Tag: Plot

THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby stalks me from one high school language arts class to the next. In St. Helens, he prowls through the junior classrooms and in Scappoose, his story resounds with the freshmen.

This disparity in curriculum gave me pause.

After all, I’ve taught students between the ages of twelve and eighteen for many years. There is a huge difference in the analytical abilities of freshmen (fourteen or fifteen-year-olds) and juniors (sixteen and seventeen-year-olds). Can Gatsby’s theme and content bridge this gap? Will freshmen understand the depth of Fitzgerald’s message in the same way juniors do?

The proof is in the pudding. And I won’t be around to see the end product.


Freshmen

In the freshmen classroom, the project due at the end of the reading is a theme timeline.

This is an art-heavy project. Students will identify the (a) theme of the book and create a timeline of events that support that theme. As I talked about in a recent post about theme, it must be evidence-based using words from the text rather than experience-based.

If these students can prove their interpretation with sufficient text examples, they will have nailed a theme. I believe there are many, but Nick Carroway does a fair job of stating an obvious one in the first paragraph of the novel.

You can’t judge a person because you don’t know what they’ve been through.

Everyone judges Gatsby as a successful and wealthy man who loves throwing parties. He’s affable and generous, and everyone is happy to take part in his excess but none of them show up to pay respects at his funeral.

So what sort of person was Jay Gatsby really? I’m not sure we really know. A poor man who sought his big break and found it, but all the success in the world couldn’t overcome his insecurities. His life ended before he could reap the benefit of finding true love with Daisy.

Juniors

The juniors are focusing on the symbolism in Fitzgerald’s classic novel. There is plenty to be found.

The one chapter I read with these students had several symbolic things in it, but many of the students missed their significance. Even when I stopped and asked leading questions, they blanked out.

I fear the teachers will be disappointed at the outcome of this assignment.

Like theme, symbolism is one of those things that gets emphasized in high school (and college) literature classes. Symbols can be subject to interpretation. I spoke more about that in this post about Blue Being Blue.

In my mind, symbols take more time to recognize. The harder you have to look for one, the more unlikely it is to be one. When analyzing a novel, only obvious symbols should be considered (as far as I’m concerned).

I believe symbolisim requires deeper reflection on a text, so perhaps the varied focus of the curricula explains things. The choice of this text for students at different intellectual stages of development might make sense in this case.

Literary Takeaways

No one argues the state of The Great Gatsby as a classic. It should certainly be part of a robust literary education.
Or should it?

As an author, I rarely give thought to symbolism in my writing and thought of theme is something done during revisions. Since I write genre fiction, that’s to be expected. Nothing I write will be considered a classic. No one will teach my short stories or novellas in their English class.

I’m sort of glad about this. Even speaking to readers about my books can be disheartening if they don’t “get” what I wanted to say. The thought of some English teacher claiming the technology in the follow up novel to “The Demon Was Me” represented evil as much as the demons makes me cringe.

Mostly because I didn’t even want my demons to represent evil. They were being trying to survive, and the way they did it destroyed regular people. Can you see a deeper truth in this? One that might be important for young adults (the intended audience) to understand?

I think students in today’s classrooms would be more engaged if more contemporary novels were taught in classrooms. My experience teaching a group of middle school students Hunger Games proves this point. They were low readers, many with language disabilities, so they missed much about theme and symbolism, but they could plot out the story and relate the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. Doesn’t appreciation of story have a place in a language arts classroom?

Fitzgerald is a notable wordsmith. His descriptions are lovely and borderline purple prose. Since he puts so much of himself into a story, readers feel intimate with the characters. But most of his stories are lacking on plot.

Maybe teaching one literary classic per year would suffice in high school English classes. Introduce reluctant readers (which most young people are these days because…technology) to a few masters. Let the assignments practice important life skills: like disseminating essential information and conveying ideas with clarity.

Because how often have you needed to identify a theme or recognize symbolism in your day-to-day life? It’s nice to want kids to broaden their horizons and look outside the box for beauty, but if they can’t balance their checkbook or hold down a job, does that truly matter?
What classics do you believe are essential for every young American to read? What skills should be taught in language arts classes?

Rewrite, Revise, Repeat…Is it Done Yet?

Rewrite_revise_repeatGood writing is rewriting. I’m not the originator of that wisdom. It seems like I might be a poster child for it, though.

When did I finish this young adult fantasy novel again? Oh, right, before NaNoWriMo last year.

It was ready for a little polish and then off to the beta readers.

Or so I thought. Until I got a critique on the first 20,000 words from the amazing Jami Gold.

It had major character arc issues.

So, I spent December tweaking things, getting a little feedback on the opening from my online critique group.

In January, I went through it all again, trying to spiff it up slightly. I don’t like sending mediocre writing out to readers.

Off it went to four beta readers in February.

