Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choose Your Point of View

Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is the last novel the students are reading this semester, yet the first to feature third person narration and multiple characters’ point of view.  The novel shares its narration between six narrators: Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford, Jame Gumb, Dr. Chilton, and Catherine Martin.

In class, the students discussed the advantages and disadvantages of multiple narrators and first and third person point of view.  They also talked about how The Silence of the Lambs would read if it were all in Clarice’s point of view, and what purpose the book’s subplots served.

“If you didn’t know what Jame Gumb was doing the whole time, it would take so much tension out of the book,” said Aaron Wittwer, referring to the novel’s serial killer.  In the book, Harris shows the readers Gumb’s abduction of Catherine Martin and uses his thoughts about when to kill her to create a “ticking clock” in the book.

However, revealing the serial killer’s identity early on created a new challenge for Harris: if the killer has already been revealed to the audience, other methods must be used to heighten the tension.  Harris created that tension with Catherine’s abduction, among other scenes such as the FBI closing in on the wrong location while Clarice unknowingly enters the murderer’s home.

The students suggested that the varieties of characters and subplots kept the story interesting.

“[The Crawford subplot] enabled Clarice to be involved more heavily,” said Spencer McNelly.  Jack Crawford’s dying wife, Bella, keeps him away from his work in the novel, allowing the trainee Clarice to have more exposure to the case.

“I thought this book would be really boring if it were just in the first person,” Chris Smith said.  “With all these different characters it would keep the plot moving.”

The students also wrote about the narration in their weekly quiz, answering the question: “What if the book was written in the first person rather than the third?  What if this first person point of view NEVER veered into other points of view?

“Because the book is from the perspective of multiple characters first person could have confused the reader.  Personally I like first person novels because I feel like I’m more in the story, but in this scenario, you would have to be and relate to too many people.  I think it has all the possibility in the world to become a jumbled mess that way. The usual downside of third person, however, is that you have this unknown, omniscient narrator who knows too much without reason.  The narration becomes an invisible character which usually bothers me.  I think Harris did a good job avoiding that here by only releasing information as the characters know it.  It feels like you’re in the story with them rather than watching them from a distance while they try to learn what you already know (which is boring).” – Mo Smith

“If the book had been written in first person it would have limited Harris’s ability to build tension and suspense.  By allowing for multiple characters to exist in this third person narrative, Harris is able to build drama by switching between the various characters during highly intense moments.  When something is discovered by one character, the chapter will often end on a cliffhanger and switch to another character.  This also helps to emphasize the ticking clock element as we are able to see Buffalo Bill’s progress while the FBI and Starling rush to uncover his identity and location.  This enhances the effect of all obstacles that Starling encounters.  In first person we would get a more personal, internalized view of Starling’s psyche, and it might become more of a singular character study than the fast-paced thriller it is.
The Silence of the Lambs group from left to right, Spencer McNelly, Clay Carter, Aaron Wittwer, Casey Alexander, and Chris Smith.

The discussion then turned to the students’ own writings.

“How do you know what point of view to use when you’re writing a novel?” Cathy Day asked.

The class’s answered varied, with students taking into account pacing, plot, and how close to the characters they wanted the reader to be, among other concerns.

Christine Gyselinck discussed how she had begun writing from one character’s viewpoint before switching to another’s.  “I’d rather have someone’s personality involved in it, so I changed [the point of view] to another character,” she said.

There is no “best” point of view across the board.  The type of viewpoint (and the number of characters who hold a viewpoint) depends on the sort of story that the author has in mind. A first person point of view works well when the writer wants to have readers experience the world through a character’s eyes and learn new information with that character.  A third person view allows for more versatility and information to be added to the story.  But there’s no right or wrong, as the students agreed.  There is only what works for the story you’re imagining, so take the time to experiment and see what works best for you.

- Lauren Burch

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Can a Memoir be a Novel?

This semester, our students divided into four groups, one for each book assigned to the class. Their assignment was to analyze the traits of the protagonist and create a reverse storyboard of the story’s structure.  Three of those books were fiction.  The fourth, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, was a memoir.

