I’m very pleased to welcome Mollie Blake to Linda’s Book Bag to celebrate The Secret At Arnford Hall. Mollie has kindly agreed to write a guest post all about escapism through fiction. …

Source: Escapism Through Fiction, A Guest Post by Mollie Blake, Author of The The Secret At Arnford Hall

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Posted by: cmegge00 | June 18, 2016

Finding Character, the Duty of a Writer

Samuel Johnson, the famous dictionary writer and great essayist of the 18th century, taught me something about character last month.

He was such a character himself, constantly examining his own and other people’s fallibilities, self-deceptions and rationalizations. He spent his entire life learning to repent of his sins, compensate for his failures and organize his chaotic thoughts. No one, including himself, could imagine this ugly almost blind child who could hardly control his emotion or his physical motion as a success in any profession. Indeed he was never given credit publicly in his youth or early manhood for his actual accomplishments. He wrote political speeches for other people, articles in newspapers, poems–whatever would allow him to eat. He was the perfect candidate to be persuaded to solve his problems with violence like a present-day young man who feels alienated from society. We have seen enough of that in our current lives.

Despite Johnson’s physical and emotional disabilities, he debated incessantly with himself and his intellectual and artistic acquaintances, a veritable “ratpack” of the times in London, about the challenges of life. He reached many a conclusion that he happily talked himself our of by changing sides in an argument for the fun of it. Thinking deeply about the complexities of attitudes, varying solutions to problems and evaluation of actions delighted him, and eventually changed him.

As he matured, and the work on his dictionary became known, he finally began to earn respect from the English-speaking world, and the many moral discussions he ignited for his generation became appreciated. He conquered his ancient envy of other people’s accomplishments, concluding that his worst sin was his pride in his abilities.  Impeccable honesty and self-examination drove him to arrange his thoughts and reactions to circumstances. David Brooks, a PBS commentator on economics and politics, said in his most recent book (2015), The Road to Character, that Johnson wrote himself to virtue. What an admirable man he was, to be able to change.

So what has this taught me about writing? Our heroes and our villains all have weaknesses, flaws that they must conquer, or at least realize, in order to change.

Samuel Johnson wrote many an essay, and had many a conversation about particular sins such as envy, greed, sloth, dishonesty, betrayal, fear, cowardice, guilt, shame, idleness, vanity, lust, gluttony, depression, masochism, sadism–and the list goes on. In one essay Johnson said, “To strive with difficulties, and so to conquer them, is the highest human felicity. The next is to strive and deserve to conquer, but he who has passed without contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence.”

Wow. My, my. Neither should we ourselves, NOR OUR FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, be useless fillers of existence.

Johnson said, “It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.” As David Brooks explains it, Johnson thought that literature gives new experiences to the reader. Literature can instruct through pleasure. A deficiency in character becomes an incentive to perfect a skill. The hero becomes stronger at his weakest point. It is not that virtue conquers vice, but that virtue learns to live with vice in this complicated world.

Therefore, we as novelists choose the foibles of our characters, and make them change through the events in the story, in order to make them better and to possibly make the world better by changing our readers. The stronger we make the emotions and the arguments involved, the greater the effect on our readers. A good strategy is to make the weaknesses of the hero different from those of the heroine so that the two can come to understand and help each other. Villains are more villainous according to how they fight change. This is our duty as writers, to avoid creating boring “fillers of existence.”

Another interesting coda I will add to our duty as writers: As you choose a fictional character’s virtues and weaknesses, you are revealing your own weaknesses. As your character learns, perhaps your own self-examination will begin.

I wish you luck, and the pleasure of righteousness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: cmegge00 | September 3, 2014

