Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alumni Voices with Shelly Jones: PACING

Pacing = an author’s manipulation of time.
Writers manipulate time to enhance the reading experience.
A story has three different time elements which are interrelated: Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.
  • Real Time is the actual period of time encompassed by the story and the chronological sequence of events during that defined time. 
  • Plot Time compresses, expands, and rearranges Real Time to allow better dramatization.
  • Reader Time manipulates Plot Time to accelerate or decelerate the velocity of reading. Velocity of reading includes the actual speed at which the reader moves down the page, as well as the reader’s subjective feeling of momentum. 
Real Time Versus Plot Time
A story may span three generations. It’s not possible to relate all the events of three generations within the confines of a story. Therefore, in Plot Time the writer must shrink Real Time by skipping needless information, highlighting only moments crucial to the story. Conversely, a novel could focus on a single day. In this example, the author stretches time with more scenes, increased description, introspection and digression.

In Real Time, an event happens for a specified amount of time—the protagonist’s school day lasts eight hours while her birthday party only lasts two hours. Plot Time, on the other hand, discriminates events by their importance. In Plot Time, the entire school day can be dispatched with the phrase “After school…,” whereas the birthday party fills a chapter.

Another manipulation of Real Time involves changing the chronological sequence of events, because a linear presentation is often not the most intriguing way to tell the story. The writer may begin at that sinking-of-the-Titanic moment then regress in time to explain how such an event occurred. Commonly, writers travel back and forth in time, providing flashbacks or backstory when past information is required, or letting the reader glimpse future events through foreshadowing or flashforwards.
Plot Time Versus Reader Time
Some stories are leisurely in their telling, while others are fast-paced. But all stories, whether quiet or action-packed, must provide variation in Reader Time. Good writing has a rhythm, fast and slow, ebb and flow. Though, if the feeling of forward movement slows down too long or too often, the reader will become bored.

What are the techniques for changing reading velocity?
  • Scenes accelerate reading velocity while narrative summary slows it, therefore narrative summary must be kept to a minimum. Scenes show events through action and dialogue. Narrative summary tells necessary information that cannot be optimally conveyed through dialogue and action, i.e. not events, or events that would be monotonous in their telling. Setting descriptions and internal musings of characters are usually best related through narrative summary.
  • White Space = Faster Pace
  • Anything that increases white space on the page speeds the reading velocity. Blocks of narrative summary slow forward momentum while dialogue speeds it up. Similarly, short sentences and short paragraphs accelerate the pace.
  • Action accelerates. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” gives the reader a feel of momentum, as opposed to “Babette is a pretty girl with thick, curly hair.”
  • Active verbs accelerate. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” feels faster than “Babette is climbing hand over hand across the jungle gym.”
  • Filter words bog down the pace. “Jules grabbed Babette’s ankle and pulled her off the jungle gym,” moves faster than “Babette felt Jules grab her ankle and watched him pull her off the jungle gym.”
  • Adverbs slow the pace. “Jules quickly grabbed Babette’s ankle and mightily pulled her off the jungle gym.”
  • Qualifying words slow the pace. “Jules actually grabbed Babette’s ankle and then pulled her off the jungle gym just like that.”
  • Flashbacks stop forward momentum.
  • Lastly, writers can use word choice to manipulate reading velocity. Short, staccato words (containing short vowels and consonants b, d, k, p. q, t, hard c, and hard g) beg to be read quickly. Long, soft words (containing long vowels and consonants f,  h,  j, l,  m,  n, r, s,  w,  v, x, y, z) slow the reader down.
This discussion of pacing doesn’t venture into picture books which have additional tactics including illustrations, rhyming, and page turns. However, I found picture books useful to understand the concepts of Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.

Consider Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Reading clues about time in both the words and illustrations, it’s likely that Max was misbehaving for an hour or two, when his mother sent him to bed without supper. The parents likely ate their supper and then Max’s mom brought him food which was still hot. This Real Time scenario would look something like this:

However, only four pages of the book are devoted to Max’s elaborate mischief-making, while twenty-eight pages are devoted to his time with the Wild Things. But Max’s perception of the time spent in his room, and the part of the book that most interests the child reader requires Sendak to stretch time. Sendak does this first by increasing the space devoted to the Wild Things event. But he also lengthens time with phrases like “a forest grew and grew—and grew,” and “he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year.” Plot Time looks different than Real Time:
 Finally, Sendak alternates action and short snippets of dialogue with moments of gentle language and quiet reflection—accelerating and decelerating Reader Time:

Shelley Jones is a January, 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives and writes in Johnston, Iowa.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Faculty Voices: Marsha Qualey

And this happened.
Thanks to Sara Kvols for the phote.

