Congruity of Minor Characters

8-17-10 Wakeboarding on Lake Coeur d'Alene, ID 017This is from The Hunger Games, by Collins:

“What use is that? How many times have you seen someone wrestle someone to death?” says Peeta in disgust.

“There’s always hand-to-hand combat. All you need is to come up with a knife, and you’ll at least stand a chance. If I get jumped, I’m dead!” I can hear my voice rising in anger.

“But you won’t! You’ll be living up in some tree eating raw squirrels and picking off people with arrows. You know what my mother said to me when she came to say good-bye, as if to cheer me up, she says maybe District Twelve will finally have a winner. Then I realized, she didn’t mean me, she meant you!” bursts out Peeta.

“Oh, she meant you,” I say with a wave of dismissal.

“She said, ‘She’s a survivor, that one.’ She is,” says Peeta.

That pulls me up short. Did his mother really say that about me? Did she rate me over her son? I see the pain in Peeta’s eyes and know he isn’t lying.

The first time I read this I didn’t believe it. I projected my own experience upon the story and couldn’t see how a mother would send her son off to certain death and leave him with the cold assessment that he would die for sure, but there was a chance for Katniss to survive.

Then I thought about it from my own mother-pampered context again, and  found a way to make some sense out of it, maybe. I thought that his mom probably knew of his one-sided love for Katniss, and knew the nature of real love, and knew that it would bring him comfort to know that the one he loved had a chance. That sort of worked. I can maybe fit that into the context of all the loving mothers I’ve witnessed in my life.  But then…

Then I remembered how cold his mother had treated him in the brief passages that mentioned her. She hit little Peeta brutally in the head when he burned a loaf of bread (that he gave to Katniss and thus saved her family from starving). A few other little passages had her sounding like a hateful sociopath type. For instance she was heartless toward Katniss as a little girl looking into their trashcan for food.

After taking time to recall the careful foreshadowing of Peeta’s mother’s character, I finally read this part (for the umpteenth time) and made perfect sense of it. This is what went through my head…

First I’m reading Katniss inner dialogue:

I see the pain in Peeta’s eyes and know he isn’t lying.

Then I literally added my own inner dialogue: “And I know he’s not lying because of the character of his mother.”

It was an epiphany for me, but like I say, I’m not a very good reader. You probably got it the first time you read it.

OK, I need to get back to writing my own story now. I always (try to) read a bit of a popular novel before I begin writing. And often there’s an “aha” deal that hits me. Like this one that has postponed my writing for about an hour now.

For a character to say something unbelievably cruel at an important moment, you have to make it believable by putting some almost-unbelievable cruelty into the character before you get there.

I guess that’s common sense, but hey. If common sense were actually common, you wouldn’t be quite so unique.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Spoiler Alert !

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure.”

Don’t read this post if you haven’t read, The Fault in Our Stars.  OK?

When I started reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, I was drawn into the story by a tremendous force. I mentioned something to the effect that this story excited hope in my heart because, here was an example of the magic draw of a story written without the brilliant and polished prose that I’m basically not interested in (because I’m not talented enough with words to achieve it).

Then this morning I read a little further. Suddenly this magical writer without any wordsmith-type genius (that I had identified) writes this letter from one character to another.

Again I should say Spoiler alert… not primarily because the plot is revealed, but mainly because the shock of coming upon these words in this book is something you might want to experience for yourself. Anyway, at least the next six paragraphs, from “Dear Mr. Waters” through “Peter Van Houten” should be skipped if you haven’t read this amazing book yet. But if you have… Here’s the Quote:

Dear Mr.Waters,

I am in receipt of your electronic mail dated the 14th of April and duly impressed by the Shakespearean complexity of your tragedy. Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.

While we’re on the topic of old Will’s , your writing about young Hazel reminds me of the Bard’s Fifty-fifth sonnet, which of course begins, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.” (Off topic, but: What a slut time is. She screws everybody.) It’s a fine poem but a deceitful one: We do indeed remember Shakespeare’s powerful rhyme, but what do we remember about the person it commemorates? Nothing. We’re pretty sure he was male; everything else is guesswork. Shakespeare told us precious little of the man whom he entombed in his linguistic sarcophagus. (Witness also that when we talk about literature, we do so in the present tense. When we speak of the dead, we are not so kind.) You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect. (Full disclosure: I am not the first to make this observation. cf, the Macleish poem “Not Marble, Nor the Gilded Monuments,” which contains the heroic line “I shall say you will die and none will remember you.”)

