How friendly are you?

Thoughts on attracting friends … and readers.

Write about what?

Foto de verdadeiro samigos by VinimsThere is fascination that I have with psychometric tests. It seems like the creators of these assessments have faced the impossible tasks of trying to capture complex aspects of personality with a series of phrases and sentences on which subjects must rate themselves. Recently I went through the somewhat tedious tasks of assessing myself and a friend who seems to be of very different temperament on a series of personality tests. It was tedious because I did all the scoring, carefully noting which items were to be reversed and checking twice to ensure accuracy.

Not surprisingly I tended to score higher in test of conscientiousness and process orientation behavior while my friend was higher in extroversion and ability to deal with people. However, the results of one test in particular interested me, the Friendliness Scale, created by John M. Reisman. Predictably, I turned out to be far less friendly than…

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The real world of victims

chronic waste c2Fictional adolescents  that are able do anything they set their mind on tend to irritate readers with their unrealistic perfection. And, so do characters who cannot do anything to help themselves. In a reaction against the too perfect character there have been a series of stories about the victim—a young adult that is bullied, shamed, abused or otherwise ill-used who never gains the courage to confront their tormentors or even remove themselves from the situation.

Tossing a few viciousness attacks at the protagonist may gain reader empathy. And an  immediate recovery smacks of abilities beyond any expectation, so the main character needs to work hard to overcome these problems. However, the protagonist who does not make progress will be cast as a victim, and will gain little sympathy. Even in tragedies there are cycles of rising and waning hope. A narrative stuck in a state of depression weights heavily on most readers. But this has become a new trope, having an adolescent become completely disheartened as they are bombarded by bullying.

There have been an increasing number of YA novels that chronicle the downhill slope which leads to suicide. What is striking is that the victims are almost always females. Often the threat is one of social rejection and backstabbing rumors–as portrayed in Lane Davis’ I Swear– or being crushed by lies about reputation and being used by a boy as in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.

However, what is notable from these stories is that the victims of suicide are more wrapped up in social status and reputation, and making more foolish decisions than the doomed female protagonists in the classics. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Stephen Crane’s Maggie a Girl of the Streets faced a struggle to survive and greater rejection of society at large for immoral behaviors, and not just rumors about them.

It seems the backlash against the too perfect, strong female character has resulted in portrayal of a very vulnerable female, a victim who continues to be victimized, without being able to take a stand or even attempt to defend herself. In real life, it is more likely to be a victim unable to defend “himself.”

That’s right, according to a report from Johns Hopkins, adolescent males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females. It seems that authors, reluctant to show this truth rarely write about the troubled teenage boy and the predominate causes of suicide: family discord, verbal and physical abuse, and drug addiction[1] It is time to move beyond the formula for books based on sensationalized tropes–books that highlight the female adolescent taking her life to escape the weight of cyber-bullying and gossip by mean girls. Such tropes reappear due to the lure of making money for their authors, despite portraying relatively rare situations in the real world of victims.


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The appeal of the unlikable

fear06 047bIn the search to construct a likable character, amateur authors often forget that the major character needs flaws. When authors want to escape this world by imagining themselves as the person that everyone adores, this adulation occurs only within the story that they craft. Envy and distrust are the real life responses to the almost perfect person.

Some writers try to lull the reader into a favorable attitude towards the protagonist by making them naive and childlike. However, when it comes time to solve the major conflict this artless character may begins to display great skill. When a character always seems to rise to the level necessary deal with a conflict, readers will become wary. If the character does not have to work to overcome a flaw, it is not a real flaw.

These flaws cannot simply be minor idiosyncrasies, such as refusing to eat vegetables. Dislike of  spinach is a major problem only for children’s cartoons and picture books. If you are familiar Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, you will note that even picture books can a have a main character with a deeper struggle.

A pleasant, amiable, conscientious and exquisitely  resourceful protagonist is as likely to rub the reader the wrong way as an egotistical  narcissist. Some readers are bored by a character that never offends anyone. Others will despise them. The problem has to be a personal one, a negative trait that hampers the main characters—shyness, fear, anger, rigid behavior or, lack of self-control. Often, what is seen as a positive behavior, such a lively sense of humor, can morph into a cringe-worthy behavior when the main character is hard-pressed. Humor can become a flippant disregard for the serious situation of others.

The key to prevent reader alienation is making the character to be aware of their flaws. The slovenly appearing and often tipsy Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is both more  interesting and empathetic than the lovely, sweet Lucy Manet. His realization that he is not worthy of the love of a nearly perfect heroine endears him to the reader. However, negative traits must be balanced by positive ones. Carton is an individual capable of caring more deeply for others than himself.