And only one of them loved it.

The non-genre readers had issues with some of the fantastical happenings (it is a FANTASY after all), but thought the characters read fairly well. He wasn’t impressed with the ending.

The fantasy genre read-aholic thought the premise was great. He didn’t think the characters arced very much. Everything happened for them too easily – even though the stakes couldn’t get much higher.

Months later, the soon-to-be-published YA Fantasy writer returned the manuscript. Shredded. (No need to mention my writing confidence was also ripped apart. But that’s part of becoming a professional writer.)

Much of the stuff she address was tight writing, which I address most in my editing and polishing phases (which happen once all the revision and rewriting is finished).

The story had so much potential but was weighed down by wishy-washy characters and too few moments of accelerating tension.

So, I spent the next two weeks slicing and dicing the beta manuscript.

Here are a few examples:

  • The first scene was completely scratched and rewritten (for like the fourth or fifth time)
  • The order of the first two scenes was switched (suggestion from my target audience beta group)
  • Several scenes were tossed into the “cut scenes” file (making it a hefty 15,000 words)
  • A few new scenes were added
  • Nearly every scene was intensified with more emotions (teenagers = drama)
  • The end was completely rewritten (for the second time)

In short, anyone who read the original story probably wouldn’t recognize it in the pages of the rewritten story.

Next stop, revision with a red pen.

I print out my manuscript and read it aloud. Every sentence comes under fire.

I’ll address grammar issues if I find them. Obvious word repetition will fall beneath my sharpened editor’s blade.

But mostly, I’m cleaning up the language. Clarifying meaning. Focusing on the individual voice of each passage.

Does that SOUND like something my seventeen-year-old heroine would say? Would a fifteen-year-old surfing science geek think or talk that way?

good writing meme

After that, the manuscript will get two more rounds of edits. It’s during these final polishing rounds that I will search for obvious areas of “telling” rather than “showing.” Major word repetition will be rooted out.

After that, will it finally be done?

Nope, but it will be ready for marketing to agents, editors and publishers. Once they buy it, it will go through several more rounds of editing.

Because every writer knows – a story is never done.

Hamlet – Not much of a Hero

This is the post of mine that netted the second most views ever on my blog. I think it was the title; Hamlet was a hero, right?

While critics everywhere agree that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular play, those same scholars find little to admire in the title character. He seems plagued by a “lack of will to act,” they say.

While watching the 1996 Branagh version of Hamlet, I followed the text in my weighty textbook. A few additions (from another version of the text apparently) were the only variations from what Shakespeare penned hundreds of years ago.

I enjoyed the film. While lengthy soliloquies covered a page in the book, the filmmaker gave visual flashbacks or cutaway scenes to explain what was being rambled on about in the tiresome speeches. It helped me understand the depths of plot that Shakespeare layered in this play.

Hamlet, in a deep state of grief over the sudden death of his father, resents the marriage of his mother and uncle less than a month after the funeral. A visit by the ghost of his father directs him to wreak vengeance on his murderous uncle. Hamlet voices his own moral quandary for carrying out this revenge.

It is this constant questioning and his need for verification of his uncle’s guilt that immobilizes him. What right does he have to be the executioner of this sentence? Won’t his vengeful retribution make him as much a murderer as his uncle?

In the film, it was easy to see that Ophelia and Hamlet had a preexisting love relationship, but it’s nonexistent in Shakespeare’s manuscript. That being the case, we don’t see what motivated the only suicide in this play?

Is it strange that I find the multiple murders at the end of the play preferable to the suicidal body count in the other three plays I’ve read this term? In fact, the true tragedy of this play is that a country is left without a monarch. An invader walks in at the end to claim the throne; his conquest accomplished by the royal family he deposes.

Even though I enjoyed reading (and watching) this play enormously, I have to admit that Hamlet’s character isn’t the compelling ingredient. So many famous sayings and familiar quotes are in this play, it’s obvious The Bard outdid himself with the turns of phrase in this story.

What do you think of Hamlet? Is he a hero? Who do you think was the hero in this play?

Story Engineering

At the behest of my Jedi Master, Kristen Lamb, I’ve begun dog-earring a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It’s a masterful guide for creating a strong, complex story.

If you’re thinking, “I’ve got story structure down,” I thought similarly after highlighting James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure into rainbow-like proportions. Brooks subtitled his book “Mastering the 6 core competencies of successful writing.” Structure is only one of the six.

Two hours on the phone with Kristen reiterated for me the fact that I’m still a noob in the writing arena. Sure, I’ve been writing stories since I was nine. Does that mean they were well-written stories?

My first attempt at young adult fantasy flopped because I didn’t understand my antagonist’s motivation before I started writing. In the past, I had an idea and I sat down and wrote it. That might work for a short story, but all it provides in the novel-writing world is 60,000 words of warming up to the real story.

