Pulitzer Jurors and What? Authors as Defendants?


Let me quote from LouAnn Lofton’s fine blog where she discusses three Pulitzer jurors who have read hundreds of novels and picked three candidates for the Prize…

LouAnn Lofton:  “I especially enjoyed their discussion about owning up to their own biases when it comes to how they each define “good writing.” Michael Cunningham said he’s a ‘sentence queen,’ which I thought was about the best thing ever. He said he’s a sucker for beautiful writing, lovely sentences, interesting constructions. That’s his bias, whereas Maureen Corrigan said hers was demanding a plot. She said she wished they taught ‘plot’ in current MFA programs, that there’s just not enough of it happening in books today. Susan Larson fell somewhere in between. (I confess to being something of a ‘sentence queen’ myself. I love it when writers string together words in a way that stops me and makes me re-read the sentence, marveling at the beauty of what they’ve done.)”

LouAnn Lofton’s interesting and uplifting site is here: http://alittlelifeinthebigeasy.com/

Obviously, I would side with Maureen Corrigan, the Pulitzer juror who wishes story plotting were taught in the Master of Fine Arts programs.

Nevertheless, I concede that if you want to become a defendant before this elite group of jurors and judges, you might want to follow the paradigm of university creative writing classes that pursue “beautiful writing, lovely sentences,” and “interesting constructions.”

As you may recall (ad nauseam), for me, a focus on word selection, sentence structure and clever phrase production interferes with the creative work of plotting emotions, plotting conflict rhythm, plotting character development, and maintaining the viewpoint character’s voice throughout contrasting events that naturally tend to make vp characters change their inner milieu of personality and voice.

The reason a “sentence queen” mindset interferes with my work is that it’s technical. Granted it’s a creative use of technique, but it’s still a concrete distraction from the unselfconscious right-hemispheric work of creativity, to the left-brain’s rules and tools.

Personally, having been fed a steady diet of “sentence queen” vegetables throughout my earlier years as a writer, I find this focus impossible to shake. It has become the single largest waste of my writing time, even though I fight it like the dickens, forcing myself to “just leave” dangling participles, passive verbs, inefficient phrases, hackneyed expressions, etc.

Force isn’t the way of art and creation. Leaving “wrong” things in my prose feels like leaving a fingerprint on my glasses – self-consciously avoiding self-consciousness.

“Chasing the tail of dogma” (Maynard James Keenan of Tool) comes to mind.

The result is, I’m an inefficient writer who will never become prolific unless I live to be 114 (which I plan to do, by the way) and schedule a lobotomy at my earliest convenience.

But I digress…

Keeping the viewpoint character thinking and talking like one consistent soul throughout all scenes – compassion, flirtation, fighting, tragedy, heroism, and moments of insanity or weakness – is nearly impossible for me. (But I like this sort of challenge.) It would be easier, I guess, if there were no plot extremes to stress the character, just a leisurely meandering from one calm scene to another.

So I can see the temptation to go that route.

I might have even given it a try if I thought I had a rare gift for words…

And if I thought there were millions and millions and millions of average readers interested in plotless, cleverly worded stories.

I don’t think either of these is true.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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Writing in First Person Totally Kicks Ass


Best selling stories are impossible to put down after ten pages or so. What hooks me is the bond I feel with the main character. I have to sense that she should be a friend of mine.

As my son the psychologist-in-training tells me, so far the only scientifically documented difference between people with friends and people without friends is their ability to share feelings.

If you want your reader to love your hero, that protagonist has to share her feelings with the reader, but not necessarily with the other characters.

The single most effective way to nudge your work in this direction is to write in first person. (“I” instead of “he” or “she”.) This makes it seem like your hero is divulging secret emotions to the reader in a way that she wouldn’t do with anyone else in the world.

Here’s an example from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins:

“I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do really have feelings for him it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through?

“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.”

You might say there’s not much dialogue in The Hunger Games. That’s true, except for the fact that it’s all dialogue.

The whole story is Katniss talking to me. Occasionally she looks over into my eyes while I’m reading to see if I really get what she’s just said. You know?

It’s possible for the hero to talk fairly directly to the reader in a second-person story, too, but it’s more difficult, sometimes awkward and less intimate.

