Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Something I Learned this Summer

We often blog here at TeachingAuthors about the value of "Reading as a Writer." (If you've missed those posts, you'll find them here.) Well, this summer, while reading a historical novel set in 18th-century Europe--the same setting as my current work-in-progress (WIP)--I noticed a writing technique worth imitating. My desire to share that technique here inspired our current TeachingAuthors blog topic: "Something I Learned (or re-learned) this Summer."

The novel I read was for adults, but the technique would work in any kind of novel--from beginning chapter books on up--that includes a scene where a character is eavesdropping. Note: I didn't know the historical novel I read would also include sexually explicit scenes. For that reason, I'm not going to mention the title here, in case any young writers are reading this post. :-) Instead, I'll refer to the novel by its initals: TAGD. If you really want to know the title, you can contact me via Facebook.

Untitled photo by uhhhlaine (cc) *see note
 The eavesdropping scene in TAGD caught my attention for three reasons:
  1. It's the novel's opening scene;
  2. The scene really hooked me and made me want to read on;
  3. I'd been considering revising my young adult WIP to open with an eavesdropping scene.
I should mention that I already had an eavesdropping scene in my WIP. I was trying to decide whether to move that scene to the opening of the novel.

So what hooked me about the opening of TAGD? The use of details to flesh out not only the environment surrounding the main character, but also to help readers visualize the people she was listening in on. It's a simple technique that reaps great rewards.

Let me show you what I mean. Here's an excerpt from my WIP's eavesdropping scene BEFORE I revised it to add details. Note, the narrator is 13-year-old Emilia, and Maria is her older sister:    
     One day in early December, I overheard Mamma arguing with Father—something she never did. With the Sardinian occupation over, Father was planning to resume his academic meetings. He’d also decided to hire another tutor for Maria, to teach her philosophy and mathematics. As usual, Mamma did not approve.
     “What need does Maria have for another tutor?” Mamma said. “She already spends too much time with books. Haven’t you noticed her pallor? She did not recover from the throat illness the way her sisters did. Maria needs fresh air and physical activity, not more studies.”
     “Very well, then,” Father said, “We will increase the frequency of her dance lessons. And I will instruct her to keep a window open in her study. Come spring, I’ll have her tutors move her lessons to the garden.”
     “They will simply stuff her head with more book learning,” Mama said. “What of her real education, the one she would have received at a convent school? Maria should be learning practical skills, such as sewing and embroidery, and how to manage a home—skills that would make her a useful wife and mother.”
     “There will be time enough for that,” Father said. “She is still young.”
     “Young?” Mamma’s voice was shrill now. “Perhaps her modest demeanor has led you to forget that your eldest daughter is now 14! It is time to think of her future. Of her betrothal, and Emilia’s, too.”
     I started at the mention of my name. While I fully expected to marry one day, it had always seemed something in the distant future. 
After reading the opening of TAGD, I reread this scene and realized I hadn't provided any context for readers. There's no mention of where Emilia or her parents are when she overhears their argument. In fact, the scene is almost entirely dialogue. See if you can spot the changes in this revision:
    I was on my way to the harpsichord salon when I heard angry voices coming from Mamma’s sitting room. Drawing near, I realized Mamma was arguing with Father—something she rarely did. And something she should not be doing now, for she was heavy with child.
     There were already seven children in our family, and my youngest brother's birth had been a difficult one. Mamma had been bedridden for months afterward. She’d barely regained her strength when she was with child again. This time, she complained constantly of fatigue. And she grew more short-tempered with each passing day.
     Standing outside Mamma’s sitting room, I heard the irritation in her voice. “What need does Maria have for another tutor? She already spends too much time with books. Haven’t you noticed her pallor? She did not recover from the throat illness the way her sisters did. Maria needs fresh air and physical activity, not more studies.” I pictured Mamma seated in the high-backed armchair near the window, her tired legs atop the footstool cushion she herself had embroidered. No doubt her normally calm blue-gray eyes—eyes I had inherited—now flashed steely gray.
     “Very well, then,” Father said, “We will increase the frequency of her dance lessons. And I will order her to keep a window open in her study at all times.” His voice was calmer than Mamma’s. I leaned in closer and felt heat at the top of my head. The candle burning in the sconce beside the door was closer than I’d realized. Jerking my head away, I heard Father say, “Come spring, I’ll have her tutors move her lessons to the garden.”
     “They will simply stuff her head with more book learning,” Mamma said. “What of her real education, the one she would have received at a convent school? Maria should be cultivating practical skills, such as sewing and embroidery, and how to manage a home—skills that would make her a useful wife and mother.”
     “There will be time enough for that,” Father said. “She is young.”
     “Young?” Mamma’s voice was shrill. “Perhaps her modest demeanor has led you to forget that your eldest daughter is now 14! It is time to think of her future. Of her betrothal, and Emilia’s, too.”
    