The best drawn characters are not just two traits, but a complex personality resulting in a person that is not quite predictable. Not all readers may find the person that you have spent hours creating likable. But then, remember no one is really loved by everyone. Write a character that you feel pleases everyone, and you may end up pleasing only yourself.

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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

Being able to work in a team is prized–but is this a good way for students to function when receiving their education?

Write about what?

football_edited-1Imagine a group of athletes from different sport that all have a  general idea about playing positions in the other sports. However, they  have little  to no idea how their skills stack up against other in their group, whom they barely know. They have never played together, and they are told “You are now a team; you decide who plays what position. This week we will play baseball, next week we’ll mix up the teams and play football.”  Most class group assignments are actually based on this model. Much of the work required is deciding how to organize the team before anyone actually gets anything done.

Encouraging students to work as teams in class has many shades of difference from getting a group of athletes to work as a team. Sports teams are formed to wage athletic “war” and win against other teams. In classes the goal is to create…

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What is the purpose of education?

With teacher strikes in California making the news, I thought it would be good to review what the goal of education is.

Write about what?

Toy train Gaylord Texan 120What does a railroad have to do with the purpose of education?  It has more to do with what it should not be.

So what exactly is the purpose of obtaining an education? If you answer “to learn” that is obvious, but that answer also side steps the question. It says nothing about what you are learning or why.  About 15 years ago as I sat at a university commencement,  the keynote speaker said the purpose of education was to make students “change agents.” This was the lingo of the time to say education was given the lofty goal of changing the world to make it a better place.

Roll forward a few years and post secondary educators are challenged to figure out if their graduates are going to know what they need to get a decent job. I have seen numerous articles directing students into majors that will actually…

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What’s in Style in Words?

contrast lolly 2012 (2)Adolescents are known for following fads in fashion. Buying clothes which they wouldn’t dare be seen in the next year. Only, I’m seeing styles that keep coming back. The tendency towards fads has moved on into the world of books. We finished a phase in which the major character in a YA book was overwhelmingly more likely to fall in love with someone not quite human than another person. What changed between the novels was the quality of that difference.  One was a vampire, the next a werewolf, and another a space alien. How about a romance with the zombie; isn’t that original? On the surface yes, but it is largely the same plot.

When dystopian YA  books came into vogue, the majority described a future society in which being educated in the art of physical fighting led to the best career. Details were different, but the premises were similar, and it the end the corrupt government fell.

As a teenager there was a novella that was passed around between my friends to read and reread until the paperback became tattered and dog-eared. Recently I learned it was not a real work of YA fiction, not according to modern genre section rules. The major characters were  not adolescents who solved their own problems. They were adults who didn’t even manage  to do that.

During a lesson on how to compose a blurb for a book, my junior high favorite resurfaced. I noted that the  blurb had been rewritten to appeal to a modern audience. It mentioned that Charlie was part of an experiment, and he had discovered something was going wrong another subject of this experiment. It said nothing about the fact his name, Charlie Gordon, was synonymous was pulling a stupid stunt. Nor, that he is an adult who starts out and ends up with the mental capacity of a kindergartner. And it did not mention that the other subject of this experiment was a lowly mouse.

Instead it stuck strictly to the sci-fi aspects of this lovely piece of fiction. Everyone thought it was a wonderful blurb, because Flowers for Algernon is a wonderful book. However, will all those teenagers who are expecting to read about an adolescent who is forced into an experiment by a corrupt government that he eventually overcomes be disappointed? I sincerely hope not.


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Writing the car wreck

NY toll road (1) _a copyImagine a movie scene from the seventies or eighties– a car veers out of control over the edge of a cliff  and tumbles end-over-end finally exploding  at the bottom of the ravine. We’ll never know who that unfortunate driver was. Only it doesn’t really happen that way. The MythBusters sent several cars  careening over cliffs (sans driver) but they couldn’t get one to explode, even when they damaged the gas tank. Writers are sometimes under the illusion that an exciting event like sending a car tumbling over a cliff will create a bang in their story, only to have it fizzle out just like the cars failing to explode for the MythBusters.

Comparing car wrecks from different stories, might help show which elements  are necessary to generate tension. For example, I recall slamming on the brakes on a wet road water and sliding off it in a spin. As the car swung around, I didn’t know when it would strike something, when the excruciating pain would come, or if I would even survive. Fortunately, the car hit nothing. Even though the axle was damaged, I was not hurt. However, I still have the sense of the seconds stretching interminably.

Then, I read a description of a car wreck that echoed my sensations with more intensity. The author took the time to present the wreck as perceived–noting the loose change and compacts disc catapulting through the interior of the car, the smell of burning rubber, the thudding crunch of metal crumpling, and the moan of the passenger in the next seat. This stretched the reader to piece together the total event from many details. This event would turn one person’s life inside out — the one that survived.

