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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Character Tags in Fiction and Why They’re Fantastic

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Ned Stark Game of Thrones - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - character tags

Sean Bean as Ned Stark via Google Images

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In most memorable books you read, the characters hold distinct places in your memory.  Why is this?  Outside of the overarching plot, what makes characters stand out in our minds?  Character tags help with this immensely.  A character tag is a physical way of being that the character comes back to time and again.  Character tags could be:

  • A common phrase or verbal tic
  • A way of speaking
  • An accent or dialect
  • A physical mannerism
  • A way of carrying themselves
  • A scent
  • A recurring behavior
  • Etc.

For example, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 6-year-old Charles Wallace speaks incredibly clearly and calmly and in complete sentences, much more so than the average person.  As a result, even when dialogue tags are scarce, we know when Charles Wallace is speaking.  This also works well because of the contrast it provides to the other main characters.  He works as a foil for his impulsive, belligerent sister Meg.  L’Engle weaves these characters masterfully in a way that helps us relate to both of them.

In Rachel Ward’s Numbers, teenage Spider presents a fantastic example.  Spider moves constantly, restless, and this comes up again and again.  Our narrator Jem describes him as

“He’s big, Spider, tall.  One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off.  Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school.  He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him.  Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there – doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint.”

This becomes a character tag rather than just a description because we see Spider doing these things over and over again.  These mannerisms embed themselves into the story.  You also definitely want to walk the thin line of not using the character tags too much, or you can fall into the accidental comedy category.

Character tags become especially important in ensemble series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  In the Harry Potter series, even though Ernie MacMillan only pops up a couple times in each book, we know who he is because of the proud way he carries himself.  It’s his primary character tag.  In the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), keeping the crazy amount of characters straight is only possible because George RR Martin can throw down character tags like no one’s business.  Ned Stark (not to mention many of the other Northerners in the series) is always saying “Winter is coming” like a mantra.  If someone utters that phrase, we know we’re talking to Stark or one of his people.

What do these character tags do?

  • They make characters more memorable and distinguishable (making the story more interesting).
  • They tell us something about the character.
  • They make the character more real for the reader.
  • They help create tension between characters.

What are good character tags you’ve run across?  What do you think character tags do for a story?

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5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Blogging

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Birthday Candle by Ardfern via Wikimedia Commons

This week marks an entire year of blogging – October 23rd will be my one-year blog anniversary!  Happy Blog Birthday to Novel Conclusions!  In honor of this epically momentous occasion, I’ve decided to put together this gorgeous list of what I’ve learned about blogging.

  • I’m not alone.  There’s this whole community of writers and book bloggers and fan girls and people who just adore the English language.  Becoming a part of this super fun community encourages me to do more inside the writing arena (like participating in NaNoWriMo).  The book and writing community rocks!
  • Bonus:  Interacting with said community drives engagement on your blog.  Who woulda thought?  Catching up on what other writers and book enthusiasts are doing encourages people to drop by your blog and join the conversation.
  • Positive posts/notes/comments get the most love.  There was actually a report done about Facebook recently backing up this idea.  Outside of reports and etc., people in the blogosphere tend to be much friendlier than, say, commenters on a newspaper website or a gossip column – another reason the book and writing blogosphere is amazing.
  • It’s okay to occasionally break the cycle of your blog posts.  Your audience won’t immediately disappear.  I usually try to post about once a week.  Occasionally it will be more often, and sometimes when life is crazy, less often.  However, don’t wait too long between blog posts.  Two weeks is a little vacation.  Two months is more like starting over.
  • There’s a wealth of knowledge in the blogosphere about everything imaginable that’s related to books and writing.  Reading all the posts over at Nathan Bransford’s blog and Mary Kole’s blog would practically give you an MFA.  That’s not even mentioning other fantastic resources like Lynn Price at the Behler Blog or all the other agents and editors and authors with free, abundant, awesome writing and publishing tips. You can even interact with these people by commenting.  Craziness.