  I started at the mention of my name. While I fully expected to marry one day, it had always seemed something in the distant future. 
In the revision, readers can now picture where the argument is taking place and where Emilia is standing as she eavesdrops. They also learn why Mamma is uncharacteristically irritable, and they can even visualize her through the eyes of Emilia's imagination:
I pictured Mamma seated in the high-backed armchair near the window, her tired legs atop the footstool cushion she herself had embroidered. No doubt her normally calm blue-gray eyes—eyes I had inherited—now flashed steely gray. 
These details not only help readers better "see" Mamma, they add clues about her personality, and Emilia's, too. The end result--I hope!--is that readers are more engaged in the story so that they'll be more likely to keep reading. I'd love to know if you agree. Do you think the revisions make the story stronger?

By the way, the above argument goes on for a few more paragraphs. At its conclusion, Emilia learns something that has profound implications and leads to an important decision on her part. Because of that, I decided not to open the novel with her eavesdropping. I felt readers needed to understand more about Emilia's character, and her position in the family, to understand the motives behind her decision.

Now it's your turn. Try the Writing Workout below to see how details can enhance a scene. And don't forget: You need to enter by 11 pm (CST) TODAY for a chance to win an autographed copy of Mary Ann Rodman's wonderful new picture book, The Roller Coaster Kid (Viking). See her post for details.

Oh, and I almost forgot: We've got an extra-special blog post lined up for Friday: A Writing Workout from a SURPRISE guest TeachingAuthor!  Be sure to stop by!


Writing Workout:
An Eavesdropping Scene

For this Writing Workout, you'll need a scene in which a character is eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. If you don't already have such a scene in a current WIP, you can create one using the above photo as a prompt. Start out with just the dialogue that the character overhears. Then go back and add sensory details that show exactly where your character is in relation to the people he or she is overhearing, and have your character imagine what the people are doing as they speak. Can you find a way to incorporate details that also provide clues about the characters' personalities?

Happy Writing!
Carmela Martino
* Note: If you use photos online, whether on a blog, Facebook, Pinterest, etc, I suggest you read "Bloggers Beware: You CAN Get Sued for Using Pics on Your Blog" by author Roni Loren . The eavesdropping photo above was posted by uhhhlaine on Flickr. The designation (cc) is to indicate that its Creative Commons license allows sharing. Our Writing Workout logo is clipart.

7 comments:

Susan Ekins said...

Yes, I think the revisions made this scene much stronger. The sensory details bring us into the scene. Thank you for the mini tutorial. Your novel is enticing and I look forward to reading it someday.

Jill said...

Wow, your revision is so vivid! Puts us right there with your MC. I especially liked the way she felt the candle atop her head when she drew too close. Made me feel it, too.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the feedback, Sue and Jill. I'm glad to know you like the revisions! I think this is the first time I've ever posted an excerpt from a WIP. I have to admit, it made me a bit nervous. Now I know how April feels when she shares some of her poems-in-progress.

Linda at teacherdance said...

Hi Carmela, thanks for the link to the copyright post issue. I just spent the past hour reading the comments. And, your revision deepened what we learned about the character quite a bit. It's quite meaningful to learn that she is watching her mother be pregnant again after having 7 other children. What a burden that places on the older ones, especially the females, who not only end up helping with their siblings, then they must raise their own children. How did women do it! Interesting the differences of stance that each parent takes. Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

Carmela Martino said...

You're most welcome, Linda. And THANK YOU for your detailed feedback on my revision.

April Halprin Wayland said...

...yep...feels pretty raw to post a W.I.P...GOOD FOR YOU, Carmela!!! <3

April Halprin Wayland said...

...yep...feels pretty raw to post a W.I.P...GOOD FOR YOU, Carmela!!! <3