Theme

Definition and thoughts.
The dictionary definition applicable to writers is, “a type of discourse.” Usually it’s discourse about generally agreed upon universal truths—moral truths. Some people question whether novels must have any position on morals. According to Megan Kerans on the Wild Rose Greenhouse blog, some people accuse romance novels of being “silly, frivolous, or even meaningless.” Of course it’s not true. If a novel has conflict it has moral positions about that conflict, whether the writer explicitly states them, or the reader imagines them in his mind following the action and dialogue.
It’s almost a duty to make your themes clear to the reader. British writer Richard Hughes said, “Do your bit to save humanity from lapsing back into barbarity by reading all the novels you can.” I take that to mean that as writers, we must provide the thinking material that saves humanity. If you are a good writer it doesn’t have to be dull or heavy or preachy at all. It can be dramatic, serious, fun, comedic, slow or fast, but it must be emotional.
Megan Kerans also says, “How a character feels about theme, which relates to their goal, taps into their emotions and influences their actions.” It’s the emotion aroused in the reader that makes a story good, well written, memorable. Walt Disney said, “If I can’t find a theme, I can’t make a film anyone else will feel.”
Consider this. How many times have you heard that, just as all characters in our dreams express a part of our unique unconscious nature including morals, all characters in our novels express a part of our nature, albeit more consciously chosen. This means that any meaning, any influence on a reader, results directly from the words the author chose, either consciously or unconsciously. Any author’s work is judged solely for itself, solely from the reader’s moral viewpoint. It’s up to the reader to decide what disgusts them, makes them uneasy, or what they admire, what satisfies them. Throw the book out if you don’t like it. (Once I took a book back to Barnes and Noble because I found it a blatant assumption that all people of a particular religion were evil. I even wrote the publisher and told him so.)
On the other hand, if you like how the protagonist changed, or how the villain was destroyed or changed for the better, or how the world of the characters was changed, go for it, read the whole thing and pass it on to others. You can like a book for other than moral reasons too, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Easy way.
By the end of your novel, the reader will know what your moral attitudes are. At least, the attitudes of your characters, and how that affects their decisions, their dialogue and their actions. The reader will know how the results of their decisions changes things. The reader will know the implications of the conclusion, HEA or not. If you as the writer are not sure what you have conveyed, you can go back and add a sentence here or there to make a character’s attitudes clear during revision. You don’t have to come right out and say it, as, “Joe is a mean guy.” You could illustrate it by having a character say, “Joe spanks his kid so hard he gets bruises.” You could have Joe do something mean, and then justify it to another character. You could have your hero/heroine stop Joe in the midst of spanking his child. And so on. Layering in sentences here and there as you revise is the easy way to make your themes clear.

Hard way.
Starting from scratch is harder. Martha Alderson in The Plot Whisperer says, “A story is about a character transforming her weaknesses into strengths.” If you start with a character you have to choose his/her internal weaknesses (conflict); weaknesses provide themes of self-love or self-hate, fear, bravery, cowardice, selfishness, desire, etc. Relationships between characters provide possible themes of love, hate, revenge, duty, loyalty, ambition, etc. Then put your characters in a setting which will provide external conflict. The setting can be the whole world with all of its possibilities of war, power, nature, climate change, freedom etc. The setting can also be very small and narrow, provided you give enough details. For example, a small town, a hospital emergency room or a mobile home park can hold a wealth of moral conflicts among a variety of characters. Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York says that for a setting to feel broadly representative, it must be highly specific.
Donald Maass also says that if you want your novel to be outstanding, a break-out novel in his terms, you must have a theme of the worthiness of life. He says that when you raise the stakes for your characters, put more and bigger obstacles between them and their goal, they must change to meet their goals. The two kinds of stakes are personal (internal) and public (external). Breakout novels combine high personal stakes with high public stakes. That is, the internal conflicts, morals, of the characters influence and are influenced by the internal conflicts of the other characters, and the conflicts provided by the setting.
Take for example, Jake, the hero. He must save the ranch for the sake of his two daughters. To raise the personal stakes for Jake, ask “How can this matter more?” His wife is dead and the woman he is beginning to love doesn’t want children. One of the children is handicapped and he doesn’t know how to handle it. The other is a newborn and needs milk, but the cows have a disease and are not producing. You see? Oh man, we feel for this rancher. Can you feel his desperation? Deep personal stakes dig down so far that they show us who we are.
Making the public stakes real starts with a grain of truth. Maybe the local vet doesn’t know how to stop the spread of the virus. Maybe the taxman or the mortgage holder is at his doorstep. The worse it gets, the more it matters, the more emotion and empathy we experience as readers. The scenes you write detail how the rancher Jake handles his problems, how he and the other characters change in response to his actions and decisions. Maass says to keep the danger immediate. Make your characters suffer.
High moral stakes yield high success. The high stakes you put in your story come from your own stakes.