Here we go: another semester of the Hamline MFAC program.  A good thing about a low-residency program is the variety of places called home by the students and faculty and the resulting mix of people. A crummy thing about a low-residency program is the post-residency far-flungedness of friends.

Here we go: another semester of the Storyteller’s Inkpot.  A good thing about a blog collective is no single person bears the burden of the writing. A crummy thing about a blog collective is that the schedule of writers is completed well in advance and so if someone rolls out of bed on a crisp autumn day and has a burst of brilliance in 800 words or less, there’s been no chance that brilliance can be shoe-horned into the regular schedule.

There’s a somewhat new schedule this semester—we’re moving Faculty Voices to Mondays. Alumni Voices will continue on Thursdays.  We have a number of publication interviews celebrating new books by faculty and alums, and they will appear as the books are published; you can look for those on Tuesdays.  And to make room for the occasional unscheduled brilliance, there might be the occasional Alumni/Faculty Voices Plus.

And because I like you all a lot, here’s a sweet littlebit o’ craft from writer Elizabeth McCracken.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meet the Grad: Araceli Esparza

On July 20, 2014, the final day of the summer residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony, honoring the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and then  we'll be posting interviews with many of the grads. Araceli Esparza is today's grad; she lives on the second floor on a tree-shady lane in Monona, WI

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I’m a mother, Tia (auntie) wifey, nieta (grand-daughter) sister, friend and local supporter. I teach for the local district. I also teach creative writing and Spanish literacy class for young children at local libraries.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I had been looking for a MFA program that was unique and could fit into my life-schedule. I still remember when I saw the essay question about diversity; it was then that I knew—yep, this is the place.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I’ve written on walls and paper since my teens, and seriously performing for about 7 years--both slam and poems.

What do especially remember about your first residency?
[MFACAlum] Peter Pearson telling me about Alexi Sherman’s NPR interview! I thought if this guy is in this program and he’s super smart--well then I gotta do it! Basically, I’m a true believer of osmosis.
The veil had been pulled…and still I needed a view…
Yep, first res left me twitching!

Have you focused on any one form (Picture book, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?
First semester, I went over my hands and feet and dove into a graphic novel. If Swati [Avasti] in her wisdom hadn’t pulled it from my bloody grip, I would be still writing it! She suggested I do a picture book so that I could see through a story to the end. I’ve been hooked since; 700 words have never been so hard and fun to work with.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
All of the pieces have some tie to Latino culture in one way or another. Some are tied just by how I see the character, otherwise you might not get the connection. One is Purple Leaves, which began as a poem and grew into a story about self-confidence and speaking up/out about what you know is true! The others are more obvious through language and setting.  I wanted to create family stories in any setting: modern middle class home, urban barrio, airports, gardens, jail, living room, school, and under a slide in a park. Any and every place my own children have had to go to. The picture book about jail is a personal one for me. In my research, I only found five picture books written for children with parents in prison or jail. The best one was Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson. The illustrator and author notes for that book encouraged me to write the story my way.  

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
It’s like I’m empty. For years I have written to exorcise my daemons, and now I’m empty enough to see and take a moment to describe fully what I see.  I can tell that my writing is clear, my poetry has elements of child’s play in them—which I love. Has it gotten easier to write: No WAY! There’s still no time, I still scratch on little pink slips from work, I still stay up way-late at night to get shit done. And my poems still only come in the moment. I have become patient with myself and less critical of my work and focused more on my killer taste (Thanks for the video! Ira Glass!)

With packet deadlines removed as an incentive, do you anticipate it will be harder to keep writing?
 I will continue to write. In fact, my whole family finally understands this is my work. So if I stop now—I can’t stop. For my family, for other Latino children, for me--I can’t stop.

Any plans for your post-Hamline writing life?
After Hamline, I will cry and be sad and then probably go back to teaching my community about Latino children’s books through the library programs that I have started.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
If you are a writer of color, writing is hard. Coming to terms that you are a writer wasn’t easy. Neither will this program be easy, but I promise you, there will be nothing that you will value more than all the work you put into it. I say that I didn’t choose writing, writing choose me, from all mi abuelita’s stories down to my daughter’s imagination--I have a need to tell a great story, to hear the joy of a poem.  At Hamline I have been able to do that.

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, July 20, 3:30pm, (Anne Simley Theatre, Drew Fine Arts Building). Vera Williams is the speaker.