I’d look up the historical background, the social context and the author’s life if the work is truly intriguing or mind-blowing to me. Even though I consider myself a slow and close reader, I realize I am far from being reading like a writer.

Read Like a Writer (RLW) differs from my usual way of reading as Mike Bunn points out in his article titled How to Read Like a Writer. According to Bunn, RLW is reading like an architect or a carpenter. Writerly readers read to see how the text is constructed to achieve certain effects and convey central ideas to them. They ask questions before, during and after reading. Before reading, they ask questions such as what the author’s purpose and intended audience are; during and after reading, they ask why the author makes certain decisions about the word choice, the narrative structure, the dialogues, character development, the setting and tone etc., and how effective these choices are.  They also draw from their craft analysis valuable lessons and tools for their own creative writings.

For the two books I am reading now  –  Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I will try to read like a writer: look for details on how short stories are strung together with creative narration, how effective the language is, and how both books portray small town characters and make them relatable.  Since I have had a vague idea of writing something similar, i.e. “Novel in Stories”, I hope to benefit from reading like a writer in my own writing and rewriting endeavor down the road.

7 September 2016

“Let Yourself Be Silently Drawn” – Rumi

While I took a pause in writing this summer simply to admire the season’s brilliant sunshine and storms, to roam with bisons and elks in the national parks, and to walk the forest trails with good friends, a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi kept reverberating in my mind. I cannot help to jot it down here as I am ready to pick up the last rounds of revision of a short story in progress.

An Empty Garlic – Rumi

You miss the garden,
because you want a small fig
from a random tree.
You don’t meet the beautiful woman.
You’re joking with an old crone.

It makes me want to cry
how she detains you,
stinking-mouthed, with a hundred
talons, putting her head
over the roof edge to call down,
tasteless fig, fold over fold, empty
as dry-rotten garlic.

She has you tight by the belt,
even though there’s no flower
and no milk inside her body.

Death will open your eyes
to what her face is. Leather spine
of a black lizard. No more advice.

Let yourself be silently drawn
by the stronger pull
of what you really love.


20 May 2016

The Creative Process: Reviewing and Reflecting

Being an immigrant from China, I can relate to the short story “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan, which I read recently. My relationship with my mother has deteriorated over the past ten years. She has put lots of pressure on me to get married and have kids, a different kind of expectation from the mother in “Two Kinds”, but it is basically the same as the narrator in “Two Kinds” points out: “For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.”

In her TED Talk on “Where Does Creativity Hide”, Tan discusses her writing process and the creativity that goes into her work. Her talk sheds light on her writing process that may be applicable to other writers: start from real-life experiences; pay attention to those moments when ideas seem to pop up from nowhere; and use imagination to create a world full of believable characters and events.

Tan also points out that the process of writing is a combination of conscious effort and serendipity. Do not over think what the piece is about, just keep writing and see where it will take you. This is the opposite of what I usually do. I tend to have a detailed outline and know what it is about before I start. Now I’d like to let myself loose and not to adhere to the outline too rigidly. I hope to surprise myself more often especially in areas like character development and narrative arc in my current and future writings.

If you have any thoughts and reflections on your own writing process and like to share, I’d love to hear it.

And in the immortal words of a fellow writer: “WRITE AND KEEP ON WRITING!”

29 March 2016

Conflicts That Engage Us

Happy Endings vs. A Good Man is Hard to Find

Margaret Atwood’s scenario B in “Happy Endings” tells an all-too-familiar story: a woman falls in love with a man who does not love her back; moreover, she does not recognize the abusive pattern in her relationship and continues to be her man’s doormat and eventually kills herself. Comparing this to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, a story about a family of six being wiped out by an escaped convict called Misfit on their way to Florida, I find the latter a much more engaging reading. The female protagonist dies and the male protagonist lives on in the end in both stories, but my reaction after reading is a sigh and “ok, time to move on” to the first one, but a “wow! Wait! What?! Holy Jesus” to the latter. While “Happy Endings” scenario B depicts a universal conflict in a romantic relationship, it lacks details about its characters and environment. We do not know how old Mary and John are, what they look like, where they live, what they do, how their relationship started and evolved, etc. The story mainly consists of statements; there are no scenes or dialogues or other rhetorical devices for showing. Characters are flat and only in conflict with each other and we do not see much of their inner struggles. There are no character transformations in the end.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the details of the actions characters take reveal to the reader that this is not a common murder case story, but a story of spiritual revelation and salvation. The opening scene begins with stock characters from a family vacation, focusing on the manipulative and controlling nature of the matriarch of the family, the grandmother. “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida” and “she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind”. She dresses unnecessarily proper for the trip by car, wearing “a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print”; and “her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet.” She later exclaims when she see a black child from the car: “Oh look at the little pickaninny!”, “Wouldn’t that make picture, now?”, and “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do”, “If I could paint, I’d paint that picture”. Then she goes on telling a story to her grandchildren of a black child giving into the temptation of a watermelon. At this point, we can see the grandmother’s lack of perceptions. She is self-absorbed and filled with the prejudices of her class and her time. These scenes and dialogues, along with  the Tower scene, lay the foundation for the dreadful turn in the story’s plot. When the grandmother is finally facing the Misfit, she continues to be more concerned about sounding like a good Christian than being a good Christian. She continues her superfluous babbling in an attempt to save herself: “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood.” She starts to talk about Jesus while her family is shot dead one by one by the Misfit’s gang. Once again we perceive the grandmother represents something she does not fully grasp: “Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing”. Only in the final scene when the grandmother is facing her own death and when the Misfit continues to talk about his bewilderment and crisis of lack of faith, the grandmother has an epiphany and sees the Misfit’s twisted face and recognizes him in a different light. She sees the humanity within him beyond her own religious platitudes. She gains redemption right before the Misfit kills her: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one my own children!”, and “she reached out and touched him on the shoulder”. Not only does the grandmother’s final action save her own soul, but it also bears profound impact on the Misfit: now he realizes “She would have been a good woman” and shuts off his gang and says at the end of the story: “It’s no real pleasure in life”, which hints that down the road he will regret the killings and that he will no longer takes pleasure in doing this. Both main characters undergo a transformation. Without fleshing out these scenes with vivid details and actions between the beginning and ending, there would have not that much of a story in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, or, as in O’Connor’s words, “What was left would not be worth your attention”. Even though the ending is similar to many other crime stories, we get “a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times” as in Atwood’s comment in “Happy Endings” scenario F.