Just What Do You Mean By “Etchings?”

Over on FaceBook, a writer friend shared the link to “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All,” an excellent piece by K.M. Weiland about improving dialogue through subtlety and subtext. The article reminded me of this RSA Animate video, an animation of a short talk by psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker on indirect communication. For writers, “Language as a Window into Human Nature” is one of the best ten-minute lessons on dialogue and character interaction and development you’ll find anywhere, and it’s fun too.

What your characters don’t say is often as—and sometimes more—important as what they do say.

We’re All Mad Here

Wednesday, after two and a half years of work, I graduated from Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program. For some ungodly reason (at a Catholic university, no less) I was appointed class speaker. What follows is my commencement speech. It’s longer than my usual posts, but I hope you enjoy it. As for me, I’m going to sleep for a week.


Down the Rabbit Hole

Before I begin—to my classmates, thank you for the honor of letting me speak for you today. Honor, punishment, tomayto, tomahto—it’s yet to be decided, but I hope I live up to the trust you’ve placed in me.

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My twenty year-old niece recently returned from a semester studying in Italy. After her first day of classes, she called me. She’d been in Florence for three days, and when I asked how—well, everything—was, she replied, “I’m Alice. I’m in Wonderland, and I’m not sure it will be real until it’s over.”

I understood perfectly, because a little over two years earlier, I’d followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole and found Wonderland.

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“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Cheshire CatAs Ones, it didn’t take long to discover we’d fallen down the rabbit hole and in among mad people. Only in Wonderland can you announce in a crowded elevator, “I’m looking for a fast acting poison leading to a painful death,” and spark a discussion rather than having people edge away and flee at the next stop. (And in Wonderland, the elevators are slow enough for an in-depth discussion between the first and fourth floors.)

In Wonderland, people ask about your writing—and it’s not a rhetorical question. They are truly interested. We knew we’d found the mad people, and we fit right in.

In Wonderland, we write Popular Fiction. Popular doesn’t mean our books are most likely to be elected Prom Queen—although none of us would complain if they were. Popular, in this usage, as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary, means, intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals. Despite having our feet firmly planted on populist ground, the students of the Writing Popular Fiction program are an elite bunch.

We are elite not because we were accepted into Seton Hill’s MFA program, although that is an accomplishment of which we can all be proud. We are elite because we not only chose to follow the White Rabbit into the unknown, we went in search of Wonderland. Whether we came here with a backlist and bestsellers or in an attempt to conquer our fear of the novel, we chose to step through the looking glass in search of the Jabberwock, the JubJub bird, and the frumious Bandersnatch, also known as Character, Conflict, and Plot.

At one time or another, all of us were told, “You ought to be a writer.” Like the cake marked “Eat Me,” those words filled us, and like Alice, we opened “out like the largest telescope that ever was.” Later, many of us heard, “If you want to study writing, if you want to get into graduate school, you’re going to have to leave behind this silly pursuit of Romance or Fantasy or Science Fiction or Mystery or Horror and write real literature.” Like Alice after she drained the “Drink Me” bottle, we shrank and worried that we might “go out altogether, like a candle.” Instead, we found Wonderland.

We are elite—and mad—because we don’t just believe, we know Popular Fiction is worthy of study. We know that genre writing provides more than entertainment and escape—although we know those qualities should never be dismissed. We know that Popular Fiction has meaning and power, and we know that Popular Fiction has the potential to reach and affect more people than even the deepest and finest Literary work.

We are mad with the knowledge that our true love has value.

We are elite because we know the answer to the question “Do you really want to write a beach book?” is “Absolutely.”

During my first term in the program I struggled, and my mentor, Scott Johnson, wrote, “Don’t worry…If this was easy, everyone would be doing it, and there wouldn’t be a reason for you to be in the program. This is tough stuff, and you can get it done.” (By the way, despite those kind words, he’s just as scary as his carefully cultivated reputation suggests, and he can reach across the Interwebs, through your computer screen, and throttle you. He’s the Dark Side of Wonderland.)

As my critique partner might say, “Writing is hard, y’all.”

And it is.

But during our time in Wonderland, encouraged by Hatters to the right of us and March Hares to the left of us, we achieve something that many people want to do and few manage to pull off. We write novels. Whether it’s our first or our fifteenth, whether we pursue publication or toss it under the bed and consider it a learning experience, we each start and finish a novel.

We are elite because we pursue our madness.

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“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

CaterpillarTwo and a half years is both a very long time and no time at all. The real world brought measurable changes to our class. New jobs. Cross-country moves. We sympathized through divorces and celebrated a marriage. We mourned deaths and rejoiced in births. (By the way, that is births—plural, but they both happened at once. Twins. In our little corner of Wonderland, we do things big.)

In Wonderland, we learned things that changed us in ways we didn’t expect—or always appreciate. Pantsers became plotters and plotters became pantsers and a few of us became some psychotic combination of the two. We survived reading pedagogical theory in Dr. Arnzen’s Teaching Popular Fiction class and reading Kenneth Gelder in Dr. Peeler’s Writing About Popular Fiction class. Neither killed us, and so must have made us stronger. Or something like that.

We developed respect for things that didn’t meet our personal tastes, and sometimes, we developed a taste for things we thought we had no respect for.

We learned that we’re not as good as we thought we were, and we learned that we’re better than we thought we were or ever believed we could be.