It sounds strange, studying a creative nonfiction work in an Advanced Fiction class.  But Walls’s bestselling memoir, chronicling her eccentric upbringing and life in poverty, sets itself apart from other autobiographical works with its style of writing.  It has often been said that the book “reads like a novel.”  Like a typical novel, Walls’s book is straightforward in narrative and scenic in nature.

Alec Brenneman, Mo Smith, Miranda Wuestefeld, and Jennifer Perov stand in front of their storyboard for The Glass Castle.

In Tuesday’s reading quiz over the memoir, Cathy Day asked the students to explain how the memoir felt like a novel to them.  Some answers included:

“The reader is put in the scene.  In other memoirs I’ve read there is a conscious narrator that tends to butt in with 20/20 hindsight or supply additional information.  In this book the characters tell us all we need to know with very little to no narrator intrusion.” – Casey Alexander

“I think that [it reads like a novel] because there is a “goal” we are presented with at the beginning and the stories are catapults that pull us toward New York instead of stopping to pause and analyze how the protagonist feels.” – Spencer McNelly

“It’s a mostly linear story with a progression and growth of the protagonist and there is a payoff at the end when the kids have made it out.” – Mo Smith

In the class discussion, Cathy Day noted the unique challenges a memoir presents.  “When you’re writing from life, you actually end up with too much plot,” she said.  Cathy compared whittling down a lifetime into a book to editing down hours of footage for a documentary.  In The Glass Castle, Walls uses short vignettes from her life to make the novel move quickly and give a feel for all the varied aspects of her childhood.

In today’s class, the students discussed how the memoir would have changed if it had been differently organized.  Cathy Day brought up “the tyranny of the novel,” in which authors would rather not tell a straightforward story but feel pressured to do it because that’s what readers expect and the publishing industry prefers.  She asked how they felt the story would have read if it were organized thematically instead of chronologically.  For example, if the book had been organized into essays about her family members, such as one about her sister Maureen, entitled “My Lost Sister,” one about her grandmother entitled. “My West Virginia Grandmother,” and one about the lack of food growing up called “Foods I Ate to Survive.”

“If she’d done it thematically none of the stories would have any connection to the others.” – Alec Brenneman

“Another problem if she told it thematically is that the characters are so interwoven that it’s hard to pull them apart.” – Meredith Sims

“I feel like if she’d done it thematically she would have had to make some judgments [of the characters].” – Ashley Ford

Jeannette Walls signs at copy of her memoir at Ball State University.

While The Glass Castle is not a work of fiction, the reverse storyboard and class discussion demonstrated that there was much to learn about structuring and plotting a linear novel with a large time span from the memoir.  Jeannette Walls herself gave helpful advice to aspiring writers during a question and answer session following her speech at Ball State University on September 21.  When a student asked her how to put realistic emotions in his writing, Walls repeated the advice her mother gave her in the prologue of The Glass Castle: “You should tell the truth.”  Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, Walls explained, staying true to your own emotions and the stories you want to write will make the words on your page seem real.

- Lauren Burch

Next week's novel is Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Follow along with the class by following @LaurenEBurch on Twitter. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beating Writer's Block with a 3 x 5 Index Card

A note card from last year's 407 class.

“If you’re having writer’s block, write the words “Writer’s Block” on a piece of paper, burn it, and flush the ashes down the toilet.” – Bill O’Hanlon, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, pg. 186.

Whether novice or bestseller, all writers struggle to find motivation from time to time.  Many authors have tricks and tips to push themselves forward.  In our class, we used Raymond Carver’s advice on finding inspiration for a Noveling Blog assignment:

Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I'll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing." Ezra Pound. It is not everything by any means, but if a writer has "fundamental accuracy of statement" going for him, he's at least on the right track.”

