All posts by ashleymcarmichael

But Ms. Carmichael…It’s FRIDAY!

Yes, my children, I’m aware of what day of the week it is, but just because Friday it is, work we still must do. And, did you know that Friday is a regular occurrence? It actually comes once a week…

And thank God it does.

My students today, some of them, had some difficulty focusing on research. Thus the title and inspiration for this post.

“Ms. Carmichael,” one scholar gabbles as I walk by on my circular rounds through my ever studious class. “If someone gave you a million dollars, would you give them an “A”?”

First, this is a preposterous proposal. I should have ignored it…but it’s Friday.

“Absolutely not,” I assert with a superior moral air. “I cannot be bought.” Which is probably true.

They don’t believe me and immediately several of the less than focused scholars begin to protest.

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“Children,” I begin (they may be 18, but I still call them children…because, well, they are my children). “I assure you, I would not be able to live with myself if I accepted any kind of bribe and deprived someone of the education they deserve.”

I feel pretty confident this is true. I found $20 in the hallway earlier in the week. I spent a good deal of time trying to track down who could have dropped it. I ended up giving the money to a more worthy cause. I couldn’t keep it for myself. I didn’t earn it; it wasn’t mine; I felt guilty keeping it.

“But, Ms. Carmichael. It’s a million dollars.”

“Yes, but it’s not always about the money. And at the end of the day I do have to live with myself.”

“Which you could do a lot more comfortably with the money,” he sneers.

“Do you think I couldn’t make more money at another job if I wanted to? I didn’t become a teacher because I had to. I could have done a number of things. I graduated third in my class from high school and had  a near perfect GPA in college. I am perfectly capable of choosing a profession and excelling at a profession that could generate a much higher capital. I teach because I want to.”

Another student smiles and puts in, somewhat smugly, “And if you do what you love,  you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I turned to this student. “No,” I said. “That’s not true.” It’s total poppycock actually.

“But it is true!” he insisted. “Because if you are doing what you love, you aren’t actually working.”

“That’s a naive cliche,” I said simply. “I do what I love. Every day. I teach you all, then I go home and I write. But I also work my tail off.Constantly, without reprieve sometimes. Just because you enjoy your work, doesn’t make it any less complicated, hard or grueling–Life is hard. The only way to be successful is to work at it. Any thing worth doing is worth working for.”

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For a Friday, I think we learned a lot.

Adjusting the Pace: Writing that Moves

Lately I’ve been working on improving the rhythm and the flow to my writing. This is not an easy task to accomplish. Faulkner liked stream of consciousness. And while I am not all about page long sentences, I do tend to like description and longer complex sentences.

In my critique group we talked about the importance of ‘white space’. For some reason, this didn’t sit well with me either. White space looks boring–it looks messy and sloppy–lazy even.

But white space can be good.

White space helps with pacing as it helps move along the action of the story with dialogue and by mixing direct, simple sentences with the complex. Unfortunately, changing your writing habits is not easy and so you practice.

As a writing trend, I’ve been reading Stephen Kings book, On Writing and his chapter on editing “And Furthermore, part I” is helpful as it cites Strunk’s style guide suggestions of “eliminating the unnecessary”. This is advice I give to my students every year and advice I continually have to remind myself to follow on a regular basis.

Yesterday I read This Blog on “boring writing”–the parts of the text that quiets down the writing so that the more interesting parts can shine (to me, that means your climax can only be climatic if there are parts that aren’t so climatic surrounding it). Sometimes readers need a break, and as writers that is a part of the process of building suspense and action–we first have to quiet our readers to then shake them up. So how do we quiet our writing? And how much is too much?

Can Opposites Attract?

It’s a saying for a reason, but sometimes I wonder. So as a Blogging 101 assignment, I played with my header and added some widgets (well, actually I did that a few days ago) so I creeped on the Writing 101 prompt for this beauty and wrote a contrast dialogue. As it happens in the piece I’m working on now–two of my characters are about night and day difference and they are currently in conflict with one another though they have been assigned as partners in their new jobs–tell me what you think of my contrast dialogue.

