Expositioning Yourself

I am learning so much from my new critique groups. Yup, as in plural, like three.

Why on earth am I in three critique groups? Well, they all bring something alive for me during the session, be it one person’s flare for similes, another’s dead reckoning of grammar, or, the fact that they write far better than I ever will — but I’m hoping that some of their polish will rub off on me!

During one recent critique, I told a woman that she was using too much exposition. Well ouch! Be careful what you say in critique. She took it really well, but confessed that although she’d heard that before, she still didn’t recognize an exposition when it hit her in the face. I then was truly embarrassed not to be able to define the darn thing. Exposition is like good art; I know it when I see it.

No? Too lazy an answer? I thought so too, so out I went in search of the Great Exposition Explanation.

From Dictionary.com:

Exposition: ex·po·si·tion noun ˌek-spə-ˈzi-shən

1: a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing)
2a : discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand
b (1) : the first part of a musical composition in sonata form in which the thematic material of the movement is presented (2) : the opening section of a fugue
3: a public exhibition or show
— ex·po·si·tion·al adjective
See exposition defined for English-language learners »
See exposition defined for kids »
Examples of EXPOSITION

The subject requires some exposition.
a clear exposition of his ideas
the great Paris Exposition of 1899
This is not an easy book, and the reader may find the layers of detail challenging. There are long expositions of the knotty tangles of monarchical lineage, and the necessary chronicle of historical events occasionally consumes the novel’s narrative drive. —Lucy Lethbridge, Commonweal, 23 Oct. 2009
[+]more

And of course it was the last line that nailed the definition for me. “Knotty tangles, necessary chronicle…occasionally consumes the novel’s narrative drive.” Yup. That’s Exposition for you.

So how do you turn exposition into descriptive wonderment?

Take the following.

Tad was twelve. Nan is nine. Tad is older than Nan. Nan likes popsicles. Tad used to get secret popsicles from his father.

And then (to borrow from my previous post) reimagine it so that you show, not tell and…

Tad leaned over Nan’s shoulder. He swiped one finger along the edge of her popsicle to catch the drip before it hit her fingers.

“Hey,” Nan protested. “You got twelve-year-old cooties all over my treat.”

“Well, it’s better than having sticky baby fingers.” He wiped his sticky hand on the back of his sister’s Disney on Ice t-shirt.

“Moooooooom!” Nan squealed.

He didn’t like popsicles as much now as he did when he was five.  Dad used to sneak one to him to coax him into quietness while Nan was taking her nap. They tasted even better because Mom didn’t know, and Nan didn’t get any. Dad stopped bribing Tad when Nan was two and stopped taking naps.

Well, Mom still didn’t know. She was always at work, and Dad did the grocery shopping. Tad went over, opened the freezer and pulled out the last red popsicle. Tearing open the package, he took a bite off the tip and savored the cold tang as it blasted his tongue. He guessed they were still pretty good.

Happy Writing!

Reimagine

At our SCBWI meeting this month, three Houston SCBWI writers, Vonna Carter, Millie Martin and  Lynne Kelly Hoenig discussed a Darcy Pattison seminar they had attended on rewriting their books.

Interestingly enough, the spin that this seminar put on their revision was using a ton of wonderfully useful exercises to evaluate their manuscript. (It sounded so wonderful in fact, that I have my reserve-my-space e-mail already written and timed to go out on the day registration opens for the Houston SCBWI-sponsored seminar later this year.) But even better than the tales of revising and camaraderie was one of the things one of our speakers said that caught my imagination.

She used the term ‘re-imagine’ in place of ‘revision’.

This word opened up a whole new line of thinking about my work-in-progress. Instead of having to re-do, I can step back, walk around the piece a bit, see how it looks from a distance, and then put my imagination to work again to strengthen the work a bit more.

Learning how to write for a Middle Grade audience has been daunting. Not only does a twelve-year-old think differently than an adult, everything is different, right down to the line of sight from which a twelve-year-old sees the world.

