Please welcome author Alexandria LaFaye, who shares deep (and inspiring) insights into the art of writing. Read on. . .and please leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you. Thank you!
|Author Alexandria LaFaye|
Starting on Jan 12, Alexandria will be hosting a series of webinars for KidLit College on character development through worldview. She hopes they can bring in a wonderful crew of writers to explore this element of craft together!<http://bit.ly/1Yug4uG>
I love complexity in language—words, images, and titles that can mean many things. It adds layers to your writing and your reading that allows you to move around in the writing itself, see new things each time you read, so I thought “Write Around the Corner” would be a great way to talk about the subject of layering and subtext in your writing. Words that work for you in a way that brings your own writing and your readers around the next corner to see what might happen next.
Duality in writing—addressing a dual audience, integrating double meaning, and organically weaving in theme—are all complicated and intriguing elements of craft, but for today, let’s focus on double meaning. I’ll explore it in three elements of craft—slanted dialogue, imagery, and titles.
Let’s go for the easy one first—“Titles”
My latest book PRETTY OMENS is a retelling of the myth of Cassandra set in a Virginian coal mining community in 1911. I chose the title for many reasons.
1. It’s a book about misconceptions and how they can shape the way we see the world around us and the people within it. The narrator Cass Ann Marie Pettibone was miraculously saved as an infant, but everyone believes she’s become a “devil child” and their fears are “confirmed” when she begins to see visions of the future. But are those visions evil or good?
2. An omen is really just a sign of things to come. But people often see it as an evil word. Using it and the word “pretty” offers a tension between what many people think when they hear the word “omen” and the positive connotations of “pretty.” Together, they create a thematic connection to the idea of re-seeing things we misunderstand.
3. When Cass Ann Marie sees an omen, she has to draw it, so it’s a pretty omen.
This title works on so many levels, I hope, because it’s directly connected to the book physically (she draws the omens), thematically (re-seeing things we misunderstand), and in terms of the connotations of the words (pretty and omens). These ties create the layering we’re discussing. I’ll call it a discussion because I would love to receive comments from readers to discuss this element of writing in more depth.
If you’d like to get your own copy of PRETTY OMENS, you can order it here:
Advanced praise for Pretty Omens:
In language as lovely as a curling mountain creek, A. LaFaye tells the story of Cass Anne Marie, born during a nasty winter on Crowley’s Ridge. Loved back to life by her mama, the young girl is shunned by the mining community because of her gift of omens. And yet this gift might prove to be their salvation. Pretty Omens, a story-in-poems by a pitch-perfect author, reads like a classic. —Mary Logue, author of Sleep Like a Tiger andLake of Tears
In LaFaye’s strong, fast-paced novel-in-verse, the voices of her characters ring true, the language dazzles, drawing the reader into Cass Anne’s story of love and redemption, religious intolerance, and belief. —Paul Janeczko, author of Firefly, July, Publisher’s Weekly Book of 2014Told in sparse free verse poems, LaFaye’s gritty tale of a young girl’s struggle against a town’s superstitions, is both powerful, and heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring. —Han Nolan, National Book Award winner, Dancing on the Edge
Let’s move on to the layering of imagery. I first came to understand how an image can be layered by reading “Oranges” by Gary Soto. It introduced me to a concept I like to call “impacked imagery.” This is the use of enjambment to get two images for the price of one. Let me show you:
In the poem, the narrator is about to meet up with a girl he is smitten with. He says,
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rogue, I smiled,
Ending the line with “pulling” opens a narrative gap—an opening in a text that is intended to be filled by the writer and the reader together. In the fraction of a second between that line and the next the reader is asking, pulling what? And answering—the door closed or something like that and when they read “at her gloves,” they’ve seen the door close and watched her put on her gloves—that’s an impacted image-2 for the price of one.
He does it again with “bright” because we think she’s blushing from nerves or the cold and in reality, she’s wearing makeup.
Here’s a link to Soto’s full poem on the Poetry Foundation website, a resource you should make use of regularly for the wealth of poetry, audio poems, and articles on the genre.
You can create impacted imagery through paying careful attention to how you end one line of poetry with a narrative gap and closing that gap in the next line. Notice the use of specific and suggestive words at the end “pulling” and “bright.”