“Whoa there, Princess. Watch where you’re going,” Jordan ducked out of the way just in time before I bowled him over on the sidewalk in my inattentive musing. I resisted the urge to growl at him.

            “Sorry,” I murmured, stepping to the side, but refusing to defer any more. A week and a half had done little to improve our relationship. In fact, my animosity had grown as his barbs stuck further and further into my skin.

            “Latte, better enjoy it now. Not going to be drinking those for a while, princess,” he pivoted and fell into step beside me as we walked toward the office.

            “I’m aware,” I rolled my eyes.

            “Eric wants us in the conference room this morning. We’re talking emergency protocols this morning. Think you can handle it?”

            I stopped, put a hand on my hip and stared at his back. He hadn’t noticed that I stopped walking. When he did, he turned and faced me with his wide, challenging stance.

            “What is your problem with me, Jordan?”

            “I don’t have a problem.”

            I snorted and started walking past him again. “Could have fooled me.”

            “I imagine there is a lot out there that could fool you, princess.”

            “See?” I stopped and turned on him again. This time pointing my index finger right at his smug nose. “That, right there. Patronizing and smug. Condescending. What is your deal?”

            “Fine, you really want to do this?”

            “Yes, please.”

            “You don’t belong on this project,” he said it simply and then crossed his arms over his chest. The sun light reflected off his head and I squinted against it, staring at the dark and powerful force he’d become in front of me. “Look at you. Naïve, sheltered white woman with no experience in the journalist field. You think you can go to Africa to save and Christianize the poor little black savage children. But that’s not the way it works, and you’ll end up in Africa alone and scared, hysterical and exhausted and then you’ll go home and all our resources and time will have been wasted on training and sending you there in the first place. It’s abominable and selfish.”

            “You think you know me,” I said shaking my head and pulling in a breath to calm the anger threatening to take over. “Just because I’m not like you. I’m not a black man, and I don’t have the experience you have so that gives you the right to become the almighty judge and jury over this project. Let me just tell you something. First, I’m not a princess. Nothing has ever been handed to me. I have had to work hard my entire life and I have experienced pain and heartache to a degree that you can’t possibly imagine so I’m not as sheltered as you’d like to believe. I may be a white girl, and I may have never been to Africa, but I’m not self-righteous enough to believe I can save anyone let alone judge them as you have done to me. I barely even believe in God so I’m not arrogant enough to try to force those beliefs on anyone else.

“Second, we are partners. I expect you to treat me as such, not as your problem. You are not my boss, and despite how you feel about me, I have nothing to prove to you. “ I tossed my braid over my shoulder and stomped off down the sidewalk.

I could hear his footsteps following closely behind me, though I’d hoped he would just disappear into the earth. Maybe we were just too different.

“Clara.”

I didn’t stop. I had no desire to speak to that arrogant, self-absorbed…

“Clara!”

I turned. “What?”

He stumbled into me, unprepared for my abrupt about-face. Placing both hands on my shoulders, he steadied himself and me, barely keeping us both from tumbling onto the sidewalk.

“I should apologize,” he said. I could see my cornflower blue eyes reflected in the deep pools of his dark charcoal eyes, which had softened for the first time since we met. “I guess I maybe have been a little hard on you.”

“You don’t owe me anything, Jordan,” I pursed my lips. His apology, half-hearted and choked out, meant little to me. We could work together, but that didn’t mean we had to be friends. “Let’s just get to work.”

Who I Write For

Today I’m writing this for you. Yes, you. Because you are who I write for.

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When I first started writing, I thought I was doing it for myself. The goal, I told myself, was to someday be published, but the stories were mine so it didn’t really matter who or what my readers thought.

I was wrong.

Audience 95% of literature. Once it’s been created, it’s out there—out of the author’s control. You only have “control” for that fraction of a moment that you are creating it, but once it is out there—it’s OUT there.

I think this might be why authors sometimes struggle to finish their creations—they are holding on to that last bit of control because they know once they stamp “done” on it, that’s it; it’s all about the audience, baby.

In 1884, Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  With it he published this author’s note:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted;persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

He knew what would happen when he let go of that manuscript because he had been around the block more than once by that point. Once the manuscript goes to print, it’s about the audience, not about the author.