Trust me. I was halfway through the revision process when Master Lamb tapped the major plot points with her force push. The resulting pile of rubble buried my heart. A novel shouldn’t be a wobbly house of cards. It needs to have bones of steel beneath its thin skin (or maybe it’s the writer who has thin skin?).

Most of us right-brained artistic types see the word “engineering” and lose our appetite. Isn’t engineering all about calculus and equations with 18 variables and figuring out how to use all the buttons on a $200 calculator? So not interested.

The point behind Brooks’ use of “engineering” in his title is that writing a great story doesn’t just happen. We all know that only a fool would run out to build a tower without having blueprints and expertise. Brooks presents a logical (yes, very left-brained) argument for planning the major plot points and character arc before you attempt to build your novel.

The six core competencies of writing according to Brooks are:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure
  • Scene Execution
  • Writing Voice

I was directed to this stellar directory for story-planning for the lesson in story structure. I started with Part Five of the book so I could take my medicine and “do” rather than “try” to plan a successful novel.

In reading the entire book, I see that Brooks marries character arc to story structure in a way that simplifies the planning process. He offers sage advice for weaving theme between these major elements, as well, and erases the gray area between concept and theme.

In short, this book should be required reading for newbie writers. Using a conversational tone, Brooks invites the panster to do a little planning and gives the outlining mavens a blueprint to follow. He never talks above our heads or down his nose and he uses examples from fiction and film to illustrate every point.

Is your work in progress a mess of Bondo? I highly recommend Brooks’ book. It works better than an air sander at smoothing out the rough spots.

Legacy

iPhone 218 005 Since I stumbled into C.S. Lewis’ Narnia in fifth grade, I have been a fan of reading fantasy novels. The more magical the place and characters, the more enthralled I am to enter their domain.

Fortunately, I have a nephew who is more of a fantasy buff than I am. This keeps me supplied with reading material (although I’ve been known to purchase an ebook or 50 of my own). Currently, my nightly reading is a chapter in a book from R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series.

After finishing Legacy, I felt impressed by the author’s ability to “up the stakes.” Salvatore is a master of plot, character, world building and suspense. The books start off tamely enough; I can put them aside after only reading a chapter each night before bed.

Somewhere around the time the “point of no return” happens, the book attaches itself to my hands.

In Legacy, this point came during an epic fight scene where it became crystal clear that one of the main characters wasn’t going to make it out alive. I can hear the swords clashing when I read these scenes. Salvatore brings the reader into the fight.

This is the 7th book in this series and I have seen similar plot constructions in every book.  It goes something like this:

  • Peaceful ruminations are broken by intruders or a needful quest
  • The dark elf and his friends answer the summons
  • Minor complications crop up but Salvatore lets us glimpse what the antagonists are plotting, so we can worry about the big surprise waiting for the heroes
  • Battles, bantering and introduction of interesting magical creatures or places unfold
  • The trap is sprung and the friends are separated
  • Fighting against impossible odds ensues
  • Then the final turning point, where it seems all is lost, occurs (my heart races every time and I know there are 13 books in this series so the main character must not perish!)

Each book can stand alone but the continuity between the books I’ve read thus far is seamless. Characters remain true to their persona, even though they change and grow a little more in every book.

If you’re looking for good fantasy and a character to adore, pick up something from this series. The world of the dark elves will chill you to the bone, but you will eagerly champion the cause of one drow – Drizzt Do’Urden.

I’m not a Playwright

Words well within me, an unquenchable passion, until my fingers transfer them to the page. Writing, flying for my soul and spirit, frees me like nothing else.

Penning a play – especially one that must be performed within ten minutes – just doesn’t offer the same joyful release.

Two Problems

  • Story line: Really, what sort of story that has any plot development or character arc can be told in ten minutes? Solely with dialogue. In a single setting and make it a simple one. It can only be a snippet of a story and yet, the instructor expects it to have the richness of a full-length work.
  • Stage directions: I am bogging my script down with stage directions. Even as I know this, I feel the only way to develop my characters is to show their facial expressions and body language. So much can be said in narrative. My story seems empty if I don’t insert these specific emotions and actions for the characters.

I’d Rather Write a Story

I keep telling myself that the only difference between what I’m writing for this workshop and what I love to produce is the format. Instead of using paragraphs and quotation marks and endless lines of prose, I’m typing stage directions and parentheticals and character names.

I’m not fooling myself. I’ll be surprised if I pull the wool over the eyes of my professor and classmates.

The story is shallow and the characters don’t have time to be fully developed. They will appear onstage as completely formed, speak their lines and exit.

In the end, I’m hoping for a few chuckles over my preposterous premise. If I could change the world in ten minutes I would have some sort of dedicated following, wouldn’t I?

Have you ever written in a form that felt uncomfortable and unworkable? I’d like to hear your story.