Friday, October 30, 2009

American Literature–Exercise #3


Task #1:
Summarize: “I Done Worked” (oral history, 1981), Lottie Jackson as told to Sherry Thomas, 67-73. In 1981, about how old was Lottie Jackson? In what era does her approximate birthday place her in African-American history? In what era was she a young woman? An old woman? (See “Historical Overview,” xv-xxii).

Answer the “Discussion Questions,” 1-3, on pages 72-73. Jot down some notes, and share your findings with the class. Answer Discussion Questions. As a group, answer the discussion questions on page 79. Jot down some notes, for you will share your findings with the class. I may collect your notes after class.
Before we move on with the other tasks, we will do a “reader’s theater” reading of The African Garden excerpt, and I will ask for two volunteers.
Task #2:
Write a short passage: In the excerpt from The African Garden, Maytag Diamond Ashley says, “Some folks don’t like themselves gassed or ungassed” and “Your mind has to go natural while you straighten your soul” (78). What does he mean by theses remarks, and how do they offer important lessons for young Simon? Jot down some notes, for you will share your findings with the class.
Task #3:
Write a poem: Based on the text of the excerpt from The African Garden, write a poem, any style, called “Gassed.” Be aware that (in the play) “gassed” can offer two meanings: in the 1960's, being tear gassed during protests and riots AND/OR having one’s hair “gassed” for straightening purposes. If you are feeling especially creative, you may use both meanings in your images. Jot down some notes, for you will share your findings with the class.
Task #4:
Write a prequel: Based on the text of the excerpt from The African Garden, write a short prequel scene (an event occurring before the play scene). Remember: the scene cannot be between Ashley and Simon because they haven’t met yet. However, you can develop a scene between Simon and his mother; Simon and the Old Soldier; Ashley and another person (perhaps another landlord); OR even the Mother with her boss. Jot down some notes, for you will share your findings with the class.
Task #5:
Write a sequel: Based on the text of the excerpt from The African Garden, write a short sequel scene (an event occurring after the play scene). In plays, a change of scene usually means a change in some of the characters and/or a change in the numbers of characters, so, in your scene, you might want to develop a scene between Ashley and the mother; the mother and Simon; OR Ashley, Simon, and the mother. You could, of course, bring in some of the mentioned characters, such as The Old Soldier, etc. Jot down some notes, for you will share your findings with the class.

American Literature--Shared Folk Tales and the Oral Tradition

Commonalities/Signatures in African-American Folk Tales (and most likely Folk Tales in General)

--Uses Simple Story Structure

(easy to remember to be passed down through generations)

--Expresses Community Values

--Utilizes Repetition

(again, easy to remember)
--Often Uses the Rule of Three Structure

(the journey or quest in which the main character seeks something important)
--Attempts to Explain the Unexplainable

--Identifies Acceptable and Unacceptable Behavior

--Exaggerates Events in the Natural World

(for example, people fly, and babies run away from home)
--Often Told in "Code"

(through analogy, metaphor, and fantasy)
--Strives to Entertain

(even while imparting an important moral message)
--Offers Hope to the Oppressed

(even when the situation may seem utterly hopeless)


Creative Writing: In-class Prompt #4


Select ONE of the following options:

Option #1: The Story Machine (250-500 words)
Using the “The Story Machine” list below, pair up a character in Column A with an unlikely activity from Column B. Based on your combination, write a short story. (Note: if you choose a likely combination, your resulting story may be less interesting, although I should make no assumptions about this class! Surprise me! Better yet, surprise yourselves!)
Option #2: The Objective Point of View, 3rd Person (250-500) words
Using Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants as a model, write a story from the objective point of view (see page 4 of the “Creative Writing–Writing Fiction” handout).
Option #3: Second Person (“You”) (250-500 words):
Write an “interior monologue” in which YOU (as a “fictional you” protagonist) directly address another person (antagonist), with whom your protagonist has a serious problem or issue. Speak as if the antagonist were standing in the room with your protagonist, but the antagonist isn’t allowed to answer back. YOU (as a “fictional you) will monopolize the conversation. For an example, see Girl,by Jamaica Kincaid. See also page 4 of the “Creative Writing–Writing Fiction” handout.
If you have an alternate idea that you would like to try out instead of the above options, please go ahead.

Don’t worry if none of these prompts inspire you.

Don’t worry if you don’t finish this piece today or ever; you might discover that this prompt, for you, is a “false start.” Writers should experience a lot of false starts.


The Story Machine

Column A: Characters

1. Tour guide

2. Delivery person

3. Pediatrician

4. Police officer

5. Chef

6. Fund raiser

7. Local talk show host

8. Mayor of a small town

9. Airline pilot

10. Writer

11. Biologist or chemist

12. Clinical psychologist

13. Ditch digger

14. Fork lift driver

15. Janitor

16. Teacher

17. Petty crook

18. Professional gambler

19. Soldier

20. Graphic artist
Column B: Actions by Characters
1. Is being stalked by a stranger

2. Subdues an unruly passenger on a flight to Paris

3. Submits a sexy novel to a publisher

4. Hypnotizes an acquaintance at a party

5. Rescues an elderly person after an accident in her/his home

6. Observes a man and a woman engaged in a drug deal

7. Collects stuffed/plush animals and dolls

8. Enters a cherry pie in a local cooking contest

9. Participates in a demonstration for peace

10. Takes a tour group to the World Trade Center site

11. Near the Turkish Market, observes a young boy kicking a puppy.

12. Attends The Skopje Jazz Festival (or other local event) wearing a clown costume

13. Parachutes out of an airplane

14. Enters a dance contest

15. Tries to join Mensa (High I.Q. organization)

16. Moonlights as a Taxi driver

17. Steals $1,000 from his/her mother

18. As an animal hoarder, owns 55 dogs and 33 cats, but lives in a big city apartment

19. Attends Star Trek conventions at least six times a year, dresses up as a Ferangi.

20. Saves a child’s life

"The Story Machine" has been adapted from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. New York: HarperCollinsCollegePublishers, 1995. 134-135.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Academic Writing--Simple Layout For Formal Letters

The following pieces of information must appear in your formal letters (Click on the image for a larger view):

The following block formatting shows how your letter should be arranged on the page (Click on the image for a larger view):

The following shows how your letter should look on the page (Click on the image for a larger view):

Note that there is a space between A. (Your name, mailing address, telephone contact, email contact) and B. (Date)

American Literature--Outline for "Steel Drivin' Man"

Outline for “The Steel Drivin’ Man”

1. Background:

As a boy, John Henry had won his freedom after saving his former master from “a watery grave.” (Note: This seems to be a recurring theme in early African-American folk tales: the fantasy of the fair-minded former master who keeps his word. The reality, of course, was often much different.)

Evidently, he stayed on the plantation until he grew up, but the story does not delve too much into his boyhood.
2. John Henry grows up to be a mighty man, a strapping 6 feet tall, 250 pounds of muscle, but with a pure and good heart.

3. John Henry is employed by the “benevolent” Captain Walters, a railroad contractor, as a steel driver.

4. John Henry falls in love with Lucy, a slave back on the plantation where he grew up.

So John Henry works very hard so that he can earn enough money to buy Lucy’s freedom and marry her. He earns three silver dollars per week wielding his 10-pound hammer, the heaviest hammer on the job site.
5. Complication: A Yankee Agent comes to town and dangles a “steam-drill,” a new invention, in front of Captain Walters that reportedly can do the job of 10 steel drivers.