I started the story in third person. Finished it that way too. Mistake number one. Third person isn’t as popular with that age group because it’s harder to connect with.

Rewrote the story in first person. This improved the story tremendously, but…not enough. I was deep into the characters and the emotional investment that six months of working on the book gives me. Second mistake: no perspective.

I struggled both times to make it through the middle of the book to a happy ending. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out why that pesky middle section was so darn hard. Third mistake! In the process of writing the book, I’d fallen in love with what I’d written and couldn’t see past the work I’d already put into it to identify the problem myself. It took an insightful critique by Abby Ranger from Hyperion to give me the Eureka! moment necessary to identify the deficit in the manuscript. The problem I’d set for my character to solve wasn’t a strong enough problem to carry the book.

Ms. Ranger had the distance (and skill) to re-imagine “what if” my Suzie faced a bigger problem. “What if” the problem was bigger and badder than the financial one I’d set for Suzie and “what if” she was able to find a strength that moved her twelve-year-old self from ordinary to extraordinary.

Poof! As soon as I left the meeting, I too began to re-imagine the story. What if Suzie’s financial trouble was because her mother was in trouble. What if…Mom’s job was gone because her place of work burned down? What if…Suzie and her friends found out who really set the fires?What if…the person setting the fires was close to Suzie and discovering who it was could hurt everyone? What if…Suzie’s journey to clear her mom brought her closer to being independent, but also confirmed her love for family and friends?

Ah, ha! Re-imagining this story has brought me another boatload of work to do — but it’s work I’m happy to have because it will make this story stronger, better, something I’ll be proud of having written and closer to being something that will sell.

Fingers crossed…at least when I’m not typing madly away.

Pachy-what?

My mother planted pachysandra outside the side door of our house in Louisville. There are two varieties I’ve found available, pachysandra procumbens, native to the Alleghanies — the kind you want to plant — and pachysandra terminalis, which is a lovely plant but which can be invasive if it escapes your beds.

Ours was in a straight bed, one that followed the foundation of our house, and the pachysandra was the first thing that actually grew there for longer than ten minutes. The window to the coal cellar lived smack in the middle of that wall, so the amount of accumulated charcoal was tremendous. (I guess this belies the black earth theory of my previous post!)

I used to love the feathery leaves, dancing to who-knows-what tune as I’d skip out the door to school, or a friend’s house, or up to The Loop for a carton of milk for supper. There were some decorative rocks in the bed with the plants, and occasionally we’d rearrange them like furniture for a different look.

Rabbits nested in our pachysandra after I left home. I got the most exquisite letter from my father  during my freshman year in college detailing the young rabbit’s initial forays into the world outside those leaves. Twitching noses and tentative hops disturbed the foliage, then suddenly, there they were, shooting across the sparse grass under the dogwood where anyone could see them.

It’s a funny thing when your prosaic, way-more-intelligent-than-most father gets all poetic on you. I wasn’t sure where that letter came from, but he followed this with more romanticized musings, all based on things he noticed in the natural world. Animals, plants, weather, stars all equally informed his writing.

Life’s pretty darn short — Go out and plant something — and let the poetic bloom.

Climbing the Walls

When I got married, One of my favorite new relatives was Helene Levy of Galveston, Texas. She had a beautiful Cecile Bruner that climbed a trellis outside her bedroom window. The petite blush rose was fragrant, and bloomed for Helene more often than was decent. Helene’s enthusiasm for her roses (And her fig tree!) endeared her to me. There is a Cecile Bruner climber outside my bedroom window now in her honor.

My Aunt Myrtle had a vibrant blue morning glory climbing up a post right outside her kitchen window. Butterflies seemed to love it. There was a bell on top of that post, but I believe she put the post there was just so she could see the flowers each morning and start her day with the vision of those unfurling blooms and the winged visitors it drew.