Huck Finn took about seven years to write, but it has been in the audience’s hands for 130 years.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22770148-huck-finn?from_search=true

Likewise, Pride and Prejudice took about a year to write, and 15 years to publish, but has been in the audiences hands for over 200 years (published in 1812).

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1885.Pride_and_Prejudice?from_search=true

So unless you are writing in a private journal or diary, if you are writing a story, your audience will, in fact, take over your work.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can affect your perception, not only of the writing that you do, but also of the quality, time, effort and ideas that are generated by your writing and/or adaptions of your writing.

Do you change your story to fit what an audience would expect/know/like? Why/why not?

If someone critiques your work and “gets it wrong,” how do you react?

What does it mean for someone to be “right” or “wrong” about your work?

What exactly does the audience expect of the author?

All of these are questions I am asking you—the reader—my reader. Because in my ideal world, the reader and the writer are friends; they can have an open conversation about the work and the work is in a constant state of flux—ever changing because of this constant conversation we are having.

The story never has to end.

Finding Powerful Actions

Action.


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That’s what gets an audience’s attention. It’s why we are engaged and why we are interested. Activity is what makes us want to me more involved in the characters, plot, setting and situation.

Without action, you have very little with which to engage your audience.

So how do we write with better action?

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My students struggle with this every year and so we have a talk about verbs. There are occasion verbs and being verbs and helping verbs—you know those auxiliary verbs. But those are kind of boring verbs. They do a lot of telling. No one wants to be told what to do. For teenagers, this statement really hits home; they are, after all the kings and queens of rebellion, are they not?

So, I tell them, we want to use POWERFUL verbs. And powerful verbs show rather than tell.

But again, telling them this is not nearly as effective as showing, so it then becomes example time.


THE MAN IS A MONSTER.


Is this showing or telling?

It’s telling—sure, you’ve told me the man is a monster but you have really limited what I know about him. I have no information about him other than ‘monster’. Do you mean literally? Figuratively? What has he done to make himself a monster? Is he an evil monster? A good monster? How do you define monster? You have really done nothing more than given a description and required too much work of your reader.

So, instead—show your audience and let them draw conclusions.


THE MAN RIPPED OFF THE SHEEP’S HEAD AND ATE THE EYEBALLS WITH A SICKENING SQUISHY CRUNCH.


Okay, now we’re talking. I still understand  that the guy is pretty monstrous, but now I am able to infer much more about him based on the action! You have told me 3x as much about the man and you didn’t have to do much more than change the wording to an action filled sentence.

BUT it did have to change.

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And that’s hard. Changing our writing habits is never easy. We fall into patterns and part of this makes up our own unique voice, but at the same time we have to be willing to change and adapt our work in order for it to reach its optimal potential.

So I start looking at my own work.

How often do I use powerful verbs?  This often makes me think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating is teaching his students the power of words. He tells them to“ avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.” When you search for the write words, you are able to create something magnificent, which is why one of the next scenes in the movie between Keating and Todd is so powerful:

John Keating: Close your eyes, close your eyes! Close ’em! Now, describe what you see.

Todd Anderson: Uh, I-I close my eyes.

John Keating: Yes.

Todd Anderson: Uh, and this image floats beside me.

John Keating: A sweaty-toothed madman.

Todd Anderson: A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.

John Keating: Oh, that’s *excellent*! Now, give him action – make him do something!

Todd Anderson: H-His hands reach out and choke me.

John Keating: That’s it! Wonderful, wonderful!

Todd Anderson: And all the time he’s mumbling.

John Keating: What’s he mumbling?

Todd Anderson: Mumbling truth.

John Keating: Yeah, yes.

Todd Anderson: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.

John Keating: [some of the class start to laugh] Forget them, forget them! Stay with the blanket. Tell me about that blanket!

Todd Anderson: Y-Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

[long pause then class applauds]

John Keating: Don’t you forget this.

I get chills every time I watch and think about this moment of recognition, of learning, of embracing language as a way to communicate on multiple levels. Because that’s what the goal of a writer is. To communicate.

Action.

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