STILL LIFE by Louise Penny

(Note: Musings have no logical sequence other than my inspiration of the moment. Scroll down to access prior cogitations/rants.)

After reading chapter one of STILL LIFE by Louise Penny, I felt compelled to publish my immediate reaction in my blog. Jane, a country school teacher and long time resident of Three Pines, a village not far from Montreal, Canada, lay lifeless on the forest floor; three days pre death having presented her rendition in oil of the locals parading from the previous year’s afternoon at the county fair. Two of the five Judges to the village’s annual art fair accused the work of being simple, childish and naïve; two others reacted to the piece’s joy and sorrow respectively. A third broke the tie exclaiming Jane’s piece evoked such a range of emotions it deserved recognition. For me, Louise Penny’s story, like Jane’s painting, passed a literary judgment, and I was eager to begin chapter two. A casual reference to Jane’s village resembling that of C.S Lewis’ fantasy chronicles of Narnia justified, again for me, Penny’s fairy tale narrative style of her story teller.

Roger’s Rules of Good Writing

Open your narrative with a trigger statement to rouse the reader’s curiosity. create a doorway for your main character to walk through, unless she already acted, or in rare cases, had been acted upon in the first sentence.

Avoid talking over your character rather than through her. Allow her to tell her story. The writer establishes the world inhabited by the character; puts words from her mouth, thoughts in her head, and reactions to her surroundings and other characters.

When a situation requires an information-dump, hit it head-on, but keep it minimal and spaced between character interactions. Your POV character will have many opportunities to build her history through future action, dialogue, or internal monologue.

Avoid technique clichés such as staring into a mirror, mumbling to a pet or door knob, or reciting information to another character who would have already known the details.

Don’t create an audience-surrogate character to absorb information. If your character has a buddy or an intern-in-training, give her or him a legitimate purpose in the story beyond active listening.

Dialogue: Tricky but necessary to flesh out characters. Make it sound like something people might say under the circumstances, yet void of their natural rambling. The speech pattern for each character is as important to his or her development as what is said.

Author intrusion: Don’t break the flow of the narrative by speaking directly to the reader, unless the writer’s story telling voice has been established throughout the piece.

Internal monologue: No need to italicize if the character’s POV has been firmly established. As with Shakespeare’s soliloquies, use internal monologue to express the character’s true feeling and intentions.

Show-don’t-tell. Create the action rather than relate the action.

Avoid passive verbs. Is, are, was, were, be, am, and been are devoid of action and dull. Save them for statements of fact such as this one.

Avoid the ly Adverbs. The same applies to exclamation marks. Your characters’ words or actions should create the intensity.

Avoid echoes. Repetition of words and syntax patterns within a sentence, a paragraph, or the entire piece. Exception: parallel triplet constructions for poetic effect. (Majesty of threes)

Point of view: Dialogue and interior monologue must be restricted to your character’s six senses (five plus intuition.) She can only assume beyond what she can’t perceive or feel.

Purple prose: Limit adjectives and figures of speech for special effect, not as decorations that detract from the story. Be prepared to kill your little poetic darlings or dialogue cuteness.

Parsimony: Cut unnecessary words. They annoy and insult the reader who probably skips over them anyway. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter must support and advance your plot, characters, setting, mood, theme, and voice—character’s and author’s.

Exempt from these rules: Quality writers with excellent command of language whose voice supersedes that of her individual characters without diminishing them.

He/She

He/She

Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes interviewed a young girl who decided, post puberty, to transition her body into that of a young boy. Her/his situation created a number of ironies, not to mention the emotional trauma of such a life altering decision. To complicate matters, she continued as the lead swimmer in the girls’ swim team while taking hormone treatment just under regulation for body altering/body enhancing chemicals.

Her voice lowering an octave and minor body changes went unnoticed—or was ignored—until she put her breasts under the knife—a double mastectomy. No longer could he or the team deny the fact that had been winked at but left alone. With permission of the boys’ swimming coach and a vote from teammates, he (male pronoun for this point forward) was allowed to join the their team. From lead simmer, he fell back to the swimmer with the poorest lap time. His goal, not to be the last, whereas it had been, successfully, to win every race and improve lap time.

Only the ironies remained for Leslie to explore.

“How were you received by your teammates?”
He’d been accepted.

“What kinds of questions were you asked?”

Mostly about emotions, his as well as family and friends.

“Any common question?”
Yes, Leslie, we see where this is going. “Do I still have a vagina?”
Join the crowd, Leslie. “Well, do you?”