We leave Wonderland having changed several times in several ways, but we didn’t go through—or make—the changes alone.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, as many of you in the audience have learned. If you interrupt a writer at work, your reason had better involve fire or blood. (Or food. We like it when you bring us food.) But writing isn’t done in a vacuum. Writing requires readers, and in Wonderland, we found our early readers—the ones we trust with first drafts. The ones who aren’t afraid to say, “I’m sorry. I’m sure that worked better in your head.”

Among the maddest and most splendid of Wonderland’s inhabitants are our guides, the WPF faculty and mentors. The list of what you’ve given us is too long to enumerate, so thank you. For everything, even the times you shouted, “Off with their heads!” and even more for the times you resisted removing our heads.

Many of you, whether you know it or not, have a great effect even on students with whom you have little or no direct contact. A kind word in the hallway. The knowledge you share with your students, and they share with the rest of us. And on that subject—Timons Esaias, please write a craft book. We need it, and the legions of writers not lucky enough to be here need it.

We are writers. We range from a little neurotic to completely bonkers, depending on which day—or minute-—you catch us. We entered Wonderland terrified, but enthusiastic, brimming with ideas. Each of us, at one point or another, looked around, found that our fields were barren, and felt we had nothing left to give. Just as we were about to give up, to crawl out of the rabbit hole and into a gopher hole where we could sleep for six months, a spot of green appeared. Nurtured by the support of our classmates and by the support we offered to others, the seedling grew and we found our fields teeming with life.

We learned to accept help when it was offered and to ask for help when it was needed. For some of us, this was a hard lesson. But, here among the mad people, we found our tribe.

We are writers, and we a part of a community.

In Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

We are writers. Our memories work backwards and forwards and up and down and sideways and slantways, and sometimes, even we don’t know how they work or where they are going. But in Wonderland, we learned that’s okay. The important thing is to keep going, to find the logic hidden in the nonsense, and to follow our memory forward until we type the writer’s favorite words, “The End.” And when memory fails us, revision is our friend.

Speaking of the White Queen, she may have believed six impossible things before breakfast, but I have no doubt Wendy Lynn does six impossible things before breakfast—and another dozen before lunch. Wendy, thank you for all you do, for putting up with us, and for always finding the answer, even when our questions are “exactly like a riddle with no answer.”

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AliceWhile I was writing this speech, a recent graduate posted a story on FaceBook. She went out to buy a new laptop, and the store didn’t have the model she wanted in stock. The salesperson tried to talk her into accepting a model with less storage than she needed. He asked what she did. For the first time ever, she answered, “I’m a writer.”

The salesperson didn’t ask what she’d published or if he’d ever heard of her or if she could make any money doing that. Instead, he was suitably impressed by those three little words—I’m a writer—and agreed she needed the larger storage. She left the store without her new computer, but it didn’t matter. She’d eaten Wonderland’s cake. She was ten feet tall.

In a few minutes, the people seated behind me will vote on—and I hope, pass—the awarding of our degrees. They will drape Master’s hoods over our shoulders and hand us diplomas bearing the words Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction. These are the trophies we take from Wonderland, but we leave with something far more important, something hard-won in our journeys down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass.

“Explain yourself !” (the Caterpillar said.)
“I ca’n’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

In Wonderland, we found ourselves.
Who are we?
We are writers.
We are mad, but we are not alone.
We are writers.

Thank you.


All quotes anThe Mad Hatter and the March Hared images are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll, illustrations by John Tenniel.

I Am (Not Only) a Camera

Point of View can make or break a story. As writers, we have a lot of decisions to make. Who will tell the story—or be our POV character. Will the POV character tell the story in first (I), second (you), or third (she) person? Do we need more than one POV? Writer and editor Jon Gingrich explains a few of the many variations of POV in his LitReactor essay Which P.O.V Is Right For Your Story?

Once those decisions are made, writing POV—from my point of view (see what I did there?)—gets really fun. I am, both as a writer and a reader, a big fan of deep or close point of view in which everything is not just seen or heard through a character’s eyes and ears, but processed through that characters experience and emotion with minimal author intrusion.

In deep POV, the character is much more than a recording device relaying events. Deep POV doesn’t just tell us what the character saw, but how they saw it. Two friends get in an argument. One says the car is blue, the other says purple. A third comes along and declares the car indigo. The paint job on the car doesn’t change, but each individual sees it from their own POV, filtered through their own frame of reference.

Deep POV is a key to building character and that character’s voice. The drunken redneck hooligan who’s just been knocked on his ass and is staring up at an evening sky probably wouldn’t describe that sky as “robin’s egg blue brushed with hints of tangerine,” but if he does, that certainly becomes a clue to hidden depths of his character—and you’d better follow up on that clue. Deep point of view gives us a story that only the POV character can tell us and provides us with more understanding of the character than pages of backstory or physical description provides.

Over at Writers in the Storm, Guest Blogger Rhay Christou provides four quick tips for Diving Deep into Deep Point of View, and at Write Stranger, my former mentor Scott A. Johnson (a big fan of deep POV) urges you to go Deeper! Deeper! Deeper! But, my favorite definition of deep POV comes not from a writer, but from an eye doctor in this June 2014 Humans of New York Facebook post:

For me, that says it all. We are not cameras, and neither should our characters be.