But, many of the car wrecks I’ve read have been quickly sketched in pastel colors and too soft to seem real. The aftershocks of the horrible wreck which left a sole survivor was described in the same vagueness, The author’s constant reminders that the protagonist was really hurt by the loss of her entire family was almost humorous because the pain was lacking from the plot. Instead, this enviable, tough woman just kept on going with little to no struggle. The main character needs a challenge stretching them to the point in which the reader doesn’t know whether or not the protagonist can cope.

A most famous literary car accident wasn’t a dramatic car rolling down a cliff, but a collision between a car and a human that  lasted less than a minute in the novel but caused everything to unwind. The resulting ironic twists made this accident in The Great Gatsby important. Tension arose due to the nature of the personal relationships and the practice of deception that permeated the life of the wealthy class. Jay Gatsby pretended to have been the driver, while his lover had no idea that she had hit and killed her own husband’s mistress. The cover-up leads to the crisis that ends the story.

The description of the car accident has to strike a chord of reality in the reader. But, the total impact of the accident on the story is more important. Otherwise a quick car wreck is a hook that offers excitement but leads the reader into a ditch. And, readers don’t want to be left in a plot that fails to explode at the bottom of the ravine.

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Mastering the ambiguous character

reading2Recently I started reading two different stories with a peculiar similarity. In one the romantic male lead had olive skin, and dark hair and eyes. The other had tanned skin and raven black hair–both variations of tall, dark and handsome. In both tales of romance, the young man meets the adolescent girl’s father first, as the daughter observes him. In one narrative, the tall, dark and handsome man would defend the young woman, and in the other he would betray her. Can you guess which?

The first young man is ambitious and ignorant of the culture, He makes an offensive motion towards the father whose bodyguards prepare to protect him. Then, rather than realizing his mistake, he pulls out a weapon only to be told to his embarrassment to put it away. Despite the young man’s high level of education he is obviously tall, dark and not too good at dealing with people.

In second tale involves loving parents arranging a marriage for their teenage daughter. They have invited the young man to dine with them. He attempts make jovial conversation, as he discusses the father’s interest, which is breeding dogs. He suggests that they would be excellent for hunting. But the father is against having his dogs hunt. The young man could feel rebuffed by father but remains polite.

Deciding which tall, dark and handsome man is the true gem would be easy if you were actually reading this story. Both of the young ladies are mind readers! That’s right, despite no warning of this supernatural ability, each teenage female protagonist has a strong premonition that informs the readers exactly how each man turns out in the end.

As a person who spent years teaching high school I don’t weigh the feelings of adolescents highly when determining the future. Often, they struggle to understand other’s motives on a day to day basis. So why did the authors imbue these young females with the supernatural ability to read minds? Because describing the subtle signs of deceit and trustworthiness is difficult. Therefore, the writers took the same short cut and used uncannily accurate intuition as foreshadowing.

The balancing act of surprising the reader  while making actions plausible is based on the skill of portraying ambiguity in characters. Authors must to work at revealing conflicted characteristics through actions and speech. The driven and impetuous young man who brandishes the weapon should sometimes seem weak or indecisive when questioning if he should behave in this outwardly brash manner. The well-behaved young man should have friends or servants showing wariness due to their knowledge that a polite exterior hid a self-serving interior. But that did not occur.

Both male characters needed to display a mix of good and bad traits which the reader would have to interpret. Instead the authors focused on the physical descriptions of the men. Then, they chose a sudden reversal (supposedly to shake the reader awake). The hot-headed young man turns out to be protective, and the polite one was actually calloused. However, as I continued through each story I realized that I had to deal with two men that were tall, dark, and implausible. That last characteristic is not attractive to me—no matter how handsome the character is.

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Kick starting a story

IMAGE0043a copyMany writers believe that most readers will only read a novel that grabs their attention from the first page. A dramatic episode must unfold in the first paragraph. I witnessed a workshop in which writers were coached to do just that. The leader liked anything with an immediate crisis, imminent death being the most desirable one–such as a character waking up in the hospital with all the tubes attached, or her favorite,  the one facing execution.

Now, I didn’t expect the character facing execution to actually die. I realized either the protagonist would quickly escape this death, as it was not the main point of the story. Or possibly the author had pulled out the major crisis as prologue and I would have to read a good portion of back story before finding out how the main character survived.

Jumping into the middle of a conflict at the start of a novel is not a bad technique. Tolstoy modeled this in Anna Karenina, starting the story with an uproar as Dolly discovers her husband’s affair with their governess. However, this crisis does not last long due to the arrival of the major character, Anna Karenina. This charming lady persuades Dolly to remain with Stepan (who is also Anna’s brother.) Anna turns out to have the really challenging love life with its multiple twists and turns.