(Note: This implies that if the Civil War hadn’t abolished slavery, the upcoming technological age might have been the impetus to end slavery.)

However, Captain Walters isn’t buying into this new-fangled device, but to get rid of the Yankee scoundrel, once and for all, he...
6. Makes a wager with the Yankee, betting that John Henry could outwork the steam-drill.

The terms of the wager: if John Henry outworks the steam-drill, the Yankee would pay Captain Walters $500.00. If the steam-drill wins, Captain Walters would order one of the machines. However, the Captain fails to set a specific time for when the challenge would take place.
7. Captain Walters tells John Henry about the bet with the Yankee (but conveniently omitting the terms) and makes a proposition:

He will pay John Henry $50.00 if he can outwork the steam-drill.
8. John Henry, anxious to win Lucy’s freedom and hand in marriage, accepts the challenge.

To prepare for the next day’s challenge, he cleans every speck of dirt from his hammer.
9. The Yankee, taking advantage of the Captain’s failure to set a time for early morning (the cool part of the day), shows up for the challenge at the hottest part of the day.

10. Despite the great heat and the obvious mechanized advantages of the steam-drill, John Henry outworks the machine, and wins the bet for Captain Walters.

11. However, victory comes at a price: John Henry dies, probably of heat exhaustion.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

American Literature: “The Steel Drivin’ Man” (Rewritten from Captain Walters’ point of view)


Anita Mancheva, a third-year English Language and Literature student in the Faculty of Philology at Ss Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, was given the task of rewriting “The Steel Drivin’ Man” (as retold by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen) from Captain Walters’ point of view. In the Randolph and Owen version, the captain is described as a railroad contractor who oversees both slaves and Black free men and is “…a southerner of the old school who [loves] his ‘niggahs’ as he [calls] them, and they [love] him.”

This is a first-draft class exercise (with significant direct quoting) written by a non-native speaker of English; thus, I was more interested in the writer’s understanding of the original text than in a perfect retelling of the story. Mancheva’s omission of certain details is important—in particular, Walters makes no mention of Lucy, John Henry’s love, who is the force behind his obsessive hard work. Also, Mancheva shifts the ending, revealing much about the attitude of Captain Walters toward the men he employed.
There was a Negro, John Henry, who worked for me as a steel driver. He was a “free man” who earned his freedom by saving “his master from a watery grave.” John Henry was a pure Negro, he was a mighty man over six foot tall and weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds. He was the best steel driver I’ve ever seen in my life. He worked harder than anyone else, maybe because he was a “free man” and was receiving into his own hand three silver dollars per week. One day, while we were working in [the] Virginia mountains, a Yankee drummer, an agent for [the] so-called “steam-drill,” arrived at the camp. He wanted to sell one of those machines to me. I didn’t want to buy it because I "did not believe in the much-advertised scientific improvements." Besides,” Why pay for the use of brains when the use of muscle was so cheap?” Anyway, this Yankee was so persistent in persuading me to buy a steam-drill that to rid myself of him, I made a proposition to him that “I had a niggah who could take his hammer and steel and beat that three-legged steam contraption to a frazzle.” So I bet with him [in] five [hundred] dollars that he could do that on the spot. The Yankee agreed and said that if he won, I’ll have to give him an order. Thus, everything was settled. I wasn’t afraid I’ll lose my money, John Henry was a strong and fervent steel driver and I knew he would win the bet for me.

So the next day, I called John aside and told him about the bet. I told him that if he and his hammer can beat the steel contraption, I’ll give him $50. He readily agreed and was very happy.

The next day the race began. It was a hot day in July and there it was--the race between the brain and the muscle. John drove more fervently than ever. “With every stroke [I] could almost see the drill go down and though the Yankee used much steam, the mark on [John’s] steel was approaching the surface of the stone faster than the mark of his own.” But then, just as he became invisible, entering the aperture, the sledge struck and a strong noise was heard.

Everyone gathered around John. He was laying full length on the rocks. I went to him and told him the great news that he had beat the steam contraption. He was happy for a moment, smiled and then died.

That day I proved to the Yankee that I was right. I didn’t need a steel-drill because I already got cheap muscle force that could beat even a machine. However, it was such a pity John died. I lost such a cheap force.


Reference: Randolph, A. Philip and Chandler Owen. "The Steel Drivin' Man" (The Messenger, 1925). Rpt in Worley, Demetrice A. and Jesse Perry, Jr. African-American Literature: An Anthology. Lincolnwood (Illinois): lNTC Publishing Group, 1998. 15-18.

Creative Writing--Books on Reserve at the Department Library


I have placed the following books on reserve (Ss. Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje [Macedonia], Department of Philology):

Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? Writing Exercises for Creative Writers

Hazuka, Tom, Denise Thomas, and James Thomas (Editors). Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories

Jason, Philip K. and Allan B. Lefcowitz, Creative Writer's Handbook, 2nd Edition.

Masih, Tara. Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Semple Siegel, Jennifer.Are You EVER Going to be Thin? (and other stories)

Tobias, Ronald. 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them

Whiteley, Carol. The Everything Creative Writing Book
You are NOT required to buy these books; they are for your use and reference, for now and in the future.

I will soon be adding additional reference books about creative writing to the general collection. When I do, I'll let you know.


Friday, October 23, 2009

American Literature--“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (James Weldon Johnson)

James Weldon Johnson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, December 3, 1932

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee;
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to Our GOD,
True to our native land.
About James Weldon Johnson (1900)


Kim Weston - "Lift Every Voice & Sing" (Black National Anthem)

Insightful says,
R&B singer Kim Weston sings "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" in front of a 100,000 at Wattstax--a festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972 organized by the Memphis Stax label to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots and black power, pride, culture, tradition and heritage struggle. The party and peacefulness was seen by some as "African Americans answer to Woodstock". Be it charity or benefit, in order to encourage as many members of the black Americans community in LA to attend the event at Memorial Coliseum, tickets were sold at $1.00 each. Customs included advertisements and commercials in play for the event. There have been several recordings from this festival and a documentary film. It was a celebration to upstage all celebrations. Reverend Jesse Jackson gave the invocation, which included his "I Am - Somebody" poem, which was recited in a call and response with the assembled stadium crowd. There was a film directed by Mel Stuart which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Documentary in 1974.

Creative Writing--Characterization and Plot: Five Versions of "The Killer Husband" (Fiction)


Version 1 (5 words):

A man killed his wife.
This is a short story at its most basic level: a beginning and an end but no real resolution. However, there is a conflict, but it's not overt and, therefore, must be inferred. We also don't know why the man killed his wife; we know he must have had some kind of reason, but we don't know what has driven him to this point. He could simply be crazy, or maybe he is a sane man who caught his wife having an affair and committed the murder in a fit of passion.
Version 2 (8 words):

A man who killed his wife was executed.
This version has a beginning and an end, but the conflict has shifted toward the man's execution and away from the actual crime. We still don't know why the man killed his wife, but we can infer that it was a premeditated murder (in the U.S., it is rare for a killer to be executed for committing a crime of passion--a murder committed in the heat of the moment, that is).
Version 3 (23 words):
A man carefully planned his wife's murder and coldly carried out the murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed.
As the reader becomes more knowledgeable of the husband's cold-hearted act, we feel less sympathy toward him. We still don't know why he killed his wife, but we can infer that by planning the murder, he could not claim extenuating circumstances. We also have a small glimpse into the man's character, which strikes us as cold and calculating.
Version 4 (43 words):
Mary filed for divorce.

