Category Archives: my writing

Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

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?

HAN SHOT FIRST
The “rebels taking down an empire” thing may also have some promise.

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.

Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Writing Dates

thanks, memegenerator.com!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?

 

….right????

 

D:

Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

 Note: This is the first in an ongoing series (I hope?) 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, we’ve been talking about dialect (writing that imitates the way people actually speak, including accents, slang, and idiom) and how writers use that to provide indirect characterization.

The story we read is Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short, humorous exploration of the type of characters populating a rural mining camp in the 1860s. It’s also a frame story,  with an unnamed narrator introducing and closing out the tale in deliberately prolix style, the better to heighten the contrast with the main tale, told by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler” (Twain 1). The version at the link has a different ending than the version in our textbook, but the same general ideas are at play in both.

Obviously, Twain’s intent is to satirize both the stuffy narrator, who can’t see the humor in Smiley’s adventures, and Wheeler himself, who’s a bore and a boor and won’t let the narrator escape. We spend time while we’re reading picking out the words that really help characterize the two of them in order to analyze Twain’s use of diction as character. Some of the students’ favorites:

  • The Narrator: compliance, garrulous, hereunto append, personage, infernal, tedious
  • Simon Wheeler: feller, flume, curiousest, so’s, solit’ry, dangdest, thish-yer–and I was very unsuccessful in convincing them that “Well, blame my cats!” should make a comeback in teen vernacular.

There’s clearly a vast gulf here in terms of diction (syntactically, they both tend to run on, but only one of them does it grammatically). It would be very, very easy to label any sentence from this story as spoken by the Narrator or by Simon Wheeler, based on diction alone, because their dialects are so distinct.

So, how do I use this in my own writing?  Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

Late for Saturday, or early for Tuesday…?

Sometimes it’s so hard to tell.

The beginning of a new semester is always tricky, but especially when you’re sick (still? again? who even knows at this point).

I have a new bunch of students in Creative Writing this semester, and it’s about half the size of last semester’s class–and 80% male. This is the first time I’ve had enough kids sign up to teach it twice in a year, but with the smaller group I suspect it’s going to be a very different experience. Last semester had a lot of humor and several big personalities, and this semester seems like mostly silent students.

But our first unit is Creative Nonfiction, so I’m looking forward to having them write and design their own Six-Word Memoirs.

I just killed like an hour looking for the one I designed on Canva, but have now given up on that. My six-word memoir: “Learned more from teaching than school.”

What’s yours?

 

off to a great (?) start

not-off-to-a-good-startHey, remember how I was going to blog twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays??

Yeah. And…

Today is Wednesday.

Hmm.

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.

getsmartAaaanywho, 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.

Right?

New Year, New Me? (Nah)

archer-wiki_characters_archer-vice_skinny-pam_01Well, after my flurry of November activity/NaNoWriMo, I sure did taper off on blogging, didn’t I?

And since today’s New Year’s Day, it’s a perfect time to resolve to blog more in 2017!

Among other resolutions, of course. But don’t worry, no “new me” stuff — as Pam says, I really like me. Continue reading New Year, New Me? (Nah)

Everything Old is New Again

This morning I went through the closet in my old room at my parents’ house and pulled out some old toys for my son: some Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures, a Harley Quinn doll (with two hyenas!), and a very perplexing Jonny Quest figurine (Hadji in… a mech suit? With a machine-gun arm?). The kid is pretty dang into them. And that’s not the only connection between past and future that’s going on today.

I haven’t really written much (any) sci-fi before, but one of my current WIPs is “cli-fi,” aka “climate change fiction.” It’s about as sci-fi-y as The Hunger Games, in that I’m aiming for a world that seems basically like ours only after some kind of disaster, with some technology that’s basically magic and just there for plot reasons (sort of like in Star Wars, only there’s no Force. Yet?).

buffy1b
Countdown to when these looks are back on sale at Forever 21

Obviously even when you’re writing something set in a contemporary world, you have to do worldbuilding: small town? Big city? What details of technology give the setting? Buffy is contemporary to when it aired (and boy do the outfits look hilarious nowadays, except for the ones that are somehow back on-trend) but still has tons of worldbuilding around the magical/supernatural elements.

 

BURN NOTICE -- "Breaking and Entering" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Bruce Campbell as Sam Axe -- USA Network Photo: Dan Littlejohn
Oh, he’s real. HE HAS TO BE.

Something like Burn Notice has a world built up of some real places and organizations (Miami, the CIA, the IRA) and lots of fake people (all of the characters except Sam Axe, because I refuse to live in a world where Sam Axe isn’t real).

 

Worldbuilding for a world that’s not our own is trickier… but pretty fun.

Continue reading Everything Old is New Again

break the chain

fleetwood-mac
Do these guys count as a story team? Leader, Lancer, Smart Guy, Big Guy, Chick…?

Well, last night I was so exhausted that I finally broke my streak and failed to post.

🙁

But today is a different day! So here I am, ready to dust myself off and start again…

…except that I actually spent the whole evening grading, so now it’s time for bed. OH WELL HERE I GO ANYWAY!

As usual, the end of the month is turning tricky. But at least I got to watch some Leverage while grading! That, of course, was inspired by thinking some more about the “team” posts on Crusie’s blog and my own favorite teams.

I want to make sure that my YA cli-fi WIP involves the development of an interesting team, so I’m hoping that a combination of reading Crusie’s analysis, analyzing some teams on my own, and thinking about my WIP (possibly even just subconsciously, since who has any free time in Nov/Dec??) will help me work past some of the blocks I keep running into.

Crusie sets up these qualifications: Continue reading break the chain

GO TEAM!

go-team
Go, team! (Not to be confused with The GO! Team, but they’re also excellent)

I’m really loving the posts that Jenny Crusie’s doing about “Story Teams” over on her blog. She’s analyzing why they work (or don’t). She analyzed the teams from Leverage (LOVE it), Person of Interest (tried to like it because she loves it and writes such interesting analysis of it, but…), and Legends of Tomorrow (uhhhhhhh) in preparation for troubleshooting the team she’s building in her WIP.

Reading her posts made me think about some of my favorite TV teams (Burn NoticeChuck, and Buffy being standouts, and White Collar too, although that’s a duo with support more than a team most of the time, and, of course, the Quest Team/Venture Brothers–Oh, and I guess Archer?).

So I want to analyze these teams the way she’s doing it, mostly for fun but also for comparison to the team I’m trying to build in my Lilly grant novel (YA cli-fi starring Anika, as-yet-untitled).  I listed too many, so I might just pick a few from the list.

Of course, that requires me to a)do that analysis and b)figure out what the heck is going on with my team.

And tonight’s not the night for that; I’m going to go to bed and sleep on it, and see what thoughts manage to crawl across my mind in the tryptophan-haze that is post-Thanksgiving relaxation time.

But teams make a pretty satisfying story unit. I’m excited to dig into this more!

strugglebus

Some days you're the flaming bus... and some days you're the motorcycles.Spent two hours making “garbage soup” (made of whatever leftovers are around) and writing a paltry 531 words.

Ugh.

Well, tomorrow’s another day…

I did have fun listening to my “inspirational” Pandora station, although it doesn’t seem to be very inspiring atm.

The worst part is that this brings me to five pages over two months for the project I’ve been working on with my crit group, IndyScribes.

Sigh.

…Tomorrow??