See if I’m right. Here’s part of the same passage of Hunger Games with one small change, it’s now re-written (ruined by me, please forgive) in second person:

“She wants to tell him that he’s not being fair. That the two of them were strangers. That she did what it took to stay alive, to keep them both alive in the arena. That she can’t explain how things are with Gale because she doesn’t know herself…”

To me this sounds relatively clinical, removed from the raw emotion.

Now I know what you’re thinking… you were wondering what I did on Dec. 27, 2012.

Here’s the true story. I’ve written it in first person.

There were three of us. The white water sucked us downstream toward a giant log that had fallen across Washington’s Elochoman River, blocking the whole thing.

Just before aluminum hit pine, our guide, the only man in the drift boat with any experience shouted, “We’re going to lose the boat. We’re f~~ed!”

I didn’t say anything, but I wondered how badly f–ed we were exactly. Certainly he didn’t mean dead. Did he?

We hit the log and stopped instantly as the river rushed on around us. The guide and my son-in law crawled out to the left on the log, but I had to crawl out to the right because there wasn’t time to stand around waiting for the boat to flip. On my side, the log tapered to about the width of a telephone poll. It might have been slippery, I think. My left knee slid off and before I knew it, I was dangling with my legs downstream in the whitewater.

If I’d fallen to the right, on the upstream side of the log, I would have been dragged under and, hopefully, pushed out the other side. But people don’t generally make it all the way under logs in these circumstances. They get dragged under, and they drown. So I’m told.

Next thing, I hear the guide’s terrified voice, “Oh no, Talmage!” Too ignorant to be afraid, I said calmly, “I’m cool. I can hang here all day like this, no problem. Save your boat.”

I dangled there as the whitewater pulled my camo pants down over my ankles. It sounds pretty, but my jeans stayed up, so we’re good. My fingertips found bumps on the log, and I held on there for the longest time while the other two saved the boat.

When the big guy, my son-in-law, came over, he grabbed my right wrist and pulled like hell, but I must have weighed a lot more than usual with the wet coat and wet jeans, and boots full of water, so he finally had to give up. Actually, I had to convince him to give up, and then insist that he let me go.

“OK, let go!” I says. And he does.

The December rapids took me, and honestly, the water felt warm compared to the idea of drowning. Breathing water scares me a little.

With my outer pants around my feet like chains, I couldn’t swim much, but I finally found the bottom of the river with my feet and pushed off toward the edge, caught a small log that was hanging from the bank, jumped up and crawled onto it. It must have taken me fifteen minutes on that log to undo the velcro around my ankles and free myself from those camo pants. I felt old.

And lucky.

But let me tell you something that went through my head while I was hanging by my fingertips off that first log, waiting for my son-in-law to hopefully fish me out. It was a prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get religious on you. I just want you to hear what I said, verbatim:

“I hope you can get me out of this.”

That was it. There wasn’t any, “Dear God,” or “please” or anything else.

Obviously I’m not saying a miracle was involved, or that my mortal hide is worth God’s time in any way. I just think my prayer sort of shows where my head’s at with this divine intervention thing.

I’m not sure, but I think God’s hands are sometimes tied by the cause-and-effect web of our own free choices. Our free wills. Without natural consequences, there couldn’t be free choice. Therefore sh-t must happen if human beings are going to exist in a non-robotic state.

If the deacons will please rise for the morning offering. Sorry, was that too religious?

First person story telling, though. I like how it feels, don’t you?

Suppose someone told you that same story in second person. It wouldn’t feel like we got to know each other at all, would it?

Writing complex stories in first person is said to be difficult or impossible because a vp protagonist can’t be in more than one place at a time. That’s got to be true, I guess.

But what’s more important to you, touching millions of people with your soul, or writing a grand, complex story that only a few beyond your inner circle of brilliant writers will ever appreciate?

There are many reasons why writing in first person isn’t the default mode for most authors. I get it. I myself am not yet comfortable writing my female protagonist’s story in first person, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and I doubt I could fake it in first person where everything is raw and totally exposed. And I’m too in love with my protagonist to start another story without her. Maybe this is the “sentimentalism” that some great authors say they hate.

So shoot me.

But a zillion readers, all hammering through your book to the end, telling people what a night they’ve had with your hero? If you write in first person you’ll get the emotions from your hero to your reader more powerfully and more naturally than you probably will in second person. Try it if you don’t believe me.