Bill, her husband, was afraid Mary would claim half of his business, so he planned her death down to the minutest detail and then murdered her in cold blood.

He was convicted and sentenced to death.

He was executed.
Aha! We now have motive: MONEY! The man’s reason for killing his wife strikes the reader as incredibly superficial and (excuse the pun) overkill. This version also shows another facet of his character: a normal person would find this man repulsive.

In this and the previous three versions, Bill is what we call a "stock" or "static" character. He is pure evil, and, therefore, the reader can sympathize with the judge and jury who convicted him to death--another day, another execution. Ho-hum.
Version 5 (384 words):
Mary filed for divorce.

Bill, her husband, was afraid Mary would claim half of his business, so he planned to kill her.

To buy time, he convinced her that they should try to work out their marital problems, but he knew it was hopeless.

Mary clearly wanted out.

He waited for the right moment to carry out his plan: their silver wedding anniversary.

He arranged for a cruise to Costa Rica and begged her for this one last trip. “After all, we have a long history together," he said. “Shouldn’t we at least give our marriage at least one more try?”

Reluctantly, she agreed.

On the last night of a very stressful journey, filled with recriminations, accusations, and, finally, resignation, Bill led Mary out on the deck for a toast. It was four in the morning.

“One last hurrah before going our separate ways.”

She smiled, perhaps thinking of that other man back home.

They raised their champagne glasses.

“Here’s to 25 years of hell!” he said, tossing his glass into the sea and pushing her back.

Mary fell away, smashing hard against the rail.

Bill grabbed her ankles, yanked up, and flipped her overboard.


He ignored his wife’s screams for help.

Three days later, Mary’s body washed up on shore, near Miami Beach.

An investigation was conducted.

Ruling: accidental fall overboard, death due to drowning.


Over the years, guilt overwhelmed Bill; he could not eat and he had nightmares involving water and not being able to catch his breath. He suffered chronic heart problems.

After he started drinking to excess, his second wife Maria left him and his children (by Mary) disowned him--by this time, he was broke, having already filed for bankruptcy.

Ten years after the crime, he went to the police and confessed.

He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

While waiting on death row, Bill found Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

He directed his defense attorney to stop all appeals and petitioned the court to set his execution date on the anniversary of Mary’s death.

The court granted his petition.

As a dead man walking, he said to his priest, “I am at peace, and I know I will go to heaven.”

Twenty years to the day after his crime, he was executed by lethal injection.
Whoa! What has happened here? For more than half of the story, Bill is still perceived as pure evil. But then we begin to see another facet of his personality emerge, a more complicated character.

With a few well-placed details, Bill has evolved as a more sympathetic character. The reader still abhors his act and feels that the execution is justified. But now Bill has taken the reader on another path: Bill’s sense of guilt and eventual confession. We are aware that had Bill not confessed, he would have gotten away with murder. So even though we still feel repulsed by his act, we still feel a kind of respect for him.

Having accepted his fate, he is now a dynamic and evolving character, no longer pure evil.

So how would we plot this story, using the traditional story structure?

Beginning ➔ Rising action ➔ Climax ➔ Epiphany ➔ Falling Action ➔ Resolution/Dénouement:

Beginning ➔
Mary filing for divorce.
Rising action ➔
Bill planning her murder.
Climax ➔
Bill carrying out the murder.
Epiphany ➔
Guilt and the realization that the money wasn’t worth the suffering he has experienced as a result of his actions and knowing that he will eventually need to confess his crime.
Falling Action ➔
Bill confessing his crime to the police.
Resolution/Dénouement ➔
Bill accepting (and even embracing) his ultimate execution. This story could have ended before the actual execution (and could in a revision) because the actual resolution is Bill’s acceptance of his fate, not the actual execution.
1. Who is the central character of Version 5 of “The Killer Husband”?
Bill is the central character of this story.
2. Who is the antagonist?
His wife Mary is the antagonist--she is the catalyst who sets Bill into planning and carrying out his plan. Throughout the story, although she is dead, she remains the 800-pound anchor around his neck.
3. What does Bill want?
To kill his wife.
4. What are his motives for wanting to kill his wife?
To keep her from getting half his wealth in a divorce settlement.
5. Where in the story is this made clear to the reader?
In the second sentence.
6. How do we learn what the central character wants?
The reader is told directly (which is often emblematic of flash fiction. If this story were to be expanded, I might use dialogue, actions, or interior thinking to reveal his desire to get rid of his wife).
7. After killing his wife, what is Bill’s source of conflict?
His growing guilt.
8. What stands in the way of him resolving his guilt?
We infer that he fears being sent to prison and ultimately executed.
9. What does his growing guilt set in motion?
His eventual confession, arrest, and, ultimately, execution.
10. How does Bill redeem himself?
By confessing, he has reached a turning point in his life. The reader believes his sincerity because
–-He could have gotten away with murder for the rest of his life but chooses to come clean.

–-He accepts his execution and even embraces it by appealing for it to take place on the anniversary of his wife’s murder.

–-His death row religious conversion (often considered a cliche in crime fiction) is believable because he doesn’t use it to get a lighter sentence.

("The Killer Husband" is copyright 2009, by Jennifer Semple Siegel. Educators may use this story for classroom use, but this story may not be printed or reposted without permission from the author.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Creative Writing--Prompt #3


Select ONE of the following options (You will NOT be receiving a print copy of this prompt on Tuesday):

Option #1: Fiction (250-500 words):

Using one of the above photos for inspiration, write a flash fiction story. The photos show the Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece, from a hotel room balcony; the photos (actually from one photo) have been digitally manipulated in various ways, although the barbed wire is real.
Option #2: Building an Antagonist:

Pretend that the barbed wire in the above photos has assumed human qualities and emotions. If the barbed wire were a person, what would he or she be like? Use the character list on page 6 of “Creative Writing–Writing Fiction” handout (also on the website) to help build an antagonist whose main function in life is to be a source of conflict for a protagonist or main character (see Option #3).
Option #3: Building a Protagonist:

Assume that the person shooting the photo of the barbed wire and the Temple of Zeus is the protagonist. Use the character list on page 6 of “Creative Writing–Writing Fiction” handout (also on the website) to help build a protagonist (or main character) whose sole source of conflict is with the barbed wire on the balcony (see Option #2).
Option #4: Using Second Person (250-500 words):

Using Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl as a model, write a short story entirely in the second person.

If you have an alternate idea that you would like to try out instead of the above options, please feel free to do so.

NOTE: Don’t worry if you don’t finish this piece today or ever; you might discover that this prompt, for you, is a “false start.” Writers should experience a lot of false starts.


The above photographs are copyright 2009, by Jennifer Semple Siegel, and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission from the photographer.