I digress, but here’s the rub: The dead are visible only in the terrible lidless eye of memory. The living, thank heaven, retain the ability to surprise and to disappoint. Your Hazel is alive, Waters, and you mustn’t impose your will upon another’s decision, particularly a decision arrived at thoughtfully. She wishes to spare you pain, and you should let her. You may not find young Hazel’s logic persuasive, but I have trod through this vale of tears longer than you, and from where I’m sitting, she’s not the lunatic.

Yours truly,

Peter Van Houten

OK, I was way wrong. John Green is a master with words, not just with story. I apologize for my previous post where I jumped to an ignorant conclusion.

Mother of Mercy, anyway: “the terrible lidless eye of memory”.

Green pulls this out of thin air?


God help writers like me. Sincerely. But I’m not going to become discouraged. I ran into the following quote a week ago…

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure.”

Never doubt yourself, I tell my son.

I’m glad some good anonymous person wrote the same thing for me…

“Doubt kills more dreams that failure.”

M. Talmage Moorehead

For a FREE download of my new e-book, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners, opt into my list: Click HereThe book takes a look at why we are more than storytellers, and how lucky we are to be inside the most influential group on Earth. The last chapter talks about how to meet a viewpoint character who will add a new dimension of meaning and fun to your life. Yes, I’m talking about Johanna Fujiwara! My Hapa Girl protagonist. If you haven’t met someone like her in your own writing, you have a wonderful experience coming!

Click Here for a FREE download of Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

If you’d like to read my in-progress novel, Hapa Girl DNA from page 1, it’s here.

Redundancy the Hobgoblin


Is a tiny little bit the same as a little bit?

My computer’s grammar editor thinks so. But I don’t.

If my viewpoint character is a little girl, there absolutely must be a difference between a “tiny little bit” and a “little bit.”

She’s little. She sees small differences much better than an adult. Her eyes are better up close. She hasn’t been to school and learned to avoid redundancies. She talks like a child and would write like one if she were old enough to write.

Here she is…

“I only took a tiny little bit of it, Sir. I’m sorry, I won’t ever do it again. Never ever, ever in a million-zillion years.”

That was dialogue not narrative, you’re thinking. OK, good point.

Here she is again as viewpoint character, “writing” her story…

She thinks that just because I’m six I’m a dummy. But she’s the dummy. If you don’t eat you die. I saw people die from no food. She didn’t. The Mesa’s gone. She’s the dummy. Anyways, I just took a tiny little bit.

That would be an over use of the word “dummy” in polite circumstances, but not here. To me, the feeling of this little girl’s presence (the voice) is better served by the “dummy” redundancy than it would be by synonyms. Say, for instance, one dummy, one ignoramus and a stupid-head. This trio wouldn’t carry the girl’s essence.

And if she had said that she took a “little bit,” it would seem dangerously more than the “tiny little bit” she said she took.

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So it should come as no surprise that I consistently delete redundancies to tighten my prose. It’s a brainless habit.

Instead, I should learn to view redundancy as a legitimate and valuable tool for conveying the viewpoint character’s personality.

Not only can there be a big difference between something that’s “little” and something that’s “tiny little,” there can also be an important difference between something that’s “little” and something that’s “little, little.”

The difference is about the narrative personality of the viewpoint character – the “author’s” voice – not about the logical meanings, or the pedantic mechanics of the words.

M. Talmage Moorehead

To download of my new aging e-book, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners, click here. It talks about why we are more than storytellers, and how lucky we are to be inside the most influential group on Earth. The last chapter tells how I met a viewpoint character who added a dimension of meaning to my life. Writing went from work to fun. It could happen to you.

To read my in-progress novel, Hapa Girl DNA from page 1, it’s here as a scrolling document.

Butchering the Stars


Here are a few paragraphs of a best seller.

The Fault In Our Stars

by John Green

…Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.

Here’s a link to John Green’s web site

The reason I posted this is because it grips me and pulls me in but lacks a certain polished sound that I sometimes foolishly try to create. The way Green’s story is written excites me, partly because I’m not a gifted poet or a writer with naturally beautiful language.

I’m not saying I could write something this good. The content of this story would be at least impossible for me to match. And also it would be difficult for me to write anything this raw-sounding because I’ve been brainwashed into over-editing my work until it sounds sterile.