Posted by: cmegge00 | March 11, 2013

Write a powerful novel

Write a powerful novel

Last night I picked up an old (2001) Writers’ Digest and found an interesting article about plots by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He says that if you want to write a “breakout novel,” one that is powerful, and moves many people, it’s very simple. He says, “Raise the stakes.” Hah! I almost quit reading.

What I figure he means, after reading the whole article, has consumed my writing thoughts today. He says that you must examine your first thoughts about the protagonist in your story. S/he must have a goal that you communicate to your readers in the first chapter, and motivation that drives them to reach it. What happens if they don’t get what they want? Ask yourself then, “So what?” If the readers don’t much care, then the stakes are not high enough. What the character is going to lose is not important enough. Your protagonist must have deep personal stakes in what happens. To get the reader involved the stakes must be important and involve deep emotion, and they must be communicated to the reader. To raise the personal stakes for them, ask yourself as author, “How can this matter more?”

To write a “breakout novel” you must also have high public stakes. That means that in your specific setting other people’s worth is involved. What happens if the moral rules of a community, large or small, are violated? The outcome must matter to the reader. Every setting has a history and the details of this history provide the fodder for how the other characters of the novel act, whether a family  farm, a business empire, high society, or the CIA.

To raise the general stakes in your plot, ask yourself, “How could things get worse?” Keep the danger immediate. Make your characters suffer. If you raise the stakes to things that are important to you, that you have powerful emotions about, and if you make the reader feel those emotions through your characters, the reader (and the agent or editor) will love it, and be compelled to read to the end.

In my words, the things you care deeply about can be communicated to the world through your characters.

This is my extremely condensed version of an article. If you are interested in more about writing a “breakout” novel, Mr. Maass has written an entire book on the subject. If you go to his agency website, where he tells what they are looking for now, he has a list of suggestions to make your novel better. The suggestions are specific and give you wonderful ideas.

Donald Maass says that writing the breakout novel demands a commitment to human worth. Whew. I’ll keep trying.

Carol

Posted by: cmegge00 | July 8, 2012

Time

Once I asked a bunch of people “What is Time?”  Then I wrote a series of poems inspired by their answers.  It amazed me how their different personalities, professions and world views inspired such a variety of answers.  Some gave scientific definitions.  Some thought time was a treasure not be wasted.  Some thought that time is a destructive force.  One person thought time is nothing but your accumulation of memories.  Very poetic.  Several answers, however, revolved around the idea that time is not important because attempts to control or measure it are futile.  The assumption is that people who worry about time have a miserable life and therefore are not free.

Of course, those people who want freedom from worry know that they can’t be free of the march of time.  What they mean is that they don’t want to control themselves.  It is too much trouble to set priorities or goals for themselves.  They are right.  Why should they set rules for their own behavior if it isn’t necessary?

Well that’s not the answer for me.  I have a goal:  To write well enough to get noticed and published by a traditional publisher.  To me, time is a treasure.  It is a limited treasure.  Everyone gets the same amount and once it’s gone it’s gone.  I can’t even save it to use later.  So I shall spend as much of it as I choose on my goal.

Time is a priority.  I have enough time for anything, so long as it is high enough among my priorities. My decision makes me happy, and gives me self-respect.  I hope you respect your decisions about time.

Posted by: cmegge00 | April 10, 2012

Residue of Time Wasted

April 10, 2012

Hi Folks,

I just read a review of the book Imagine:  How Creativity Works by Johah Lehrer in the Barnes and Noble Review (BARNESANDNOBLEREVIEW.COM).  I haven’t read the book yet, but the words of Jonah Lehrer in the interview, published on April 10, 2012, have inspired me.  Here’s the gist of what I got from the article:

Mr. Lehrer says that the book is about “our most important talent:  the ability to imagine what has never existed.”  It is neither pure freedom of the mind, nor an innate trait, but a sum of minor factors that influence creative output.  It’s a myth that it is easy and effortless, that the gods will take care of us through our muse.  He says, “Nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, creativity is like any other human talent–it takes an enormos amount of effort to develop.  And then, even after we’ve learned to effectively wield the imagination, we still have to invest the time and energy needed to fine-tune our creations.  If it feels easy, then you’re doing it wrong.”

The (unnamed) Barnes and Noble interviewer suggests that the paradox of creativity is that “it seems to require both resolute, disciplined focus and in Yo Yo Ma’s phrase, ‘the abandon of a child.'”