Academic Writing--Unit 1, Part 2: Tasks 3 and 4


Task 3: Rewrite the extracts from an informal letter below in a more formal style. (The words in brackets may help you -- do not change the word given.)

a. I think I’d be good at this job… (suitable)


b. I can start in October… (available)


c. I really want a job as a cook… (keen)


d. At the moment, I’m doing a part-time job as a cook… (currently)


e. Write to me if you want to know anything else… (require/further)


f. I’m writing because I saw your ad in the Guardian the other day… (in response)


g. I mostly want to work in Ireland, but I wouldn’t mind working in England… (prefer)


h. What’s the money like and how many hours do I have to work? (conditions)


i. I’ve sent my CV and the names of people who know me… (enclosed)


j. I haven’t got any certificates, but I’m in the third year of English (qualifications)


Task 4: The words below are frequently found in formal letters. Correct the spelling mistakes. (Two words have no spelling mistakes.)

aplication, temparary, volontary, asistant

oportunities, adress, undergraduate, posibility

advertisement, experiense, sincereley, greatful

Academic Writing--Assignment #2 (Due November 2, 2009)


I'm giving you a head start on Assignment #2, which is due on November 2.

Select ONE of the following options:
Option #1:
Write a formal letter in response to the following advertisement in The Guardian, 15.10.2005 Include a request for further information regarding pay and conditions:




BSCN UK runs summer camps all over Europe for children between the ages of 10 and 14

We are currently looking for temporary staff: teachers, nurses, cooks, cleaners, general helpers, etc.

Please send your CV and the names of two referees to:
Ms Anne Widecombe, The Director, BSNC UK, PO Box 29, Temple Quay, Bristol, BS10 7OX.

Please include a short covering letter telling us:

--Where you heard about our organisation

--The type of work you are interested in

--The country (or countries) you would like to work in

--Your work experience and educational qualifications

--Why you believe you would be suitable

--The dates when you will be available

For this assignment, issues to consider:
--What is your reason for writing?

--What kind(s) of work could you do/would you like to do?

--What experience do you have—if any—of such work?

--Think of two reasons you would be suitable to work with children in a Summer Camp.

--What information will you include in your first paragraph?

--What information will your second paragraph contain?

--What information will your third paragraph contain?

--What additional information would you like the director to send you?

--How will you form your salutation and sign-off?

Option #2:
As the university continues working on developing its credit transfer system (in accordance with the Bologna Accords), one would expect some growing pains (for example, the influx of additional students and the recent student demonstrations). From a foreigner’s perspective, these are interesting times in Macedonia—while possibly vexing for Macedonian students and faculty.

Your assignment:

Dr. Gerald Siegel, a Professor of English, a scholar, and Fulbright Professor in Macedonia (in 1988-1989 and again in 2004-2005), is conducting research on the changing landscape of Macedonian higher education and the Bologna Accords; he has been interviewing your professors and other people connected with the educational system in Macedonia, including some private university professors and administrators.

However, he would now like to see the student perspective on the educational changes and how these changes are affecting university students.

Therefore, write Dr. Siegel a formal letter (American style), using one of the templates on the website , in which you reveal (from your perspective) how the educational changes, positive, maybe positive, and negative, are affecting students and overall university education in Macedonia.

Keep in mind that this letter is being addressed to someone who has no power to effect change in Macedonia, so you are not setting out to persuade Dr. Siegel to take a position on the issues surrounding the changes; you are simply imparting information to him so that he can incorporate your views into a scholarly paper, which will be written from a neutral point of view. Thus, while you may feel passionate about these issues, your register should be formal and neutral (non-laudatory and non-accusatory).

Use the following paragraph format:
Paragraph 1:
Introduce yourself (I will give you part of this one for free!)
I am__________________, a ______ year student at the State University of Skopje at the Faculty of Philology, where I am studying ____________________. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer my perspective on the changes in higher education in Macedonia because _____________________________.
Paragraph 2:
Discuss the educational changes that seem to be working well and why you believe they are good for Macedonian university students. Offer specific examples (In other words, do not be vague).
Paragraph 3:
Discuss the educational changes that, with some further development, could work well and why you believe they might eventually be good for Macedonian university students. Offer specific examples.
Paragraph 4:
Discuss the educational changes that do NOT seem to be working well and why you believe they are NOT good for Macedonian students. Offer specific examples.
Paragraph 5:
Write a one- or two- sentence remark that returns the reader to the positive tone of paragraph 2.
Paragraph 6:
Call for action, for example,

If you need any further comments or clarifications, please write or email me at the address in the heading. I look forward to reading your completed scholarly paper on the changing educational system in Macedonia.
In reality, Dr. Siegel does plan to incorporate in his paper the information that you offer him; however, your specific identities will remain confidential.

Dr. Siegel’s formal title and U.S. address:

Professor Gerald Siegel, Professor of English, Department of English and Humanities, York College of Pennsylvania, 441 Country Club Road, York, PA 17403, USA
(Disclosure: Dr. Siegel is my spouse.)

Academic Writing--Writing Letters for Different Occasions

For Monday's class (October 26), write up some notes and suggestions, based on the following five rhetorical situations (we will use your notes as a starting point for a class discussion):

1. Close Family Member:
Write a note to one of your parents, asking him or her if you can borrow the car to take to Lake Ohrid for a week .
2. Good Friend:
Write a note to your best friend, asking him or her if you can borrow 1,000 denars, which you will pay back in two weeks, after you get paid.
3. Acquaintance:
Write a note to a classmate, asking for a ride to Aleksander the Great Aerodrome, for a flight that departs at 5:30 in the morning. You are not very close to this person, but he or she has a large van that can hold your three suitcases.
4. Business Relationship:
Write a letter to your bank representative, asking for a 500,000 denar loan for a new automobile.
5. Employer:
An elderly uncle needs to go to Germany for a very serious operation, and you need to accompany him. Write a letter to your boss, asking for two weeks unpaid leave from work.
Each of the above situations requires a different tone or register; therefore, you need to decide the kind of letter or note you would write for each of these five occasions. For example, will your letter be formal or informal? Semi-formal (which is somewhere between informal and formal)?

Also, consider this: the occasion may differ from person to person. For example, in some families, the relationships between parents and children are more formal than in other families. Also, some employers and employees are close friends, so asking for time off may require a less formal approach.

The point is, it is up to you to decide the level of formality you wish to use in writing someone for a favor, but that level should be based upon the kind of relationship you enjoy with the person, who may or may not grant you your request.

Keep this in mind: the person from whom you are asking a favor enjoys a position of power over you because he or she has the ability to grant or deny your request; therefore, for a positive outcome, you have to write a persuasive letter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

American Literature: Summary of "Stagolee"


"Stagger Lee" (Mississippi John Hurt)

African-American Literature: Summary of "Stagolee"

As a five-year old child, Stagolee runs away from the plantation, where he had worked in the cotton fields, taking with him a guitar, a deck of cards, and a .44. As he grows up, so does his reputation. Stack, a bad-ass, has a tendency to get into bar brawls, which inevitably ends up with the other guy getting killed. The most famous brawl involves Billy Lyons (a real person killed by the real Lee Sheldon, also known as "Stagger" Lee), who becomes enraged after Stagolee wins all his money. Stagolee kills Billy and moves in with Billy’s wife. Everyone fears Stagolee, even the law, but one sheriff, a white man, is not about to let a “n____r” get away with murder, so he has a coffin prepared for Stagolee. When the sheriff tries to round up his deputies, they simply refuse to go after Stagolee. They place their guns on the shelf, and the sheriff tries to arrest Stagolee by himself, but Stagolee kills him. It turns out that Stagolee is immune to death (even after being lynched and hung by a new sheriff, who eventually learns the way things work with regard to Stagolee), and even Death fears him, and, thus, leaves him alone.