For instance, here is what I would lamely do with one of John Green’s fantastic paragraphs. (Forgive me Mr. Green, your way is infinitely better than what I’m about to do.)

[Like cancer, d]Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. [In a way, a]Almost everything is, really.) But m[M]y mom believed I required [needed] treatment, so she took me to see my R[r]egular D[d]octor[,]Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical major depression, and that therefore [needed adjustment of] my meds should be adjusted[,] and also I should attend a weekly S[s]upport G[g]roup.

Just for clarity’s sake, here again is Green’s outstanding paragraph as it was before I butchered it (by following the rules and advice I’ve learned in school and from “how-to” books on writing fiction).

Quoting John Green again…

Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.”

I ask forgiveness again for the butcher job above, but I hope it was useful to other writers. It certainly was an eye-opener to me – with all my devilish word-editing habits that crush the “voice” of the viewpoint character and bleed the excitement out of my fiction, at times.

I guess the worst thing I did (above) to Green’s paragraph was to obscure the sense that it was written, literally written, by a young person who was more concerned with cancer and dying than with writing schoolish prose.

You might try this: Copy an important paragraph from a best-seller and pretend it’s something you wrote long ago. Edit “yourself.” Study the damage you’ve done, if any.

Then, if you’re like me, you’ll feel sheepish and realize that you’ve learned something from a successful professional with a writing career in the real world.

M. Talmage Moorehead

basketball and writing a page-turner

Squirrel Finnegan the wannabe dog pupThe process of improving my fiction writing continues to parallel the process I devised for learning to shoot a basketball.

There are an infinite number of variables in each sport. It seems that the more of those variables I control or eliminate, the faster I improve.

In learning to shoot a basketball, it was easy to eliminate the unessential movements.  Give the shot a little random head tilting and an inconsistent jump and you might as well move the hoop during the shot. So forget practicing like everybody else does.

I stood close to the hoop, didn’t change position, didn’t jump, bend my knees, or worry about what was going on in my mind. I kept my shoulders and head steady during every shot.

Then I shot a hundred times per day for quite a while. This isolated my arms, hands and fingers – the minimal number of uncontrolled variables essential to sinking a shot.

After a while I could get the ball through the hoop every time from that one spot. Then I brought a jump into the deal. Then a little more distance, and a little more.

Did it help?

Yeah, like magic. I went from pathetic to annoying. There were a few games where everything I shot went through the hoop. If I’d been decent on defense, I could have made the D league for the vertically challenged.

No brag, just fact.

With fiction writing I’m taking the same approach – eliminating variables to isolate the essentials.

The main thing I want to create is a novel that’s difficult to stop reading. You might call it a page-turner, I guess. I want it to be meaningful. It would also be nice if literary critics around the world would send flowers to my wife.

To identify the essentials, I’m studying the work of best-selling fiction authors. These people are doing something right. I want to discover what it is, so I can practice like a fiend.

Of course, I intend to continue posting all my epiphanies here.

Each highly successful popular author I’ve studied seems to have a set of talents that is slightly different from the next. Some are not so gifted with words, but have interesting ideas and characters. Some are able to write like poets and yet weave complex plots involving a large cast of characters. Others write simple plots with few characters, simple words and breathtaking dialogue. Some don’t seem to stand out in any way, except that I can’t put their books down.

The combinations of the different underlying writing talents are probably infinite.

In basketball, a person must have rare talent in almost every aspect of the game if he’s going to have a chance to play professionally.

In writing fiction, it doesn’t seem like that at all. Yes, there’s a common thread connecting best-selling authors, but it’s thin and subtle, not thick and obvious, as in basketball.

When you find what your main talent is as a writer, you’ll be able to isolate it and work on it. If you keep at it, you’ll probably be able to write a page-turner. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a fairly decent chance of becoming a professional.

There are a few people out there with great advice on selling your novel, but if your novel isn’t difficult to put down, you could be wasting your time.

Maybe I don’t want you to do that.

Identify your strongest writing talent. Isolate it from the noise. Build its muscles. Write things that depend on that talent.

This approach will produce the sort of page-turner you’re capable of writing. It will be unique to you.

Of course, not all writers want to write page-turners. Not everybody wants to reach millions of people.

That’s understandable.

In the final analysis, all fiction writers succeed – because it’s this journey we’re on that matters, not so much the destination.

M. Talmage Moorehead