My back pasture is graced with a line of trees along the north side. About ten feet wide, the strip runs two-hundred feet along the fence line. One of the things the neighbors said to us when we bought that field was that they would really appreciate it if we wouldn’t trim the trees and if we would make sure and leave all the “vines” in place. We did, because it was a good windbreak, and because I recognized the vine. Each spring, those vines throw out beautiful clusters purple flowers. Who knew that Wysteria could grow forty feet into the sky using native trees as its trellis?

Happy gardening.

Writing that Makes Sense — Part 4 – Touch

Touchy Feely, that’s me. I love to plant things in my garden that have tactile attributes, so you’d think that putting things like this into my writing would be easy. Velvety soft lamb’s ear, the smooth crisp sides of the aloe vera, spikes and shoots of the red yucca. But it isn’t always that simple.

Let me start be looking at TOUCH and how our bodies interpret it. All objects have texture, be it the mustache on a dashing hero’s face to the feel of a breeze lifting the short hairs along your arm. In a way, it’s friction, or tactile tension, that you are feeling.

TOUCH is a complicated combination of the ability to sense heat, pain, mechanical pressure, and texture. We define TOUCH through the largest organ in our bodies, our skin. TOUCH includes more than just what you skim your fingers over, it includes your entire body. Some label TOUCH the somatic sense, because it includes the sensations produced by movement, both of objects around your body and the movement of your body itself.

While I’ve discussed in my previous posts on Writing that Makes Sense including language to express the different senses, I have not yet touched (sorry!) on what sensory detail can do for your character building. Each person has touch sensations that stimulate some sort of happy — or not so happy memory. This means that your reader comes with certain expectations of what each sensation of touch means to them. Your characters should as well.
One of my favorite plants is the fuchsia bougenvilla, a plant that thrives on the hot west wall of my garage — and which has long thorns hidden among its leaves. I’d never given that a second thought until an acquaintance of mine mentioned that when he was young, he literally skewed one of his eyes on a bougenvilla’s wicked thorns. Obviously the tactile nature of this plant means something very different to Jeff than it does to me.

Writing exercise:

Trifold your paper vertically to create three columns. List TOUCH adjectives, nouns and verbs in each of the columns. Stroke, velvety, slap, marble, embers, you get the idea.

Realizing that sometimes just mentioning specific nouns can evoke the sense of touch if there are memories attached, look at the list of nouns in particular. Make sure they are specific — Lava instead of stone. Jot down any memories associated with the nouns — or make them up — you are a creative writer after all!

Happy Writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

Blinded

So I was potting up a bunch of seedlings the other day and found that I was short on popsicle sticks. (AKA coffee stirring sticks from the coffee shop — I use them, then take them home with me for further use…)

What could I use to id these darned plants so that I could tell them apart when it came time to plant (or share) them? I looked up at the ceiling and found no inspiration, looked at the walls, no inspiration. But wait, what is that under the potting bench? A set of broken mini-blinds that I’d forgotten all about. I’d saved them for just this purpose over a year ago and there they were ready for me to pull out the scissors and snip them to just the right length.

Voila!

I heard about using old blinds as plant markers from Farmers Brad and Jenny at Home Sweet Farm in Brenham, Texas. I had the pleasure of working as an intern/working share member for them for over a year. Learned tons of stuff about plants and good dirt, but the mini-blind tip sure saved me this time.

How to get free mini-blinds to use as plant markers? Freecycle. When Brad and Jenny ran out of plant markers, I posted a want ad on my local freecycle for broken mini-blinds and got back five replies with offers of broken blinds, enough material to make thousands of plant markers. (Remember that on Freecycle it is good etiquette to Offer three times for every Wanted post!) I prefer plastic mini-blind slats, but the metal ones work too — lighter colors are easier to mark and to read.

Happy gardening!

Writing That Makes Sense – Part 2 – Smell

In part one of Writing That Makes Sense, I talked about building a vocabulary for SIGHT, now let’s hit that second sense, SMELL.