One day, 30 years later, St. Peter summons Death and orders the quivering guy with the scythe to get Stagolee. But Death is too scared, so The Lord arranges for St. Peter to get together a work crew to build a giant death thunderbolt. Even the Lord is a bit fearful of Stagolee and doesn’t even know how to spell his name (hence, all the variant spellings of Stagolee’s name: Stackolee, Stagger Lee, Stack-o-lee, Stagolee, Stag-o-lee, Stack, Stag). The giant thunderbolt finally kills Stagolee, who is then laid out in an expensive casket. Everyone mourns him, the funeral lasting three days and three nights, complete with song and dance. Because he was such a legend, an ordinary cemetery will not do, so they create one just for him and buried him there.

Stagolee breaks out of his grave and tries to find Heaven. After searching for a long time, he discovers St. Peter playing bridge with Abraham, God, Mrs. God, and Jonah. Peter tells Stagolee that he’s not welcome in heaven. He asks, “Where all the colored folks at?” St. Peter says that they have all been sent to Hell, that colored folks aren’t welcome in Heaven because they had too much fun playing jazz and the blues instead of pious hymns.

So Stagolee goes to Hell, where he finds a rollicking party. Stagolee tries to go head to head with the Devil, who doesn’t understand Black Folk much, but the Devil simply gives up his pitchfork to Stagolee, who puts it away on the shelf.

Stagolee becomes the new ruler of Hell.
Exaggerations in "Stagolee":

--The bad-ass five-year-old boy running away and surviving, even thriving

--Stagolee’s super human strength

--Stagolee not dying, even after being hung

--Death fearing him

--Stagolee rising from the dead

--God fearing Stagolee

--The Devil fearing Stagolee

--The Devil giving up without a fight

--Stagolee taking the place of the Devil.
"Stagolee" retold in 1969 (by Julius Lester (links to the author's home page, blog, and photographs), during the Vietnam War, Hippie and Black Power Movements (Flower Power), and Student Protests:

The above summary does not address the Vietnam War, but Julius Lester retold this legendary story to offer a commentary on the times, particularly the war, race relations, emerging technology (references to computers and the computerization of death), music of the times, and hypocrisy.

Academic Writing--Rules of Formal Letter Writing (A Comparison/Contrast Between British and American Style)

British Rules

1. Use First Person ("I")

2. Avoid Ellipsis (use complete sentences; do not omit "I" when referring to yourself.)

3. Avoid slang or colloquial/idiomatic phrases (for example, avoid slangy expressions, such as "To pay you a penny," "make up for it," "bits chopped off")

4. Avoid contractions (I'm, You're, We've, etc.)

5. Avoid vague, unspecific lexis (vague references, such as "I am writing in response to your advertisement." What advertisement? For what position? Where was the ad published? When? It could be that the company has placed many ads, in several publishing venues).

6. Avoid direct and rhetorical questions.

7. Use formal linking words, such as nevertheless (instead of "but"), therefore (instead of "so"), in addition (instead of "and"), and parenthetically (instead of "by the way").

8. Use passive voice whenever possible.

9. Avoid exclamatory expressions and intensifiers, such as "incredible" or "incredibly." If you must use an adjective or adverb, use more muted terms, such as "very."
American Rules

(Some rules are the same, but there are some significant differences.)
1. Use First Person ("I") (SAME AS BRITISH)

2. Avoid Ellipsis (use complete sentences; do not omit "I" when referring to yourself.) (SAME AS BRITISH)

3. Avoid slang or colloquial/idiomatic phrases (for example, avoid slangy expressions, such as "To pay you a penny," "make up for it," "bits chopped off") (In many ways, the same as British, but some expressions, such as "make up for it" have become part of the regular lexicon. In essence, American formality tends to be less formal than British formality and slightly more forgiving if you make a minor error.)

4. Avoid contractions (I'm, You're, We've, etc.) (SAME AS BRITISH)

5. Avoid vague, unspecific lexis (vague references, such as "I am writing in response to your advertisement." What advertisement? For what position? Where was the ad published? When? It could be that the company has placed many ads, in several publishing venues). (In many ways, Americans are more strict when it comes to specificity. Why? Because they are less patient; they don't want to spend 25 minutes figuring out what you're trying to say. If they can't figure out your message fast, it will likely end up in the circular file, also known as a garbage can, dust bin, containeri.)

6. Avoid direct and rhetorical questions. (Americans are less likely to ask a rhetorical question in a formal letter and would find it quite odd, indeed, and off-putting. However, an appropriate, REAL well-phrased question would not be out of line.)

7. Use formal linking words, such as nevertheless (instead of "but"), therefore (instead of "so"), in addition (instead of "and"), and parenthetically (instead of "by the way"). (In the U.S., it depends on the level of formality. It is doubtful that the recipient would be terribly offended if you used "but" instead of "nevertheless." If the letter is intended for a distinguished person that you do not know personally, then a higher level of formality would be required. When in doubt, use formal linking words, which are never out of line.)

8. Use passive voice whenever possible. (Whenever possible, Americans prefer active voice sentences, even in formal letters. They tend to view passive voice as "stuffy," "conceited," "snooty," and "dodgy.")

9. Avoid exclamatory expressions and intensifiers, such as "incredible" or "incredibly." If you must use an adjective or adverb, use more muted terms, such as "very." (SAME AS BRITISH.)
See what I mean when I toss around the expression that Britain and the U.S. are two countries divided by a common language? It's a well-worn cliche, but so true.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Creative Writing--A Template for Determining Story Structure

Protagonist (main character):

Antagonist (a person, animal, object, or place who/which is a source of conflict for the protagonist/main character or a person or animal who acts in a way that creates conflict for the protagonist/main character):

Secondary character(s) (Characters who are developed to promote the plot in some significant way but who, in themselves, are not particularly important to the protagonist, for example, a taxi driver who moves a major character from one scene to another:

Point of view (Select one):
First Person

Second Person

Third Person




What is the protagonist's conflict?

Protagonist's Epiphany:

Story Resolution:

Focus/scope (Time frame for story):


Creative Writing--Elements of Writing Fiction: Characterization, Story Structure, and Other Elements of Fiction

In fiction, there are two types of stories: “literary” (character-driven) and “escape” (plot-driven). In terms of literary merit, character-driven stories are superior to plot-driven ones. Of course, there is always a place for good escape fiction; after all, where would we be without Star Wars and the Star Trek series? Still, even escape fiction can benefit from a careful consideration of characterization.