If you’d like to know more about my take on imagery, here’s a post on the subject on my blog WORDY WANDERINGS REST STOP
That brings us to the hardest form of duality and layering in writing—slanted dialogue. Writing dialogue that says many things at the same time through layering is called “slanted” because it never says what it means directly. When people who know each other speak, their word choices, body language, and allusions are filled with double meaning because they have a history together. The trick is bringing all of that out in your writing. Allow me to use an example from my novel THE YEAR OF THE MAN. In this scene, we join Nissa Bergen and her mother Heirah on their front porch in Harper, Louisiana in 1933:
Just because Papa and I knew Mama was gone didn't mean the whole town of Harper had to find out. Of course, if Miss Chessie Roubidoux got even a whiff of trouble from our place, she'd be making up stories and spreading them about faster than thistle down in a windstorm. One year, she had everyone in town believing Mama practiced Voodoo on account of the fact she drank hibiscus tea. Miss Chessie was walking past our place on her way to the post office and she saw me and Mama sitting out on the porch sipping our fresh, brewed-in-the-sun hibiscus tea. She stopped in the street and stared at us, the dust settling in our her shiny shoes. Wiping the sweat from her face with the handkerchief she keeps hanging over her belt, Miss Chessie said, "What on earth are you drinking, Heirah Rae Bergen?"
Mama held up her glass and shook it a little so the flower petals in the tea would float around a bit. I could tell by the smile on her face that Mama was thinking up a good answer. "Hibiscus tea."
I was disappointed. I usually got a good laugh over watching Miss Chessie stomp off after Mama served her up a little just deserts.
"Hibiscus tea? What is that? Some Voodoo brew you picked up from them colored folk down at the Tar Baby?"
Mama was good friends with the folks down at the Tar Baby Cafe. We were one of the only white families in there on any given day. I loved their alligator jambalaya. It was so hot, it made my mouth itch for days. Most white folks thought it was a sin to mix with black folks, but Mama didn't give a damn. Neither did Papa. I didn't even bother thinking about it.
Now Miss Chessie, she thought all black folks were evil because she thought they were into Voodoo magic. She was sure Voodoo was devil worship. Mama just played right along with Miss Chessie's stupid beliefs.
"Why, yes Chessie. This is straight from a witch doctor's kitchen." Mama held her tea up higher. "It'll shrivel the kidneys of my enemies." Mama took a big gulp.
I bit my lip to keep from giggling as Miss Chessie glared at Mama's glass of tea. She said, "You're evil, Heirah Rae Bergen. And I'm going to see that this entire town knows it."
Mama licked her lips. "You do that, Chessie."
Miss Chessie stomped off shouting. "A woman like you shouldn't be allowed to have children." She turned back to say, "Wit your evil ways, you'll make that sweet girl just like you!"
Mama squeezed my hand, saying,"She'll be just like herself." She stood up, went to the porch railing, then raised up her glass so Miss Chessie could see it. "Here's to your health, Chessie!"
Miss Chessie just shook her head then charged into the post office all ready to spread lies about Mama.
Notice how much these two women say to each other without speaking it out loud, Chessie is a racist who thinks Heriah Rae is an inadequate mother, unmannered, and shameful. On the other hand, Heirah Rae thinks Chessie is a superstitious busybody who should mind her own business and basically tells her, “I hope your kidneys shrivel up and you die, you old prune” just by toasting to her health. In this scene I engaged the speakers in an everyday discussion that revealed their inner motivations by how they said what they said.
For instance, Chessie didn’t ask, “What are you drinking?” She said, “What on earth are you drinking, Heirah Rae Bergen?” The use of all three names suggests a scolding by a superior.
Physical descriptions also help, Chessie’s handkerchief over her belt and shiny shoes suggest her prim and proper nature.
So, in this short scene, we learn loads by not only what was said, but what was implied. That’s slanted dialogue.
If you’d like to share more misadventures with Nissa and her mama, please check out THE YEAR OF THE SAWDUST MAN and its sequel NISSA’S PLACE from Milkweed Editions (Let’s hear it for Indie Publishers!).
Questions anyone? I‘d love to discuss this topic further. In fact, if you have anything at all you’d like to chat about in terms of writing, reading, or any other subject, please share a comment on this blog.
You can also e-mail me at email@example.com.
Visit my website at www.alafaye.com.
Tweet me @artlafaye
Check out my blog at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/130361.A_LaFaye/blog
Or stop by my facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/alafayeauthor
I’m around. Please reach out to connect.
Thank you so much, Alexandria, for sharing pearls of writing wisdom. And thank you everyone for stopping by to share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out Alexandria's links for more about her books and the craft of writing. Happy New Year!
THIS JUST IN: Alexandria just wrote that she's offering a FREE book to one lucky reader who leaves a comment. How cool is that?