Students were to take ten quotations from writers in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing that best inspired them and post them on the blog.  They were also encouraged to share their favorite quotations on Twitter.  Here is a sample of the quotes the students picked:

“Write. Rewrite. Revise. When not writing or rewriting, read.  I know of no shortcuts.” – Larry L. King, pg. 190

“Anything that smacks of the obvious or the contrived spoils the mood and takes the reader out of the world you've created.” - Karen Dionne, pg. 201

"I try to write a certain amount each day, five days a week. A rule sometimes broken is better than no rule." - Herman Wouk pg 189

"If my doctor told me I only had six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood.  I'd type a little faster." - Isaac Asimov p.177

If you have an inspiring quote to share, let us know in the comments!

- Lauren Burch

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"But is This Literature?": Reading Genre Fiction in School

Note:  If you would like to follow 407 Advanced Fiction classes as they happen, direct yourself to our hashtag #292RB or follow class intern @LaurenEBurch on Twitter for live Tweets of the class events on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 4:45.

Class novel presentations began on Tuesday, September 6th, starting with the first half of the discussion on Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.  On Tuesday, the novel’s group, consisting of students Ashley Ford, Lindsey LaVal, Rachel Rump, and Meredith Sims, presented their reverse storyboard of The Hunger Games, breaking down the events of each chapter.  They used various colors on the storyboards to highlight certain themes (such as hunting vs. hunted) and characters of the novel.  The class also took a quiz over the book and discussed their personal reading experiences of Collins’s work.

Today, the presentation will continue with the group’s DICE checklist of The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss, as well as further discussion of what can be learned about the process of writing from the novel.

From left to right, Lindsey LaVal, Meredith Sims, Rachel Rump, and Ashley Ford stand in front of their storyboards.

Tuesday’s storyboarding presentation went smoothly, with the class as a whole agreeing on the themes and structure that The Hunger Games group explored.  When the time came to discuss personal reading experiences and the value of the work, however, dissent emerged.

Everyone agreed that the book offered good insight on structuring and plotting a novel, as recorded in the reading quiz.  The students had to record five things they learned about writing a novel from The Hunger Games, as well as five things they liked in the book, five dislikes, and their view on certain characters’ purpose in the story.  Some of the answers regarding what could be learned from the novel included:

“Building character backgrounds and reasonings.” – Mo Smith

“Creating an unfamiliar world.” – Jennifer Perov

“The games were kind of like a novel in that they had to keep it interesting.  Katniss said that no one would really care to see her and Peeta just sitting around for a few days.” – Miranda Wuestefeld

But while all agreed there was structural soundness to the work, opinions were more varied regarding the literary merit of The Hunger Games.  Some class members were enthralled by the world and the characters, while others found the setting and inhabitants vaguely described and flatly written.  Some thought the work was shocking and original, while others found it derivative and predictable.

“I didn’t like how the protagonists were relatively absolved of the moral ambiguity inherent in their situation.  I didn’t like how overly dehumanized and “villainous” the Careers were.” – Aaron Wittwer

“Some of the language was clich├ęd, but it was written for young adults.” – Clay Carter

Ashley Ford wondered if the class was judging the novel by overly high standards.  Clearly, the students are past the target age for The Hunger Games, and the literature analyzed in Ball State’s English Department tends to be classic novels rather than contemporary young adult fiction.

“But is this literature?” Lindsey LaVal asked.

The storyboard for one chapter.  Red represents hunted, green hunting, blue represents Gale, and yellow is survival.

Debates about what separates literary works from genre fiction as well as the merits of genre fiction are not just taking place in the classroom.  More and more literary authors are dipping into genre fiction, as discussed in the online arts and culture magazine The Millions’s recent article, “Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?”

As the article states, there are many theories as to why literary authors are undertaking genre works, from a move by the publishers to shift more works into better selling categories to an experiment in wider creative expression on the part of the writers.  Whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny that genre fiction reaches a larger range of readers, in terms of overall number, age, and other demographics.

In our class, part of the students’ expected duties, along with the Weekly Word Count for their novels, is to participate in two class blogs on the Ball State website Blackboard.  One blog details the students’ writing processes, aptly named the Process Blog.  The other blog, Noveling, assigns a different writing prompt each week based on the students’ readings in one of the class texts, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.  Last week’s prompt asked the students to write about the books they enjoyed when they were younger.  Many of the works listed were genre fiction.