Characterization is probably the most important element of a short story. Without well-developed and interesting characters, a story will fall flat, no matter how fantastic the plot. So where do writers find their characters? The people you already know might offer some good ideas for fictional characters. Go ahead. Cull from your past; don’t be afraid to write about weird Uncle Freddie, your rotten neighbor who chopped down your mother’s pear tree, or a favorite teacher who recognized your budding talents as a writer; just be sure to change their names to avoid being sued! Put your heart on the page, force your readers to care about what happens to your protagonist and other characters. If you don’t care, why should I? As a reader, I want to feel the emotions your characters are experiencing; I want to cry, laugh, get angry, etc., when your characters feel those emotions. Consider the different types of characters that writers develop:

Three-dimensional (Rounded or Full) Characters
A main character, like a real person, should be a three-dimensional character, one who struggles mightily with issues having to do with good and evil. Real people are not either/or creatures; angelic people can behave like demons; devilish people can behave like angels. A three-dimensional person may occasionally act in ways incongruent with his/her basic nature. For example, depending on circumstances, a nun might shoplift a package of meat from a store, and a hit man might donate money to the Salvation Army. What might drive these people to act outside their basic natures that would also feel plausible to the reader?
One-dimensional (Stock or Stereotypical) Characters

On the other hand, a one-dimensional character falls into good or evil camp, with no deviation from his/her proscribed nature. These stereotypical characters, who tend to populate comic books, fantasy novels, and cartoons, are the super heroes who fight evil and the villains who want to rule the world. Remember Dudley DoRight (hero of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Snidely Whiplash (villain extra ordinaire) from the old Bullwinkle cartoons? These characters would never deviate from their basic good and evil natures. Snidely Whiplash will always tie the virginal maiden to the railroad tracks, and Dudley DoRight will always be in hot pursuit of the villain–after he rescues the maiden, of course. Professional fiction writers try to avoid these stock and stereotypical characters, even in escape fiction, and concentrate on developing interesting characters who inhabit their stories with their complicated personalities and conflicts.
Dynamic Characters

As a result of their experiences within the story, dynamic characters are changed in significant ways, and, therefore, may decide to take a different course in life. This change can either be positive or negative. For example, the nun who has shoplifted the meat from the store may decide to leave the convent. Perhaps she has shoplifted for altruistic reasons, such as feeding a destitute family during a time of war and famine, but her basic good nature requires her to confess the transgression to her Mother Superior, who tells her she must leave. As she goes out into the world, she realizes that her former rarefied life as a nun is, in itself, a sham life, with its unrealistic emphasis on good versus evil. She is still an inherently good person, but now she realizes that she can no longer judge others without judging herself. The nun has changed both her course in life and her way of looking at the world.
Static Characters

Static characters remain the same, no matter what they have experienced. Even if they experience an epiphany, their new realization does not result in any significant changes. For example, the hit man who has donated $1,000 to the Salvation Army may have done so just to make a good impression on his parole officer. He may not feel any real empathy toward the poor people he has helped. In fact, if someone gave him $500 to knock off the local Captain of the Salvation Army, he would do so. Thus, in this case, the hit man, by the end of the story, has not experienced any real change, either in the way he continues to live his life or the way he thinks.
Consider these other important literary terms as they relate to characterization:

The protagonist is the main character, the person who should evolve or change as a result of the events taking place in the story. In the traditional story, the protagonist experiences an epiphany, a realization that results in a turning point in the protagonist’s life.

The antagonist, a person (usually), animal, object, or place (or even an internal struggle) acts as an opposing force (thorn in his/her side, so to speak) to the protagonist. The antagonist is not necessarily the protagonist’s enemy. In fact, a story tends to be more interesting and in depth when the antagonist is a beloved parent, spouse, child, friend, pet, etc.; such an inherently complicated relationship between protagonist and antagonist can add spice to the overall story conflict.
Secondary and minor characters

Secondary and minor characters are often necessary to act as messengers (remember Rosencrantz and Gildenstern from Hamlet?) and service people who help move the plot along. For example, in the story about the thieving nun, a minor character might be the police officer who has arrested her. However, beginning writers tend to overuse these characters; in short, if the character doesn’t function in the story, then he/she should be deleted.

All fiction must be driven by conflict, which is usually caused by a sudden turn of events (usually negative but sometimes positive) in the protagonist’s life: unexpected death of family member or friend, promotion at work, divorce, marriage, etc. Without a clash of ideas, desires, and/or goals, there is no story. Period. The protagonist can experience conflicts with an antagonist: another character, a beast, the environment, an event, or from within him/herself. In many current short stories, the conflict is subtle, but if one looks hard enough, conflict can be found. Note that conflict has more to do with the protagonist’s confused feelings about the event, rather than the event itself. As in real life, characters do not necessarily respond to situations in the same way.
Point of view

Consider point of view carefully. For example, ask yourself what you wish to accomplish by using first person, present tense (“I decided that my narrator is unreliable, and I wanted that information to dawn on the reader slowly. I used present tense because I wanted to create a sense of immediacy–that the action is happening right now, not twenty years ago”). Try different points of view for the same story. Which might work best for your story idea? Consider the following options:

First person

“I.” This point of view is excellent for achieving a rapport with the reader and/or establishing a certain speech pattern that might reveal important details about the speaker. The reader identifies with the character when he/she sees “I.” However, there are limitations: everything is filtered through this character, and, therefore, the reader must depend on the narrator alone for all important details. Also, it is difficult to get a physical description of the narrator without resorting to old literary tricks (such as,“I see myself in the mirror and notice how tired I look...”). Still, the writer establishes an “intimate” relationship with the reader, by allowing the narrator to reveal to the reader what the narrator reveals to him or herself. Thus, the reader has access to the narrator’s internal thoughts. In a sense, the reader becomes the narrator by experiencing what only the narrator experiences, such as feelings, thoughts, actions, physical sensations, etc. All other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). As in the real world, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know firsthand what takes place outside of the narrator’s small world. Interestingly enough, the “I” narrator does NOT need to be the protagonist or antagonist. In fact, the narrator can be a relatively minor character. The writer decides who will best tell the protagonist’s story.
Third person, singular:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” The story is told by a single narrator who is, in a sense, an extension of the protagonist, but the protagonist does not narrate his/her own story but is referred to by name or by “he” or “she.” As in the first person, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist is willing to reveal to him or herself. Thus, the reader has access to the protagonist’s internal thoughts. Conversely, this third person singular allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasiblely do (physical description of self, for example). As in first person, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Again, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s small world. The third person narrator creates a distance between the protagonist and the reader by creating a wall between the protagonist and the reader through the filter of the narrator’s observations.
Third person, limited:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” (Usually reserved for novels, novellas, and/or long stories). The story is told by two or, rarely, three alternating narrators who are, in a sense, extensions of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, another character who may act as a go-between for the protagonist and antagonist, but these narrators do not narrate their own stories, but are referred to by name or by “he” or “she.” As in the first person and third person singular, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist, antagonist, or other character are willing to reveal to themselves. Thus, the reader has access to the internal thoughts of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, a third go-between character. Conversely, this third person limited allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasiblely do (physical description of selves, for example). As in first person and third person singular, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the two or three narrators’ physical worlds, such as their observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Again, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of any other characters (other than the proscribed two or three narrators), and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s, antagonist’s, and/or go-between narrator’s worlds. The third person narrators create a distance among the protagonist, antagonist, and/or go-between character and the reader by creating a wall between the narrators and reader through the filter of the narrators’ observations.
Third person, omniscient:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” This gender-neutral point of view, often called the “God” or “force-be-with-you” narrator, is a distant and powerful figure who gives the reader “the long view” and knows what is going on inside of each character’s head; often, the narrator will slide in and out of each character’s psyche, sometimes in the same paragraph. The omniscient viewpoint is very difficult to pull off successfully in a short story, and is rarely used in modern fiction of any kind. This gender-neutral narrator knows everything about all characters, including what they are thinking and feeling. This narrator can move freely about the story, making observations about everyone and everything. Many beginning writers use this viewpoint, but do so clumsily and in an attempt to worm out of character and/or plot difficulties. AVOID the God narrator whenever possible; this viewpoint, in the hands of beginning writers, tends to sound cheesy, unfocused, and amateurish.
Third person, objective:

“He,” “She,” or “They.” The narrator, usually gender-neutral, acts as a “movie camera,” recording all the tangible details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures) in the scene and setting. “Records” dialogue, body language, surroundings, BUT does not comment on them, either from the narrator’s perspective or the characters’. The reader has to fill in the “subtext” (the emotions, meaning, and messages between the lines). If done well, this point-of-view can be very effective, as Hemingway has exhibited in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A very difficult viewpoint to pull off, the objective is often referred to as the “dramatic viewpoint” or “journalistic” viewpoint because it shares many characteristics of playwrighting and newspaper writing, with its emphasis on reportage of dialogue, detailed description of the physical world, and observable action. This means that feelings, abstractions, and emotions are not articulated, except through that which can be directly observed in the physical world. The narrator is neither the protagonist or antagonist, but is often an unknown minor observer who makes observations about the major characters, but does not reveal any personal information about the gender-neutral self. In fact, the narrator will probably not even refer to “I” at all because this isn’t the observer’s story. Thus, the reader knows nothing about the observer, including the internal thoughts of the narrator. If done correctly, the objective is a VERY powerful viewpoint, because, as in real life, actions and dialogue (or lack of dialogue) can speak louder than all the feelings and articulated angst in the world.
Second person (rare):
“You.” This is really a variation of the first person. The narrator wishes to develop a somewhat close relationship with the reader, but not quite an intimate one. The narrator, by placing the “onus” on the reader, does not own up to his/her actions. For example,
You walk to the café, where you buy a mochachino with three sugars and three creams. After slurping down the drink in one swallow, you decide you’ll visit your mother who hasn’t seen you in six months. What will she say to you after all that has happened since Joey’s funeral?
(Another example: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Some critics, however, argue that this story is just a sophisticated variation of the first person, but technically, “Girl is a second person story, incorporating the “command” tone and process [“how to”])
A combination of 1st and 3nd person viewpoints:
Some professional writers mix and match first and third person to create a mixture of true intimacy and a “pulling back” from the reader. This mixture CAN create a powerful story, but the writer must be skillful enough to know when the mix of viewpoints has been overused.

In her novel Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman quite effectively switches back and forth between first and third (limited) person:
Let’s see, 500 calories. Think I’ll start with English muffins. Liza looked them up: plain, 120 calories; raisin, 130. A tablespoon of butter had 100 calories, so two teaspoons would be about 66. That makes 200 calories for breakfast. I could have an apple for lunch. She turned to the first page of the book: apple, medium (all varieties) two-inch diameter, 80 calories.

So, if I had an apple and a carrot for lunch that would be 105 calories, plus 200 makes 305. Liza paused to grab some more cookies. I could have an eight-ounce container of vanilla yogurt for dinner. That has 200 calories in it, so that would make 505 altogether. Hmm. Liza finished the pile of cookies in her lap and stuck her hand into the bag of potato chips. I really shouldn’t go over 500. I could have a plain English muffin and save myself 10 calories. Maybe I should let myself have 550. (61)
A combination of 1st and 2nd person viewpoints:
Less common is the mixture of 1st and 2nd person; if a narrator is “avoiding” an emotion or situation, he or she might begin addressing him or herself as “you.” For example,
When I saw that I had spilled the milk, I went ballistic.

You ditz. How could you be so careless? What will John say when he sees you have spilled his precious his lactose-free milk all over the kitchen floor? You’d better get this mess cleaned up and your butt off to the store.

Where’s my damn car keys, anyway?

In many ways, tone is a function of point of view. In particular, first person can be vernacular, slang, elevated, conversational, etc. Also, is the story primarily humorous, serious, dramatic, action-packed?

Creative Writing–Character List

In developing your characters (or breathing new life into tired, old characters), you might want to work with this “Character List,” but don’t try to work all these details into the story. Knowing your characters well does not mean blabbing everything about them. In case you’re having some difficulties getting your fictional character sorted out, you may refer to the following for brainstorming:
Name and Nickname
Status and money
Marital status
Family, ethnicity (family history)
Diction, accent, etc.
Places (home, office, car, summer home, etc.)
Bad habits/Good habits
Sexual history/orientation
Fears/traumas in life
Character flaws/Character strengths
Taste in books, music, films, sports, etc.
Journal entries
Favorite foods
Birthday/astrological sign
Present physical and mental condition
Past illnesses (physical and mental)
Don't feel that you have to cover every characteristic–this is a brainstorming list!

(Adapted from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, HarperPerennial [New York], 1990, pp 47-48).



Every story needs a sequence of incidents and events, consisting of a beginning, a middle, a climax, and ending–places along the way where characters can hang their hopes, frustrations, dreams, joy, etc. The plot is the skeleton that holds all the details together and pushes the story to its conclusion. The structure of the traditional story can be charted as follows:

Beginning➔ Rising action➔ Climax➔ Epiphany➔ Falling Action➔ Resolution/Dénouement
Establishing a stunning beginning is very important because the opening must involve your readers immediately. How many stories have you started to read, only to put down them down because the openings left you unengaged? Some tips for a strong beginnings: as a general rule, try to avoid openings with pronouns, articles, pedestrian summary, passive verbs, and/or abstractions. Strong openings include vivid concrete language, active verbs, and/or surprising summary. Sometimes, writers choose to open with dialogue, which can be very effective.
Edwidge Danticat’s opening in “Night Women” seems particularly strong:
I cringe from the heat of the night on my face. I feel as bare as open flesh. Tonight I am much older than the twenty-five years that I have lived. The night is the time I dread most in my life. Yet if I am to live, I must depend on it.
Also consider the opening sentence in Marly Swick’s story “The Other Widow”:
In the two months since David’s sudden death, Lynne has stopped eating, started wearing nothing but black, and found herself a therapist in the Yellow Pages.
From that one sentence, what do you already know about Lynne?

Rising action

After a writer introduces the story, he/she builds up suspense, also called “rising action,” until the story reaches its climax (turning or high point).
The climax is simply a turning or high point in the plot. For the “artist” in Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,”the climax occurs when the protagonist is at the prime of his career; spectators flock to his cage and admire him. The conflict comes only later when the public grows bored and rejects his art.
When the protagonist experiences an epiphany, he/she “discovers” something important about him/herself. No need to use the “flash” of insight method so famous in 19th and early 20th century fiction. An epiphany can “whisper” its message to the protagonist. For example, Lynne, in “The Other Widow,” realizes that she will never know if David, her dead lover, had ever intended to leave his wife for her; with this new knowledge, Lynn can (and does) move on with her life.
Falling action
After the turning point, the action begins to wind down toward the resolution, thus “falling action.”
For the most part, the conflict of the story needs to be resolved (not necessarily solved–know the difference between these two words). However, some modern writers may opt for “intermediate endings,” in which the main conflict is never really settled.