Most often this initial crisis turns out to be only as minor one, not the real crux of the story. The first chapter in a starter plot which will be resolved fairly quickly and the really difficult to solve conflict appears at a slower pace. The reader is quickly sucked in the story, but only into a minor subplot. Paying attention to details in the first chapter or so is not terribly necessary with this kind of draw-the-reader-in start. They could simply skip this section and the only result would be missing a few tidbits about the main dramatic conflict.

The author still the main work to do–creating compelling characters that the reader cares about as well as revealing a complex conflict that deepens in difficulty over time. A main conflict cannot be summarily solved by the wave of a hand or a simple impassioned plea at the end. As the reader movers further into Anna Karenina, there are numerous  characters and details to attend to. There are sections in which multiple characters struggle with the meaning of life in this broad picture of Russian society.

Because its reputation, many readers are intimidated by Anna Karenina. They will not be drawn in to a huge tome by a being dropped into the action. That is the chance the author takes with this kind of kick-starting a story–attracting a reader who doesn’t have the patience to finish a book of any depth of complexity.

Back to the workshop–there was one  beginning  that caught my attention. The protagonist stood on a cliff side, staring down into water, and from the details I could gather it was a long drop. Something unnerving about the interior thoughts of the character led me to wonder what was wrong. Although there was no direct statement about suicidal thoughts, that seemed to be a possibility. The workshop leader felt this beginning had too many unanswered questions and wanted to find out the answers at the start of the story. But, that is exactly what drew me in. I wanted to keep on reading to uncover the conflict that this character struggled with so intensely.

The beginning of the story does not have to be action-packed. But, it should let readers know how invested they must be in the book to understand and enjoy it.


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Present tense prose

burbn time horizontalSince the popularity of The Hunger Game series and the awards won by All the Light We Cannot See, a trend is fiction is the use of present tense. This style is touted as making the character’s actions more intimate to the reader, but it is not a new fad. I recall reading the Babar books to my own children, who were quick to pick up that these 1930’s children’s classics sounded different. They were penned in present tense.

Personally, I have always written in the past tense for fiction as I use the present tense for technical writing and find it dry. However, I decided to experiment, and rewrite scenes previously composed in past tense. First, I discovered the difficulty of dropping the reader directly into the action using present tense. I struggled to rewrite the first paragraph of an opening scene in which a young girl receives a permanent scar on her face due to her sister’s actions. In a tale told with past tense, the current time is beyond the end of the story. But, I could no longer play with time and let the reader know what would occurred by jumping from far past, to near past, to current time.

Finally, I returned to a technique used by writers for centuries–describing the setting and character at the beginning with enough nuanced details to make the action that would shortly occur plausible. This was less awkward than breaking into the flow of present tense events to include tidbits that explained the character’s background.

Forcing myself to write in present tense subtly transformed my writing style. It required much more attention to sequencing the actions that occurred in precise order. It is easy to detail the seconds that tick away as a disaster looms on the horizon in present tense, but more difficult to show the flow of time. Movies frequently telescope less action-oriented portions of a plot using a montage of scenes. Try writing like that in present tense and its limitations become obvious.

My scenes became shorter as I created additional breaks in the story to skip over less interesting events between those that drove the plot forward. When picking up threads of the story in the next scene, I described what occurred in the interim through a flashback in the mind of the character or through conversation. Events flowed better over short periods of time in present tense.

Sentences became shorter just like the scenes became shorter. However, I found I wrote more sentences to fill in breaks in the narrative. Completing parts of the scene with mundane events became necessary. Also, suspense has to be handled differently. There must be an outward indication of the ax that is going to fall and I did not want to resort to over-obvious foreshadowing. So in present tense writing, most characters are aware of the imminent danger, too.

Including interior thoughts became essential to story cohesiveness. When the girl in my opening scene is injured (which will result in the permanent scar) she temporarily cannot see. I found visually-oriented descriptions of that time jarring. I changed those to the sounds, touches and smells that the girl actually experiences. In one of the novels I am currently reading, All the Light We Cannot See, use of present tense immerses the reader into the world of the blind major character.

Strangely, I found the writing sounded more poetic in present tense. I would not use pronouns but repeat people’s names and even actions, because that sounded right. Then I realized, I frequently write poetry in the present tense. My final discovery surprised me, too. Writing in present tense actually made the passages longer in each case in which I transformed them. And, I preferred some of the present tense scenes more. So, I recommend all authors experiment with this and uncover their own unexpected results.

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