Note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools!
This week in American lit, students are working in small groups to read Bret Harte’s* short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1892). This is our first example of literary naturalism, or a story that presents as its theme a bleak worldview in which individuals are crushed and destroyed by an unfeeling world/social order (or, as I tell the students, “if everybody’s dead at the end and nobody cares and nothing changes about the world, it’s probably naturalism”).
The plot of “Outcasts” finds four ne’er-do-wells from the town of Poker Flat escorted out of town: John Oakhurst, gambler; Mother Shipton, who runs a brothel; The Duchess, an employee of Mother Shipton’s; and Uncle Billy, a drunk and a suspected thief. This being naturalism, they all end up dead in the wilderness, but Harte’s focus on their actions between their expulsion from civilized society reveals that “in the end…these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold” (VanSpanckeren 5). Well… most of them, anyway–Uncle Billy definitely takes the mule and horse and leaves the rest of them to die.
But Oakhurst offers his horse to the Duchess, whose mule isn’t capable of carrying her; Mother Shipton starves herself to give extra food to the innocent Piney, who was running to Poker Flat to marry her sweetheart, Tom; and Piney and the Duchess die huddled together for warmth, equal in death:
And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms. (Harte 33)
The story ends with Oakhurst writing his own epitaph on a playing card (“who struck a streak of bad luck…and handed in his checks”) and nailing it to a tree–“And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat” (Harte 35). As I made several students explain to me, Oakhurst is physically strong, and stays calm, and cares for others–the strongest–but gives up and kills himself–the weakest.
That juxtaposition–the innocent and the sinner, the strongest and the weakest–is, to my mind, what gives this story its punch; and let’s not pretend we don’t all love a noble thief or a charming rogue, right?
One of my WIPs features a romantic-hero-mafioso, and the other a band of rebels desperate to bring down an empire. These things have, like everything, been done before, but I think I can get some good hints from Harte about how to use juxtaposition to create interesting characters, and to do it using indirect characterization.
One of the things I constantly struggle with is finding time for writing. I work full time, have a toddler, and occasionally pretend to have a social life, family life, or marriage. When the heck am I going to fit in writing?
I jot stuff down from time to time, of course, but usually my best ideas come when–I’m way too busy to do anything about them.
And I’m not at a point where I can turn it on like a faucet and just squeeze in half an hour of writing every day. (Someday, maybe?)
So one thing that I’ve been trying to make time for is writing dates: times when I set aside time with some accountability partners to Get Shit Done.
Sometimes this is more effective–when I’m primed for it–and sometimes less (like tonight, when I’m tired after a three-day weekend where I was solo parenting while C worked). It can be really hard to hit that sweet spot. I think making it more regular might help, though, so my writing buddies and I have agreed on two more dinner-and-writing dates in the next three weeks–meaning that, hopefully, I’ll have 10 more pages to turn in to my writing group by our next meeting! Right?
Hey, remember how I was going to blog twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays??
Today is Wednesday.
On the plus side, I spent about four hours yesterday working on writing (lesson plans, work emails, and then–eventually!!–working on the RSWIP with my cowriter in a super-sweet new-to-me coffee shop. So good overall! And I do intend to continue with Tues/Sat as my preferred blog schedule… even though this week I was lying in bed ready to sleep Tuesday night before my eyes flew open in a panic as I remembered I’d forgotten to update the blog.
Aaaanywho, despite having pulled a Maxwell Smart on my first regular blog update of the year (whoooops), I did still get a good deal of writing done, and I’m excited about it–tonight I’m back at it and have just cut over 1200 words from the draft I’m revising.
AND I’m also strangely nervous about this, but I’m going to be submitting pages from the RSWIP to my crit group. Why is this weird? Who knows. Why is this somehow scarier than giving them pages from the YA-SFF-WIP? Maybe because this is Romantic Suspense and nobody in IndyScribes “writes romance” (although most people’s stuff has romantic subplots from time to time) and I feel weirdly embarrassed and dorky about liking Romance, despite the fact that it sells super well, and is super popular, and since when do I care about people thinking I’m a weirdo?!?!
I was nervous the first time I sent them pages from the YASFFWIP, too, so probably it’s just that overall nervousness of “okay I’ve been working on this with my whole heart and soul for literally years now but tell me what you REALLY think of it” and I’m sure it’ll be fine.
So, tonight instead of writing words, I cut about 600 from the draft of the first chapter of the co-written Romantic Suspense WIP. (I need a better name for that. TCWRSWIP? Hmm, not much better, actually… And my writing partner and I definitely agree that I’m not allowed to come up with titles for anything else. Maybe I’ll see if she’s got any ideas.)
Anyway! I sort of can’t believe how much I’ve learned in the two-year fallow period I spent in between bursts of work on TCWRSWIP (for lack of a better title). I’ve been reading a lot about story structure, scene structure, beats, etc. at Jenny Crusie’s side project blog, and that has helped a lot; and, of course, the first version of this scene was sort of a trial balloon that Chel wrote to see if I had any interest in the concept (4 years and 143k+ words later, I think it’s safe to say yes–yes I did). But the story has changed very significantly since then in our minds.
I’m in Cincinnati this weekend for a craft show, my mom’s birthday, my grama’s birthday, to see my aunt who’s visiting from Arizona, my brother, my great-aunt, and assorted other aunts and cousins, and to grade some papers, coordinate Thanksgiving plans with a bunch of people who are currently not texting or emailing me back… and work on not giving in to this cold that I’m not–not, dag-nabbit, I am NOT–catching.