These other elements of fiction work in conjunction with characterization and story structure:

Present tense (“She plays baseball”) and past tense (“She played baseball”)are your main choices in terms of denoting time. A writer may decide to use present tense to create an immediacy for the reader. On the other hand, if a writer wants to create some temporal distance, he/she will use past tense. If a writer decides to use flashbacks, he/she may decide to use present tense for the “current” and past tense for past events; otherwise, he/she will need to develop clear transitions between main storyline and flashbacks or use the past perfect tense, which can be awkward. As a writer, you should be constantly aware of how you are using tense to move your story forward. Mixing present and past tense without moving back and forth between the main storyline and flashbacks = inconsistency and tends to confuse the reader. So always be aware of how you use tense. The future tense should be used sparingly, probably in conjunction with the present tense. For example,
The property itself is sold to a consortium of buyers who plan to tear down the old 15-room Victorian and build an upscale medical center called “Maple Hill.” The very next Halloween, almost a year after the auction, several neighborhood youths will invade the property and throw stones at the structure, shattering almost every window.
Each story should offer an overall theme, a central idea or unifying generalization, implied or stated, within the story. For a short story, a reader should be able to summarize the central idea in one sentence. For example, in Marly Swick’s “The Other Widow,” the underlying generalization seems to be that there are other disadvantages to conducting illicit love affairs, other than the obvious ones (e.g., getting caught by a jealous spouse, carrying on with an unstable lover, and dealing with family repercussions). If the theme cannot be boiled down into one sentence, then the scope is probably too broad.
Scope simply refers to the time frame of the story. Most professional short fiction covers a narrow scope and focuses on one major event, also known as “a slice of life.” As a general rule, one can’t reveal a character’s entire life in 5-20 pages; therefore, a writer limits a story to revealing the repercussions of a major life event. In addition, many modern writers begin their stories “in medias res” (in the middle). For example, the time frame of Mary Robison’s “Yours” covers less than one day, and the story opens in the middle of an event, as the young Allison unloads pumpkins from her Renault while her elderly husband Clark, covered by a shawl, sits in a glider and watches. Many new writers try to cover too much in a short space, and end up with superficial stories, devoid of details, description, and dialogue. Avoid the “I’m-going-to-tell-you-the-entire-life-story-of-this-character” syndrome. Especially for short fiction, keep the time frame brief.
Pacing simply refers to story movement, how fast or slow passages might move. Writers strive to incorporate appropriate sentence length to manipulate story movement. (Short, staccato sentences = fast pacing; lengthy, compound/complex sentences = slow pacing. In short, a writer can manipulate pacing via sentence length. Writers often use sentence length variety to reflect changing pace within a story.)
Verisimilitude (“Believability”)
No matter how far-fetched the premise (e.g., science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism stories), you have to convince your reader that your story could be true, thus moving toward suspending the reader’s disbelief. Avoid “Deus ex machina” (“god from the machine”) devices, for example, a character wins the lottery just before HUD repossesses her house. Even though this scenario could (and probably has) happened in real life, it doesn’t quite work in fiction. However, if you write a story about a lottery winner after s/he wins the $15,000,000, then you have already set up your perimeters, and you stand a better chance of convincing your reader that after winning a great fortune, a character might act in a certain manner.
Setting refers to place and time. Some contemporary short stories don’t give much exposition to “locale,” although “local color” stories can still be found. Still, “place” can establish the mood of a story; for example, a writer could set a story among the glitter and illusion of Las Vegas in which a down-and-out protagonist struggles with a gambling problem. In this case, the setting sets an ironic, somber tone–poverty, pain, and gloom amongst the glitzy backdrop of Sin City. A gloomy setting mostly sets a gloomy tone; however, a gloomy setting could also indicate the opposite; for example, a happy young couple getting married during a thunderstorm could symbolize that couple’s struggle to get to this happy point in their lives. For most stories, it is very important to establish the “time” (at least in a general sense) early on. As a reader, I need to know historical context (Civil War, Depression, WWII, etc.). I don’t need to know the exact time–a story with a contemporary setting might point to a recent event (9/11, Oklahoma bombing, Anita Thomas/Clarence Thomas conflict), commercial product (“Angelique smeared Oil of Olay all over her peanut butter sandwich; she figured that its magic would work better and faster if she got it into her bloodstream”), slang word (“Spin-doctors”). You don’t need to belabor the time element; just establish it, and get on with the story.
Dialogue and dramatic monologue
Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two more people. Dramatic monologue is defined as one character’s internal or external conversation with him or herself. Dialogue or dramatic monologue can reveal much about a character, such as educational and family background, accent, and attitude. Should your story include a lot of dialogue, a little, none at all? It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For example, dialogue allows your characters to tell their own stories without giving up the option of the 3rd person exposition, to interact with other characters, and/or to reveal personal speech patterns. Some stories need to contain more dialogue than others, some less. But, beware: poorly used dialogue is worse than none at all. Just make sure that the speech patterns fit the speaker. For example, if your characters are a gang of high school kids who live in the poor section of town, they probably wouldn’t exhibit the same speech patterns as a college professor who had grown up in Beverly Hills. Also, remember that real human beings, even educated people, use contractions, fragments, clichés, swear words, etc. in their dialogue. Also, if you want to express an eloquent concept through a character of limited intellectual ability, then don’t do it through dialogue! Some successful stories are almost pure dialogue (many Hemingway stories), some have little or no dialogue (“The Hunger Artist,” by Franz Kafka), and some have an equal mix of dialogue and exposition. Also, not every dramatic moment calls for dialogue, and, therefore, you might use “summarized dialogue” (“And then she told her husband the story of the man who walked into the Laundromat with nothing on but a pair of rubber boots”).
Description refers to exposition that expands on the physical world (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) of character and/or setting. For example,
As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button.

Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather mini-skirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable.
Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.
Description can indicate the mood of the character and/or set the tone of the story.

Details are the bits and pieces that make up descriptive passages. All details must accomplish, within the story, one of three criteria: reveal something important about a character, move the plot forward, and/or establish the setting. In short, follow Anton Chekhov’s famous dictum (paraphrased): If you describe a gun on the wall, then, at some point, that gun has to go off. All details have to point toward the resolution of conflict or reveal something important about the main character. Extraneous details should be identified and deleted.
“Showing” versus “telling”
Just about every creative writing teacher has repeated the famous mantra of “Show, don’t tell,” but what does this mean?

Showing: The character’s actions are revealed through dialogue, scenes, and/or descriptions. The reader discovers information about the character through that character’s actions. For example:
Mary printed out the letter and handed it to her boss. She hoped that there would be no mistakes this time; she couldn’t afford to lose this job. Next month, the first payment on her student loan would come due. “I’m too young to owe so much money,” she thought as panic rose up in her chest.

She was 25 years old.
Telling: Details about the characters are told directly to the reader. For example:
Mary was a 25-year-old secretary on the verge of losing her job.
Scene versus summary
Summary: An incident, usually a minor one, that is compressed into a sentence or two. For example:
Mary’s boss called her into the office; he fired her.
Scene: An incident, usually a major one, that is expanded via dialogue and description. For example:
As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button.

Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather mini-skirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable.
Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.

Then Mary’s boss called her into his office.

She braced herself for the worst. She knew that her work had not been up to par, but it still hurt.

“Mary,” he said, steepling his fingers. “I’ve made some notes on this letter that you typed for Mr. Meyers. You know how many mistakes I found?” He tapped his pen on the paper.

Mary shook her head.

“Eight. That’s not acceptable for this office.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“I’m going to have to let you go.”
A good rule of thumb: develop key scenes, and keep summary to a minimum, but use summary when you need to impart important information that is not deserving of its own scene. Writing good fiction involves finding and developing a balance between scene and summary.
Finally, be aware that not all elements will receive equal billing in every piece of fiction. For example, in some stories, setting (in terms of locale and specific time) may not be all that important. You need to emphasize some aspects more than others, and what you choose to emphasize depends on the story that you decide to tell. Does that make sense? Still, as a practicing writer, I have discovered that creating interesting and complex characters is probably the most important part of writing fiction. Once my characters are developed to my satisfaction, everything else seems to fall into place.

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