What have you all learned while blogging?  What have you done to streamline your blog?  What do you like (or dislike) that others do with their blogs?

P.S.  I also took this opportunity to discover that this blog’s sun sign is Libra, which apparently represents the element of air or intellect.  We can pretend that I planned that. 😉

P.P.S.  This shows a way cool map of indie bookstores in your area (and also confirmed my knowledge that LA is severely lacking in indie bookstores).

Raising the Stakes

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Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

With National Novel Writing Month looming (frequently known as NaNoWriMo), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about outlining.  Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo without an outline, and the results were less than stellar.  Having an outline helps me write the nitty gritty of the story itself more quickly and more cleanly.

There are all kinds of resources out there to help you outline, but what matters most is what you put inside the outline.  One of the most important things holding your plot together will be the stakes and the ensuing tension those stakes develop.  The stakes for the same situation will be completely different depending on your character.  All of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice had a strong stake in finding good marriages – as soon as their father passed on, they would be penniless and basically homeless if they didn’t have a (good) husband.  On the other hand, Jem in Rachel Ward’s Numbers had no such stake in a good marriage; in fact, I can imagine her scoffing at even the idea of getting married.  The stakes are completely different based on your characters and their objectives.

According to former literary agent Mary Kole, author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, there are two different types of stakes, public stakes and private stakes.  Private stakes impact your character’s core identity.  Your main character may become completely torn up when her family loyalty is put on the line and she is unable to fulfill her role as the protector of her family (think Katniss in Hunger Games, contemplating her death and what will happen to her family if she dies).  Public stakes, on the other hand, bring in the larger world and the character’s relationship with it.  If the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice don’t get married, and get married to the right kind of men, they will be pitied as burdens on the community in addition to being penniless.

Many of the best kinds of stakes are a mixture of public stakes (relationship with the world) and private stakes (personal identity).  In Numbers, if Jem doesn’t share her secret, she may not be able to unravel the mystery in time to save Spider; however, if she does share her secret, people may not believe her, causing further consequences.

It’s important to ratchet up the stakes little by little as we go along, but we also have to take care not to go too far overboard.  Too far overboard can make us move into the realm of melodrama.  Melodrama happens when the characters’ emotions run too high to match their objectives.  If Johnny scratched his hand on a rock, he’s probably going to be irritated but not irate.  If the emotions run too high to match what’s happening, we may lead readers into farce.  Sounding like a sketch on SNL by accident is much worse than sounding like one on purpose.

What are our takeaways?

  • Ratchet up the stakes little by little
  • Include a mixture of public and private stakes
  • Don’t be melodramatic

What else would you add about raising the stakes?  How do you include stakes when you’re outlining?

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5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America

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Books - Teach for America - Writing - Novel Conclusions writing blog

Detail of Painting by Angelo Bronzino via Wikimedia Commons

Just like Olivia Blanchard (who recently wrote the Atlantic piece “I Quit Teach for America”), I also quit Teach for America (TFA) before the beginning of my second year.  I was part of the 2005 Teach for America Corps; due to gang violence and having to file a police report against 2 teenage students who assaulted another student and me, I quit TFA in April of my first year of teaching.  I do not blame TFA for my resignation; even if I had taken the traditional route to teaching, I may have still wound up in that same classroom with those 2 unstable teen girls.

Though we both quit TFA, the stark contrast between Ms. Blanchard and me is that I still fully support TFA.  Despite all of TFA’s failings, of which there are many, I believe TFA to be the best widespread alternative teaching program in existence, and it has spawned some pretty fantastic, effective educational programs (look up KIPP, for starters).  There are a few arguments that Olivia Blanchard and others have been tossing at TFA, and I’d like to explain why they’re all essentially wrong:

  1. TFA is taking other “more qualified” teachers’ jobs.  Let’s be real here: GOOD TEACHERS DON’T USUALLY STAY AT ROUGH SCHOOLS, especially “bad” middle schools, unless they actually live in the neighborhood.  The middle school where I was teaching English in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles had a 35% turnover rate.  That means that about every three years, the entire staff was essentially new.  My school was grasping for teachers – we could barely even convince substitutes to come back.  These “more qualified” teachers were not appearing.  Why was there such a high turnover rate at this middle school and at most similar Title I urban middle schools in the US?  Because almost all teachers (not all, but almost all) hate teaching middle school, especially in a school where the average class size is higher than the average amount of desks in a classroom.  Teaching 200 plus hormonal 13-year-olds (rotating classes of about 35 kids each) – who are also involved in gangs, drugs, and underage sex, not to mention problems at home – is a daily lesson in psychological torture, the Marines of teaching.  After you pay two years of dues (and I’m not talking just TFA teachers, I’m talking most teachers), you can go teach at a better school that requires good teachers.  This was a common path.
  2. TFA doesn’t have enough minority teachers.  There were 12 TFAers and myself as first-year teachers at the middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught, and we were black, white, Asian, and Latino (and yes, I am a white girl, not a minority).  The other novice first-year non-TFA teachers at this middle school were all white.  The large majority of the staff members were white and black in a heavily (75%) Latino neighborhood.  This all means that TFA was actually bringing more diversity to the staff of this middle school (shocker!).  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of public school teachers in the US are white.  In TFA, fully 18% fewer teachers are white (65% of the corps is Caucasian).  Once again, this drives home the point that TFA is more diverse than the average pool of public school teachers. 
  3. TFA teachers don’t have enough training.  First of all, my summer institute experience was different than Ms. Blanchard’s and closer to what TFA describes.  I don’t remember having any of the forced emotional sessions Ms. Blanchard describes, and I taught angry middle school students every school day, usually for 1-2 hours, in addition to crazy intensive amounts of classes about how to lesson plan and how to set achievable high goals.  Five weeks of teaching summer school and taking classes may not seem like much, but it’s more training than required in many parts of the country (in addition to the fact that the classes taught in summer institute and during our periodic weekend TFA seminars were actually useful and meaty, whereas the professional development taught at my school on in-service days was generally a time to grade papers and tune out the speaker).  In many states, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no training whatsoever can get an emergency certification where they are taking classes while teaching (which is what we were doing in LA Unified School District as TFAers, in addition to our “inadequate” summer training).
  4. TFA slams other public school teachers.  This may have been something that Blanchard inferred, but this was not my experience at all.  In my experience, TFA wanted to help all existing public school teachers.  In my experience, TFA was helping to shoulder the crazy burden that the government and society have placed on public school teachers.  We all got the idea that we were joining the fight, not creating one.  But perhaps I’m just an overly optimistic human being.
  5. TFA is creating a “revolving door of rookie teachers” (according to Julian Heilig, also cited by Olivia Blanchard).  Of Title 1 teachers in general, in a statistic quoted so frequently in my first year of teaching that it’s indelibly printed on my memory, 50% quit within their first 2 years (and 90% quit within their first 7 years – yes, teaching is ridiculously stressful, no matter which route you take to get certified).  Of TFA teachers, 60% stay in the field of education after their first 2 years.  That’s 10% more than traditional novice teachers.  That means TFA is bringing in a higher percentage of teachers who stay in the field than traditional routes.

Why should anything I say count since I was one of the quitters?  Even though I was horrible at classroom management, I found out around the time that I left that my seventh grade English students did better on their secondary periodic assessments (colloquially known as SPA tests) than any of the other seventh grade English classes in a school of over 2000 students.  They actually learned to write five paragraph essays.  I was more than a little shocked that my kids did so well, but maybe TFA made a wee little difference to my students after all.

Teach for America is making a difference and putting teachers in classrooms where no one else wants to go.  Recently, a Mathematica study has shown that TFA math teachers create more results than non-TFA math teachers in poor schools (equal to about 2.6 months additional instruction), no matter their experience level; that’s pretty substantial stuff.  Teach for America is not perfect, but they are taking decisive action on a problem that many other people only complain about.  That deserves support.

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