And I definitely meant to write a good entry, but I’ve been running around like crazy since about 5 am and there’s just… there’s just nothing.
I have been thinking about how much better the New Beginning of my co-written novel is going to be once it’s completely rewritten (working on that now) and how much of the old stuff we’re going to have to discard or change completely now that Our Heroine has been completely overhauled. I got about… thirty more seconds into the scene I’m working on??
Wrote another 1,184 words on the Romantic Suspense WIP that I’m writing with my friend Chel. (She wrote about 3,300 so like… dang.)
Spent a long time googling ways to describe faces. IndyScribes buddy Laura recently found out she has some face blindness; based on how long it took me to describe Our Hero, I’m not convinced I don’t have face illiteracy. Like: WHAT EVEN ARE NOSES. 🙁
And one of the major benefits of co-writing with someone with a different skillset is that I can feel free to type in phrases like…
The bar itself was polished, dark wood, and the atmosphere was REAL CLASSY OR WHATEVER PLEASE FIX THIS.
She gets her revenge when I get dialog with comment boxes over it that say things like “This is supposed to be witty flirting. It is terrible. Make it sound cool.” (I do my best.)
And maybe I should’ve put more terrible words in there – I mean, after all, it’s NaNoWriMo – part of my goal is to just keep writing, just keep writing, not to get stuck in an endless rabbit-hole of Google image searches of various types of noses.
And sure, I could’ve just slapped in some filler. I’ve already got Our Heroine responding to him in a way that should tell the reader he’s a looker, and I know that if I get too specific I run the risk of it being like the scene in Pretty in Pink where Andrew McCarthy shows up and I know I’m supposed to think he’s teh hawtness but at the same time I’m actually just like, Uh… him?
But you can definitely go too far the other way. One of my big stumbling blocks tonight was something a little silly, but: I’ve realized that I have a real knee-jerk reaction against anything being described as “perfect.” (This is possibly Twilight-related, as I seem to recall quite a few instances of Edward’s features/face being described as “perfect,” and/or him having ” a perfect nose” etc.)
To the point where I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to describe this very nattily-dressed man’s tie without saying it was “perfect”… I mean, I know a lot of words! My vocabulary is seriously extensive! But… I mean…
It’s a tie.
I only care about it inasmuch as it characterizes Our Hero as someone who dresses very carefully. I don’t even have a color in mind (leaving that up to Chel–the suit is navy, so… not black? IDEK YOU GUYS).
Anyway, I gave up at “the knot on his tie perfectly symmetrical,” but I suspect editing (and/or Chel) will find a way to improve that.
At least, I hope that’s the case…
And I need to figure out how Our Hero thinks about his own hair in the mirror – currently the line (in deep 3rd from his POV) reads,
Running a hand over his perfectly placed hair, he waited to see if Rahul would actually manage to verbalize whatever he was thinking.
So if anybody out there can tell me what a(n admittedly vain) dude in his 30s would think about his own hair in that scenario…
Maybe I’ll ask my husbro.
PS–brief shoutout to myself for breaking 10,000 words for NaNo2016!! By rambling about noses to get this blog post up over 352 words… BUT STILL.
I’m still watching Luke Cage, on and off, but more and more I find myself playing Dots while it’s on in the background. (Yes, Dots is a stupid game. No, I cannot stop playing it.)
Anyway, I find myself more and more in agreement with one of the criticisms that I had read of the show earlier, which is that every episode is about ten minutes too long.
Don’t get me wrong -there’s lots of stuff that doesn’t necessarily advance the plot that I still enjoy having in there: the musical numbers (which some say remind them of TheBronze) are awesome, the long moody shots to create mood are great, and I don’t even mind the increasingly goofy scenery-chewing of the characters (srsly gettin goofy though with the villain in the second half of the season). That stuff’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is that the plot just… sags. Continue reading The Mushy Middle→
At the writing date I had last Wednesday with two friends and fellow writers, my internet-friend-from-way-back-who-recently-moved-to-Indy Chel brought her CD wallet in. This mystified Chelsea, who is enough younger than us that a giant CD wallet full of burned mix CDs struck her as a charmingly old-fashioned item.
Chelsea and I have talked before about making soundtracks as a writing tool; it’s something I’ve been doing since I was in high school (the earliest ones were cassette tapes, but my dad was an early adopter of new technology, meaning we got a CD burner when they were still rarities). Chel and I have been exchanging fanfic and mix CDs with our friend Meach since the 90s, and I used to put a truly amazing amount of time into creating WinAmp playlists (uh, and skins) and mix CDs (often with “cover art” that I drew myself, first-person notes from characters, and on-disc art).
Since having a kid, though, the time I used to put into this seems to have mysteriously evaporated, so I’m extremely rusty; plus, I’ve had a computer upgrade but the new computer doesn’t have an optical drive. But I’ve been using Shazam to identify songs I like and then I’ve been using Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube to follow up. Continue reading mixing it up→
So, I know I promised a deep and meaningful post about race & diversity in literature, but let’s just say that I didn’t have the mental or emotional energy for that today. I did, however, write 1498 words of a totally new opening to the old novel I’m working on with my OG writing partner!