“Of course, I still have a vagina.”

What are you going to do about that? More specifically; what are you planning to do with that? Discretion, Leslie. We thank you for that unasked question.

“I still may want to have a baby some day.”

It is hard to astound Leslie Stahl, but he/she accomplished it.

The biggest irony, to my notion, occurred in the shower room after a swim meet. With gender based legislation in certain states, he could shower with the boys, but if he had to urinate—assuming he didn’t take care of that matter in the shower, a practice no state has thus far written legislation against—he’d have to cover his breastless nipples and cross the gym floor to use the bathroom on the girls’ side.

Cross Roads

Cross roads? Like angry birds, a pair of highways annoyed with each other? Or perhaps two roads not diverged in a yellow wood but bisected, and sorry I could not travel—three?—assuming, as did Robert Frost, that the traveler didn’t drop out of nowhere but had approached from one of them. As in the famous poem, there is an underlining assumption that he or she had no destination from which to be distracted in the first place. Just rambling along, and suddenly out of nowhere a road juts across your path, leaving you with not two but three hard choices.

Applying crossroads rather than diverging paths to a metaphor for life becomes increasingly complicated, a more serious dilemma for any wanderer. How could he/she choose the one less traveled by to make all that difference? A Good Samaritan would interrupt his journey to lend a helping hand and continue straight ahead, but that’s a motif of a different sort of parable.

A bus driver stopping to look both ways, making either choice is not an option or a load of children never get to school. Unencumbered with such responsibilities, which direction would be the better choice? All three? Maybe in an alternate universe, but on this planet we get just one chance, jail a possible outcome in one direction, a bishop or even the Pope in the other.

And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down all three as far as I could
To where they bent in the undergrowth

Here’s where the rubber meets the road, turning around and going back, not an option.

I took the one grassy and wanting wear
The other, two as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because they were grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And all three that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the two for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Three roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Different from what left hanging like a dangling modifier.

Apologies to Robert Frost.

Grammar of Life or Life through Grammar

God commanded, “Walk about and give names to all things.” Things? The concept of nouns had been established although not yet identified as such. Adam felt a strong desire to sink back into the sticky substance from which he emerged.

“Adam?” Omnipotent, and not always patient with His creations.

“Who, me?” Adam’s first inadvertent pronouncements, technically two pronouns rather than nouns.

“Yes, you.” A third pronoun before the primary task commenced.

Adam lifted one foot than the other and declared, “Mud.”

“Good. Now make tracks.” God chuckled as He penned the world’s first idiomatic expression, but his words fell on deaf ears, went in one ear and out the other. (I, too, couldn’t resist.)

Off Adam ran, touching and announcing names, God barely keeping ahead fashioning details he overlooked when creating the world in one fell swoop. So quickly the lexicon of Adam’s collection of nouns sprung to life, he developed a generic shortcut word, the pronoun it for whenever a name momentarily slipped his mind. And, Adam wasn’t yet a senior citizen.

The sun—one of Adam’s first morning’s declarations—dipped below the horizon—another of Adam’s nouns—he coined his final word for the day, eve. Exhausted from and bored with—Adam inadvertently identified prepositions—the task at hand, he fell asleep in his tracks. (I can’t help myself.)

He awoke with a pain in his side and an erection in his hand; an image of himself yet different lying beside him. Repeating his last word before falling asleep, he pronounced “Eve,” thus coining his first proper noun, his own name having been decided by God. Adam and Eve immediately began creating verbs, especially the active verbs. And adjectives and adverbs. Their favorites began with the letter “f.”
Fleshy, flirt, foxy, fragrant, fondle, flutter, follicle, fornicate, fever, fireworks, fortitude, fortnight, flatulence, fizzle and fertile.

“Eve,” Adam’s usual morning greeting brought a negative response.

Eve shrugged, rolled over, and said, “Not now, nor tonight. I have a headache.”

Headache and the pain lingering in his side, he stumbled upon abstract nouns. Putting two and two together, also the conjunctions and, nor, and but, the last he spelled with a single “t” to distinguish it from the noun he assigned to Eve’s posterior.
“Damn!” Inspired by frustration, Adam inadvertently completed the eight parts of speech with an interjection.

As Eve’s condition developed, Adam was cut off and he realized the concept of past tense. An incident with a snake and an apple followed by two kids in rapid succession, together they stumbled on the concept of future tense.