Check this out, now. It’s Katniss again…

“As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m not prepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. How have the other victors faced this alone? During the highlights they periodically show the winner’s reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years… some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. All I know is that the only thing keeping me on this love seat is Peta – his arm around my shoulder, his other hand claimed by both of mine. Of course the previous victors didn’t have the Capitol looking for a way to destroy them.”

Can you feel the draw of this special person, Katniss, telling you every detail of how she feels?

 The contrast between how openly and honestly she speaks of her feeling to the reader, and how much she hides from other characters creates a bond, too.

See if you can’t go back and rewrite one of your second-person babies in first person. Or start something new in first person.

I predict that you’ll get closer to a meaningful page-turner than ever before if you dare to write intimately in first person.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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“Attribution adverbs rule,” he said sardonically.

“Get off your lazy butt,” she whispered softly.

“I’m not lazy,” he said defensively.  “I’m a creative writing professor, I frickin‘ cross out adverbs all day long!  It’s hard work!”  He set his coke can gently on the coffee table.  “Especially adverbs modifying verbs of attribution,” he muttered woodenly.

She rolled her eyes and barked back, “All the bestsellers use adverbs of attribution, but what do they know!?  You’re the unpublished expert.”

Attribution adverbs, such as, “he said flatly,” are fine, in my humble and yet infallible opinion (imhayio), as long as they’re not out of place omniscient-viewpoint things (words arising from an all-knowing perspective that may not exist in your story).

Attribution adverbs need to be the viewpoint character’s interpretation of something that was spoken.

Ask yourself, “is my viewpoint character coming up with this adverb, or is it me?”

Here’s what I mean…

Example of a decent attribution adverb from the vp character’s perspective:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he squeals jokingly. Or is he serious? With that lampshade on his head, I’m not sure.”

The viewpoint character is telling the reader how she interprets the guy’s words.  The fact that she doubts her initial interpretation after she tells you that he was joking, makes this clear, I think.

Now here’s a hack’s “god-like” omniscient adverb in the same setting:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he says jokingly, though I’m just stupid enough to think he’s serious.”

Note that it’s a third-party, the all-knowing author, who has informed the reader that the guy is joking. The vp character thinks he’s serious, so she couldn’t have done it.

The viewpoint character is ready to bare her soul to the reader, but an all-knowing voice jumps in with an omniscient adverb and puts objective distance between everyone.

Avoiding omniscient adverbs is especially important in young adult work where many authors write from the limited viewpoint of a first-person character’s perspective (first person narrative) in present tense.  Here’s an example…

I stumble on the rolling deck. It’s icy, 2:00 AM. I’m shaking. “Joseph, I know she’s here. I smell that stupid perfume of hers.” My brother’s pistol feels cold in my hand.

In first person narrative, present tense, it’s as if the vp character were telling the story word-for-word in real-time.  Notice that the vp character is unaware of things she couldn’t logically know. 

But here’s the point I wanted to make: if you’re aware that attribution adverbs (in the first person, present tense narrative, at least) should be provided by the viewpoint character and not by the author, the knowledge frees you to use these taboo things… to express the vp character’s emotion and her interpretation of other’s emotions.

Emotions are the key to most things in fiction writing, I believe.

Ultimately, if a writing professor were to cross your adverb out, you could say to yourself, “This is the way my viewpoint character told me the story. She’s not as well-educated as I am.  If I cheated on her behalf, and made her sound like a university professor, I’d be hiding the truth of who she is.”

Writing as if you are “channeling” the vp character frees you from the university dogma, “Don’t use adverbs of attribution,” and its unspoken corollary, “always feel self-conscious about your writing voice and the quality of your prose.”

When the dear professor does this:  “‘No!’ she said flatly.”

Say to yourself, “The vp character said, ‘flatly,’ I didn’t.”

If this starts a discussion that finally brings your professor to denigrate authors such as Suzanne Collins, his negativity reflects denial of how infinitely more difficult and worthwhile it is to create a riveting story with living characters than to obsess over inbred, outdated writing rules that are being abandoned faster than creative writing classes.

I say, use adverbs whenever your viewpoint character feels them.

Never doubt the voice of your viewpoint character. Don’t think too much about your own writing voice. For the most part, it’s not you, it’s the viewpoint character doing the writing.

M. Talmage Moorehead