Writing Class Lesson 1.1
So the prof—Él Professorino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing— kicks off the old online writing class with four dramatic elements necessary to storytelling: Passion. Theme. Character. Premise.
- Passion: a strong belief. From the context of the course material, I understand this to be my belief, not my character’s. Hmm…
- Theme: the message to share with readers. Again, presumably my message, not my character’s.
- Character: the protagonist, whose personality serves as a vehicle to carry the theme.
- Premise: which begins with the phrase, “What if?”
All of a sudden, I feel I have no stories to tell. Because the stories I dream about telling aren’t about what I get passionate about. Like, I’m passionate about my kids, but I don’t think they’d make particularly arresting protagonists. I’m super passionate about telling the truth, but who wants to read a story about a prissy pants truth seeker?
How does this strike you guys? Does Él P. think writers want to write a good story, or just propagandize?
I feel like my homework is to shoehorn a passion and a theme into the story ideas I have. When what I really wanted to do was write.
5 weeks. One neighborhood, a state park, a second town, half a dozen shops, a few restaurants. 9 characters, 10 including the dog. 30,000 words logged, 10% of which might actually be in the novel.
We’re really doin’ it, buddy!
I noticed something significant when I listed five favorite novels
a few weeks ago. Setting is a key “character” in each of them. I love to fall in love with the place.
“Every human event happens somewhere,
and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve got a somewhere, but it’s still missing a lot of its somewhereness. (Fun word. Thanks, Uncle John!) I haven’t done a great job bringing the locale to life…yet. But when I write the scenes, there will be heaps of opportunities to interject more personality into the setting as I go along.
Here’s a checklist for when I get there:
- Check your senses. What can we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch?
- What customs, idioms, names, mannerisms, flora and fauna are unique to this place?
- How do climate and landscape affect the story?
- What does this particular setting add that no other location could?
- How can a character interact naturally with the setting?
- How can the setting help or hinder the characters?
- Can the setting reflect the characters’ action or internal struggle?
- What happens here that could never happen anywhere else?
Note: The program I’m following is from John Dufresne’s book, Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. It’s been good so far. Check it out.
So I’m writing about my characters’ troubles, really giving them hell, and my son asks
me, “What’s a plight?”
Apparently I talk out loud.
“It’s a bad situation. Trouble. Dire straits.” The look on his face prompts me to suggest
looking it up in the dictionary.
Normally we use the good old Information Superhighway to solve these paltry
educational dilemmas, but said son is in the middle of an online test for school. If he
clicks away, he’ll have to start all over again.
A genuine first world plight.
I reach for the student dictionary, the one I found at the Salvation Army last fall on the
5/$1 table. Now before you give me that virtual high five for my superhuman bargain-
hunting prowess, check this out. We have looked up maybe six words in said dictionary
over the past four months, and not one of them has been in there.
No chloroplast, no squalor, no plight. No kidding.
There’s a quote on the front cover:
“The limits of your language are the limits of your world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
If this Student Dictionary were the limit, it would be a very small world indeed.
You could plant tulips, but no hyacinth. Good luck photosynthesizing without
You could eat beef but no beef jerky. No hotdogs or bratwurst either. But what
difference would it make– you couldn’t have ketchup. Not even if you spelled it
Is the sky the limit? According to Student Dictionary it is, because there is no cosmos.
If Student Dictionary were President, there would be no infrastructure, no bikes on
pathways, no extroverts, no magenta crayons.
Scientists would have no osmosis to speak of. They could study dolphins,
but not porpoises, apes but not baboons.
On the upside, insecurity, malicious trickery and hair gel would be a thing of the past.
Remember that archetypal nemesis from when Webster’s was President? He won’t be bothering us again. Thank you, Student Dictionary.
What can we do with Student Dictionary?
That turns out to be pretty limited, too. It doesn’t weigh enough to be a doorstop.
The pages aren’t big enough to be used as artsy wrapping paper. I can’t clobber
Marnie’s posterior with it. Origami? I’d probably slice my finger off trying to square it
up. Anyway, none of those things even exist in Student Dictionary’s limited world.
It’s going into the dumpster.
Thank Webster, we still have those.
I slogged through the first two weeks of talking about myself, to say I followed the program to the letter, the whole time looking longingly toward the chapter on Weeks 3&4. I wanted to write about my characters! And now that I can, I can’t.
I started with my MC. She insists her name is Marnie. Seriously? In certain fonts it looks exactly like my name. She thinks she’s me. A horrible, sneering version of me with 80s hair and an acrylic sweater. The first full page of writing about her is nothing but an argument over why she thinks she can waltz into my novel and take my name and parade around as me. I’m done writing about me. Let’s move on.
Is this the drivel that has to come out before I can write the novel I want to write?
I decided to chat with a second character. A neighbor. She’s nice but boring; she needs to bust out, have an adventure. We’re so different, it’ll be a challenge getting to know her well enough to do her justice. She did show me the prom dress her mom made for her in 1975 and we had a good laugh.
Anyway, it’s nice to know she’s here, for when I need a break from “Marnie.”
The end of week two. Fun topics from John Dufresne this week- menu as memoir, marrying my first boyfriend, and top ten lists. I love Top Tens. Here are ten things I’ll tell my protagonist if she ever gets braces:
1. Your teeth move. Granted, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the pencil cup, but it did not
occur to me this was going to happen. First rule of girl scouts and getting braces: be
2. Teeth are like girls on first dates. You have to loosen them up before they’ll go as far
as you want them to go. Braces are the cocktail that gets things moving.
3. Braces are like ill-fitting clothes; they accentuate all the wrong angles. I had no idea
my teeth were so crooked! Does this dress make your butt look big? Probably, but
I’m too distracted by that train wreck in your mouth to notice.
4. Speaking of image, I know you thought you were going to be so fabulous for that
party/prom/wedding/whatever. It’s not going to happen. The best you can hope for
here is something akin to Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink.
She didn’t even have braces! you cry.
The point is, I may write you pretty, but not prom queen. BTW, you
probably should not match your rubber bands to your school colors. No one is going
to say, “Oh, green and gold– you must go to Glamour High!” They’re going to tell you
you’ve got food in your teeth.
5. Getting your braces caught in someone else’s braces while kissing is impossible.
Unless your face is missing. Or you’re a shark. (I haven’t written lipless zombies
or animals yet, but who’s to say I won’t?) I suppose if you’re kissing some emo
wannabe with lip piercings things could get sketchy, but I will write you out of that
scene as fast as I can possibly type. Promise.
6. You think you’re the center of the universe, but you’re not. The people you are
worried will make fun of you are too worried about who might be making fun of them.
Only your best friends will even notice.
7. They hurt for a couple of days? Try a couple of weeks. And even
when they stop hurting, you won’t want to eat because it’s a nightmare to brush. FYI-
your travel toothbrush is always in your other bag.
8. The doctor will give you Superfloss. It’s like regular floss only it’s wearing a cape. No it isn’t.
The only thing super about Superfloss is it’s super annoying to floss.
9. Speaking of dumb names, the doctor calls himself Ortho. It’s like Bro for dental
nerds. What up, Ortho, my man? Ortho wants to see you back in six weeks. Well,
Recepto, no can do cuz Husbo and I are headed out of towno. If you get my drifto.
10. There are people out there who are actually into braces. So watch out, Protago– you
could have some unexpected attention from that cute guy you met back in chapter
Well played, Molly.