The first books I remember enjoying are The Bobbsey Twins seriesThe Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, and Agatha Christie’s Mystery books.” – Maye Ralston

“R. L. Stein was my hero throughout elementary school (well, next to Johnny Bravo). I felt his Goose Bumps series was amazing.” – Alec Brenneman

“In the beginning as long as it had bright colors I was hooked. Eric Carle was my best friend, with Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain’s following closely behind. I couldn’t read yet, which led to some pretty inaccurate stories coming out of my odd little Pre-K head, but for a time that was enough.” – Meredith Sims

More literary works also filled the entries, ranging from the philosophical works of Kant and Descartes to classic authors such as Tolkien and Alcott.  But the students here to study Literature and Creative Writing did not shy away from listing Clifford the Big Red Dog or A Series of Unfortunate Events among their favorites.

Whatever the reason behind the surge of genre fiction in the literary world, one of the goals of this semester’s 407 class is to teach the students to write the novel they want to read, not the novel they think professors and literature writers will respect.  Whether those novels are genre or literary fiction, The Hunger Games presentation demonstrated that genre fiction can teach valuable lessons about constructing a novel, even if the genre is nothing like the story a prospective author has in mind.

The code for the group's themes.

- Lauren Burch

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Novel Script

To write a novel, students must understand how authors put their novels together. In the first two weeks of class, our students are working to break assigned novels down into the building blocks of their stories.

This semester, the class is reading four novels: Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle, and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The class divided into groups, one for each novel, based on the book they felt was closest to the story they wanted to write, whether by the book’s timeline, its point of view, or the structure of the narrative (i।e., the ratio of backstory to basetime or how the novel is divided into sections).

Each group will lead a presentation on the framework of their novel, which they document through two processes: the Reverse Storyboard and the DICE checklist.

Cathy Day shows the class storyboards for Dan Chaon's novel, You Remind Me of Me.

Reverse storyboarding follows the same process as regular storyboarding: A story is blocked out scene by scene, noting when certain characters and locations will appear, and what scenes will deal with various aspects of the story’s plot or subplots. The difference is that rather than using these storyboards to construct a story, reverse storyboarding uses a preexisting narrative and breaks it down. This allows the students to see and demonstrate how the author laid out the book to produce the effect of the finished work. They can also see how reordering the novel’s structure would alter the story. And because the book’s narrative is arranged on their storyboards, they see the structure all at once, rather than reading it one scene at a time as they did when reading through their novels.

While reverse storyboarding allows students to see how the story is structured, the DICE checklist allows them to see what makes up a novel’s characters.

Each color represents a different character's scenes.

DICE (which stands for Desire + Initiate + Conflict + Effects) is Cathy Day’s acronym (and slight adaptation) of the novel-writing exercises created by author Michelle Hoover and detailed on her website’s blog,

Alec Brenneman (front), Mo Smith (left), Miranda Wuestefeld (back), and Jennifer Perov (right) work on their presentation of The Glass Castle.

In our class, the students use the DICE prompts to get into the minds of their own characters or, for this project, to see what makes other authors’ characters tick. In the first section, Desire, the students write about the character flaws, chief desire, and signature (the “pitch” line for the novel) of the protagonist or other viewpoint characters.

The second section, Initiate, is what launches the story in motion. In this section, students write about the “unstable ground” of the plot, or the uncomfortable situation at the novel’s beginning with makes the protagonist uncomfortable, but not yet agitated enough to act. It also covers the protagonist’s “wound,” a past trauma that drives the character’s flaw, the inciting incident, which throws the plot into motion, and the point of attack, the event that introduces the story’s conflict.

Conflict is also the third section of the checklist, covering what is at stake in the plot, what obstacles stand in the protagonist’s way, and when/what the story’s climax will be. The last section, Effect, deals with the aftermath of the conflict and the effect the struggle had on the character.

Ashley Ford (left), Lindsey LaVal (back), Meredith Sims (right), and Rachel Rump (front) discuss The Hunger Games.

The group presentations will begin next Tuesday, September 6, starting with The Hunger Games. It will be interesting to see how much the novels differ from each other.

-Lauren Burch