I picked SMELL to work with second because you cannot TASTE without the sense of smell. In short, aroma brings home the bacon. (Sorry, might not be factual, but so much fun to say!)

So how does a writer bring the sense of smell to a piece? Begin by thinking about things that evoke responses in you when you smell them — favorable and not so much, because both of those can help build a smelly vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s enough to mention an object that evokes the smell without saying,” the aroma of _____.”

Coffee. Fresh baked bread. Freshly mowed grass. Burnt sage. Pine. All evoke a sense of smell without even using an adjective. Then there are the seven basic odors the human nose can detect:

  • Camphor –  mothballs
  • Musk – perfume
  • Floral – roses
  • Mint – peppermint candy canes
  • Etherial – gasoline
  • Pungent – vinegar
  •  And last-but-not-least on the reaction scale, Putrid – Unnaturally green food in the back of your fridge.

For now, I’m lumping the pheromone system in with the sense of SMELL, but there is some evidence that there are actually two senses that the nose connects with our brain.

Exercise:

Grab your magazines and start looking for pictures of things that smell. Take a sheet of paper and list all the nouns, adjectives and verbs that you can think of that have to do with smelling. Sharp, sweet, sniff, quaff, waft, you get the idea. Try combining some of them that you wouldn’t ordinarily put together. You never know what might work.

Now go back to that piece you did with SIGHT and add something about the SMELLs in the air. Don’t make it like a laundry list — you know what I’m talking about.

Susan saw the orange cones. Susan smelled burning rubber as she hit the brakes.

Susan’s car shot past the orange cones trailing a cloud of burning rubber as her foot pressed hard against the brake pedal.

Second exercise; Go for a walk with your pocket notebook. Stop somewhere and close your eyes. What do you smell? Can you identify individual people by their smell? Objects close at hand? List them complete with the impressions you got just from your nose.

Happy writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.

Here is the clip from the story:

The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.

“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.

Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.

One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!

Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?

(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.

Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives

Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.

Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.

  • Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
  • Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
  • Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
  • Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
  • Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
  • Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
  • Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
  • What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
  • Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)

This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.

Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.

Happy Writing!

What the heck? — BioChar

I guess I watch too much CSI: Anytown. When I first saw the term biochar pop up in my garden-related reading, my first thought was an appalled, “Ew!” Don’t  know exactly what I thought they were charring, but plain old wood scraps wasn’t my first guess.

Bio Char is a concept that’s been around for a while, but recent articles are touting a region down in South America (mid-Amazon region) where the soil is so rich, you only have to think about putting seeds in to get a terrific yield. This region’s soil is known as Terra Preta. One lovely fact about the soil there, immensely rich in biochar and other compost, is that it is able to hold onto nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. As you can imagine, plants adore this. What does this have to do with you, the home gardener? It means you have a choice. You can continue to buy chemicals to coax growth out of your plants or you can feed your soil and entice them to grow instead. Terra Preta is soil that was fed a lot of biochar a L O N G time ago, and which is now pretty much self-sustaining topsoil. It may look black, but it’s really pure gold.

It’s a funny thought, feeding the soil. Even though I earned my Master Gardener certificate over ten years ago, and one of our excellent sessions dealt with soil health, up until I interned at Home Sweet Farm with Farmer Brad and Farmer Jenny, I did not fully understand the concept. Feeding the soil, be it molasses to help the beneficial microbes multiply (and the fire ants explode) or biochar to help the soil hold on to those precious nutrients so that they stay where the plants can get them rather than leaching down out of the reach of many root systems, is not just a good idea, it is necessary for healthy plant growth with most soils. Along with making for healthy soil, BioChar is shaping up to be a new tool that can assist in mitigating greenhouse gasses. (That is one cool thought!)

 

Now that you know all about biochar and you’re rarin’ to make your own, go for it — let us know how your experience is both with creating  biochar and what the results are of incorporating biochar in your garden.

 

Happy Gardening!