Mr. Lehrer replies that different parts of the creative process require different kinds of thinking.  “For instance, a big epiphany relies on a very different set of brain structures than the editing that comes afterwards.  A pianist in the middle of an improvised solo is thinking very differently from an inventor tweaking a gadget….  There is no universal prescription for creative thinking.”

The reviewer’s last question:  “Has working on this topic changed the way you think, your approach to ‘creative’ tasks?  Do you work differently than you did before you started this book?”

“It definitely has.  I think the single biggest change is how I respond to a creative block.  Before, when I was stuck on a piece of writing–and I’m often stuck–I’d chain myself to my desk.  I’d drink strong coffee and will myself to focus until I found the answer.  I assumed that the answer would only arrive if I searched for it relentlessly.

“Of course, I’d often wake up the next day and realize that my ‘answer’ was often an illusion, that I’d stayed up late to get a fix that didn’t really fix anything.  And so I’d be forced to begin again.

“And here’s where the science comes in handy.  Now, when I’m really stuck, I think about all that research on moments of insight which suggests that insights are far more likely to arrive when we’re relaxed, and better able to eavesdrop on the murmurs of the unconscious.  Instead of staying at my desk, I go for a long walk.  Einstein once declared that ‘creativity is the residue of time wasted.’  So I guess you could say I’ve gotten better at wasting time.”

So, fellow writers, I’ve focused on writing this blog which, although mostly Mr. Lehrer’s words, tells me that not only do I need to sit in my chair and focus, but that I also need to allow my mind to relax and look for an epiphany of thought about my current poem, my current novel or my current other novel.  Think I’ll go for a walk.  Later,

Carol J. Megge

Posted by: cmegge00 | February 28, 2012

Blank Pages by Carol J. Megge

Hello again.  How’s your philosophy today?  Have you got reasons and rationale for everything you do?  Or do you just do what you’ve always done?  Are you right-brained or left-brained?  Somewhere in between?  Aren’t we all somewhere in between?  Well, most of us.  Did you write today?

It’s a decision, you know, a choice you make, even if you’re not too well organized or not feeling too creative.  We all start out life as blank pages, and gradually fill them in with decisions and actions.  One of my first memories is of my father telling my mother that I was a bit clumsy.  No matter that my mother disagreed.  From that day on I was clumsy.  Because that’s what I decided.  It colored my future decisions, and decided a certain portion of my life.  I made myself into a sportsless person by believing I was clumsy.  You’ll be happy to know that later in life I found a sport not involving balls (skiing), and actually became somewhat proficient at it.  Again, I made a decision at the age of 35 that I was capable of learning a sport.  Every moment of our lives we make decisions of who we are and what we do.

I remember my first blank page.  Do you remember yours?  I was 16, and I wanted to tell how I felt about snow, how I went out and played in it in my pajamas and bare feet.  Nobody in the house knew I was outside at midnight in the snow in my bare feet.  Such freedom!  I didn’t want to share it with anyone else.  I just wanted to keep that feeling.  So I put it in a poem.  I still read it at least once a year.  I’ve never published it.  But it was a point at which I made some decisions about myself that made my life.  That blank page…

I had to decide that I wanted to write the feelings.  I decided to tell it like a story.  I decided on the first stanza.  I decided on the first word.  When the pencil hit the paper the decisions were already made and the words flowed out.  The words didn’t change my life, but the decisions did.  When I wrote my first novel, I stared at that blank page for two hours, making decisions about plot, about the first chapter, about the first sentence, all before I put one word on the paper.

How do you do it?  I admire the people who are “pantsers”, who can just decide to write and start, not having the faintest idea of where the writing is going.  How do you do it?

Posted by: cmegge00 | January 29, 2012

Introvert/Extrovert by Carol J. Megge

Hello World,

A new book by Susan Cain, Quiet,  talks about extroverts vs. introverts.  It explains that people who react very sensitively to the world when they are babies often become introverts as they grow.  They need to chew on their actions before they join the rest of the world.  They watch and think before they act.  It’s no surprise to me that writers are often introverts.  Hallelujah!  I’m a writer.

Introvert or extrovert, we each have our own world view.  On this blog I expect to lay out my thoughts about how my world view affects my writing.  I will enjoy the freedom to say what makes me write what I write.  On this blog I will have no fear of your words, as you will have no fear of mine.  Talk to you again, Carol.

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